Visiting New Orleans can be somewhat daunting, because there are so many things to do, places to see, restaurants to try, and music to hear. I am only able to visit New Orleans one week out of each year, and thus try to cram as much as possible into that narrow window of opportunity. We try to plan ahead, while still leaving plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity. I’ve found that if I don’t make plans I just end up wandering around, randomly shopping, drinking & eating at no particular place, and soaking up the city without actually experiencing, tasting, hearing, seeing or learning anything specific or new about this fantastic, historic and fascinating place. There is a lot more to do in New Orleans than wander aimlessly around the 13 by 6 block street grid that physically defines the Vieux Carré . . . but you’ve got to do some research to know where to go.
My suggestion is that you plan your trip, book a place to stay (well in advance) and start by doing some research on places you might like to eat. Split up the potential restaurants into breakfast, lunch & dinner options during the duration of your stay – and select 2 or 3 restaurants per day. If you don’t do that, you might end up eating at the same place several times – which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, you might also opt for a quick bite at a familiar fast food restaurant rather than trying to decide on one of many local options – and that would be a shame.
It is also a good idea to plan out at least 2 or 3 activities per day – sites to visit, things to see, places to take pictures, learn history, listen to live music, etc . . . which is the very reason I’m writing this particular article. I spend hours researching for my trip each year, and didn’t want to keep all this information to myself. I’ve also discovered that not every destination is actually worth visiting . . . so, I’ve left those off the list.
First word of advice – pace yourself. Planning out every minute of your day will suck the life, leisure and pleasure out of your time in New Orleans. Planning time to chill, relax, read, write, paint, draw, drink, reflect, talk or nap is just as important in New Orleans as planning to attend places of historic or cultural interest . . . especially during the hotter months of the year. This also applies when it is freezing – I’ve experienced that a couple of times too, and finding places to warm up was of equal importance.
New Orleans is a historian’s dream. There is so much cultural, literary, political, sociological, ethnic, religious, and musical history here that you can spend years researching each area of interest. The city wears its history on its sleeve, hangs it over its balconies, serves it up on plates both fancy & plain, plays it in the clubs, and dances to it in the street – which is why it is also a dream location for photographers, architects, chefs, foodies, musicians, dancers, writers, and artist of all kinds.
The buildings and architecture of New Orleans are a living reflection of the city’s rich multicultural history. You will find a few remaining examples of Spanish & French colonial architecture such as the oldest remaining example – Madame John’s Legacy house built in 1726 (most of the original buildings in the French Quarter was destroyed during the Great New Orleans Fires of 1788 & 1794).
There is the picturesque beauty of Jackson Square, featuring the grandeur of one of the oldest cathedrals in the US – St. Louis Cathedral – flanked by the baroque Cabildo and Presbytere buildings as well as the Pontalba Buildings – Parisian-style row houses built in the 1840’s.
Creole cottages built between 1790-1850 are scattered throughout the French Quarter and surrounding areas. American townhouses and Double Gallery houses built from 1820-1850 can be found throughout the Central Business District, Uptown, and Lower Garden District.
Creole townhouses, with their balconies and beautiful courtyards are among the most iconic pieces of architecture found throughout the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. Most of these were built after the Great New Orleans Fire (1788) with consistent construction up until the Civil War (1861).
The most predominant type of domestic residence throughout greater New Orleans is the shotgun house – a narrow building usually no more than 12 feet wide, with doors at each end. This style was developed in New Orleans (some say based on a Haitian design), and being much cheaper and easier to build that a townhouse, they spread quickly after the Civil War.
Taking the St. Charles Avenue streetcar from Canal Street to Uptown is a wonderful way to explore what has been called “The Jewel of America’s Grand Avenues” – it’s a ride back in time with a prime view of exquisite 19th century mansions, lovely gardens, and contemporary New Orleans life outside of the tourist district.
You can also take a leisurely stroll through the Garden District to gaze upon exquisite examples of quintessential New Orleans architecture: white columns, the scroll work of a cast iron fence, lovely gardens, and romantic “Romeo and Juliet style” galleries.
