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Several co-workers and I were scheduled to attend a conference in New Orleans during the first week of September 2005.  Little effort was made to hide the fact that we all felt more excited about seeing the city than attending the conference:

“We’ll have to skip out one night and go hear a New Orleans music legend,” I said.

“You should have an affair,” a friend suggested. I was recently separated.

“Two birds with one stone,” I quipped. “I’m going to sleep with the Neville Brothers.”

“Which one?”

“All of them!”

But our glib mood quickly faded as we heard reports of an impending hurricane.  At the last minute, the conference was canceled.

I am grateful not to have been in New Orleans when Katrina hit.  But I am also grateful to have visited there once 15 years before, if only for a day.  Describing my one, fabulous day in New Orleans is a great pleasure.  In researching this post, I was gratified to learn that the joys I experienced then are still available today.

What to Do?

New Orleans. Photo by HarshLigh.

When I passed through the Big Easy all those years ago, I was touring the country in a mini-motorhome.  I was brave enough to drive solo across the continent, but far too chicken to drive in a big city.  So I signed up for a tour. It turned out to be marvelous.

The day began with a bus tour  to various sights.  We visited the above-ground tombs of Lafayette Cemetery and saw the voodoo offerings that had been made at one of the graves.  We were told that the statue of Andrew Jackson points toward the YMCA sign and that YMCA stands for Yanks May Come Again.  We viewed a house that had been built as an exact replica of Tara in Gone with the Wind and the driver told us that when he announced it on one tour, a passenger had retorted, “Frankly, driver, I don’t give a damn.”

Next was a steam boat ride on the Mississippi.  As we chugged along we learned of the historic role the river had played for the country and especially for the city of New Orleans.  We saw buildings that had served as barracks during the civil war and learned that many of the houses in town were constructed from lumber that once made up the barges which floated down the river.

After the boat ride, we had a couple of hours on our own before the bus was to pick us up and take us back to our places of lodging.  What a dilemma! I had recently turned 21, legal drinking age, and therefore felt somewhat obligated to visit the bars on Bourbon Street. But I also really enjoy just wandering around looking at architecture.  Suddenly the light bulb went on in my head and I realized I could do both at the same time.  I walked into a bar and ordered myself a warm, dark pint of Guinness which came in a plastic cup.  Then I meandered through the French Quarter enjoying the sights and my beer.  Conveniently, I emptied the glass and reached St Louis Cathedral at the same time. Depositing the cup in the trash, I went in for a tour of the Cathedral.  When I came out, there was a jazz band playing in the square. What a high! In one day, this famous city had lived up to all of my expectations.

Obviously, New Orleans deserves more time than I gave it. I can’t remember why I only had a day- something about needing to get to Tucson for a Grateful Dead concert- but if I had it to do over, I would definitely take a walking tour  of the French Quarter or the Garden District and  partake in the city’s legendary music scene .

Where to Stay?

New Orleans has several affordable hostels/hotels: 

India House Backpackers Hostel  and Marquette House International Hostel offer a party atmosphere and dorm beds for $20 per night.

St. Vincents Guesthouse in the garden district has has old style charm in affordable private rooms.

Where to Eat?

Gumbo, Jambalaya, red beans and rice…food-wise New Orleans has a lot of regional specialties, so I hope you’re hungry.

For something inexpensive and filling it’s hard to beat a Po-boy sandwich:

Johnny’s Po-boys  (511 St. Louis St) offers dozens of variations.
Central Grocery  (923 Decatur St) has po-boys and muffulettas (Italian style sandwich).  There are lots of varieties including a vegetarian version.
One must eat pastries when in a place that was colonized by the French.  Head to Café Du Monde, located in Jackson Square for beignets (fried dough covered with powdered sugar).  Calories don’t count when you’re on vacation.

City Explorer’s Tip:

The city’s official tourism website offers some sample itineraries, including a three-day trip for folks on a budget.

They also maintain a calendar of events with items ranging from classical music concerts to eating contests.

A Day Off the Beaten Path:

Feeling guilty about enjoying all that music and debauchery? Why not combine it with a little community service? The Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the loss of literally hundreds of thousands of homes during hurricane Katrina make New Orleans a deserving candidate for your volunteer time.  Here are a few organizations to consider:

New Orleans area Habitat for Humanity
Make It Right– Brad Pitt’s project to help rebuild the lower 9th ward
Volunteer match can link you with a variety of volunteer opportunities (including ones related oil spill clean-up)

The City of Brotherly Love as it is well known to be, Philadelphia, PA is a very lively and urban place to visit when you head on over to the U.S of A. I grew up a little less than an hour from this upbeat craziness that this city is filled up with, and whenever I wanted excitement or something to do this place knew just what to put on my agenda. Being in Amman now I can even say rush hour traffic between Jersey and Philly isn’t really as bad as I believed. So just as this city has given me quite a few amazing memories I want to give you a taste of what this city has to offer when you come to visit!

