Quick quiz: Think swinging jazz and soulful blues played in music clubs and by street musicians outside. Picture sidewalks crowded with people sipping beverages from plastic cups as they stroll along. If you guess that describes New Orleans, you’re right – but there’s more.
Now see yourself visiting museums which focus ranges from food and festivals to history and mystery. Where? New Orleans again.
Many visitors to “the Big Easy,” as it’s nicknamed, are on a quest for fun and frivolity, and both are there in abundant supply. For those seeking something more educational but no less enjoyable, there’s fascinating history, a rich cultural mélange, and attractions for people with various interests.
The A-to-Z List of Attractions in New Orleans
Anyone wishing to delve below the surface of the city’s well-known appeals has
an inviting choice of museums that await exploration. Nearly four dozen span the alphabet from A (Art) to Z (Zoo). They offer insight into aspects of New Orleans for which it’s famous along with less-well-known but no less intriguing tidbits.
My wife Fyllis and I spent time walking along Bourbon Street, enjoying music both in bars and outside, and partaking of meals that linger in our minds long after they’ve left our taste buds. We also satisfied our curiosity at museums which, we concluded, too many people may overlook.
History and Culture at The Historic New Orleans Collection
A good place for an exploration is The Historic New Orleans Collection. From its modest start, this institution has expanded to occupy 10 historic buildings on two campuses in the iconic French Quarter.
Exhibits present the history and culture of New Orleans, Louisiana and the entire Gulf of Mexico region. They document events that have shaped the area as well as the everyday lives of people who passed through and settled there.
Guided tours provide in-depth information for those seeking more than a casual introduction, and changing exhibits offer insight into various aspects of the city’s and area’s stories.
One exhibit is labeled “Backstage at A Streetcar Named Desire.” Visitors get a rare look at the notes of Elia Kazan, who directed the Broadway production. You also may listen to recordings from the original production and see photos from other plays that were presented around the world.
Another not-to-miss exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection is “Making Mardi Gras.” Even if you’ve been to the city before for what’s called “The Greatest Free Show on Earth,” this is worth a look-see.
The display welcomes visitors into dens where artists create the floats that will roll down the streets of New Orleans. You’ll also get a glimpse of the work of 19th century float artists, carnival royalty and Zulu coconuts. These are coconuts that have been drained, shaved and decorated, and are given to float riders who toss them to spectators along the parade route.
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras World Offers the Wonder without the Wildness
Another museum offers an opportunity to experience the wonder of carnival festivities without the wildness. Mardi Gras World is where floats for the parades in New Orleans and other locations around the world have been made since 1947. In a studio so vast it could almost have its own zip code, visitors see artisans constructing lavishly decorated floats literally from the ground up.
The scene is set in a video, followed by a taste of King Cake, a treat closely associated with Mardi Gras. This confection, which is believed to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870, is served throughout the carnival season.
During the tour, Fyllis and I felt like Lilliputians in a world of giants. We were dwarfed by larger-than-life likenesses of cartoon figures, movie personalities and fantasy creatures. Oversized animals and flowers the size of trees loomed over us.
A Mint, Museums and the Mississippi River Add to the Appeal of New Orleans
Other museums which deal with vital facets of what makes New Orleans such a magnet for tourism rounded out our immersion. The aptly named Old U.S. Mint was built in 1835 and during its decades of operation produced millions of gold and silver coins.
Today it displays treasure of a different kind, including instruments that were played by notable musicians and other memorabilia which traces the history of jazz from its humble beginnings on the city’s streets.
Food has top billing at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, along with local beverages of the city and the South. There’s a separate exhibit area for each southern state, and the story of the various cultures that contributed to the region’s culinary heritage.
You may sign up for your own cooking class, where you can learn to make authentic New Orleans dishes like gumbo and jambalaya.
If you’ve ever wondered why New Orleans is called the Crescent City, a new attraction will show you. “Vue Orleans” provides a unique look at the city from the 34th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. You also may step inside a larger-than-life trumpet-shaped listening station to hear Jazz, Blues or Classical music. As you gaze out over the Mississippi River, another exhibit provides the opportunity to virtually pilot a riverboat down its sharp turns and swift currents.
Whether enjoying distinctive dining, listening to world-class jazz or checking out any number of other attractions, New Orleans offers a surprisingly complete menu of choices – a many of which are below the usual visitor radar.
If You Go
For more information, call (504) 566-5011 or log onto New Orleans online.