One of my favorite things to do in the French Quarter is to stroll down Royal Street amidst the beautifully preserved buildings, balcony flora, popping in and out of the antique, art & boutique shops, listening to the sound of street performers and looking towards the Central Business District with its modern skyscrapers – it seems to encompass 200 years of history at a single glance. I enjoy traversing this lovely street from Esplanade all the way down to Canal – and then back again via Chartres Street, where there are equally lovely buildings and shops leading straight into Jackson Square and continuing on beyond.
You can spend the better part of your day hanging around Jackson Square. There is quite a lot to do and see, from the Cathedral to the Cabildo and Presbytere, to the 1850 house and Le Petit Theatre, to a few of my favorite restaurants (such as Muriels, Stanleys & Café Du Monde), to the fairly consistent stream of street musicians, street performers, living statues, fortune tellers & card readers, painters & sketch artists, to the horse & carriage tours lined up along the Decatur Street side of the Square.
You can also cross over Decatur St. and take a stroll in Woldenberg Park along the mighty Mississippi River. For 200 years this was one of the world’s busiest river ports, filled with miles of flood-walls, warehouses and industrial docks for sailors & merchants around the world to import & export goods, as well as dock their ships while heading into the Vieux Carré for any and every form of entertainment. In 1984 the rambling, rotting docks were replaced by bricked walkways, lush landscaping, benches, public art, and a couple of parking stations for steamboats and dinner cruises.
Every street in the French Quarter has its charms – but Royal & Chartres are the prettiest, and have the best shops . . . according to my wife. Just a note on shops in the French Quarter – if they sell a lot of beads, and it isn’t Carnival Season (Jan. 6th through whatever date Fat Tuesday falls upon), you might do well to shop elsewhere. There are many tacky tourist traps and shops up and down Bourbon & Decatur Streets – but Royal & Chartres are primarily pure class (just be careful with your pennies and don’t fall for scams) The rest of the French Quarter grid is primarily residential – but feel free to explore, walk around, take pictures, and visit the small bars & restaurants scattered about . . . you just won’t find many shops.
There are several Guided & Self-Guided Walking Tours available for seeing the buildings and sites of the French Quarter . . . there is the New Orleans Original Cocktail Tour (where you walk, talk and drink), the New Orleans Food Walking Tour (where you walk, talk and eat) or Free Tours By Foot (or Pay What You Can) with local guides sharing their knowledge and passion, and quite a plethora of tour companies wanting to take your money, and provide entertainment, without a lot of factual information. New Orleans is chock full of stories & legends – and they are so interesting they do not really need to be embellished. So, make sure the tour company offers passionate, historically knowledgeable guides that are not just there to entertain (unless you don’t mind actors telling tall tales).
There are also quite a few Ghost & Vampire Tours – more than a few actually – and there was a time when they offered fascinating historical information blended with local legend and personal encounters . . . however, now many of the ghost tours follow the same exaggerated narratives. I’ve been on quite a few, and they may be entertaining – but the actual history is much more interesting than the phantasmagoric monologues they emote.
If you are REALLY interested in learning about the darker history, bizarre legends, twisted deeds and ghost stories that echo through the streets of New Orleans – and I actually am, a bit obsessed by it actually – then there several good books on the subject which you can read & compare (they differ in their various accounts): Strange True Stories of Louisiana (published in 1888) by George W. Cable; The Ghost Hunters Guide to New Orleans by Jeff Dwyer; New Orleans Ghost by Victor C. Klein; The Haunted History of New Orleans by James Caskey; Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans by Jeanne Delavigne; and Madame Lalaurie, Mistress of the Haunted House by Carolyn Morrow Long. If you read these books, you will be able to provide a much better “ghost tour” than most currently offer – in fact, I give a pretty darn good one myself. You bring me to town with you and I’ll happily take you on one!
The best aspect of New Orleans is its rich music history. You can find the foundation and connection to every other popular music style in the world today. There are several tours that focus specifically on this area such as the New Orleans Music Tour. Photo journalist, author and jazz history aficionado John McCusker offers an excellent Cradle of Jazz Tour by special appointment. We recently took his tour, and it was wonderful. He drove us around town to the houses and/or vacant lots formally lived in by the founding fathers of jazz – Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, King Joe Oliver, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet & the general vicinity of Louis Armstrong’s early life.
