5 New Orleans Events Everyone Should Attend at Least Once
New Orleans is such an exciting city that there is always an event going on. Check out this list to discover the top five of these exciting happenings.
New Orleans is all about major events! From Mardi Gras to the holiday season and everything in between (and beyond), this city knows how to have a party. And if you love large social gatherings and being in the middle of a massive celebration, then you belong in New Orleans during one or more of these spectacular events! Read on to learn all about five New Orleans events everyone should attend at least once, and learn how you can visit during these exciting times of the year.
Jazz & Heritage Festival
The Jazz and Heritage Festival has been taking place every spring since 1970, when Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson spontaneously performed in front of the crowd of attendees. Ever since then, the festival has been taking place to honor and celebrate the culture from which New Orleans was born. The Jazz & Heritage Festival strives not to focus too much on one aspect of its celebrations, but to allow equal respect for the heritage of the city and the jazz which it has become famous for.
The festival takes place over many different open-air stages and spreads across the race track at the New Orleans Fair Grounds. Although the title of the festival specifies jazz music, other types of New Orleans cultural music is also performed here. You might hear R&B, Cajun music, blues, rap, bluegrass and more—but even so, you’re sure to hear the most jazz. It would be impossible to hear everyone, since all twelve stages feature performers at the same times, so it is wise to get a copy of the performance schedule ahead of time and make plans to see who you want to see.
The Jazz & Heritage Festival also celebrates the crafts and cuisine of New Orleans. During the Festival, visitors can stop by the Congo Square African Marketplace to purchase locally-made and culturally significant pieces of art. Other tents and booths that are set up throughout the Fair Grounds offer local and international crafted goods for sale.
If you are attending the Festival, be sure to bring along plenty of money to spend on food—you’re going to want it! Booths at the festival offer a wide variety of New Orleans specialties, including jambalaya, fried chicken, po’ boys, muffulettas, crawfish, red beans and rice, and more. Just about any New Orleans dish you have considered sampling will be available at the Jazz & Heritage Festival, so get ready to eat and listen all day long!
The New Orleans Fair Grounds, where the festival takes place, are located at 1751 Gentilly Boulevard.
New Orleans is a very haunted city, widely known for its voodoo culture, its many wandering spirits, and of course, its connection with vampires. Kids and adults both are sure to find something fun to do to keep themselves entertained during a Halloween celebration they will never forget. And everyone in the whole family would do well to keep their eyes peeled for ghosts—you never know where one might pop up!
During the Halloween season, the city’s many haunted tours really shine. Choose any of the tours to get a feel for what the haunted side of New Orleans is really like. Many of these tours linger in at least one cemetery and allow guests to try to capture a spirit on film, so give it a try! You may be the one who gets a suspicious photo from the night’s adventure. After your haunted tour, stop in one of the many voodoo shops in the area to pick up some candles, spell bags, or other mystical items. Or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, get your palm read or your fortune told by a voodoo practitioner.
Finally, the absolute must-do of any New Orleans Halloween celebration is the Frenchman Street party. Adults join together to dress up in their best and most outlandish costumes, grab a few drinks, and party hard all night long on Halloween. If you’re in town on Halloween itself, I highly recommend taking part in this street celebration. Just leave the kids at the hotel for this one!
There are plenty of kid-friendly events on Halloween in New Orleans as well. Check out the city’s web site for a list of all Halloween events, adult and kid themed both.
Reveillon is the one item on this list that is not so much a major festival or holiday as it is a New Orleans tradition. The term “reveillon” means “awakening” in French, and it refers to the centuries-old custom of waking up in (or staying up until) the wee hours of the morning on Christmas to enjoy an elaborate holiday feast. The Creole people of New Orleans were largely Catholic, and therefore took part in the yearly Christmas Eve fasting that was so common at the time. This was an important part of their religious traditions, but anybody would be hungry after a long day of fasting! This is why the Creole people began to prepare huge feasts after midnight mass and serve them around two in the morning on Christmas Day.
