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New Orleans is the most celebrated city of the American South, and the largest city in Louisiana (some 255,000 in the city, 1.2 million in the metropolitan area as of March 2007, and still re-growing), as well as the state's top visitor destination. The city has a reputation for historical roots, hot and muggy weather, good food, good music, and over-the-top debauchery. Despite being hit hard by Hurricane Katrina recently, New Orleans is still the tourist hot-spot it always has been. Jazz music still rules the city's streets and Mardi Gras is still celebrated every day of the year.
New Orleans is known for a host of attributes like its famous Creole food, abundant alcohol, music of many styles, nearby swamps and plantations, 18th & 19th century architecture, antiques, gay pride, streetcars, museums. Nicknamed the Big Easy, New Orleans has long had a reputation as a city of vice. However, the city also offers many attractions for families with children and those interested in culture and the arts. It is a city with a majority Roman Catholic population owing to its European origins.
Famous festivals like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest bring in tourists by the millions, and are the two times of the year when one needs to be sure to book well in advance to be sure of a room. The city also hosts numerous smaller festivals and gatherings like the French Quarter Festival, Creole Tomato Festival, Satchmo SummerFest, the Essence Festival hosted by the magazine, Halloween parading and costume balls, Saint Patrick's Day and Saint Joseph's Day parading, Southern Decadence, and so many more. The city takes almost any occasion for an excuse for a parade, a party, and live music, and in New Orleans most events often have a touch of Mardi Gras year round. Like they say, New Orleanians are either planning a party, enjoying one or recovering from one. Party down!
After Hurricane Katrina
In late 2005 New Orleans and the surrounding area was hit by Katrina, a major hurricane. Much worse than the hurricane was the failure of the Federal levee system; in what has been called "the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history" some 80% of the city flooded.
New Orleans was not destroyed, but Katrina was a severe blow, perhaps the worst disaster to hit a U.S. city since the great San Francisco earthquake of 99 years earlier. The good news for travelers is that the business, historic and cultural districts of most interest to visitors, being on naturally slightly higher ground, came through in good shape compared to other lower lying residential sections of town. Also, since this city has many attractions and a long tradition of catering to visitors, now is a good time to visit New Orleans since crowds are lighter, local merchants are eager to please visitors, and good deals can be often be found on accommodations.
As of August 2006, tourism has returned. The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (IATA:MSY, ICAO:KMSY) is functioning, highways in and out of town are open and all major and most minor streets in the metro area are clear. Taxi companies are functioning, and a number of public transit routes including some of New Orleans' popular "streetcars" have been restored. The Audubon Zoo, the Museum of Art, the Aquarium, and many other attractions have reopened, and festivals, art openings, and other events again fill the city's schedule. However, not everything is back to normal in the city; scenes of devastation can be seen a 5 minute to 20 minute drive from any of the most intact neighborhoods (particularly in the east end, such as the Lower 9th Ward, which suffered catastrophic damage and where even basic services are scarce). Only about half of the city's pre-Katrina population is back living in the city; most of them have a fierce love of their city and have faced many hardships in their continuing efforts to rebuild their city bit by bit.
The city's public services - especially police - have struggled to return to their full strength, and are dealing with a city where decades of neighborhood stability have been disrupted. The city overall has experienced an increase in crime as a result. (See "Stay safe" below.)
Having cash is recommended; a number of businesses that switched to cash-only in the early days of the city's recovery have continued to prefer that mode of payment. Most restaurants continue to accept credit cards and banks are open in the city. Some businesses continue to have more limited hours than usual.
The portions of the old city closer to the river have revived quickly, with a broad representative sample of restaurants, bars, hotels, grocery stores, and other business back open, with more opening every day. This area includes the French Quarter, Central Arts District, most of Uptown, Magazine street galleries, Carrollton, Marigny, Algiers, the portion of the Central Business District closer to the River, and the area of Bywater on the River side of Saint Claude Avenue. In a nutshell, all the popular historic and cultural areas frequented by tourists prior to Katrina are open to visitors.
In the nearby suburbs of Jefferson Parish, Kenner, parts of Metairie, and Gretna on the Westbank are also in good shape. The North Shore on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain is also returning to normal quickly.
Areas to the south and east of the city, such as the suburb city of Chalmette, the rest of St. Bernard Parish, and much of Plaquemine Parish, were even worse hit than the city itself. While areas of ruined buildings still abound, a number of local businesses and amenities are back.
For the curious visitor wishing to see the devastation, possibly the best option is offered by Gray Line Tours with their Hurricane Katrina - America's Worst Catastrophe! tour that seeks to inform visitors about the reasons behind the disaster.
Hurricane Katrina and Ecotourism
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina the city of New Orleans was washed away. This disaster helped attract all different types of ecotourism. First, the pollution became a huge problem. The water was contaminated and the sewage system backed up into the streets. New Orleans quickly became unlivable. People traveled to New Orleans to help clean up, what used to be a beautiful city. This type of ecotourism attracted a lot of tourists to this destination. People came to New Orleans to help clean up the city as well as the environment around it. Also, the infrastructure of the city was destroyed. Homes, businesses, and roads were all severely damaged or completely destroyed due to Katrina. Building new homes, such as “Habitat for Humanity,” also attracted many tourists. This type of ecotourism attracted volunteers all around the country to come help rebuild the city.
New Orleans and the Acadians
Despite what many visitors expect, the population, food, music, and traditions of New Orleans are not predominately Cajun. The Acadian or Cajun (from 'Cadien, pronounced ca-jen) people developed their rich culture in rural parts of Louisiana, south and west of the city. These peoples were descended in a massive diaspora from areas such as Nova Scotia (previously called Acadia) when control of Canada was passed to the British. There are some good places for Cajun food and music in the city-- mainly these are branches of famous Southwest Louisiana Cajun places that opened up locations here. Many cajuns still live in rural Louisiana although some say the culture is slowly dying. As late as WWII cajuns were used as French translators for the U.S. Army.
The main culinary tradition in New Orleans is Creole - which means the culture and its cuisine already flourishing when Louisiana was purchased by the United States in 1803. The creoles were the peoples originally in New Orleans from its founding, differing from the outback styled cajuns. Creole has a mixture of influences, including French, German and Spanish with a strong West-African foundation. Creoles cook with roux and the "trinity," a popular term for green pepper, onion and celery. These are the base for many savory dishes.
Since the Louisiana Purchase, other major immigrant groups and influences on local cuisine and culture have included Italian (mostly Southern and Sicilian), Irish, Caribbean and Central American. In the late 20th century a sizable Vietnamese community was added to the New Orleans gumbo.
Parts of town