We also went to the holy ground of Rampart & Perdido to see the only buildings left standing from the original day of jazz evolution – and that John has been valiantly trying to save from those that would rather tear them down and build condos. If you care about the foundations of American music, I highly suggest this tour. John knows more than you do … And yes, more than I do.
Jazz History and the anthropology of American music is one my area of greatest passion, and I would love to design a personalized jazz history tour just for you – FOR FREE . . . you just have to bring me to New Orleans with you! Are you starting to see a pattern emerge here? 🙂
My favorite way to see things around the French Quarter is a Self-Guided Walking Tours – because I like to take my time, and not be annoyed. There are free maps Provided by Frommers, as well as an excellent one Provided by the New Orleans CVB. You can NOT adequately tour the French Quarter by car or bus, so don’t even think about it. The closest thing available to non-walking are Segway Tours (quite expensive however) and Bicycle Tours.
Here are my favorite places of interest in the French Quarter which I include in my yearly walking tour:
Basin Street Station – A good place to start your trip. Formerly the New Orleans Terminal Company, serving as the transportation hub of the city of New Orleans . . . it now contains a visitor information center, educational community exhibit, performance venues, a walking tour kiosk, coffee shop, gift shop, and oh – free parking! You can ask questions, pick up brochures and plan your day.
Congo Square / Louis Armstrong Park – Congo Square is one of the most Sacred Spaces in America as far as I’m concerned. It is the place where American music was born – where slaves in the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries were permitted to gather on Sundays to play music & dance. This was the melting pot that blended African rhythms with sacred songs, work songs, blues & folk songs . . . thus serving as the foundation for the Jazz Continuum which grew to influence & continually change musical styles all over the world. This space is now enclosed by a large fence, and located inside a beautiful park (that can be a bit sketchy at times) – but it is definitely worth visiting in the light of day. It’s hard to miss due to the large gateway entrance honoring the name “Armstrong” leading into grassy knolls, paths, lagoons, a statue of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, and other works of art.
U.S. Customs House – One of the oldest and most important federal buildings in the southern United States, the massive granite Egyptian & Greek Revival building began construction in 1848 and was built over a period of 33 years.
The French Market – An open-air market featuring local venders, shops, food, drink, music and local tradition that is uniquely New Orleans. Stretching from Café du Monde to the flea market at the end of Esplanade Avenue, the French Market includes five blocks of local produce, specialty art, handmade crafts, retail shopping and more.
The Historic New Orleans Collection – Museum, gallery, and 7 restored treasures of New Orleans architecture brought together in one location.
The 1850 House – Located in the Lower Pontalba building in Jackson Square and accurately furnished to reveal what New Orleans life was like in the mid 19th century . . . considered to be the oldest apartment houses in the United States.
The Beauregard-Keyes House –
Built in 1826, occupied by General Beauregard after the Civil War, and the winter residence of Frances Parkinson Keyes for 25 years as she wrote many of her books. Beautiful home, rich history, fascinating stories.
The Gallier House – Built in 1857 and featuring the most accurate and comprehensive historic restoration of one of New Orleans’ loveliest homes.
The LaLaurie House – The infamously haunted mansion on Royal Street where unspeakable deeds were done by Dr. Louis Lalaurie and his notorious wife, Delphine in the “Golden Age” of the 1830s. The tour guides all stop here and all have their own dramatic (and mostly false) version of what happened inside. For the actual factual story there is an excellent book by Carolyn Morrow Long called “Madame Lalaurie, Mistress of the Haunted House“.
The Ursuline Convent – The oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley, and the oldest surviving example of the French colonial period in the United States, built between 1748 and 1752. (BTW, Vampire stories abound – but none of them are actually true I’m sorry to say.)
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop – The oldest bar in America and one of the few cool places on Bourbon Street. Built around 1722 and supposedly owned by the notorious Pirate Jean Lafitte. This is also one of the best places to get a hurricane made with actual fruit juice rather than sweet kool-aid mix.
