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You're in New Orleans now, so memorize this from your Cajun phrasebook: Laissez les bons temps rouler. It means you have arrived and want to dive into the party, be it drinking mile-high cocktails in the French Quarter or ghost-busting through above-ground graves at cemeteries. This festive city has a colorful history that makes your visit more akin to traveling in a foreign locale than a modern U.S. metropolis.
As you sit in a patio chair at Cafe du Monde (go to the best and original location, at 800 Decatur Street), trying to abstain from gobbling down that third beignet, take it all in. Around you, musicians play, singers sing, and painters hawk their wares. Nearby Jackson Square--designed after Place de Vosges, in Paris' gay Marais district--was the site of public executions two centuries ago, but now hosts buskers singing spirituals and psychics reading tarot cards. Horse-drawn carriages, gaslights, and manicured grounds emanate an old world vibe. On either side of the square, the Presbytère and the Cabildo showcase art and artifacts, including an exhibit, opening in February 2011, of photographs documenting New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.
In The Queen of the Damned, New Orleans writer Anne Rice has the Vampire Lestat admitting, "I can't help being a gorgeous fiend. It's just the card I drew." Likewise, the Big Easy is a gorgeous fiend, half history and half hustle. Lively Bourbon Street demonstrates this intersection of glam and grit, with seafood joints neighboring strip clubs, and voodoo shops tucked between T-shirt stores. One notorious spot is Cafe Lafitte in Exile, possibly the country's oldest gay bar in operation. Tennessee Williams drank here, and haunts the far end of the bar, whereas the ghost of one-time regular Truman Capote frequents the stairwell, the perfect perch for dishing gossip. It's just another late night in the French Quarter, where queen Bianca Del Rio hosts her variety show and drag bingo. Rubyfruit Jungle, a lesbian dance club, offers burlesque and fetish nights, and Oz is a gay dance venue that Details named among the country's top party spots.
Adjacent to the French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny district has a vivid past as a French-speaking outpost that welcomed free people of color from the Caribbean in the early 1800s and later saw waves of German, Irish, Spanish, and Italian immigrants. These days, gay-owned and gay-friendly bed and breakfasts, cafes, galleries, and boutiques line the blocks of Creole cottages and shotgun houses. At its heart is Frenchman Street, offering the flip side of the French Quarter, with small clubs hosting live music, hip coffee houses staging art openings and poetry slams, and late night food, all without the neon lights and crush of tourists. You've seen this place on the HBO drama Treme, about hard-hit locals rebuilding their lives and neighborhoods after the hurricane. Like that of the show, the soundtrack around here is first-rate, but it's live. Choose from funk at Blue Nile, blues at Apple Barrel, swing at The Maison, classic jazz at Palm Tavern, headline jazz acts at Snug Harbor, and roots music at Spotted Cat.
Then there's Mardi Gras, the feast before the fast that some say has its roots in ancient Roman orgies. The parades, floats, costumes, and masked balls begin on the second Friday before Fat Tuesday, continuing 12 days. The super-krewes of Orpheus, Endymion, and Bacchus have celebrities aboard their 110 parade floats. If you yell out, "Throw me something, mister," you score throws such as embossed doubloons, beads, and cups with krewe insignias, also known as New Orleans dinnerware. Gay Mardi Gras has the Krewe of Queenateenas tossing trinkets from Ambush Headquarters at 828 Bourbon Street.
You don't have to arrive pre-Lent to get in on the action. Year round, souvenir shops sell the baubles, beads, and boas that characterize the festival. Visit Mardi Gras World, a warehouse exploding with floats, fashion, and relics that make a Vegas casino look modest. Conjure the spirits of Mardi Gras past at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where artifacts, memorabilia, and videos chronicle jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indian culture, and social aid and pleasure clubs.
Hit town Labor Day weekend for the Southern Decadence Festival, which attracts over 125,000 scantily-clad revelers to celebrate gay culture, kicking off at the Golden Lantern, one of the city's original gay bars. During Gay Halloween, you can take in masquerade balls, parades, haunted haunts, and charitable events.
Of course, life's not always easy in the Big Easy. Hurricane Katrina's impact can still be felt, with boarded up buildings within blocks of the
French Quarter. Locals and visitors participate in revitalization projects. According to Jennifer Lotz of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau,
Epic floods could not wash away the city's art and soul. One of the first attractions to reopen after the hurricane was the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, a repository of works by Southern artists and about the region, including a gallery devoted to self-taught artists. Sue Strachan, who works at the museum, recommends starting on the fifth floor, which boasts views of the Crescent City Connection Bridge over the Mississippi River, and checking out the sculptures by Lin Emery and David Bates on the terrace. She adds, "It's also a great place to hang out during Ogden After Hours," a Thursday evening event consisting of live interviews with artists and livelier music, not to mention killer cocktails. Purchase local art at the museum's Center for Southern Craft and Design, or venture to the surrounding Warehouse District, the center of local avant-garde and underground art.
Still hungry for art? Julia Street is SoHo South, a quaint district packed with galleries and antique shops as well as the Contemporary Arts Center. For more accessible prices, check out French Market's Dutch Alley street art during temperate months. With more activities in the Big Easy than there's shrimp in a po'boy, it's no wonder tourism expert Lotz observes
"New Orleans was one of the most popular and fastest growing destinations in the country in 2010."You can't stop the good times from rolling.
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