YOU COULD SAY THAT THERE ARE TWO NEW ORLEANS – the city during Mardi Gras and the city before and after. Some people think Mardi Gras is year-round in New Orleans, and if you don’t leave Bourbon Street and its adjacent streets in the French Quarter it might seem like that’s true. And it’s probably worthwhile to experience New Orleans during Mardi Gras at least once in your lifetime. Maybe one day I’ll get around to that.
This list doesn’t become irrelevant when parade season in New Orleans begins roughly after New Year’s, kicks into high gear in the middle of January and finishes at the end of February. You can do almost everything at that time of the year, but you will have to do some of it while contending with teeming crowds in party mode, whose objectives might be very different from yours.
There are two major streetcar routes in New Orleans – St. Charles and Canal – and both of them run along major parade routes that will make getting places difficult, so the best time to play transit tourist in the city is when Mardi Gras isn’t on. St. Charles – the green line – is one of only two streetcar lines on the National Register of Historic Places, alongside San Francisco’s cable cars. It is the oldest continuously operating streetcar route in the world, and began running as the New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad in 1833.
St. Charles was the only streetcar in the city still in operation by the early ’60s – the famous streetcar route named Desire, which ran through the French Quarter, had been replaced by buses by the time the movie version of the Tennessee Williams play that made it iconic premiered in 1951. Streetcars began running on a short riverfront line in 1988 and returned to Canal – the red line – in 2004. The best way to experience New Orleans is on foot, but the second best by a very narrow margin is by streetcar.
The St. Charles line starts on Canal and runs through part of the Central Business District before it begins its long journey up the tree-lined median in the middle of St. Charles Avenue, which runs through the centre of the picturesque Garden District. With the aid of a good map, you can choose a few stops to get off the streetcar and take short walking tours of the neighbourhood.
One good spot is St. Charles and Washington Street, which will give you a chance to see Garden District landmarks like Col. Short’s Villa, gaze through the gates of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, one of the city’s oldest and most photographed (closed to the public for the moment, like a few of the New Orleans’ oldest cemeteries), and sit down for a meal at Commander’s Palace, open since 1893 and one of the city’s bastions of traditional fine dining.
The St. Charles line goes through the Garden District past the universities (Tulane and Loyola) and up to Audubon Park and the Mississippi River levee. You can get pretty near anywhere you want to go in the city on the streetcars, and it’s worth mentioning that fares are cheap – just $1.25 for a one-way trip and $3 for a 24-hour Jazzy Pass. A bargain price to pay for the experience of watching the city roll by your window while you relax on a polished wood and brass bench.
Not long after you get on the St. Charles streetcar at Carondelet and Canal you’ll pass by Lee Circle and its cluster of museums, such as Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Contemporary Arts Center. The biggest of all, though is the National World War II Museum on Andrew Higgins Boulevard, which opened in 2000 as the D-Day Museum to commemorate the role the city played in the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944, which couldn’t have happened without the Higgins Boat – the landing craft that ferried soldiers to the beaches and was built in New Orleans by Higgins Industries, one of which is displayed in the museum lobby, beneath a Spitfire fighter and a C-47 Skytrain.
The museum was founded by two University of New Orleans professors, Gordon H. Mueller and Stephen Ambrose, the latter the author of the book that formed the basis for the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. As the museum expanded its mission it grew into a campus of buildings on Higgins Boulevard between Camp and Magazine Streets, with a theatre and exhibits describing the European and Pacific campaigns as well as the home front, with artifacts ranging from weapons and uniforms to vehicles and artillery pieces. In the Boeing Center of the Freedom Pavilion a collection of airplanes ranging from a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk to a B-17 bomber hang from the ceiling, with a series of catwalks to allow for closer inspection (and photos.)
The French Quarter is home to several museums, including two small ones devoted to telling particular stories of the city. The Historic New Orleans Collection is built around a cluster of heritage buildings on either side of Royal Street not far from St. Louis Cathedral. The museum and research centre began life as the private home of Gen. L. Kemper Williams and his wife Leila, who bought two historic homes at Royal and Toulouse Streets in 1938 and began a collection of artifacts that would, along with the homes, become the basis for the founding of the HNOC in 1966.
The restored homes and their courtyards contain galleries that showcase contemporary artists as well as exhibitions on aspects of the city’s cultural history; when I visited one set of rooms featured the work of artist John Clemmer, a pillar of the arts scene in the Quarter for seven decades and a major player in the city’s bohemian circles during the midcentury modern period. It’s a great city museum that has the bonus of offering free admission.