The Old US Mint – Built in 1835 by Andrew Jackson to help finance development of the nation’s western frontier, and the only building to have served as both a US and Confederate Mint. It currently houses the New Orleans Jazz exhibit featuring instruments played by significant jazz musicians, sheet music, and memorabilia chronicling the history of Jazz from its humble beginnings on the streets of New Orleans to a display of current performers. There are other exhibits including pottery, watercolors, metalwork, bookbinding, maps, and photographs, as well as rotating historic exhibits (we once saw Napoleon’s hat and death mask there).
The Cabildo – Built between 1795 and 1799, the Cabildo served as the seat of government in New Orleans during the Spanish colonial period, and remains one of the most historically significant buildings in America. In one of the rooms the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803. Following the Civil War, the Cabildo was the home of the Louisiana Supreme Court until 1910 and served as the site of the “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. It currently contains more than 1,000 artifacts and original works of art, all of which tell the story of Louisiana and its unique place in American history.
The Presbytere (Louisiana State Museum) – A fascinating museum offering two extremely informative permanent exhibits. The first floor features “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” telling of the rescue, rebuilding and renewal of New Orleans. It chronicles and explains the causes for one of the worst disasters in American history, which left 80 percent of the city flooded and hundreds dead. It is enlightening, horrifying and hopeful all at the same time. The Second Floor exhibit is “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” which offers a window into what Mardi Gras is all about – The History, Masking, Parades, Balls and the Courir du Mardi Gras. This yearly festival is inextricably woven into Louisiana’s way of life, with roots extending deep into the Middle Ages. There are floats, costumes & throws on display as well as a look into the secretive social club society from which modern-day Mardi Gras krewes evolved. If you’d also like to see the actual floats and costumes currently used or being built for the upcoming Mardi Gras season, take a tour of Mardi Gras World at the foot of Henderson Street in the CBD.
The William Faulkner House – A yellow four-story house on Pirate Alley where literary tourists come to visit the current bookstore (Faulkner House Books), and soak in the ambiance of where William Faulkner lived in his early years before becoming a famous writer. I visit each year, and then spend an hour or two directly next door reading and/or writing at the Pirates Alley Cafe and Absinthe House. This is one of my favorite locations to chill.
Napoleon House – My other favorite location to chill. A lovely historically drenched restaurant & bar built in 1797. It was occupied from 1812-15 by Mayor Nicholas Girod, who offered his residence to Napoleon in 1821 as a refuge during his exile. It’s been a restaurant & bar since the end of Prohibition, and carries centuries within its walls.
Pat O’Briens Bar, Piano Bar & Courtyard Restaurant – One of the cool places off Bourbon Street to chill – particularly the courtyard with it’s flaming fountain. The drinks are expensive and particularly sweet – but its a lovely location that has been partying non-stop since the 1930s. This is de-facto home of the hurricane.
Preservation Hall – A small iconic hall dedicated to the preservation of New Orleans Traditional Jazz, offering live music nightly played by the best Trad Jazz artists in the world. If you would like to learn more, and hear a two hour anthology & history of the music produced by this organization – I researched, produced & hosted a free podcast that you can stream right here: The Preservation Hall Jazz Band Showcase
The Cornstalk Fence House – A lovely 1850’s Victorian Hotel with a historic / legend of how its unique cornstalk fence was built for a man’s wife who was homesick for Iowa’s corn fields. I’ve never stayed there . . . but one can dream.
Tennessee Williams Residences – The famous playwright Tennessee Williams lived in two different locations in the French Quarter. He lived in the upstairs apartment at 722 Toulouse Street early in his career, and lived upstairs at 632 St. Peter St. when he wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire”. There isn’t really anything to see – but I have to visit each year just to yell “Stella!”. There is also a Tennessee Williams exhibit in the visitors lobby of the Gallier house that you can visit for free.
I would also like to give a little shout out to a few of our favorite shops in the French Quarter. I only have a few actually, because I’m not a big shopper – but I dearly love The Louisiana Music Factory, and spend as much time in there searching and listening to local CDs as my wife allows. I also love the Librairie Book Shop on Chartres, and could easily spend hours in there perusing the books from new to old (mostly old) relating to New Orleans history, culture, music and ghosts. I don’t really shop much for clothes – but I do shop for hats . . . only in New Orleans. Each year I buy at least one new hat to add to my signature look at Meyer the Hatter, where third generation hat man Sam Meyer carries on his 120-year-old family tradition at one of America’s finest haberdasheries.
