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The Big Easy is known worldwide for its culture, from Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest to the New Orleans Saints and Emeril Lagasse. With upwards of 50 museums showcasing its gems, New Orleans is more than just wild parties and unique food; it’s the Museum City. But if you want to experience the Crescent City rather than just learning about it in a museum, the real culture lies within its music and festivities. We all heard about the devastating Hurricane Katrina that plowed through the city, leaving New Oleanians to pick up the pieces. Though much of the country was unsure if the Big Easy would ever recover, the city is back and in full force.
What might be the most famous aspect of New Orleans hits the town every year without fail, you guess it, Mardi Gras. Courtesy of the French history that Louisiana fully encompasses, a ranting and raving tradition has been born. Mardi Gras is both a carnival and a holiday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the Lent, the season of fasting and repentance. And contrary to what is commonly believed, Fat Tuesday is more than the salacious frat-boy party you might imagine. It is a bash — a huge bash — but there are plenty of different ways to celebrate in New Orleans, especially when the party is as big as Mardi Gras. January 6 usually marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas, a time when the winter holiday season traditionally ends, but in New Orleans, Twelfth Night kicks off a season of merriment. Festivities reach fever pitch 12 days before Mardi Gras and peak on the Saturday prior to Fat Tuesday, when the city celebrates with four days of nonstop jazz, food, drink and masquerade balls. Perhaps most closely associated with the celebrations — aside from mayhem in the French Quarter — are the colorful parades where marchers in elaborate costumes toss plastic purple, green and gold beads to onlookers. Be sure to taste a king cake (a large circular cake coated with purple, green and gold sugar with a tiny plastic baby hidden inside). Traditionally, whoever gets the slice with the baby provides the king cake for the next party.
And what is most likely the second most famous festivity in New Orleans boogies into the Crescent City every spring. You can’t mention New Orleans without mentioning jazz and you can’t mention jazz without bringing up Jazz Fest. As the soul of the Big Easy, it’s no wonder that jazz has sparked a festival that has been grooving for more than 40 years. Truly a celebration of the city and Louisiana culture, the festival showcases local talent, arts and crafts, parades and food. With 12 music tents and two food stages lined up next to each other. You can catch the melodies of everything from gospel to headliners like Lionel Richie. Of course to fully represent soul, you’ll need some homecookin’ and trust us, Jazz Fest has plenty of that. It’s a great way to sample local culinary delights such as crawfish, mango freezes, gator sticks (alligator meat covered in fried dough) and cochon de lait po-boy (the Cajun term for a roast suckling pig sandwich).
As the city came back in full force, so did the beloved New Orleans Saints — so much so that the NFL team captured the title of 2010 Super Bowl Champions. Whether you are at a game in the Superdome or watching the game at one of the local dives, you’ll be surrounded with Saints pride. From cheering for quarterback Drew Brees to yelling “WHO DAT,” a New Orleans Saints game is a cultural experience to be had.
New Orleans' cultural scene is mercurial with as many facets as the city itself. Old-school glamour can be found in a night at the Mahalia Jackson Theater; drinks at the Sazerac Bar, and a walk down Royal Street with its antique-filled windows.
A new twist on the classic New Orleans night out can be found sampling wildly popular new restaurants in the Bywater or Marigny neighborhoods, and then taking in live music on Frenchmen Street in clubs like the Spotted Cat or d.b.a.
But New Orleans is all about finding your own unique experience in a city of back-to-back festivals and more costumed events than any town has a right to pull off. Come down for the Red Dress Run, the Running of the Bulls, the first game of the Saints season or any other joyful only-in-New-Orleans event and you'll be back for more of the same.