Jazz Fest in New Orleans: How to have a perfect day

An insider's guide to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

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Jazz Fest is the last weekend of April and first weekend of May. While you can still hear jazz, today’s Jazz Fest is more about New Orleans spirit than a specific music style.

Dealing with crowds

Jazz Fest has 10 music stages, two of which draw the largest crowds. Unless you’re desperate to hear a certain act, head to a less populated stage. You can pass headliners on the way and catch a few songs from the back of the crowd.

If you really dislike crowds, attend on Thursday, which is considered “locals day.” The acts aren’t as famous but they’re just as awesome.

Visit food and drink stands early, and revisit them during bigger shows for the shortest lines.

What to bring to Jazz Fest in New Orleans

Jazz Fest allows visitors to bring sealed bottles of water. Locals outside the venue sell ice cold bottled water, but don’t open them until you pass through the bag check. Or bring an empty refillable bottle.

Bring plenty of sunscreen and reapply often. You can buy it inside Jazz Fest but you will pay a premium.

Prepare for either heat and sun — or heat and rain. Choose cool, comfortable clothes with pockets and sensible shoes. Grab a poncho and a few plastic bags for cell phones in case of rain.

At the gates pick up a free Offbeat Magazine. Inside is a handy pull out schedule. You can also buy programs inside which have food booth coupons.

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How to get to Jazz Fest

Be careful when parking; police ticket and tow. Locals sell spaces on their empty lots or driveways. Sometimes the property belongs to them; sometimes not. Do not move articles reserving spaces on the street. Whoever set that up lives there and will return. It’s not worth it.

Gray Line Tours operates the Jazz Fest Express. For $20 it shuttles you to and from the gates from three different spots: the Sheraton Hotel, Steamboat Natchez, and City Park.

Consider biking. Blue Bikes are available for rent around New Orleans. Bicycle parking is right outside the entrance. Bring your own lock.

City buses and streetcars stop within four blocks of the festival. New Orleans RTA has details.

Getting tickets to Jazz Fest

Buy tickets ahead of time to avoid lines. People resell tickets outside, but there is some scamming of attendees. That said you could get a deal when someone’s friend couldn’t make it.

Set up camp

Choose a stage central to what you want to see. Lay down a blanket and/or tarp and set up a few chairs. Leave space for people to pass between spots.

If you set up near the front of a bigger stage, it may be hard to return to your space. Crowds rise up around it. Being in the back third of the field is fine.

Roam around after claiming your territory. In 40 years of attending Jazz Fest I’ve never seen chairs, blankets, water bottles, or sunscreen stolen. Don’t leave other valuables though.

New Orleans Jazz Fest
Photo by David Martin

Food, glorious food

More than 50 food booths can feel overwhelming. Since many dishes are only found at festivals or through caterers, this may be your only chance to sample some of the treats.

Crawfish bread is a perennial favorite. Thick dough surrounding cheese and meat is served wrapped in foil making it extremely portable.

Crawfish Monica is a top seller. This creamy sauce served over pasta and studded with crawfish is not sold in any restaurants.

The Roman Candy Man’s cart is just inside the gates. Sticks of taffy, in three flavors, are an old New Orleans favorite.

Plum St Snoballs serves up more than 20 flavors of finely shaved ice.

Thirsty? Try the rosemint iced tea, only available during Jazz Fest.

If music be the food of love, play on

Jazz Fest has ten music stages, four of which are in tents.

The Acura and Gentilly Stages house the biggest stars and crowds. Large screens make it easy to see the stage from the back.

Congo Square hosts African and African American music. Closed-in by craft vendors, crowds fluctuate depending on who is playing. Here too are video screens and plenty of grass.

Fais Do Do is the Cajun term for a dance party. For Cajun and zydeco music head to The Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do Do Stage.

The Jazz and Heritage Stage is home to brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians.

Lagniappe (LAN-YAP) is Cajun for “a little something extra.” Located in a courtyard within the Grandstand, The Lagniappe stage has a potpourri of sounds and styles.

Tents offer plenty of chairs and shade, but no place to spread a blanket. Each has its own unique musical style.

The Jazz Tent hosts contemporary jazz while Economy Hall has traditional jazz — when you’re looking for the jazz in Jazz Fest.

New Orleans inspired great, early Blues musicians, represented in the Blues tent.

The Gospel Tent hosts choirs whose voices soar straight from the heart.

What’s a vacation without souvenirs?

For something fancier than T shirts, the HawAhYa booth has button down shirts and dresses in new styles every year.

Shop early before items sell out, especially posters which usually appreciate in value. Most vendors hold purchases until you leave or ship items. If not, the Post Office has an outpost inside the Fest.

Browse three craft areas. Artists audition annually to show work here.

When to leave Jazz Fest

I couldn’t include everything here; there’s too much. Jazz Fest, however, ends at 7 p.m. As crowds exit, traffic stops and patience runs thin. There are two options to avoid this. Depart between 6 and 6:30 p.m. Or stay to the bitter end and enjoy refreshments residents sell from their porches. I’ve enjoyed some of the best (and cheapest) brisket of my life from those guys. It’s also another great way to get to know New Orleans.

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