New Orleans in October promises to be a musical, gastronomical, and cultural experience you won’t soon forget.
But don’t just take her word for it. In any given year, the city boasts more than 130 of them.
That includes everything from the massive New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to the niche fests, including Fête des Fromages–a favorite among cheese lovers—and even festivals for those passionate about fried chicken and pork products.
It won’t surprise anyone that the coronavirus pandemic canceled the city’s slate of 2020 festivals—or at least required them to be adapted for virtual programming—but the hope was that New Orleans would revert to a regular events schedule by this year.
Stubbornly high infection rates that started 2021, however, prompted organizers to postpone the return of their events even further.
At first glance, this sounds like terrible news for festival-goers, as well as a city whose economy relies so heavily on the 18.5 million tourists who visit each year. But, as postponed festivals settle on dates, it’s become clear that this October has the potential to be one of the most magical months in recent New Orleans history.
“Because of the global pandemic,” says Sell, “travelers are going to have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience New Orleans’ most beloved festivals back-to-back!”
A Challenging Year
The past 13 months have been difficult for nearly every corner of the globe. But there’s a case to be made that New Orleans had it particularly hard.
The city was an early hotspot for coronavirus infections, potentially—some experts believe—because of the massive crowds that gathered during Mardi Gras, weeks before the severity of the virus was known.
Within months, the infection rates were brought under control thanks to strict measures put in place by both city and state officials. Those measures, however, were devastating to an economy that relies so heavily on tourism. Small businesses, such as bars and restaurants, had difficulty keeping their doors open and local artists and musicians struggled to pay their bills.
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“Certain factors about our local economy have made the effects of the pandemic particularly harsh,” explained United Way of Southeast Louisiana CEO Michael Williamson, noting that hospitality and tourism employ 72,000 workers in the metro area. That’s12% of the workforce.
There’s a sense in the city now, though, that the worst of the crisis is in the past. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards recently announced that the mask mandate would remain in place, but that bars and restaurants could return to 100% capacity.
“New Orleans is bursting at the seams and ready to make a comeback,” said Marie Roussel, Marketing Manager for the BUKU Music + Art Project. The festival, which features the latest in visual arts, electronic, and hip-hop music moved its 2021 festival from Spring to Fall, joining a crowded slate of October fests.
“Not only is our weather perfect in October,” she said, “but now add in five weeks of music festivals. The good times will be rolling for sure.”
One Incredible Month
French Quarter Festival
The month kicks off with the 37th Annual French Quarter Fest, opening on Thursday, September 30, and continuing through Sunday, October 3. The festival is unique in that it’s totally free and primarily features Louisiana music such as jazz, funk, brass bands, blues, and zydeco.
But it’s not just having hundreds of the state’s most talented musicians in one place that makes the festival a must-see. “Our festival also hosts dozens of the region’s best restaurants,” Sell said. “New Orleans is famous for its food, and you can get some of our best cuisine for $8 a dish.”
For visitors to the city, the most special part of the festival might be that it takes place in one of America’s most historic neighborhoods. More than 20 stages are set up throughout the iconic French Quarter, so attendees can seamlessly transition from the festival to any of the Quarter’s many bars, restaurants, and shops as often as they please.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Better known simply as Jazz Fest, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is without a doubt the region’s biggest event this side of Mardi Gras. In 2019, attendance exceeded 450,000 festival-goers.
The fest attracts some of the biggest acts in the world. Before being canceled, the star-studded 2020 lineup included Lizzo, the Who, Stevie Nicks, Foo Fighters, and hundreds of other world-class musicians set to take the stage. October’s lineup is expected to be just as special–perhaps even more so given the celebratory post-pandemic vibes that are expected.
New Orleanians still talk about Bruce Springsteen’s legendary performance at the Jazz Fest following Hurricane Katrina. It was a sign of hope that the city would return from disaster, and the 2021 fest could produce similarly poignant moments.
As if that’s not enough, the festival grounds are packed with culinary and cultural experiences that will ensure you get the best of New Orleans during your stay.
INSIDER TIPWhile the official schedule has yet to be announced, the Jazz Fest website says it will take place October 8 through 17. If previous years are any indication, the two-weekend festival will feature a full day of performances each Friday through Sunday. But there’s a lot of fun to be had around the city when the Jazz Fest grounds are closed. Some of the best musicians in the world are in town for the festival, and they can often be found popping up in one or more of the city’s historic music venues.
BUKU Music + Art Project
Taking place on October 22 and 23, BUKU bills itself as a “vibrant music and art festival meets underground warehouse party celebrating the progressive subculture of New Orleans.”
The growing festival strives to blur the line between audience and performer, and the large visual art installations will keep you on your toes. Are you viewing art or are you sitting on it? Figuring it out is part of the reason people love BUKU.
“We’ll have the same fire lineup we usually do, but with a boutique capacity to keep things safe,” said Roussel. “And of course there will still be dope art installations, good food, and the high energy that comes with a festival that blends hip-hop [and] electronic music like we do.”
Voodoo Music + Arts Experience
Voodoo Fest is the one event on this list that didn’t have to move in 2021. With the exception of its canceled 2020 iteration, it’s held each year on the weekend leading up to Halloween. Costumes are optional, but if there’s one thing New Orleanians love more than festivals, it’s costumes.
The three-day party takes place this year from Friday, October 29, through Sunday, October 31, and features more than 65 bands on multiple stages in a corner of beautiful City Park. The lineup typically includes a mix of rock, pop, hip hop, and electronic music, and recent headliners have included Guns N’Roses, Post Malone, Beck, Bassnectar, Brandi Carlise, and the National.
In addition to music and costumes, Voodoo attendees can always enjoy a solid food lineup, fun activities, and interactive art installations.
INSIDER TIPNew Orleans is a great place to celebrate Halloween weekend. Holiday-themed parades are common in the French Quarter, and—when the festival closes for the night on Saturday—consider heading to Frenchman Street for a costumed block party you’ll never forget.
These festivals represent some of the first major in-person events taking place in America. While organizers said they’re excited to welcome people back to their festivals, all agree that the health and safety of their attendees is something they’ve thought a lot about.
“We’ve learned so much about best practices in safety and sanitation, and we’re constantly paying attention as new protocols are recommended,” Sell said. “But we’re ready. If someone’s thinking about traveling and is looking for an experience that’s fun and culturally rich, then there’s no better place than New Orleans this October.”