Where to Stay: Since I lived quite close I didn’t encounter too many times to need a hotel but when I did I chose Marriot. They are up to par with convenience and cleanliness which is always a great thing and the well-known brand that all Marriot hotels usually tend to bring to the table. Another alternative, and a lot less known, is the Oakwood Philadelphia. Here, you can find nice apartment-styled accommodation where you can cook your own food and feel right at home. The pricing ranges from a little less than a hundred up to two hundred a night but depending on your length of stay or how comfortable you want to be, determines how much you should pay. Overall though, there are tons of hotels located around University St. that offer great views and exceptional convenience to lots ofshopping, food and attractions.

Where to Eat: I have one word for you- Philly Cheesesteaks! Ok, so that was two but these are a MUST to eat when you visit. Now there are a few different places I suggest but no matter what it says on the menu go for the onion and pepper-filled, cheesy and greasy dripping cheesesteak that Philadelphia is known for.

  • Pat’s King of Steaks- This place is really as original as you can get, coming from the Olivieri family as Pat Olivieri is said to have invented the steak sandwich in 1930. What started out as a simple stand at the corner eventually turned into one of the most famous cheesesteak shops around the world. However, they didn’t let that get to their head and you can still find Pat’s on the same corner, serving the same cheesesteak, ran by the same family since all this time. Open 24/7!
  • Geno’s Steaks- Now when there’s the best there has to be a competitor and this is right where Geno’s fits in. However, they keep the competition rolling back and forth as they are just merely across the street from the one another for the last 40 years. Open 24/7 as well!
  • Jim’s Steaks- If you see a long line coming from 4th and South St. there’s a reason, it’s Jim’s time! (When I say long line I mean I can literally go get a haircut and still be waiting in line; true story) Personally I like this restaurant the best for the whole atmosphere that it provides. There are a few different locations but the South St. one is where you’ll find the grand history that is always so nice to catch up on.

What to do: What’s not to do?! There’s a little something for everyone when you come to The City of Brotherly love but I’m going to limit it to three essential experiences:

  • Sport and Concert Stadiums- Most popular to find some great sporting and music events would be venturing out to Citizens Bank Park, Wells Fargo Center, Lincoln Financial Field and Wachovia Spectrum. There’s always something going on at one of these places and whether you’re into baseball, basketball, hockey, football etc. (depending on what season it is) you can easily find a great sporting event. As for catching a concert, if you browse online for events at those stadiums you are sure to find a big-hit in that department.
  • Visiting a Museum- Philadelphia has a long history, as it was one of the very first states in the US, so the amount of facts and historical information that you can find here is truly mind-blowing. A few of my favorites are; The Franklin Institute, Please Touch Museum, National Liberty Museum and The National Constitution Center.

  • Experience the Nightlife- This is where things get interesting and Philly definitely has a vibrant nightlife when it comes to clubs and things to do at night. However, please note stay within the lighted and crowded areas (aka no dark back alleys) because as much as I love this city, crime is kind of an issue in certain areas. But on the brighter side clubs like 32 Degrees, Bleu Martini and Bamboo Lounge will rock your night away with the hottest music and widest selection of drinks to make your stay in Philly definitely one to remember.

City explorer’s tip – See if you knew this about Philadelphia…

  • The Philadelphia Zoo was America’s first. After all it was founded by Mr. Benjamin Franklin himself.
  • Philadelphia was actually America’s capital for 10 years and home to the first presidential mansion.
  • Although cheesesteaks are well-known as Philly food, soft pretzels and TastyKakes (an East Coast sensation).
  •  Hollywood brought to life “Rocky” with the help of The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A day off the beaten path – Head off into the Wilderness- When it’s time to break free of that busy city business and get out to the natural outdoors, don’t think that is impossible in Philadelphia because perhaps something people don’t know about is the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. Here, you can find 1,200 acres of lush outdoor beauty and the largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in PA. Although, that’s quite hard to believe, with all that hectic traffic and the airport noise echoing just a few miles away. A little over 8 miles of hiking trail and you can be making your way around the same ground George Washington and his soldiers had walked on a few centuries back.