As a Montrealer, your first hint that there is something remarkably familiar about New Orleans is the number of fleur de lys that are ubiquitous. In fact, the city’s favourite professional sports team, the Saints-who play football in the National Football League – have a fleur de lys as their team logo! The fleur de lys is a proud symbol of the city’s origins as it emblazoned the flag of the French explorers whom discovered the city as Nouvelle Orleans in 1717. In 2008, the governor of Louisiana passed a law making the fleur de lys the state’s official symbol.

Mardi Gras

Grand Marshal for the Krewe Boheme parade. One of the 56 parades that lead up to Mardi Gras from early January to mid-February of every year
Photo: A.J. Twist

Like Montreal, this city knows how to party! Synonymous to New Orleans is their Mardi Gras (note the French words for “fat Tuesday”). Basically, Mardi Gras is a two-month celebration beginning on January 6th (King’s Day) and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday (which was February 21 this year and will be February 13 in 2024). During this period, most weekends feature flamboyant street parades ranging from those of a more bawdy nature, such as Krewe Boheme of Krew of Titans, to others where the whole family camps out on the city streets to cheer on wildly decorated floats, costumed dancers and loud marching bands. In fact, leading up to Fat Tuesday there are a total of fifty-six parades!

One visiting strategy to avoid the massive crush of the final weekend leading up to Mardi Gras is to plan your trip during one of the earlier weekends. During this period one can still get a flavour of the annual event while still being able to secure a hotel room and a table at one of the famous restaurants (such as Emeril’s, Brennan’s, the Commander’s Quarters  and many others). Fear not! You will still emerge with a neck covered in colourful beads (without having to bare your soul).

Commander’s Place

The legendary Commander’s Place features table-side Dixieland jazz during Sunday brunch. For “the Canadians” we were treated to some Stompin’ Tom Connors.
Photo A.J. Twist

While the Montreal Jazz Festival has certainly become one of the pre-eminent musical events of its type, about a decade before its origins, New Orleans held the bragging rights of being first to feature a week-long showcase of this musical genre. Not only that, New Orleans is often referred to as being the birthplace of jazz producing such legends as Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. Music aficionados can visit NOLA at any time of the year knowing that clubs such as Preservation Hall (in the French Quarter), Fritzels Jazz (on Bourdon St.) or Tipitina’s (Uptown) always have line-ups ready to please. This year’s New Orleans’ Jazz Festival is scheduled to run from April 28- May 7 and features the likes of Jon Batiste, Robert Plant, Tom Jones, Ed Sheeran and even Lizzo!

Marching bands

Marching bands are a daily occurrence during the lead up to Mardi Gras

Other indications that might lead to Montreal flash-backs while in NOLA will be your occasional exposure to the French language or, as it is known in these parts, “Cajun French”. Mind you, French language scholars will be horrified to see some of the uses such as “Crawfish to geaux” (or translated as “crawfish to go”) or “Geaux Tigers” on license plates to show support for the Louisiana State University football team. You might find yourself in a local music venue listening carefully to traditional Cajun music and saying to your companion “I think they are singing in French” which they are! A restaurant listing might make reference to the Vieux Carré as another way to refer to the French Quarter. You may even see a poster inviting you to a “Fais Do Do” which would be a Cajun dance party. Recent census reports state that between 150,000-200,000 citizens of Louisiana speak Cajun French.

New Orleans

A scene that strollers throughout the Garden District will come across while enjoying the local architecture
Photo: A.J. Twist

Like Montreal’s St. Lawrence River, New Orleans has its Mississippi River which is one of the country’s most important waterways and transportation hubs. Cargo ships dock in New Orleans as do cruise ships. New Orleans is one of the more popular departure or arrival centres for cruises with many passengers adding a few days ashore either prior to departure or following arrival. An excursion along the Mississippi in one of the river steam boats is a great way to learn of the history of the city as well as getting a lay of the land.

New Orleans streetcar

The St. Charles streetcar is the perfect way to see some of the historical mansions that line the avenue
Photo: A.J. Twist

However, the real star of New Orleans and where it deviates from Montreal, is its architecture! From historical mansions along St. Charles Ave. (take the tram car for the perfect tour of these) to the Creole cottages or the unique “shotgun” houses, New Orleans is an architectural dream. A stroll through the Garden District is an ideal way to immerse yourself in these century-old buildings which have been lovingly maintained through generations. The Central Business District (now marketed as simply “the District” features many old warehouses that have been converted into shops and restaurants (try the Bearcat for brunch). Even the cemeteries are well-worth seeking out for their elaborate crypts.

On the negative side, since COVID, there has been a rise in crime rates in this city that visitors should be aware of. Many Uber drivers will tell you that they simply stop driving after 7pm over fear of car-jackings. There are neighbourhoods that may be considered unsafe in which to rent an AirBnB so do your research. Tourists are also targets of pickpockets and muggings so best to keep your wits about you and be aware of your surroundings.

But, with that being said, New Orleans is still a city where you can “laissez les bon temps rouler” and still feel at home as a Montrealer!

A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer.  Email: [email protected]

History buffs will enjoy an excursion up the Mississippi on riverboat paddle wheeler

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