Another great small museum in the French Quarter is the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, which has turned the premises of Louis J. Dufilho Jr., the city’s first licensed pharmacist, into a two-storey museum devoted to the history of the trade. The first floor is the shop, full of shelves crowded with the tools of the trade – jars loaded with the raw ingredients of medicines, the tools required to measure and dispense them, in addition to an impressive collection of patent medicines. The second floor converts the living quarters of the proprietor into further museum space detailing optometry, prescription record keeping, the home sickroom and other aspects of health care at the dawn of modern medical science.
At the end of one of the branches of the Canal streetcar line is City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The museum opened in 1911, twenty years after the establishment of the park itself, which is twice the size of Central Park in NYC and home to countless facilities including a carousel and a miniature train, golf courses, hiking trails, a botanical garden, stables and not one but two sculpture gardens.
The sculpture gardens are adjacent to the museum and the botanical gardens, along paths and walkways around and over water features, and feature work by artists such as Robert Indiana, Frank Gehry, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenberg, Henry Moore, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Audrey Flack, August Rodin, George Segal, George Rodrigue, Barbara Hepworth, August Rodin, Robert Longo, Rene Magritte and many more. New Orleans’ weather makes visiting the sculpture gardens a worthwhile year-round experience, on par with the exhibits inside the NOMA building.
The southern section of the park features a forest of live oaks, including one of the original two that marked the dueling grounds that predate the park itself. Wildlife includes alligators – the park isn’t far from Bayou St. John, and has a gator safety policy – and the park hosts a fantastic selection of bird life, including ducks and geese, pelicans, parakeets, vultures, kites, bald eagles, egrets, herons and white ibis. There are likely to be several weddings happening in the park on any given weekend, and the old casino is now the home of a branch of the famous Cafe du Monde.
Louis Armstrong Park is another, much smaller New Orleans park, just on the edge of the French Quarter across Rampart Street in the Tremé neighbourhood. Devoted to the musical history of New Orleans, the park is landscaped to mimic natural features of the city like the abundance of bridges and water, and includes the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, sculptural tributes to Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Buddy Bolden, and the original site of Congo Square, a gathering place for slaves and free blacks in the city’s early history. It was the original venue for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and now hosts the Treme Creole Gumbo Fest and the Louisiana Cajun and Zydeco Festival; it’s also a quiet retreat from the sometimes raucous Quarter and a great place for an impromptu picnic with your takeout.
For craft beer fans New Orleans has a thriving scene, which includes Port Orleans Brewing near the Garden District, Parleaux Beer Lab in Bywater, Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter, Second Line Brewing near City Park and Brieux Carré, a little craft brewery in Faubourg Marigny just by the French Market. Started by a group of friends from Tulane University nearly five years ago, it features a frequently rotating menu of beers, no “signature brew” by choice, and at least one sour – which was music to my sour-loving ears. Try a flight to enjoy their range and take a growler home with you.
The best way to start the day in New Orleans is still a cafe au lait and beignet – the local square donut, delivered under a mound of powdered sugar. I alternated between Cafe Beignet and Cafe du Monde, the latter of which made their chicory-laced coffee and pastry famous all over the world. There’s always a lineup at the Cafe du Monde in the French Market across from Jackson Square unless you’re there at sunrise, but the location in City Park is much more relaxed.
Besides music, New Orleans is famous for its food, and while Hurricane Ida temporarily closed Central Grocery for repairs and deprived me of their famous muffuletta sandwich, I was able to try one of Killer PoBoys‘ fusion-inspired po ‘boys – a shrimp sandwich with a healthy Vietnamese banh mi influence. A late night walk through the Quarter led me to The Gumbo Shop for their specialty – I chose the shrimp, thickened with okra – which can be enjoyed in the courtyard or in their high-ceilinged dining room looking on to St. Peter Street. Finally, a visit to New Orleans demands a pilgrimage to the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, where the afternoon crowd meant no seat at the revolving bar, but I did get to enjoy my sazerac – the signature cocktail of the city, a kind of baroque old-fashioned made with rye, cognac, absinthe, sugar, bitters and lemon peel – at a table looking out on to Royal Street.
(To go behind the scenes and see more photos from this trip go here.)
Photos and story © 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved
Thanks to Visit New Orleans for their assistance.