New Orleans is a city that defines itself by its quirkiness. From one-of-a-kind Mardi Gras traditions to voodoo superstitions, the city’s past and present is full of unusual customs you won’t find anywhere else. You probably know all about the usual New Orleans tourist attractions (you’ll no doubt find time to stumble down Bourbon Street and hop on an open-air streetcar).
But whether you’re visiting for the 1st or the 100th time, we’ve collected a list of some of the most interesting facts that make this city such a unique vacation destination. You’ll have a better understanding of the spirit of the city, and we’re guessing you’ll be even more excited to plan your vacation in the Big Easy.
New Orleans’ multifaceted history lent the iconic French Quarter a slew of architectural influences. Although the city was founded by the French, much of the present-day Quarter was actually built and designed during a period of Spanish rule - so the dominating architectural themes are Spanish.
You’ll also see elements of Creole and Craftsman cottages, modern architecture, and much more during your tour of the Crescent City. And of course, many streets still bare French names, paying homage to the city’s origins.
To gain a full understanding of all the different influences you’re taking in, be sure to book a French Quarter walking tour before you leave. You’ll notice so many fascinating architectural features that you may have missed otherwise!
The St. Louis Cathedral is perhaps the most recognizable landmark in the Crescent City; it’s the pinnacle of New Orleans sightseeing. The cathedral marks the historic Jackson Square, and its steeples reach regally above the surrounding houses, antique shops, and cafes that make up the French Quarter. Starting in the earliest days of the Crescent City’s development, people from all walks of life came together within the Cathedral, which is open to the public to this day.
When planning your trip to New Orleans, you’ll no doubt see photos and paintings of the Cathedral everywhere you look; it’s become the most recognizable icon of the city. Nothing compares to seeing the building in-person and hearing about its past from a local, though. To learn more about the Cathedral’s historic significance, book a City Tour with a local tour company that visits Jackson Square in the comfort of a climate-controlled bus.
You know about catching beads from balconies and passing floats. Maybe you already picked up a costume, wig and mask to help you blend in like a local on parade days. But you may not have known about the elaborate Mardi Gras Balls thrown every year to honor the royalty of the Mardi Gras parades.
These elaborate parties take place after the major parades, which are put on by parade krewes. Traditionally, the King and Queen of each krewe were a closely guarded secret until the grand reveal during the ball. The balls used to be invitation only, but these days many of them are open to the public.
So, if you’re willing to foot the bill for the ticket (which can sometimes cost a few hundred dollars), feel free to break out that ball gown or three-piece suit and continue the celebration after the parade ends. A traditional Mardi Gras Ball is one of the many unique activities in New Orleans you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to step inside the Superdome during your trip. Even if you don’t, you’ll be sure to notice this unique structure, an enormous steel bubble rising up in stark contrast from the sea of angular buildings and skyscrapers that make up the New Orleans Central Business District.
In fact, the Superdome is one of the most unique physical structures in the country: spanning 9.7 acres (440,000 square feet), the Superdome is one of the world’s largest freestanding domes without internal support beams. It’s more than a stunning architectural feat, though – the Superdome protected some 30,000 New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
It’s no secret that jazz originated in the Crescent City, and that this town has subsequently produced some of the most iconic jazz musicians and venues of all time. When you think “jazz,” you probably start hearing saxophones, pianos, and the double bass thumping along in your head. But many claim that jazz was born not with a horn, but with drums.
New Orleans was one of the first places in the country where slaves were allowed to own drums. This instrument, combined with some community spirit, was all it took to create one of the most pervasive musical traditions in the U.S. It was this open celebration and melding of musical inspiration that brought about the musical genre now known as jazz.
The horrifying history of Madame LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite turned vicious serial killer, inspired a season of American Horror Story and continues to haunt the dreams of anyone who hears the tale. This story is especially chilling because it’s based in fact: Madame LaLaurie married three times, losing two husbands to mysterious deaths, and also reportedly tortured and killed a number of slaves.
Even more appalling, most of this gruesome saga took place right in her home, a mansion in the heart of downtown New Orleans. If you’re not too squeamish and want to have a story to tell when you get home, you might have to take a Ghost Tour, where you’ll see the mansion firsthand and hear the true story of Madame LaLaurie.
The Crescent City never got around to building the canal itself, which was supposed to connect the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. It did, however, construct Canal Street in anticipation of the waterway that never came to be. Over the years, Canal Street became much more than a road.
The historic thoroughfare became a dividing line between the French who founded the city and newcomers who were just arriving, serving as a prominent landmark and literal line in the sand.
Canal is also said to be one of the widest streets in the country, with a generous median that makes it a perfect gathering place during parades. Today, Canal Street is known for being a prime destination during Mardi Gras celebrations, and a hub for local businesses and restaurants.
Founded in the 1800’s, City Park has been a beautiful recreational space for generations of New Orleans residents. The park has earned a nationwide reputation for its beautiful landscaping, as well as the famous “Dueling Oaks”: two gigantic trees where, legend has it, Creole swordsmen once showed off their prowess.
The park’s enormous oak trees with their cascading Spanish moss, combined with the opportunity to spot pelicans and egrets wandering around the lake, has made City Park not just a beautiful green space for residents but a popular tourist destination for visitors. There’s plenty of room for all those park-goers: City Park takes the cake for the largest municipal park in the country.