My wife’s favorite stores are Trashy Diva and California Drawstrings for unique, retro, cute and comfortable clothes – both of which are on Royal Street. This street also offers the best window displays in the city, particularly at Fleur de Paris, as well as the best shops to get quality tourist items and collectables. Another place we both enjoy is Santa’s Quarters on Decatur St., where we buy most of our New Orleans themed Christmas & Mardi Gras decorations. There is even a place my poodle loves called Chiwawa Gaga just off Decatur . . . sort of a Trashy Diva for dogs.
THE RIVER ROAD
If you would like to take a little drive outside of the city and venture out onto Louisiana’s Mississippi River Road there are plenty of pristine Plantations to be seen. This corridor stretches approximately 70 miles in length along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This area has the South’s most famous and recognizable group of plantation houses, most built by wealthy slave-owning sugar-cane planters in the late 18th / early 19th Centuries.
Each year we pick one plantation to visit, and have had very enlightening, entertaining and educational tours at The Houmas House, Laura Creole Plantation, Nottoway Plantation, Destrehan Plantation, Oak Alley, San Francisco Plantation, Evergreen Plantation, Whitney Plantation, and The Myrtles Plantation. I can’t really pick a favorite because each experience was unique, and I learned different things at each location about the history, culture, lifestyle and economics of the Antebellum Period of Louisiana. However, I will say that Oak Alley has the prettiest and most iconic driveway leading up to the mansion. This is the closest thing you will get to a time machine in America, and most of these locations also feel like a very authentic movie set . . . because most of them have been used in recent years for that very purpose.
If you want a bit of antebellum history, but don’t care to venture that far outside of New Orleans . . . just travel 5 miles outside the city to St. Bernard’s, where you will find the Rene Beauregard House built in 1830, and the Cavoroc House built in 1839 (currently owned by Domino Sugar). Spanish colonists settled this area in 1778, and you will find historic attractions such as the Los Islenos Museum and Village consisting of houses built as early as 1790, and a museum housed in a Creole cottage constructed in 1840. There is also the Old Arabi Historic District (named one of America’s prettiest painted places), as well as the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park – the site of the Battle of New Orleans, the last battle of the War of 1812 . . . which was fought on January 8, 1815 between the United States and Great Britain.
It’s quite beautiful and you will learn a surprising amount of American history you probably don’t know that well.
NEW ORLEANS CEMETERIES
New Orleans is one of the only cities where graveyards are a prime family tourist attraction. This is due to the fact that they are different from other cemeteries found throughout America – they each have a history of their own, with unique monuments & tombstones. They are all beautifully gothic, peaceful, and creepy . . . and they include quite a lot of tombs of famous dead people.
There are several Cemetery Tours on offer – but make sure to search for Trip Advisor reviews on each company before booking a tour, because they vary in quality, education and entertainment. You can also visit them on your own during public visiting hours (which vary from place to place). Most of the graveyards have brochures, advertising and websites of their own – another thing you’ll only find in New Orleans.
The oldest and most famous Cemetery is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which is only open Monday through Saturday from 9 am – 3 pm. It is right outside the French Quarter and was established in 1789. Once inside the gates you will find a maze of old tombs and crumbling bricks, best navigated by a tour guide to tell you what exactly you are looking at . . . as well as how the design of the cemetery and tombs came to be. It is all quite fascinating. The voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried here – probably – although there are several other sites where people claim she may be buried as well. A voodoo “wishing spell” has led many to draw X’s on her tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb, and yell out their wish. If the wish is granted, they return to the tomb, circle their X, and leave Laveau an offering . . . thus, there are bizarre bits and pieces scattered around the stone. This graveyard is also known from the acid-dropping scene in the iconic 1960’s biker film “Easy Rider“.
The Lafeyette Cemetery in the Garden District is one of the most picturesque Cemeteries, serving as a muse for several of Anne Rice‘s books about vampires and witches. It has also been used in films and television shows of similar subject matter.
