Like uttering “Beyonce” or “Elvis,” you need only say, “Jazzfest,” to legions of long-term fans, and they’ll know what you mean. The annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, first held in Congo Square in 1970, now draws close to a half million attendees over the course of seven days in late April and early May. Hear every music genre from jazz and gospel, to r&b and rock from the multiple stages throughout the Fair Grounds.
But the festival is more than all those great sounds. While music certainly takes center stage, the festival’s culinary offerings are a close second, followed by, in no particular order, spectacular people watching, the after fest shows around town and back to food. People come just to get their mitts on fest favorites such as mango freeze, cochon de lait po-boy and Crawfish Monica, just to name a few. Held on the Fair Grounds Race Course where Gentilly meets Bayou St. John, Jazz Fest is an annual tradition for a legion of locals and fans from all over the world.
Hundreds of food options are available at the food booths that fill the Fair Grounds, so Jazz Fest regulars know to arrive hungry. There is always an abundance of Cajun, Creole and other New Orleans traditional staples, as well as other dishes, desserts and drinks with international inspiration. Some favorites include Crawfish Monica, crawfish bread, crab cakes, fish tacos, crawfish enchiladas, roast beef po-boys and so much more.
There are two cooking stages at the Fair Grounds Grandstand demonstrating the rich culinary history of New Orleans, and offering samples of signature dishes featuring local ingredients from famous chefs, farmers, fishermen and home cooks. Of course, there is also an oyster bar.
Arts and Crafts and More
Musicians aren’t the only form of live entertainment at Jazz Fest. There are professional craft showcases, cultural marketplace demonstrations and the Mardi Gras Indians on parade. Be sure to keep an eye out for their colorful handmade suites and feathered headdresses.
The art and crafts for sale at Jazzfest showcase the works of hundreds of local and nationally known artists. Festival-goers can visit three main marketplaces throughout the event space to get a taste of art inspired from cultures across the globe. All the booths are staffed by the people who create the work, and they are happy to share their stories.
At the Congo Square and African Marketplace there is a combination of both ancient and modern art and crafts from around the African Diaspora. These pieces are full of the culture and soul that have shaped New Orleans today. They include jewelry, paintings, musical instruments, photographs, clothing, purses and more.
The Louisiana Marketplace displays traditional and contemporary local works, including woven baskets, jewelry, wall hangings, pottery, musical instruments and photographs. Among the Blues and Gospel tents in Heritage Square, you’ll find Contemporary Crafts, a nationally recognized showcase of intriguing handcrafted pieces like clothing, accessories, pottery, jewelry, books, ornaments, sculptures and more.
If you’re looking for even more cultural immersion, check out the Louisiana Folklife Village and the Native American Village, celebrating the state’s rich heritage with songs, dancing, crafts, and exhibits for all to enjoy.
How to Get There
The Fair Grounds Race Course is at 1731 Gentilly Boulevard, just minutes from downtown and the French Quarter.
The immediate area around the site is barricaded and off-limits to most vehicular traffic. There are many parking lots nearby, but they do fill up early. Bus service on the Esplanade route brings festival-goers within walking distance of the festival gates, as does shuttle bus service from various park-and-ride lots and other convenient pick-up points around the city. There are also taxi stands outside of the major entrances to the festival, but the wait at the end of the day can be very long.
Biking is a popular way to get to the festival. There are a number of bike paths that lead to the Fair Grounds, as well as bike parking.
For a scenic route to the festival you can take the Canal Street streetcar line from downtown New Orleans. From there the festival is about a half-mile walk down Esplanade Avenue. Follow the crowd and you can’t miss it. Riders can also buy multiple-ride Jazzy Passes in advance, rather than paying for the fare when boarding streetcars and buses to keep things moving.
Reduced-price tickets are available through about January, and slightly reduced-price tickets can be purchased up to the day before the first day of the festival. Tickets are on sale at the gate. Children’s tickets are only available at the gate for kids ages 2-10 (must be accompanied by an adult).
You can also purchase a variety of VIP packages for special access to a hospitality lounge, parking and upfront viewing.
For many regulars, the night club shows are as good as a day at the Fair Grounds. Most of the musicians in town for the fest have their favorite clubs to play in after the festival ends for the night. Music clubs throughout the city offer performance after performance, starting as soon as the Fair Grounds empties and going until sunrise in some cases. Some shows don’t even begun until 1 or 2 a.m., so make sure you check the club listings.
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