It just so happens that Fourth of July weekend marks New Orleans' Essence Festival; that annual musical and cultural extravaganza created by Essence Magazine that celebrates all things African American. Held every year since 1994 (except for in 2006, when the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina sent it to Houston), the Essence Fest "party with a purpose" rolls into both the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center with four days of "music, empowerment, community and entertainment."
In other words, days and nights are filled with top music headliners – think Diana Ross, John Legend, Mary J Blige, and Chance the Rapper – hitting the Superdome stage from 6:30 p.m. until midnight. During the day, seminars featuring African-American influencers like film director Ave DuVernay, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and fashion designer Tina Knowles-Lawson (whose daughter Solange will also perform) are scheduled to take place.
How to Get There
If you're coming from out of town, you can fly into New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) on pretty much any airline. Rental cars are easily available at the airport, but given the 24-hour party atmosphere and the expensive parking rates (at least $25 per day), you're probably better off using taxis, Uber or Lyft. Note that Uber and Lyft pick up inside the parking structure at MSY, not on the curb.
If you're driving into town, use Interstate 10 from east or west. When you see the Superdome, you'll know you've arrived! Also, watch for the Vieux Carré exit signs if you're staying in the French Quarter, for that's the traditional name for that historic district. Once you get to your hotel, park your car and leave it for the duration of the festival — walking is by far the best way to get around downtown NOLA. The New Orleans Streetcars are a fun way to travel, too: take the Rampart-St. Charles Yellow Line from the French Quarter to the Poydras stop and walk the last few blocks to the dome. You can even buy a three-day Jazzy Pass for $9 to get unlimited rides.
Where to Stay
The closest hotel to the Superdome is the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which is conveniently located right next door to the venue. That will make for an easy wander back to your bed after each of the three late-night Essence shows end at midnight, but who goes to bed at midnight in NOLA? If you're planning to keep the party going into the wee hours, consider making the French Quarter your home base. For the ultimate in luxury (and a spot where celebs and superstar singers often sleep), go with the award-winning Windsor Court Hotel on Gravier Street, or try the Hotel Monteleone, the classic spot for weary travelers found on Royal Street since 1886. Be sure to have a cocktail at their revolving bar, whether you stay there or not. If a cooler, funky vibe is more your style, make W New Orleans French Quarter home, and if you want to be right in the heart of the beast on Bourbon Street, you need to book into the Royal Sonesta New Orleans. If you opt for the latter, make sure to have a balcony room and buy some beads to throw to the passing tourists below.
What Artists to Catch
Whether you prefer classic singers in your music lineup or up-to-the-minute rap stars, Essence Fest has it all. Three nights of nonstop music is what the fest is all about, beginning with Friday night's Superdome mainstage performance by Motown legend Diana Ross, as well as a set by her daughter, jazz-funk singer Rhonda Ross; singer-songwriter-pianoman John Legend; soul singer India.Arie; and Zulu a capella group Afrika Mamas. Saturday is an all-female night of powerful music led by Mary J Blige, along with Chaka Khan, Jill Scott, Monica, Jazmine Sullivan and Ari Lennox. Sunday's closeout show features two hugely popular local NOLA legends, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, as well as hip-hop rapper Mystikal. That finale also includes Chance the Rapper, Solange, Master P, Silkk The Shocker and more.
Other lesser-known performers can be spotted at the smaller "Superlounges" that are free to any attendees who buy mainstage tickets. Check out the ESSENCE Superlounge, the Hot Right Now Superlounge, the Now Playing Superlounge and the For the Love of R&B Superlounge to see up-and-coming DJ's, rappers, singer-songwriters and more.
What to Pack
Summer in New Orleans means hot, hot, hot (and sometimes wet, wet, wet) days. Prepare to perspire when outside and to need a sweater the moment you walk into any air-conditioned building, where tundra conditions rule. So dress for the heat outside and the cool inside, and remember that Essence Festival is a place where good-looking African-Americans love to strut their stuff. Expect to see the latest in chic, cutting-edge styles worn by both women and men, as well as hair designs that can defy imagination. Remember that it really never gets cool at night, but be sure to pack an umbrella, a rain slicker and shoes that can withstand a heavy downpour. Fortunately, most of Essence Fest is inside the Superdome or the Convention Center, so even in a bad storm, you'll be warm, dry and having the time of your life. When the weather is good, walking is the best way to see the city, so be sure to have some comfortable shoes ready for the times you're not glued to your seat in the Superdome.
What to Eat
For starters, don't eat in the Superdome. Instead, indulge in an early supper at one of New Orleans' incredible restaurants before you go in for the nightly shows. We recommend heading to Lüke, where renowned Chef John Besh dishes up fresh oysters for $0.75, fried oysters for $1.25 and beer, wine and cocktails for half price during happy hour (3 to 6 pm). Drago's Seafood Restaurant in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside is another good choice — think the most amazing charbroiled oysters on the planet. It's hard to go wrong eating in NOLA, and any of Besh's other places are also foolproof (we love Borgne, which is near the dome at the Hyatt Regency, as well as Domenica and Restaurant August). Uptown is home to Mandina's, which is a popular spot for to-die-for trout almandines, and for a late lunch head to the venerable Commander's Palace in the Garden District, where selected martinis are $0.25 with the purchase of any lunch entrée (we recommend the catfish). Note that drinks are limited to only three per person, as you have to be able to walk out of the place on your own two feet at lunchtime's end.
What VIP Gets You
Pony up $3000 for the 3-Day VIP Weekend Package or $1000 for a Single-Day VIP Ticket and you'll be sitting pretty front and center in Row BB, which is so close to the stage you'll practically be able to reach out and touch your favorite star. VIP also means All Access backstage passes at the Superdome, including free cocktails and food, VIP seating at the Empowerment Experience events at the Convention Center, and invitations to official Essence weekend events. The VIP package rounds out with a welcome tote bag, festival T-shirt and a year's subscription to Essence Magazine.
Ready to get in the festival mood? Check out the vibes from Beale Street Music Fest in Memphis!