The most unusual cemetery in New Orleans is St. Roch Cemetery, primarily due to a Gothic Revival chapel littered with prosthetics, hand-written notes, coins, crutches, and various offerings left to the dead in recognition of answered prayers.
There are many other cemeteries scattered around the city, and all them are of historic interest and quite picturesque . . . just don’t try to break into any of them after dark. Lestat wouldn’t like that.
THE GARDEN DISTRICT
Walking through the Garden District with its mansions, gardens and southern charm will make you feel like you are in a completely different city than the French Quarter. Actually, it was originally established as a separate city and built a century later.
Why are they so different? Because the French Quarter was founded in 1718 as a French colony, and designed in a grid of seventy squares – it was transferred in 1762 to Spain, and run as a Spanish Colony . . . until it was transferred to the United States in 1803 by the Louisiana Purchase. So, the city that was essentially European with strong French & Spanish roots suddenly became part of the English speaking, British influenced USA. The Americans that moved there didn’t really like that.
So, the Garden District was planned & established as a settlement for the new American residents of New Orleans that did not want to mingle with those of European descent. Americans that had grown wealthy in the south via cotton, sugar and shipping commissioned the leading architects of the time to create classic homes in Italianate, Greek Revival and Victorian styles, and built their mansions on large plots allowing for the cultivation of magnificent gardens.
Most of these homes are still in pristine condition, and many have been renovated & upgraded since Katrina – so it’s a wonderful, safe area to take a walking tour. Frommers has a Self-Guided Walking Tour Map, and there is also a Self-Guided tour map on BigBoyTravel.com, as well as a map offered courtesy of Commanders Palace Restaurant. If you’d like a local guide, there are ready and willing at Free Tours on Foot.
WAREHOUSE & ARTS DISTRICT
Adjacent to the Downtown area is the Warehouse District – it begins at Poydras Street and ends at Calliope at the I-10 overpass, and is known as the city’s Arts District.
This article is getting rather long, isn’t it? So, rather than tell you about each option available for art & culture . . . I will simply rely on the help of the good people at the New Orleans Visitor and Convention Bureau to provide you with a list of available Art Galleries & Art Museums (just click the links – you did realize that all these highlighted words and phrases were links, didn’t you?) I will give a particular shout out to the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art – both of which are exquisite.
However, the BEST place to visit in the Arts District – and one of the best places in the City of New Orleans – is the National WWII Museum. I know you may not have come to New Orleans to learn anything about World War II – but trust me, this place is awesome! Begin with the 4D film experience called “Beyond All Boundaries” that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before – narrated by Tom Hanks and replete with dazzling effects, CGI animation, multi-layered environments and first-person accounts read by Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Gary Sinise, Patricia Clarkson, Wendell Pierce and more. They also offer Live Shows reminiscent of the WWII Stage Door Canteens and USO shows, as well as numerous exhibits featuring the history of the War with pictures, film, artifacts, planes, tanks, trains, etc. covering the full span of the War in both Europe and the South Pacific. We spent several hours there, and still didn’t see it all – it was fairly overwhelming in its size and scope, and we probably could have spent several days in there. So, don’t miss it!
I have been told that walking the six-mile length of Magazine Street is one of the best ways to get to know the “real” New Orleans – however, it’s always been too hot for me to even think about doing that kind of thing when I’m there. Magazine street is a charming Americana Main Street that follows the curve of the Mississippi, on a route a few blocks north of the river. If your focal point is the French Quarter – just head down Decatur Street towards Canal . . . cross over, and there you are. Begin your trek on the busy streets of the CBD (Central Business District), and watch the city change around you as you pass through the Warehouse & Arts District, Garden District, and Touro, all the way up to the idyllic Audubon Park.
Magazine Street features a wide variety of shops and dining venues, coffee shops with free wifi & outdoor tables, restaurants ranging from fine to casual – offering traditional Creole to Vietnamese, Indian, or Columbian, as well as food trucks and everything in between. Of course there are also an assortment of bars and nightclubs offering a wide variety of live music, from trad to indie rock and hip hop. However, it may be best known for its wide assortment of antiques, artwork, boutiques, book stores & curio shops.
