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New Orleans defies categorization — the city’s identity is rooted in culture and history as well as the landscape and ecology of southern Louisiana. TPG Contributor Amy Beth Wright and her husband Derek Wright recently spent time in the neighborhoods just outside the French Quarter, exploring a unique mix of nature and culture. Read on for her impressions. (All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted).
There’s more to New Orleans than the French Quarter — Bourbon Street, by the way, wasn’t named in honor of the revelry that tends to characterize it, but rather in honor of the royal lineage of King Louis XIV of the House of Bourbon. The French Quarter is a place to consider the city’s origins and to find a measure of abandon — but the depth of culture in this city transcends its downtown hub and permeates the surrounding neighborhoods as well. Here’s where you should go to experience the true spirit of New Orleans.
The St. Charles Streetcar has been running since 1835 and travels southwest from the French Quarter to the Garden District. Composed gardens frame antebellum Greek and Italianate revivals and American center-hall cottages built by newly wealthy Americans between 1832 and 1859. Self-guided tour maps are readily available — Free Tours by Foot runs a two-hour name-your-own-price guided tour through the Garden District that’s worth checking out. The Columns Hotel, built in 1883, hosts a nightly happy hour from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm in the Victorian Lounge and serves as a live music venue.
Magazine Street in the Garden District is home to six miles of cafés, restaurants, galleries, bars and shops. Joey K’s and Ignatius are two local favorite hotspots for New Orleans fare, as is Parasol’s, known for being one of the best places in the city for po’ boys.
Commander’s Palace, built in 1890 by Emile Commander, is just three blocks north of Magazine Street and features delicious, contemporary Haute Creole cuisine. Martinis are $.25 — yes, you read that right — with lunch entrées. Visit their website to make a reservation and for details on the dress code — business attire is required, including jackets, collared shirts and closed-toe shoes for gentlemen.
If you’re up for a quick jaunt across the Mississippi, the Algiers Point/Canal Street ferry offers great vantage points of the downtown skyline from the other side of the river. You can find walking maps of historic Algiers Point, one of the first 19th century settlements, here. Hearing live Jazz, Blues and R&B at the Old Point Bar is a popular local activity, as is walking or cycling along the levee.
Back on the Lower Garden District side of the Mississippi, Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World hosts daytime tours of its Mardi Gras float den, detailing the history of the festivities. Tickets start at $19.95 for adults, $15.95 for seniors over 65 (and students with a valid college ID) and $12.95 for children ages 2-11. Free hotel shuttles are also available if you’re staying downtown or in the French Quarter.
The New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park is an enclave of local and national jazz history — it’s also a performance venue, along with The New Orleans Mint Performing Arts Center. Both are within a 10-minute walk of Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, where up and coming and legendary musicians perpetuate the region’s strong jazz roots.
If you’re a jazz lover, there are plenty of New Orleans jazz clubs to go around. Pay a visit to Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar in the Tremé — Café Negril and Bamboula’s in the Marigny are also popular places. Mimi’s In the Marigny, pictured below, is a fun corner bar located at Royal Street and Franklin Avenue.
Additional dining options include The Franklin Restaurant and Lounge, Silk Road Restaurant, Feelings Café and Fatoush, among others. The Ruby Slipper and The New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery are two of many hospitable cafés in the area. Uptown, Rebirth Brass Band plays weekly at Maple Leaf Bar — arrive early to dine or have drinks at Jacques Imo’s next door while you wait. Nearby, Rock n’ Bowl hosts Cajun, Zydeco, Swing, Americana Roots, Funk and Blues bands.
Tiki torches, patio heaters and winding holiday lights warm the courtyard at Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits, a wine bar and music venue with a Mediterranean menu, pictured below.
Further east of the Marigny is the Bywater neighborhood, which rides a curve in elevation of the Mississippi. Homes here and in the Marigny are Creole cottages with many featuring a long, narrow Shotgun style. Check out the St. Claude Arts District’s neighborhood art walk the second Saturday of each month.
Vaughan’s Lounge, opened in 1959, hosts live jazz and funk; check their Facebook page to see upcoming acts. The St. Roch Chapel, located in the Saint Roch cemetery, contains a room of replicas of human body parts left by supplicants “in thanksgiving for cures attributed to the intervention of St. Roch.” One local described it as “strange and beautiful.”
Lakeshore Drive affords breathtaking views of Lake Pontchartrain and the Causeway Bridge, the longest continuous bridge over a body of water in the world. The nearby Parkway Bakery & Tavern, established in 1911, is also ranked among the best places to find po’ boys in the city.
The flat topography of the wetlands is mirrored in the grassy esplanades of New Orleans City Park, located just north of Mid-City. Within it is the New Orleans Botanical Garden, Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, and the New Orleans Museum of Art — the Besthoff Sculpture Garden is free during museum hours. The Singing Oak, a musical installation by Jim Hart, creates a pentatonic scale with wind chimes on a Live Oak tree.
The Barataria Preserve in Marrero is one of six notable sites within the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Jean Lafitte Swamp & Airboat Tours offers a 90-minute tour through Gulf Coast tidal waters on a 12-foot wide riverboat. Alligators, water moccasins, diamondback and coral snakes, eagles, pelicans, white-tailed deer, cormorant birds, armadillos, red-eared slider turtles, blue heron and snowy egrets, among others creatures, thrive in this protected area. You’ll also see Spanish moss dangling from Silver Maples and Bald Cypress, the state tree.
While you’re in Marrero, grab a bite at Cajun Daquiri & Cafe or Restaurant des Famille. In Lafitte, locals recommended Voleo’s Seafood Restaurant, Bouttes Bayou Restaurant, and Jan’s Restaurant & Sweet Shop.
Where to Stay
We used our IHG Rewards points to stay at the Hotel Indigo New Orleans Garden District, with the St. Charles Streetcar easy to catch just outside of our front door — during this trip, we were also upgraded to an Executive King room at no extra charge. Rates start at about $162 or 40,000 IHG Rewards points per night for a one-night stay in May. You can earn 70,000 IHG Rewards points thanks to a new promotion with the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card after you spend $2,000 within the first three months of opening your account.
A Final Tip
Tours from downtown can be easily arranged, but a one-day car rental would definitely give you more time to linger. A reasonably priced rental can be further offset by rewards points, particularly via in-house rental agency rewards programs. If you have a rental car, consider visiting one of the local bakeries that sell King’s Cake all year long like Haydel’s Bakery and Manny Randazzo King Cakes in Metairie.
What are some of your favorite things to do in New Orleans? Have you ever ventured beyond Bourbon Street? Tell us about it, below.
Featured image courtesy of the author.
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