Just west (and a little south) of the heart of New Orleans lies a neighborhood rich in history and culture known as the Carrollton Riverbend area. And there, In a converted double shotgun home dating back to around the 1920s, lives a man named Dave Thomas.
Dave has been working as a New Orleans tour guide for P.A.C.E. Travel for about three years, but he’s been giving tours of his beloved city since 2011. With his extensive knowledge of the food, music, art, architecture, history, and culture of New Orleans, you might think he’s a native – but you’d be wrong! In 1977, shortly after graduating from college, Dave moved to New Orleans from upstate New York with plans to work a few years, pay off his student loan debts, and head back home up north.
That last bit never happened. Why, you might ask? According to Dave, “The city was so beguiling it sort of sucked me in.” And sure enough, he’s been living in New Orleans ever since. So what exactly enticed Dave to stay? And what keeps him so enthralled with New Orleans that he can’t help but lead tours to educate others about his enthusiasm for his city? As Dave would answer, it’s basically three things: the music, the history, and the food!
Nashville might officially be known as Music City, USA, but New Orleans never stops putting up a fight to steal the title for itself. No matter what time of year you visit, you’re likely to find at least one major musical festival occurring in or around the city.
Back in 1977, one of the first things that captured Dave’s attention was the Jazz and Heritage Festival (also known as Jazz Fest) which takes place every spring at the fairgrounds. For eight days (spread over two weekends) a dozen or so stages run concurrently, from 11am to 7pm, showcasing some of the brightest talent around.
Then, as the summer weather heats up, the Satchmo Summerfest is held in honor of Louis Armstrong (falling on the August weekend nearest his birthday). Musical performances highlight his lifelong influence, while afternoon lectures in the Old US Mint teach about Louis himself and the music he created. It’s a unique yearly blend of music, history, and culture.
In the nearby town of Lafayette, when fall rolls around each year, the Festival Acadiens et Creoles takes place as a weekend-long celebration featuring music, arts, and food from all across south-central Louisiana.
Even the Old US Mint, where the Louisiana Jazz Museum is housed, features a performance space on the third floor which they share with several park rangers (many of whom are musicians themselves). And because New Orleans has such a pesky time separating music from its culture and history, those very rangers, dressed in their ranger uniforms, put on interpretative performances several times a week in which they play New Orleans inspired music for live audiences while discussing the cultural and historical connections.
While it’s impossible to separate the music of New Orleans from its history, there’s an even deeper and further reaching historical element to the city which is celebrated in its plethora of museums, tours, and historical buildings. The Louisiana State Museum Complex has five or six museums in the city of New Orleans itself, two of which are located within the Cabildo and the Presbytere (historic buildings dating back to the 1790s) which flank the St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square.
And then there are several house museums scattered around, like the Gallier House (built around the 1850s) which displays one of the earliest examples of modern conveniences with flush toilets and hot/cold running water, even upstairs. The Hermann-Grima House, located in the French Quarter, features all of the out-buildings you might have seen back in the day, complete with a courtyard lined with citrus trees, a below-ground cistern, and even an open-hearth kitchen building out back where they still give cooking demonstrations and classes. One of the most defining features, however, is a stable located on the property grounds. We think life changes dramatically from one century to the next, and in many ways it does, but just as we struggle to find parking today when we visit big cities (like New Orleans), our ancestors struggled to find adequate housing for their transportation (i.e., a horse and buggy!) as well. So, to own your very own stable ON your property back then was akin to having a private, guaranteed place to park today!
And if you like your history to be a little more mobile, you can take a transportational spin on several river boats or even the St. Charles Street Cars. If you take to the water, Dave recommends hopping on board the Natchez steam powered riverboat as it’s one of the last few operating steamboats still running on the Mississippi River system. An old calliope on the upper deck plays music for roughly half an hour before launch, and they leave the doors to the engine room open so you can watch the steam powered pistons firing away. As a shaded, safe, and supervised excursion of roughly two hours, it’s a perfect experience for school groups and chaperones alike, offering both entertainment and relaxation.
And about those street cars, Dave absolutely recommends making a short trip out to see them, if you’re able. The St. Charles Street Car line began in 1835 and is the oldest continuously operating urban railroad in the United States. Even though all the other streetcar lines were eventually torn out and replaced with more ‘modern’ modes of transportation, like buses, the St. Charles’ line remains intact. If you have an hour and a half to spare, Dave says it’s worth a ride! On days when the weather is nice, you might even be able to see workers operating on and repainting some of the older streetcars in the streetcar barn (where the machine shop is housed). And though the Desire Street line has been removed, you can still ride the actual streetcar Tennessee Williams used to film his exterior shots in the famous movie, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ It’s number 922 (in case you wanted to ride the St. Charles line in a still-operating historic movie relic!)
And then, of course, Dave could not help but mention the incredible dining experiences that New Orleans has to offer. “All of it,” according to Dave, “is absolutely unique and spectacular.”
If you’re in the mood for the best fine-dining New Orleans has to offer, head on down by the river to a little upscale restaurant named Brigtsen’s. It’s in an old side-hall, shotgun house and is named after the chef who founded/operates it. Dave says, “If it’s open, he’s there. And that’s the very best type of restaurant you can find.”
If you’re looking for more casual fare, Dave recommends the Parkway Bakery and Tavern. “I consider myself a shrimp po boy junkie,” he says, “and it’s absolutely the place to go for shrimp po boys.”
But whatever your tastes may be, Dave says you can rest assured that almost any New Orleans eatery will be worth a visit. As Dave knows well after spending over four decades exploring every last inch of this city, you simply cannot exhaust the variety of offerings to be discovered – from music and history, to culture, art, and food, there’s always something incredible to enjoy. Just be warned, says Dave, you might find yourself unexpectedly beguiled just as he was all the way back in 1977!
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