My trip to New Orleans in 2011 introduced me to US nightlife and flavoursome Louisiana cooking as I celebrated Independence Day, NOLA style.
New Orleans is as vibrant and cosmopolitan as the brochures suggest, and the locals certainly know how to throw a party.
Independence Day weekend is a big deal in the United States, and nowhere is that more apparent than New Orleans. As a tourist from the UK, I couldn't wait to sample a city known as the Big Easy, the Crescent City, or "NOLA" to the locals.
When I arrived, the famous Bourbon Street was heaving with revellers. Mardi-Gras face masks, beads, and a cocktail sold exclusively in New Orleans, "The Hand Grenade," were a must.
Food was high on the list of priorities, and New Orleans certainly didn't disappoint on the culinary front.
We settled on Bubba Gump Shrimp, the restaurant inspired by the classic Tom Hanks film Forrest Gump. It is located on Decatur Street, which is a seven-minute walk from central Bourbon Street.
Nice and full and looking to join the party-goers, we headed for Tropical Isle on New Orleans Avenue, a small bar with live music and the home of the Hand Grenade, which is priced at a hefty $15 (£9.90).
The cost sounds steep, but this isn't a drink to be taken lightly; served in a yard glass comprising four different spirits, it's meant to be sipped and savoured rather than downed.
We made some new friends who directed us towards Pat O's piano bar in the French Quarter, a beautiful courtyard that leads to the piano room with live music and another alcoholic speciality, The Hurricane.
The bar is free to enter, with drinks ranging from $5–8.50 (£3.30–5.60). When you've been seated, a waitress will take your order, and you pay a tab at the end of the evening, which is easy to forget after a few Hurricanes.
The 4th July was the following day and was very different; there were still people in the bars of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter but it was much more subdued than the previous night.
Families and couples made up the majority of the nightlife, and like us, headed down to the banks of the Mississippi to mingle, watch live music, and take in the spectacular fireworks display.
After the display, more food at the quirky Margaritaville restaurant, owned by singer-songwriter, Jimmy Buffet (now closed). The food was, of course, delicious and served in big portions—an excellent value for money. A huge, sloppy cheeseburger with fries set me back $10.00 (£6.60) a side of Gumbo $4.99 (£3.30), and a pink lemonade $2.99 (£1.95).
Karaoke followed at The Cats Meow on Bourbon, a 10-minute walk from Margaritaville via Dumaine Street and just around the corner from Pat O's Courtyard.
After murdering Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" with some Puerto Rican students we'd met the night before, it was time to head back to the hotel.
NOLA can be somewhat of a rabbit warren at night, as beautiful as the Moorish Revival-style buildings are, they do look very, very similar.
The 45-minute search for the Holiday Inn that was actually just over five minutes from our initial location wasn't ideal but didn't put a dent in what had been a great weekend and the chance to experience one of the highlights of the U.S social calendar.
*All locations and prices correct as of 2011.
© 2017 Ryan Benjamin
Ryan from Louisiana, USA on June 29, 2017:
Being from Louisiana, I have made several trips to the Big Easy. Sometimes during the fourth and other major holidays. I will advise this now, New Orleans has definitely become a more violent city over the years so my best advice is to travel in groups. Otherwise, you hit NOLA pretty much on the spot. Such a unique city and delicious food. I suggest café du mon for some authentic beignets and coffee. Napoleon house for an awesome spinach and artichoke dip in a bread bowl and central market for the original muffaletta