10 Facts About New Orleans to Know Before You Go

A quick Google search for facts about New Orleans sees some of the same subjects come up time and time again. Things like its rich musical traditions, delectable food, and the masked masquerade of Mardi Gras.

But as with any great city, these cultural USPs are only one side of the doubloon. Behind New Orleans’ shiny sequined mask, there are the remnants of Hurricane Katrina, ghostly mysteries, and a shadowy role in the slave trade.

Read on for fascinating facts about New Orleans, from bustling Bourbon Street and beyond.

The French Quarter in New Orleans

1. Where did New Orleans get its name?

New England, New York, New Hampshire; rather than coming up with unique names, colonists had a habit of sticking to the hometown 2.0 formula. The English didn’t have a monopoly when it came to these unimaginative naming conventions, though, and it was a Frenchman who inspired the ‘New’ in New Orleans.

The area that now makes up New Orleans was native inhabited land before the French sidled up and claimed Louisiana in 1682. It was governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne who would eventually decide to found a city on the first high spot inland from the mouth of the Mississippi River.

A passionate man of the French empire (and a bit of a boot-licker), Le Moyne could think of nothing nobler than naming this fledgling city after the then Regent of France, Philip II, Duke of Orléans. And so, La Nouvelle Orléans was born.

2. What’s the motto of New Orleans? 

Two men dancing at Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Photo by Samuel Dixon on Unsplash

You need only a passing interest in New Orleans to be aware of its proud, carefree approach to life. The motto of New Orleans is “laissez les bon temps rouler”, a crude English to Cajun-French translation of “let the good times roll,” and a prime example of why sentiment should always take precedence over grammar.

This New Orleans slogan isn’t something just slapped on the end of tourism campaigns, either. It’s something you can see and feel around the city. 

This chaotic energy can be found in the go-cup culture of street drinking in the French Quarter, and the never-ending parties during Mardi Gras. It’s a freewheeling spirit born out of a whole bunch of cultures that have come together over the centuries, cultivating a unique and independent way of life.

3. The spiritual home of jazz

A jazz band performing in New Orleans' French Quarter
The home of jazz – one of the undisputed facts about New Orleans
Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Jazz was a culmination of so many things, you would have to write a book about it to even scratch the surface of where jazz started. But one thing’s for sure: it came from New Orleans.

The short story? Over time, traditional African and Caribbean sounds fused with American religious gospel song and marching band pomp. But more than that, jazz was born out of natural cultural alchemy, a product of emotion, community, joy, and struggle that evolved over many years.

Dancehall musician and legendary bandleader of the 1890s, Buddy Bolden, is often credited with being the ‘first man of Jazz’ – if you really need to put a name to the city’s brass past.

Nowadays, the swing and blues notes of New Orleans bebop fill the French Quarter air. There are jazz clubs aplenty, and the annual New Orleans Jazz Fest draws fans from around the world.

If you’re looking for a way to soak up the city’s most famous musical genre (an honorable mention here to its 90s sludge metal scene), why not take a jazz cruise down the Mississippi River to really get a feel for the sounds of Louisiana?

4. What makes New Orleans’ cemeteries special?

Flowers on the stoop of a vault in a New Orleans cemetery

The phrase ‘six feet under’ doesn’t really apply in New Orleans. Should you have sipped your final cocktail in the Big Easy, your final resting place could well be in one of the city’s famous above-ground necropolises.

The cemeteries of New Orleans are gated communities for those no longer with us. Being at or below sea level, burying the dead below ground came with a whole load of soggy consequences. The solution was to build tombs and mausoleums in town-like graveyards.

Over the years, these cemeteries have developed a culture all of their own. From simple vaults to grand, house-like family tombs, these monuments to the deceased are unique examples of urban design that reflect New Orleans’ mixed cultural heritage.

You can even visit these ‘Cities of the Dead’ on guided tours that explain the history of the 42 Historic Cemeteries of New Orleans in more detail. The largest, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, is home to the famous tombs of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau and defiant civil rights activist Homer Plessy. Nicolas Cage even has a pre-prepared pyramid tomb, just in case fate ever stops him from making questionable movies.

