For 46 years, New Orleanians of all ethnicities have gathered on the banks of Bayou St. John to pretend like they’re Greek for a weekend, with Hellenic dancing, traditional music and all the delicious treats your feta-filled heart could desire.
But how did it come to be that such a lively, authentic Greek festival found a home in New Orleans?
Well, while we talk about our ties to places like France and Spain, and can taste and hear our links to Africa, most of us aren’t aware of our unique connections to Greece!
For example, did you know that when the daughter of Michael Dracos — the first recorded Greek to live in New Orleans — married another recent Greek arrival to the city in 1799, it was the first known marriage of two people of Greek origin in North America!
And the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church isn’t just a beautiful house of worship that overlooks the festival. When its predecessor was founded 155 years ago in the Sixth Ward, it was the very first Eastern Orthodox church in the Western Hemisphere. Right here in New Orleans!
No wonder our city’s Greek community shows so much pride putting this festival together. And — in this 46th iteration — there’s so much to see, do and eat.
Things kick off in earnest tonight, and — whether you’re popping in for a couple of hours or for the entire weekend — here are our Top 5 absolute musts!
Go on a Free Cathedral Tour
After you just learned those amazing New Orleans-centric Greek facts, how can you not want to get inside that big, beautiful church?!
Tours begin at the cathedral side entrance, and take place tonight (Friday) at 7 and 8 p.m., Saturday at noon, 2, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at noon and 5 p.m.
The tour is conducted by the congregation’s priest, Father George Wilson, and will include Holy Trinity chanter, Dimitri Golfos. You’ll view cathedral artifacts and you’ll learn about the first Greeks to come to New Orleans in the 1760s, as well as the community’s faith and history.
Plus, with sweltering Memorial Day heat, who wouldn’t be thrilled to get inside for a little bit?
Take a Canoe on the Bayou
Canoe & Trail Adventures will be at the fest all weekend, renting canoes and kayaks for $20 per hour per boat. The kayaks fit two people, and the canoes — depending on if you’ve got small kiddos — can fit two to four people.
You can go out on the water as soon as the fest opens, but rentals end around sunset so don’t wait too long.
Getting on the calm bayou gives you a different vantage point from which to experience the fest and listen to its music, but Bayou St. John is also just a lot of fun to explore. For example, head down to Demourelles Island and what used to be called the Devil’s Elbow to see an incredible collection of Mid-Century Modern homes.
Keep the Kids Entertained
Nothing can derail a festival excursion faster than bored children. Fortunately, Greek Fest has you covered with the Athenian Playground!
A 24-foot high climbing wall — called Mount Olympus, obviously — has four degrees of difficulty that can provide safe, supervised fun for the whole family.
Kids can test their strength with Hercules’ Hammer, as well as get their faces painted or create their own piece of artwork at the Kid Crafts area. There’s also an inflatable bouncer for the 2- to 5-year-olds so nobody is left out of the fun!
Get Your Dance On
Ask New Orleanians with a few Greek Fests under their belt what their favorite part is, and more than a few will mention the dancing! “Every dance has its own history,” explains Mathoula Bilalis, instructor for the featured Hellenic Dancers.
Even if you’ve never heard of the hasapiko, the zonaradikos or the syrtos, you’ll most likely recognize the open semicircle in which most of the dances are performed. “We want the non-Greeks at the festival to receive an authentic Greek experience,” Bilalis said, “so we spend a lot of time practicing the dances, and we bring in a real Greek band to play the music.”
The Hellenic Dancers perform several times each day, both inside the Hellenic Cultural Center (another chance to beat the heat) and outside near the live music stage. You can check out their full schedule here.
Then, when the scheduled performances are finished for the evening — and even sometimes between performances during the day — you’ll see the dancers, as well as festivalgoers, creating that circle to dance to whatever band is on stage.
It’s truly unique and something you’re unlikely to see in New Orleans at any time of the year. So take a sip of your wine, and then get up there and join them! “Everyone’s welcome,” Bilalis insisted. “If you don’t know how to do a dance, just look for the people who kind of know what they’re doing and we’ll be so happy to teach you!”
Sample the Food and Drink
There are food and drink stands set up outside, and big meals and pastries offered inside. There’s even a Greek grocery for you to purchase olives, dips and much more to enjoy another day.
Bilalis says that members of the community get together for months in advance, preparing for all the food items — particularly the desserts — they will need to make. “I’ve been to Greek festivals across the country,” she said. “You will never find another pastry line like ours. It’s incredible and it’s a lot of hard work!”
With so many amazing food items, what do you choose? For me, it’s the moussaka, a delicious eggplant and meat layered dish, served with a rich bechamel cheese sauce. (My mouth just started to water typing those words.)
Bilalis insists the baklava sundae is the way to go, though. It consists of covering the traditional Greek pastry with soft-serve vanilla ice cream and cinnamon, nuts and a cherry.
But, seriously, stop being a dummy and just get both. It’s a festival after all!
After, there are plenty of beverages to help wash your meal down and — while I am partial to the daiquiri stand — this year I’m most excited to try the brand new Mastiha Bar.
Mastiha is a unique liqueur flavored with resin from trees that only grow on the Greek island of Chios, and — for the first time at Greek Fest — we’ll be able to try it over ice, straight up or as part of a refreshing cocktail! “Stin yei mas!”
That’s just the tip of this Greek iceberg, and if you hang around, you’re sure to discover tons more to enjoy. But if you knock off these five items, we feel confident you’ll have a memorable Memorial Day time at this year’s 46th Annual New Orleans Greek Fest!