I previously mentioned taking the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar Line Uptown, which can be quite a wonderful experience. Along the way, you may wish to get off and visit Audubon Park which opened in 1898 and was the site of the World Cotton Centennial in 1884. It is an idyllic location with beautiful oak trees, lagoons, and expansive green space lined at its border by beautiful mansions . . . a great place for picnics, walking, running, cycling, skating and golfing. This park also includes the Audubon Zoo which includes animals of the African Savanna, elephants, sun bears, exotic birds, a butterfly garden and a rare white tiger. The park is located directly across from Tulane University and Loyola University, which both have beautiful campuses; likewise, the neighborhoods, homes and buildings in the vicinity of this park are stunning.
If you continue up St. Charles Ave pass the Riverbend, it turns into Carrollton Avenue. Since you’ve come this far, you won’t want to miss stopping by Oak Street. It’s a New Orleans style throwback to a 1950’s main street USA with funky cafés, thrift stores, one of the best restaurants in the city – Jacques Imos – which is located directly across from Frenchy’s Art Gallery, and next to The Maple Leaf Bar, “the quintessential New Orleans Music Club” and one of the places where funk was originally born. The Maple Leaf has great live music just about every night – the bands usually start late and I’ve never stayed late enough to see them end. I must admit that my wife is not a big fan because there are no tables & chairs to just sit and listen – so you stand . . . and you dance . . . and it gets awfully funky up in there.
MID-CITY, ESPLANADE RIDGE, AND CITY PARK
Mid-City is the actual heart of New Orleans – where locals come to play, eat, drink, create and listen to live music . . . but it’s not really a tourist destination. However, this is the area where tourists can mingle most with regular local folk.
Esplanade Ridge is somewhat overlooked by the masses – but If you’re heading out towards City Park or the Jazz & Heritage Festival, there is a lovely Walking Tour that features the 19th century “Creole Millionaires Row” including a quiet, meandering stretch along Bayou St. John. This was the Creole society’s equivalent to St. Charles Avenue’s grandeur – featuring large double-galleried houses, charming cottages, and big old trees.
Degas House, on Esplanade Avenue, offers the Edgar Degas House Creole Impressionist Tour which features a documentary on Edgar Degas, along with a tour of Degas House and the surrounding neighborhood. They also offer a Breakfast and Tour. I can vouch for the B&B, the breakfast and the tour – we had one of our most memorable NOLA experiences staying there.
The New Orleans City Park is quite amazing & awesome – I was really surprised the first time I stumbled upon it. After enjoying so many other aspects of New Orleans, this park was the icing on the cake! City Park offers a lot to see and do for the whole family. It includes recreational amenities such as playgrounds, sports fields, walking, biking, running, fishing, boating & golfing – but it’s also got a lot more, bordering on being a family friendly cultural mecca!
For kids there is the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park that’s been delighting kids since 1906; there is the City Putt Mini-golf course for the whole family, the Storyland fairytale theme park for those that wish to find their inner Princess; and a Miniature Train Garden for young and old alike. I hear that they are also building a rather large Water Park.
For those seeking something slightly more adult – or cultural rather – there is the New Orleans Museum of Art, as well as the beautiful & fascinating Sculpture Garden and the glorious serenity of the Botanical Garden.
FAUBOURG MARIGNY / FRENCHMAN STREET
I thought I’d save the best for last – the Marigny is actually my favorite corner of the city, and where I tend to spend most of my time in the evenings. It’s eclectic, bohemian, and bordering on uber hipster at times – but I absolutely love the vibe. It actually feeds my soul and nourishes my creative spirit. After an hour in the Marigny I’m usually ready to write something, learn to play a musical instrument or produce a film. This neighborhood is not so much “outside” the French Quarter, as it is just across Esplanade Avenue. Yeah, cross the street and you’re there.
Bourbon Street has always been known as the place to party in New Orleans, but over the past fifteen years the better alternative for those in-the-know has been Frenchman Street. Sadly, a lot of tourists have discovered this as well – so it is already on its way to facing the same fate as that crowded thoroughfare of debauchery.