5. The most haunted city in America

Delphine LaLaurie and the LaLaurie Mansion on Royal Street, New Orleans.
Delphine LaLaurie is said to have tortured and murdered slaves at her Royal Street mansion

Yes, New Orleans is the most haunted city in the United States. Of course, there’s no official government data pertaining to the most haunted cities in America. But whether you’re a spectral skeptic or phantom champion, it’s easy to see where New Orleans – city of spooky cemeteries, voodoo, and links to the occult – developed its reputation as a haven for those yet to pass on.

The stories are endless: the slave torture and murders committed by Delphine LaLaurie at her Royal Street estate; the bloody, gruesome, and unsolved massacre at the French Quarter’s Gardette-LePrete Mansion; The child ghost of Hotel Monteleone; The restless souls who inhabit the lavish restaurant Muriel’s, where séances are still held to this day. These are just some of the popular tales.

Countless NOLA residents have claimed to have seen strange goings-on around town. It can’t all be coincidence, can it? Decide for yourself with a mule-drawn French Quarter guided ghost tour.

6. A dark history of slavery in New Orleans

Slaves Awaiting Sale, New Orleans, 1861", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora
Slaves Awaiting Sale, New Orleans, 1861

Around 60% of New Orleans residents are African American, and much of the vibrancy associated with NOLA culture has roots in Afro-Caribbean culture. That said, you don’t have to delve far into the history of the area to discover its painful association with slavery.

Unlike the for-purpose auction houses of well-known hubs like Montgomery and Richmond, slaves in New Orleans were sold almost everywhere. Slave pens, ships, hotels, and even public parks held events for the buying and selling of slaves. New Orleans has been described as the ‘slave market of the South’, which gives you an idea of just how lucrative the trade was.

According to historian Lawrence N. Powell, more slaves from the Upper South came to New Orleans in transit to the region’s plantations than the total number brought to the United States during the Transatlantic slave trade.

If you’re looking for a deeper understanding of this murky period in Louisiana’s history, the Whitney Plantation provides an affecting memorial experience. Located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge up the Mississippi River, the plantation-museum is a grim and unflinching insight into the lives of America’s enslaved peoples.

To take a deeper dive into Black history, check out this comprehensive list of Black History Museums in the US.

7. The birthplace of voodoo in the US

Reverend Zombies House of Voodoo
Photo by J Lopes on Unsplash

A world of gris-gris, famous priestesses, and zombies, the mysterious and often misrepresented world of voodoo has long been associated with New Orleans. 

The roots of the Louisiana Voodoo are found in West African Vodun, an age-old African religion in Benin, Ghana, and Nigeria. Slaves who were brought to the South carried these traditions with them, which in turn fused with local Catholicism and developed into the mysterious, spiritual belief system that’s still practiced in New Orleans today.

Before you get excited, it has nothing to do with tiny dolls used to inflict pain upon your enemies, so you’ll have to think of another way. Often portrayed as supernatural and linked with the occult, in reality, Louisiana Voodoo is pretty wholesome.

Today, voodoo is mainly practiced in private, a way of connecting people with nature and the spirits that influence daily life. Through prayer, rituals, readings, song, and dance, people seek to cure ailments and generally better their lives.

Want to learn more? Take a voodoo tour of New Orleans and separate fact from fiction. 

8. A lesser-known Mafia history

A cartoon drawn in the aftermath of the 1891 murder of Police Chief David Hennessy.

What do you think of when you think of the Mafia? Cities like New York and Chicago, most likely. Romanticized depictions of mob life from movies and TV shows, perhaps.

You probably don’t think of New Orleans as the sort of place where you might wake up for some pillow talk with a decapitated horse’s head. In fact, one of the little-known facts about New Orleans is that the first serious mafia incident in the United States was recorded in the city.

When warfare broke out between rival groups of Italian immigrants working at the New Orleans docks in 1890, Police Chief David Hennessy sought to put an end to the violence that was occurring within his jurisdiction. It was his job to uncover the truth behind a seedy battle for control over the area’s fruit import business.

The price for his efforts? A hail of bullets on his way home from work. The murder of Hennessy shocked Louisiana, but the subsequent trial of 19 mafia recruits would only highlight how entrenched the organization already was in the city, with many witnesses being threatened and bribed.

