New Orleans, or “NoLa” as the locals call it, is the home of the musical parade, voodoo, and gumbo. The city is also the birthplace of jazz. In 1970, the metropolis started the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival ― a 10-day dedication to its historic, culturally enriched heritage and love for music.
Built near the banks of the Mississippi River, New Orleans has been the busiest U.S. port since the 1700s. It was founded by the French, ruled for 40 years by the Spanish, and bought by the U.S. in 1803, as a part of the Louisiana Purchase.
New Orleans is known for its distinctive Creole culture and vibrant history. In the last century the city has faced poverty, racial strife, and natural disasters ― most recently the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina. Despite these problems, tourism in the city has bounced back and remains strong.
On your birthday, it’s a custom in New Orleans to pin money on your shirt, while Bouncing around the city. People will approach you and pin a dollar ― or however much they choose ― to your shirt. It’s a great way to make friends and pay for your bar tab. If you enjoy libations, you’ll find that bar hopping is one of the most festive things to do at Jazzfest New Orleans.
I met James Lee Brooks on Frenchmen Street and bought a piece of his artwork I couldn’t live without. As the night wore on, I danced my way down Frenchmen street, in and out of jazz bars. The next morning I realized that I must have left my new painting at one of the bars. Remembering I had James’ business card, I sent him a message. Somehow, my new artist friend tracked down the lost art and returned it to me the following day.
Jazzfest is the battle of bands vs. the battle of your stomach. I spent my time hopping from the gospel tent and the blues tent to see acts like Trombone Shorty, to visiting the main stage for a set by Pearl Jam.
I heard the aural sweetness of acapella in the jazz tent, and discovered a new auditory treat. The Natural 7, whose talent blew my mind, with riveting moments of a man using his vocal cords to emulate a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. The band covered everything from Beyoncé to Coldplay, with a few of their own songs thrown in.
The headliners were impressive in both range and genre. Some of the masters of their craft who graced the New Orleans stage were Stevie Wonder, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Snoop Dogg, Beck, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, FloRida, J.Cole, Galactic, Arlo Guthrie, Gov’t Mule, Gary Clark Jr, and many more. If you love popular music, checking out major acts on the main stage is definitely one of the best things to do at Jazzfest New Orleans.
There are food tents that offer local cuisine, such as crawfish soup, gumbo, po’ boys, creole crab dip, and fried green tomatoes. There are also important selections to make for quenching your thirst. Choose between sweet tea and lemonade stands, a frozen daiquiri stand, and a beer stand.
The quickest beverage services you’ll find are guys randomly selling beer out of their coolers. If you run into one, make a purchase. It’s cheaper and there’s no line! But make sure to stock up on cash; this is a paper festival, and the ATM line is as long as the beer line.
Also, keep in mind that you may want to buy some of the local crafts, as the level of work that goes into the pieces sold at Jazzfest is quite high. If you love artisanal work, shopping for pieces from artisans is also one of the great things to do at Jazzfest New Orleans.
The festival starts at 11 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. each day. Unlike other festivals, where leaving the grounds quickly turns into a nightmare of being herded into crowded shuttle buses, Jazzfest New Orleans puts some local flare into the departure.
After the last act, you walk through a neighborhood where everyone joins you for giant, moving street party. People sit on their porches, watching you walk by, while drinking or selling you lemonade or beer. Entrepreneurial designers sell tee shirts and crafts, and you can catch bands on random street corners, playing with a trombone and a couple of horns.
I have never had such a great time leaving a festival before. I bought a beer to mosey down the street with, and joined in the parade that was marching beside me, until I found an incredible street band ― all of this on my 15-minute walk to Pal’s, a bar near the festival grounds that’s famous for its Ginger-ritas.
A single-day advanced ticket is $65 online and $75 at the gate for weekends one and two. Be advised: If you purchase at the gate, you’ll wait long lines in steamy conditions. I bought a general admission ticket and had a great experience without feeling like I missed out. I was too busy bouncing from one great act to another to worry about luxury. However, if you’re looking for luxury, there are a few different variations of VIP treatment.
The Big Chief Experience is the most luxurious. With a price tag of $1,200 for three days or $1,400 for four days, you can experience the festival with easy in-and-out access, private viewing areas of the stages, access to a cash bar with complimentary refreshments, and tickets for restrooms, parking, and shuttle rides.
The Grand Marshal VIP experience is for festival junkies who want to be in the front and middle of each stage to get a closeup of their favorite performers. You also have access to your own hospitality tent. Three days is $975, four days is $1,125.
The Krewe of Jazz Fest VIP ticket gives you access to a private viewing stand, beverage concessions, and more posh toilets (at the main stage only). This ticket will set you back $600 for 3 days and $700 for 4 days.
There are tons of memorable things to do at Jazzfest New Orleans ― and they are even more memorable when you’re perfectly dressed for the occasion. Check out our Jazzfest packing list to choose apparel and accessories that are perfect for the weather and festivities of Jazzfest New Orleans. Shop today!
Want to dive into New Orleans for the first time but don’t know what to do? Here is the best first timers guide to New Orleans.
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