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Voodoo is as intrinsic to New Orleans culture as Mardi Gras, jazz and the beignet. Yet many travelers choose to begin and end their exploration of it on Bourbon Street by bellying up to a bar serving Voodoo-themed cocktails or purchasing Voodoo-inspired kitsch (made in China) at a souvenir shop.

Visitors who remain culturally curious, however, are in for a treat. Voodoo, as portrayed by the movies and media (usually a “black magic” cult fixated on curses), couldn’t be further from the truth.

RELATED: Best of New Orleans beyond Bourbon Street

Voodoo is a religion—yes, a religion—connected to nature, spirits and ancestors, not unlike other religions around the world. A fusion of African, Haitian and Catholic spiritual beliefs and practices, it gained popularity among the slave population of New Orleans during the 18th century. It has its share of colorful mythologies and personalities, just as other religions do, but Voodoo got cloaked with a darker, more sinister mystique, the result of misinterpretation and misunderstanding over the years.

This intrigue can be a great doorway to understanding, however, and New Orleans is the perfect place to become educated to the Voodoo legacy. While you’ll be hard-pressed to find modern practitioners inviting tourists to Voodoo ceremonies (most are private, out of respect for the spirits), there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about this fascinating piece of New Orleans culture while having some fun.

Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum
Start here. Located in the French Quarter, the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum is a tiny museum that packs a lot of punch. Its two rooms are jam-packed with artifacts from Africa, Haiti and New Orleans detailing Voodoo history and the symbolism behind its rituals. (Among the coolest items nailed to the museum walls: a zombie whip from Haiti.) The drumming music in the background only adds to the ambience as you meander, reading about the significance of Voodoo altars, Voodoo dolls, Rougarou (alligator man) and New Orleans’ famed Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. You’ll even have the opportunity to leave a wish for her at the Voodoo Wishing Stump, so bring a few dollars in which to wrap a wish you can scribble on paper provided upon entry.

Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Voodoo walking tours
The New Orleans Voodoo Museum, along with Voodoo-specific shops, can hook you up with guides for a walking tour that focuses on Voodoo culture. (Otherwise, its history and legends often get rolled into the city’s numerous ghost-themed walking tours, which don’t exactly illuminate Voodoo beyond its darker stereotypes.) Some local recommendations include Free Tours by Foot,  Haunted History Tours and Island of Algiers Tours—guided by a local character named Nu’Awlons Natescott, who will escort you to Marie Laveau’s tomb and other prominent spots tied to Voodoo culture.

Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

St. Louis Cemetery #1: Marie Laveau’s tomb
Also know as the “City of the Dead,” this cemetery just outside of the French Quarter is where Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau is reportedly buried. She lived during the 19th century, and her spiritual presence (she practiced both Catholicism and Voodoo) and healing powers are so legendary that devotees continue to make a pilgrimage to her resting place. Tourists come in droves, too. Today you need an official guide to visit the cemetery, which has a controlled entry. (Things apparently got out of hand in recent years, with visitors leaving heaps of offerings in the form of trinkets, food and money—and the homeless stealing it.) You’ll still find small offerings in front of her tomb, even though it’s not allowed, and the “XXX” markings on it, which is a centuries-old practice of “knocking” on the tomb with a wish. Interesting to note: A tiny plaque on her reported tomb reads, “the reported burial place of the notorious voodoo queen” of the “mystic cult” of Voodoo. Language like that certainly doesn’t help legitimize Voodoo as a religion, nor Laveau as a respected spiritual leader.

Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

St. Louis Cemetery #1: Nicolas Cage’s tomb
The massive white pyramid in the center of this historic cemetery holds no body … yet. It’s the future final resting place of actor Nicolas Cage, someone with an affinity for New Orleans and its Voodoo culture. (He flew a prominent Voodoo priestess to Hawaii to officiate his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley in 2002.) A bizarre tradition has arisen where people are now leaving lipstick kisses, in all shades of red, on his flamboyant tomb. What would inspire someone to press their lips against a tomb of an undead Hollywood celebrity is beyond us. Intense gratitude for the film “Moonstruck,” perhaps?


Congo Square | Flickr CC: Jason Reidy

Congo Square
This public square in the Tremé neighborhood is where enslaved Africans gathered to drum, dance, sing and trade on Sunday afternoons during the 19th century. Congo Square was a place reserved for the free expression of African culture and customs— including Voodoo—with as many as 500 or 600 people gathering at a time. Drum circles and spiritual ceremonies are still held here today.

Voodoo shops and consultations
Alas, nearly every French Quarter souvenir shop sells Voodoo-inspired trinkets—right next to the shot glasses, Mardi Gras beads and  profanity-laced T-shirts. For truly unique mementos handmade by the Voodoo community, head to shops that specifically honor the culture, and are often owned and operated by practitioners. One of these is the well-organized Voodoo Authentica: Cultural Center & Collection, where you can find walls lined with locally-made voodoo dolls, potions, medicinal herbs and gris-gris (mojo) bags designed to attract qualities such as love, healing and good fortune. There are also onsite Tarot card readers and psychics who will provide spiritual consultations for a fee. Island of Salvation Botanica also offers all of the above, as well as the opportunity to schedule 1:1 consultations with its owner, Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman, a renowned modern-day Voodoo leader who’s been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CNN.

Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Voodoo Spiritual Temple
A humble yellow house just north of the French Quarter, the Voodoo Spiritual Temple is where the truly curious can come to receive private consultations and blessings from a prominent member of New Orleans’ Voodoo community, Priestess Miriam Chamani. She is one of the few who works with the general public to educate and guide—and was also the one to marry Nicolas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley. Contact her in advance to schedule an appointment.

inn on st ann

Photo courtesy of the Inn on St. Ann

Inn on St. Ann
At the Inn on St. Ann, guests have the option to book the “Marie Laveau Annex,” a Creole cottage once owned by the legendary Voodoo practitioner. She attracted rich and poor, black and white, with her spiritual consultations and healing. Perhaps you’ll find special healing after a good night’s rest here?

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Tagged: New Orleans

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Erica Bray

Erica Bray

Erica is a practical free spirit who loves travel, yoga and ice cream. A Northwestern University-trained journalist with more than 15 years of experience straddling digital and broadcast media, Erica can be found doing handstands everywhere she travels -- even risking arrest in some cases. Learn about her at

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