The acquittal of the suspects caused outrage, and 11 were later lynched by an angry mob of locals. It remains one of the largest known mass lynchings in American history.

9. Oldest functioning cathedral in America

St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans
Photo by Mary Hammel on Unsplash

New Orleans is home to the oldest continuously active cathedral in the United States, St. Louis Cathedral. With a colonial facade and Sleeping Beauty Castle-like steeples, this indomitable church is one of the most iconic buildings in the French Quarter.

It’s been a site of worship since as far back as 1720. Having been passed from French (it’s named after Louis IX) to Spanish control, a devastating fire razed the cathedral in 1788, and it was rebuilt in 1794. Subsequently, the current structure survived a host of storms, including Hurricane Katrina, and even a bombing.

About the latter, on a quiet Sunday in 1909, a few hours after mass, a family gathered for a Christening, blissfully unaware that concealed nitroglycerin would soon rock the cathedral, shattering its stained glass windows.

The mystery of who planted the crude dynamite bomb in the choir loft is one of the facts about New Orleans that we’ll probably never know. Luckily, the cathedral has lived a much less dramatic life since. 

Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in US history

Damage caused by Hurrican Katrina

The total damage caused by Hurricane Katrina is estimated to be around $170 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in American history. Louisiana – and especially New Orleans – bore the brunt of the category 5 Atlantic hurricane which assaulted the southern United States in August 2005.

Over 1,500 people in Louisiana were killed as a result of the storm, which saw winds of 127 mph. New Orleans’ levees and flood protections failed with disastrous consequences. The majority of the city was submerged – over 70 percent of housing in the city was damaged, and displacement caused the population to  decline by almost half. The poorest part of the city, Lower Ninth Ward, was the hardest hit.

Unfortunately, despite the resolve of the New Orleans community, the effects of Katrina are still felt today. While tourist areas and wealthier neighborhoods have mostly recovered, grassroots organizations – non-profits like Rebuilding Together – are often tasked with restoring low-income neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth.

One of the success stories in the wake of the disaster was the building of the Lower Ninth Market, a project inspired by the tireless work of New Orleans native Burnell Cotlon.

More facts about New Orleans

Where is New Orleans?

The city of New Orleans is located in the southern US state of Louisiana, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Straddling Lake Pontchartrain to the west and Lake Borgne to the east, New Orleans is approximately 80 miles south-west of the Louisiana capital, Baton Rouge.

What is the population of New Orleans?

According to the United States Census Bureau, the population of New Orleans in 2018 was 391,006. The population was almost halved in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and after more than a decade of recovery, numbers have begun to stabilize.

What is New Orleans famous for?

A true melting pot of cultures, New Orleans has a wealth of unique heritage and proud traditions. It is best known for its music, vibrant nightlife, numerous festivals, Creole and Cajun food, and colonial architecture.

When is New Orleans Mardi Gras?

Officially, the annual Mardi Gras celebrations begin on Twelfth Night (January 6th). Momentum and festivities build up and peak during the two weeks before Shrove Tuesday.

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

How old is New Orleans?

The city of New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, the governor of French Louisiana. Louisiana had been under French control since 1682, and the new city was of great strategic importance due to its position close to the mouth of the Mississippi River.

How do you pronounce New Orleans?

The correct way to pronounce New Orleans is New Or-lins. Popular mispronunciations include N’awlins and New Or-lee-ans.

Is New Orleans safe?

Generally, the tourist spots in New Orleans are considered very safe, but it’s still best not to wander around alone at night (especially after a few cocktails). Unfortunately, overall New Orleans hasn’t got the best reputation in terms of safety, with violent crime being well above the national average.

What is New Orleans’ nickname?

The most popular nickname for New Orleans is the Big Easy, which was coined as early as the mid-19th century. Other common monikers include the Crescent City and simply NOLA.

What does NOLA mean?

Quite simply, NOLA is an acronym for New Orleans.

For a one-stop experience of New Orleans culture, get your tickets for JAMNOLA. This 12-room exhibit celebrates the people, art, music, food, and history that give NOLA its vibrant reputation!

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