Since 1970, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 24 – May 3) has been bringing music lovers from around the world together to one of America’s most unique cities to celebrate Louisiana’s sights, sounds and tastes for a party like no other. International superstars add spice to the gumbo’s roux, but it’s the indigenous flavors that deliver the zing. You may come to Jazz Fest to see Ryan Adams, John Legend, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, but those sets won’t be the ones you remember most.
What you’ll have etched into your memory long into the future:
-Dancing like a voodoo spirit possessed by the best zydeco band you’ve never heard of.
-Weaving through the crowd as part of a second line following what you’re convinced is the world’s best brass band.
-Wondering how you ever lived a productive life without daily infusions of crawfish pie.
-Fighting back a tear as the day’s last band brings a crowd of revelers from different cultures and backgrounds together, swaying and singing, “When the Saints Go Marching In” to the setting sun.
In these moments, you’ll feel a connection dating back nearly a half century to Duke Ellington playing the first Jazz Fest and appreciate the culture and heritage like never before. And, you’ll understand why hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage every year and vow to do the same.
Here are 7 tips to help you make the most of this year’s event.
1. Venture Beyond the Headliners
Everybody—every hot, sweaty, intoxicated body—wants to see Wilco and The Who and part of the fest’s fun is gleefully wading past the field of chair people and nudging your way through the dancing mass to catch a glimpse of a scorching guitar solo on the Jumbotron.
But, bigger rewards are delivered from smaller stages. Do yourself a favor and break free from the crowd to explore the areas where the festival’s spirit rings most true. With space to dance a Cajun jig at the Fais Do-Do stage and room to revel in the rhythm of the Blues, Jazz and Gospel tents, you’ll discover regional artists like Treme Brass Band, Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. & the Zydeco Twisters and the New Orleans Spiritualettes. You’ll also understand why aficionados park in these spaces all weekend. (The tents also offer a much-needed respite from the midday sun.)
2. Absolutely Do Not Get Behind the Wheel
Photo: Flickr/George Brett
Finding parking for less than $20 anywhere near the New Orleans Fairgrounds would be a Jazz Fest miracle. With a range of other options readily available, you don’t need the hassle and expense. Expansive bike parks located at each gate make it easy to breeze through the city, lock your bike a stone’s throw from the entrance, and saunter in without a care.
Not down with pedaling the Big Easy’s busy thoroughfares? Join another kind of rolling party by reserving tickets in advance for Jazz Fest Express with picks up downtown near the French Quarter and City Park or hop a city bus bound for Mid-City, which drops you a short walk from the fest’s entrance.
Taxis are plentiful, cheap (usually a special event rate of $5 per person) and offer the opportunity to learn more about the city from an expert. Be prepared for a long queue when leaving and remember at Jazz Fest, standing in line is a party, too. C’est la vie.
To soak up the city at its most charming, grab a to-go bloody mary and hop a streetcar to the fest. It may take longer, but you won’t care.
3. Come hungry
The mere mention of the words “festival food” usually conjures images of hotdogs and cotton candy. That’s far from the case at Jazz Fest. Showcasing Cajun and Creole cuisine at a level on par with the city’s finest restaurants, the food pavilion exerts irresistible gravitational pull.
Crawfish in season are mandatory and with these creative vendors, you’ll never get bored. There’s crawfish bread and crawfish pie, crawfish beignets and crawfish strudel to start. For an afternoon snack, branch out with shrimp etouffee, alligator pie, and boudin balls.
4. Linger in Mid-City
Those who hightail it back to the Quarter or Uptown as soon as the festival closes miss out on the city’s most colorful and spontaneous Jazz Fest block parties. Follow the crowds exiting near Sauvage Street to Liuzza’s, a New Orleans’ institution known for throwing the best post-fest neighborhood party. Along the way, you’ll pass residents laughing and singing from front porches, horn sections improvising in the street, and pop-up stands selling ice-cold water and beer . Keep your eyes open for the legendary Sangria Man, a makeshift stand located in the namesake’s driveway, where you pay what you think it’s worth after a free taste of the fruity concoction.
5. Indulge Intelligently
Like with any visit to New Orleans, taking care of yourself is a must. At Jazz Fest, baking in the sun all day, inhaling mounds of rich food, running on little sleep and overindulging in alcohol send many revelers staggering to the medical tents.
Use moderation everywhere except in sunscreen and hydration. As Public Enemy’s Chuck D. said during a killer set at last year’s fest, “Don’t be dumbass with a smartphone.” (Ok, he wasn’t talking about SPF, but you get the message.) Put technology to work by setting a reminder every hour to lather up and drink H2O so you can keep on partying.
Bring a hat, or better yet buy a one-of-a-kind from the Congo Square Marketplace. And for a wonder-working refresher, make tracks to a stand selling delicious rose mint herbal iced tea.
6. Don’t Miss NOLA by Night
Photo: Flickr/Takahiro Kyono
By beautiful design, Jazz Fest revs you up during the day, then sends you out into the city after dark to enjoy the acclaimed restaurants and nightlife. This year, from local favorites Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience at Rock n Bowl and Dr. John at world-famous Tipitina’s to a 2 a.m. set by Honey Island Swamp Band at D.B.A., there are shows to keep you rocking all night and glide you sweetly into the morning light.
Check out the handy “Jazz Fest After Dark” listings at Satchmo and reserve early, the hot shows always sell out.
7. Go for the Double
Going for the double is a high-level move that’s not for the faint of heart. Attending both weekends—traditionally the last weekend in April (Friday and Sunday) and the first weekend in May (Thursday to Sunday) gives you time to settle into the city and the festival’s rhythms and spend the days between exploring the surrounding Delta and recharging for another potent round of celebration.
Jess Simpson is a freelance writer and blogger with a passion for all things travel, art and the outdoors. Just say the word festival and she’s there.