Instead of telling you where to go on Frenchman, I will merely suggest that you visit each place. Just hop across Esplanade and go into every establishment, look around, check out what they’re selling, talk to people, have a drink or a bite to eat, and listen to some of the best live music on offer in the city. On any given night you will hear at least 8 live bands or musicians playing styles spanning the Jazz Continuum in clubs & restaurants along this rather hip, compact & funky street.
SWAMPS & BAYOUS
Don’t forget that New Orleans is pretty much surrounded by swamps & bayous. There are quite a few tours you can take to explore the waterways and undeveloped reaches of Louisiana decorated with Spanish moss and lined with gnarled cypress trees. The big attraction is the gators, which are drawn to the boat by tour guides throwing marshmallows (they apparently love those things) to the delight and fear of tourists brandishing cameras and occasional screams. There are a wide variety of touring options depending on how deep into the swamps you want to go, what time of the day – or night – you prefer, and how long you wish to spend. I’ve only gone on one tour, and found it to be surprisingly beautiful, exciting, slightly spooky and peaceful. By the way . . . a walking tour of the swamps is not suggested.
FESTIVALS AND SUCH
New Orleans is the Festival Capital of the World, so there is always a good chance that there is some kind of Festival going on whenever you may choose to visit. The people of New Orleans find any excuse to have a parade, march in a second line, don a costume, or dance in the street. Click on this link for a listing of all the Festivals and when they occur each month.
Depending on your personal taste, I am sure there is a Festival that appeals specifically to you! They’ve got festivals for food, art, music, literature, dance, film, folk traditions, various cultural & religious celebrations, change of seasons, holidays, etc.
I have always wanted to attend Mardi Gras, French Quarter Festival, The Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival, and Christmas in New Orleans . . . but alas, I have never been able to attend any of these due to work and lack of funds. One day however . . . one day . . . well, I can hope and dream at least.
I’m lucky though, because I do get to visit my favorite city one time each year . . . at the beginning of August. Why this particular time? Because it is the hottest time of the year – and thus, the cheapest time to visit. We can actually afford to stay in a 4 star hotel for a 2 star price, because not a lot of tourists are keen to hang out during the heat. However, it just so happens that the BEST FESTIVAL IN NEW ORLEANS also occurs at the same time . . .
The Satchmo SummerFest – a brilliant celebration of Louis Armstrong’s birthday with a focus on his life, music, and continued influence around the world. This fantastic festival offers a fabulous Opening Reception and Keynote Address, educational & entertaining seminars given by some of the foremost jazz historians and experts in the world, 3 days of live New Orleans jazz on two stages, great local food vendors, a sacred Jazz Mass at St. Augustine’s Historic Church in Treme followed by a Second Line down Rampart & Esplanade back to the Old US Mint, which is the festival’s epicenter. It is put on by French Quarter Festivals Inc. who do a brilliant bang up job year after year.
I filmed & produced a video in 2010 showing the full spectrum of the Satchmo Second Line from its beginning at St. Augustine’s to its end at the Mint . . .
I also had the honor of carrying a banner at the front of the Opening Second Line for the 2014 Festival featuring the Roots Of Music . . .
If you come to the Satchmo Second Line this year, I have a strong premonition I’ll be carrying the “Satchmo head on a stick” banner – so come say hi!
So . . . you still reading? Have you clicked on all the links? Done all your research?
Well . . . then you probably have a pretty good idea where to go when you visit New Orleans. Any other questions? Just ask. Seriously. If I don’t know the answer I will look it up or refer you to experts who do.
I would love for you to make comments about any of the places I’ve mentioned, or give mention to any of the places I’ve left out. I know there is a lot of New Orleans I have not yet seen or experienced . . . but I only get to be there one week per year, so I’ve spent about 25 weeks there total in my life. I’d like to come more often – So . . . If you’d like to invite me, or bring me down with you, or provide me with a place to stay – I will be more than happy to be your personal tour guide, and cultural, historical and musical guru. Or, we could just hang out and be friends . . . maybe? Yeah you rite. 🙂
So, come on down to the Big Easy and “Laissez les bons temps rouler”! Tell them The Jazz Evangelist sent you!
J. Scott Fugate, “The Jazz Evangelist” 2015