The list of “must-do” activities for visitors to New Orleans can be quite extensive depending on the length of your stay, your interests, where you’re staying in the city, and all litany of other factors. However, exploring the city’s cemeteries usually appears on most lists. Often hailed as “Cities of the Dead,” there are about a half-dozen well-known cemeteries throughout the city worth visiting. And there are a lot of ways to explore the cemeteries through walking tours. I opted to go on a tour with Two Chicks Walking Tours, which operates small-group tours throughout the city.
While I easily determined what tour company I wanted to use, it was more difficult deciding which tour to take. Two Chicks offer four different tours of cemeteries with two focused on Lafayette Cemetery #1 and two focused on St. Louis Cemetery #1. I opted the Dead Sexy Tour because it included St. Louis Cemetery #1 and Storyville, the city’s red-light district during the late-1800s and early-1900s.
THE MEETING SPOT
Instead of starting the tour at the cemetery, the tour meets at Backatown Coffee Parlour (301 Basin St.), which is half a block from the cemetery. The coffee shop is quite spacious with a variety of baked goods, so if you need to fuel up before the tour this is a great place to spend some time.
If visiting St. Louis Cemetery #1 is high on your must-do list, the only way you can visit the cemetery is with a license tour guide. Due to damage over the years, the New Orleans Archdiocese has restricted access to the cemetery since 2015.
Volunteers at the gate carefully check-in the entire group, so there is no opportunity to “sneak in” with another group if you have not paid to be part of a tour. In fact, as my group entered the cemetery there were about four people with wristbands from another tour group who attempted to enter the cemetery without their tour guide present, but were denied admission.
HISTORY, MYTHS, AND TOMBS
If you’re a history buff, you’ll love the tour because you learn not only about the tombs, graves, and the people buried in the cemetery but also about the development of New Orleans over time. My tour guide Karen took the group into the cemetery, and succinctly detailed the history of the architecture of the graves we would see.
So my tour started with learning about the typical step grave and the famous weeping angel.
The tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1 lasts about an hour, but can sometimes be longer because it is a popular destination and is being used by many tour groups. So there is not always a set route through the cemetery, but visitors are assured of seeing all the notable graves and tombs.
There are multiple tombs created by benevolent societies, but the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb is one of the most famous because of its appearance in the film “Easy Rider.” In the scene, Wyatt (played by Peter Fonda) suffered a bad trip from ingesting LSD, and climbs onto the statue and talks to it.
Another notable movie film is one constructed by Nicolas Cage.
Cage’s tomb is controversial for a variety of reasons. He purchased the plots to build his tomb in 2010, although he does not have familial ties to the city. Additionally, the pyramid shape does not blend in with the surrounding tombs.
The most famous grave is of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, who also has two “faux Laveau” tombs in the cemetery.
There is a lot known and unknown about Marie Laveau, which makes her such a compelling figure in the city’s history. Laveau worked as a hair dresser, so typically people leave hair ties as a memento at her tomb. However, it is not confirmed whether her remains lay in the Glapion family tomb or not, which perpetuates the mythical nature of her life.
THE RED-LIGHT DISTRICT
In the 1890s, the area north of St. Louis Cemetery #1 developed into the city’s red-light district. It was established by municipal code to regulate prostitution and drugs. However, many of these buildings associated with the district known as Storyville were torn down in the 1930s to be replaced by public housing projects. Although Storyville was created to regulate prostitution, there were many famous brothels elsewhere in the city. So it was here that we delved into the unsavory history of New Orleans.
We learned about Norma Wallace, whose legacy has been preserved in the book The Last Madam. In 1964, Wallace sold her last brothel (located at 1026 Conti Street), which has been converted into apartments. The building was also home to E.J. Bellocq, who photographed the women of Storyville in the early-1900s.
The tour concludes in the French Quarter where visitors can experience a drink in another famed brothel, May Baily’s Place.
May Baily operated a bordello on the fringe of Storyville, and legend has it paid the mayor of New Orleans an untold sum of money to keep police officers from raiding her house. The mayor had not expected such a large sum, and issued Baily an operating license, which essentially made her brothel a legal business entity. The cottage has been relocated from its original location, and now sits next to the Dauphine Orleans Hotel and serves as the hotel’s bar.
Over the two-hour tour, I learned a lot about New Orleans history and got to hear some great stories about the city and its people. The physical demand was quite low because the tour proceeds at a very leisurely pace. However, it is New Orleans, so it can be hot and humid during spring and summer months, so visitors should bring water to stay hydrated during the tour.
There is a lot to like about the tour, but the emphasis on a small-group setting separates it from other tours. I saw a lot of tour groups wandering through St. Louis Cemetery #1 that had twenty or more people, and many guides had to wait before talking to the group about a grave or tomb. Sometimes people on the tour weren’t sure where to go because they had lost sight of the tour guide, too. With Two Chicks Walking Tours, I was always among the people on the tour and could see my tour guide the entire time. It was also great that Karen regularly asked the group if we had questions, which allowed us all to engage in the tour as active participants.
Disclosure: My tour fee was provided by Two Chicks Walking Tours. Be assured that all words and opinions contained here, are 100% my own.