The meals traditionally served for Reveillon were in the home with families gathering together to celebrate. Today, however, local restaurants serve up the best New Orleans style food they have for paying customers on the night of Christmas Eve. This way, residents who don’t have large families (or who don’t want to cook) can enjoy a Reveillon meal, and visitors to the city can partake in this longstanding holiday custom.
Although upwards of fifty area restaurants serve Reveillon dinners, I recommend trying to get a table at Galatoire’s. This is one of the oldest restaurants in the city, and it was the first to begin serving a modern-day Reveillon as well. The meal includes four courses with limited options; I recommend going with the veal sweetbreads, winter salad, seared duck breast, and custard. Make reservations well in advance to enjoy Reveillon at Galatoire’s.
Galatoire’s serves Reveillon dinner throughout the month of December on select nights.
New Year's Eve
After you’ve had your Reveillon feast, stick around the city for a couple of weeks more to enjoy the celebrations of New Year’s Eve. Some of the traditions associated with the New Orleans version of ringing in the New Year are the same ones you see everywhere: noisemakers, lots of champagne toasting, and counting down the end of the old year and start of the next. However, there are a few notable differences between New Orleans’ celebrations and those of other major cities. For example, instead of dropping a ball of sparkling lights, New Orleans drops a giant Baby New Year from the top of a brewery.
Most of the partying in the city takes place in and around Jackson Square, in the heart of the French Quarter. This spot offers a prime viewing location for the Baby to drop, and also gives you a great view of the fireworks that are shot off over the nearby Mississippi River. You can also party hard on Bourbon Street, where bars remain open until the wee hours of the morning on this special occasion.
New Years in New Orleans also brings a plethora of excellent live music, so you may consider staking out a position inside one of the bars or restaurants and celebrating the coming year indoors rather than outside in the midst of all the noise. I recommend going this route, simply because you may get trapped for a very long time in the middle of Jackson Square and miss out on all the live music entirely. Of course, if a massive throng of partygoers is more your speed, stay in the Quarter and live it up!
There are dozens of venues that offer live music and stay open well into the morning during the New Year’s celebrations in New Orleans.
Saving the best for last, we come finally to Mardi Gras. In the 17th century, the festival was celebrated all across Europe, and so the European settlers who originally came to Louisiana brought it along with them. Back then, the celebration was called Boeuf Gras, referring to the fatted calves that were ritually slaughtered and eaten during this time. By the early 18th century, the first rudimentary parades were already taking place, with a secret “Boeuf Gras Society” pushing a bull’s head on wheels throughout the small settlement of Fort Louis. Just a few years later, New Orleans was established, and balls became the traditional way to celebrate Mardi Gras for a long time.
It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that “Carnival” first appeared. This incredible display of pageantry and parading began to morph slowly into the Mardi Gras we know and love today. These days, parades crowd the streets throughout the celebration, and people let their worries fly away as they focus on having fun and enjoying life as much as they possibly can before the time comes to give up their addictions for Lent. Like Reveillon, Mardi Gras is a celebration that is steeped in religious culture.
When visiting New Orleans and attending Mardi Gras for the first time, you may be very overwhelmed—and with good reason! The city comes alive in an explosion of color and sound during this festival. Try visiting during the two weeks that lead up to Fat Tuesday itself, and catch a parade on a Wednesday. The timing may be a little early, but the crowds won’t be as significant. Dress up in costume, wear a mask, and get ready to catch some throws from the parade floats! And most importantly, try to stay hydrated throughout your revelry. Whether you are eating, drinking, or walking a lot, water will keep you going strong.
There are many ways to keep track of where and when Mardi Gras parades will take place. The local news channel even has an app that lets you plot the parade routs.
So, which event are you going to attend? For the more popular yearly celebrations, you should start making your plans as early as possible to be sure you have a place to stay (and places to eat as well). Especially if you are planning to visit the city during Mardi Gras, you may want to book your losing at least six months ahead of time. Whichever event you plan to visit, have fun and enjoy your New Orleans celebration!
Lead image: flickr photo by Infrogmation https://flickr.com/photos/infrogmation/3042501580 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
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