Among big city nicknames, you'll find the Big Apple (New York), Big Town (Chicago) and Big D (Dallas). But there's only one Big Easy, and New Orleans has claimed the title with pride ever since the 1970s when a journalist praised the city's laid-back lifestyle and joie de vivre. For locals and tourists alike, the moniker is never more appropriate than during spring — particularly after Mardi Gras, when festival season fills the calendar and people flock to the city for their own brand of celebration.
Background: Since the early 1700s, New Orleans has been the principal city of Louisiana and the busiest port on the Gulf of Mexico. Her distinct Creole culture is derived from French and Spanish rule before 1803, when the city became part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. Struggles continued through the War of 1812 and the Civil War, when battles raged through her streets. But social and natural hardships have served only to build resilience into New Orleans, a city known for overcoming everything from poverty and racial strife to hurricanes and shrinking shorelines.
Why go now: From world-famous restaurants and hidden music clubs to centuries-old architecture and topnotch arts institutions, you'll find endless opportunities to explore New Orleans — the city that knows how to “laissez les bons temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll!). Festival season begins with Mardi Gras and continues throughout the year, but spring packs a big wallop of fun into a season of mild temperatures and popular celebrations that highlight the city's best music, food and culture. The last two weeks of this month, you can tour historic homes in the French Quarter and Garden District as part of Spring Fiesta. Celebrate African American heritage with Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands at the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival. The popular Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival brings more than 130 authors, actors and musicians to New Orleans for five days of master classes, panelist discussions, celebrity interviews, competitions, theater events and more.
If you love food, wait until the last weekend for a trifecta of culinary festivals: NOLA Foodfest — “America's hometown eats,” Hogs for the Cause BBQ Competition
and Louisiana Oyster Jubiliee for the world's longest oyster po-boy. I guarantee you'll go home fat and happy.
Can't make it this month? Music lovers flock to the Fair Grounds Race Course, April 24-May 3, for New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — two weekends of live music, food and dancing. This year's lineup includes Elton John, The Who, Jimmy Buffett, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, No Doubt, Keith Urban, Pitbull, John Legend and many more artists. www.neworleanscvb.com/calendar-events/festivals/ springfestivals/
Spend your day: Treat yourself to traditional coffee and beignets (been-YAYS) at Café du Monde (www.cafedumonde.com), then explore the French Market — America's oldest public market — for the NOLA tradition of “making groceries.” Every Wednesday from 2-6 p.m., this historic area comes alive with cooking demos, music and local food. www.frenchmarket.org. Whether you're looking for timeless antiques or cutting edge fashions, fine jewelry or classic art galleries there are plenty of shops, plus worldclass hotels and restaurants to explore on Royal Street.
Make time to visit The National World War II Museum, newly expanded with a 31,000-square-foot pavilion that uses digital technology, personal stories and iconic artifacts to create a portrait of the average American who fought in the war. Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries, an immersive exhibition focusing on battles in Germany, debuted in December. (http://nationalww2museum.org)
Arts lovers will want to head over to the Contemporary Arts Center in the Warehouse District for world-class exhibitions, shows and bold experiments in studio and performing arts of all kinds. (www.cacno.org)
One of my favorite new must-sees is the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFab), where you'll get a mouthful of insight into the culinary history of the Southern states. www.southernfood.org. If you've still got energy left at the end of the day, make your way to Frenchmen Street, a three-block section of Faubourg Marginy neighborhood famous for some of the city's best emerging music. Try the Spotted Cat or Snug Harbor. www.frenchmenstreetlive. com. Want something more lively? Try Uptown's Rock `n' Bowl, where you literally bowl with a brew to live Cajun, blues and Zydeco. (www.rocknbowl.com) Or Tipitina's, host to NOLA's music legends for nearly 40 years. www. tipitinas.com
Must do: Whenever you're not listening to live music somewhere in the city, tune in to WWOZ 90.7 FM, a listener-supported, noncommercial radio station for NOLA and the surrounding area. You'll hear jazz, blues, Latin, Cajun, funk and more.
Don't bother: Unless you're on a fraternity road trip or a friend's bachelorette party, don't spend much time or money on Bourbon Street, a “high octane fantasyland,” according to one local concierge. “Drinks are oversweet, overpriced, and potent enough to eat the chrome off a trailer hitch.” Give it a 15-minute stroll and move on to more authentic areas of the city.
Where to eat: Brennan's — Since 1946, this French Quarter restaurant is known for its lavish breakfast and for the creation of bananas Foster. Reopened on Royal Street in November, the iconic restaurant boasts a brand-new bar, The Roost. (www.brennansneworleans.com)
Columns — Have a cocktail on the sweeping porch overlooking St. Charles Ave. at the stately 19th century Columns Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (www.thecolumns.com)
Galatoire's 33 — The latest spinoff of the 105-year-old grand dame of French Quarter dining, this restaurant has developed a following in its own right. The name derives from the building's first address, 33 Bourbon St., before an 1893 standardization of the municipal address system in New Orleans. (www. galatoires33barandsteak.com)
Brigtsen's — Chef/Owner Frank Brigtsen is stacking up awards like beads on a Mardi Gras float. On top of that, he and his wife, Marna, are fabulous ambassadors for the city. Eating in their restaurant is like dining in their home. Please say I sent you, sop the sauces for me and above all, order the white chocolate bread pudding. (www.brigtsens. com)
Where to stay: Hotel Monteleone — This luxury French Quarter hotel is both a historic and literary landmark dating back 125 years. Family owned since the very start, Hotel Monteleone is iconic to the New Orleans' French Quarter. Enjoy instinctive architecture in a full-service environment. (www.hotelmonteleone.com)
Getting around: New Orleans prides itself on walkability, but you'll need a car or public transportation to get from one area to the other. Streetcars, the city's rumbling relics of the past, are a vibrant part of the current culture. For $1.25 in exact change, you can explore on four different lines. Or purchase a Jazzy pass (good for streetcars and buses) and travel as much as you like for the duration of the pass.
So you know: Wearing Mardi Gras beads outside Carnival season marks you as a newbie and a target for memories of the worst sort. Don't do it.
More information: Download New Orleans' very own free City Visitor App, GO NOLA, on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch or visit their website, www.neworleanscvb.com. You can also find them on Facebook (New Orleans), Twitter (@NewOrleans) and Instagram (NewOrleansCVB).
The Carousel Bar & Lounge is a long-time favorite New Orleans hotspot and the city's only revolving bar.
The St. Charles Streetcar has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. This painting by Joyce Hunter depicts the streetcar for which Tennessee Williams named his 1946 play.