New Orleans has never really been near the top of my travel list. Imagine my dismay, then, when my industry’s top two professional organizations announced back-to-back annual conferences in New Orleans as their next location. That was the situation I found myself in 2017 for the Association for Commuter Transportation conference, and in 2018 for the American Planning Association conference. “Are you SERIOUS?! Well fine,” I thought. “I’ll find a way to make the most of it.” And I’m sure glad I did.
For the first trek down south, Jessica and unborn Eloise joined me for a few days of touring before the conference began. We got to do a fair amount of exploring and I gained a slight appreciation for this muggy city (although Jessica, pregnant and unable to partake in New Orleans’ two primary assets – seafood and alcohol – might disagree). Then in 2018, I was able to revisit some of my favorite sights and confirmed that New Orleans might not be all that bad. Turns out there’s quite a bit of history, culture, and beauty in the neighborhoods and streets not called Bourbon Street.
THE FRENCH QUARTER – CLASSIC NEW ORLEANS
As with all of my travels, I tried to get a better understanding of how the city and its distinctive culture evolved over time. We sought out the free-to-enjoy Historic New Orleans Collection to help us understand the city’s evolution. A very helpful and enthusiastic guide gave me the “need-to-knows” about New Orleans’ colorful history.
New Orleans was first settled by the French in 1718 with the hopes of controlling trade coming down the Mississippi River. In 1763, France lost the French and Indian War and ceded New Orleans – along with the rest of the Louisiana territory – over to Spain. It then stayed under Spanish control (contributing slyly to the American Revolution) until they secretly transferred the territory to Napoleon’s France in 1803, who subsequently sold to Thomas Jefferson as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Having been a magnet for French and Spanish settlers during the 18th century, the isolated port of New Orleans grew to house a hodge-podge people group identified as “Creoles,” who settled [what is now known as] the French Quarter, the oldest section of New Orleans. The English (and later the Americans) settled the area just to the southwest of the French Quarter, now known as the Central Business District, with the ridiculously wide Canal Street acting as the buffer between settlements.
As a result of Creole influence, the French Quarter boasts architecture and design I’ve yet to see in any other U.S. city. The Quarter’s 78 square blocks consist of densely packed mixed-use buildings of a combined Spanish/Victorian design – most of which have balconies or galleries overhanging the sidewalk. Life spills from these buildings onto the sidewalks, inviting interaction with the shops, restaurants, bars, and galleries located inside. Our favorite street in the Quarter was Royal Street, a street lined with local shops and galleries with eccentric and brightly colored artwork that gave off the unique flair of New Orleans culture, as opposed to the generic party establishments lining Bourbon Street.
St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square are lovely complimentary landmarks within the heart of the French Quarter. The Spanish Colonial-styled cathedral claims to be the oldest cathedral in the U.S., and is one of the 82 U.S. Basilicas. Flanking the cathedral are a pair of museums, each with inexpensive ($6) adult admission to museums that exhibit local interests. We stopped in to the Presbytere, which happened to feature the history of Mardi Gras and the impact of hurricanes on the city (most notably Katrina) during our visit.
Just north of the French Quarter lies Frenchman Street, a soulful strip occupying ~6 linear blocks of local nightlife goodness. I found it to easily be the one “must do” experience while in the Crescent City.
A short walk up and down the street packed with performers and onlookers alike left me gawking at the beautiful chaos that erupts from this mecca of concentrated creativity. Brass bands conflict with soulful blues which blends with the classic rock from stage after stage that line the street. Most of the acts are still local and belt out original tunes, which only adds to the authenticity of the not-yet-commercialized music hub.
During my first trip to Frenchman Street, Jessica and I took a reprieve of the crowded street to survey our next stop from atop the gallery of Dat Dog (a delicious spot for cheap eats, notably featuring a robust selection of hot dogs). We settled on the Spotted Cat to experience the sounds of the Panorama Jazz Band. After their set finished, we ventured over to 30/90 to listen to a smooth-sounding blues quartet. Ready to call it an evening, we couldn’t resist the rambunctious and jazzy sounds of a brass band calling us into Igor’s Checkpoint Charlie, where their raw-sounding trumpets and saxophones breathed a second life into our evening.
Frenchman Street was so enjoyable the first time around that I had to go back during the second trip. This time, our crew enjoyed some classic southern fare at the Praline Connection and we’re then treated to a subsequent street performance from ragtag group of young performers spontaneously busting out classic jazz tunes.
In most pre-automobile American cities, wealthy families would build their mansions well outside the crammed downtowns filled with common-folk. In New Orleans, this congregation of the wealthy occurred in what is now known as the Garden District. Jessica and I chose to take the St. Charles trolley from Canal Street in order to visit the District. While technically a viable means of transportation, we discovered the New Orleans streetcars are much more charming and photogenic than they are comfortable and effective!
Anyway, upon arriving we turned down a side street and immediately began gawking at the magnificent mansions nestled in neat city blocks. No two houses looked the same: We saw colonial, renaissance, Spanish colonial, Italianate, and even gothic styles. This may be reaching a bit, but I think this gumbo-pot of architectural style is an appropriate mirror reflecting the city’s culture… people just do what they please and are generally accepting of others’ lifestyles/preferences, even those who differ drastically from one another.
At the western end of the District lies Lafayette Cemetery #1, one of the most unique and genuinely creepy cemeteries I’ve visited. Why so creepy? The deceased in this cemetery aren’t actually buried – rather, they’re placed in masonry tombs above ground, left to decompose from the oven-like effects of the hot sun warming the tomb’s bricks. It’s not uncommon for entire family are buried within one 4’x8’x6′ tomb! Perhaps most saddening was the tomb holding three siblings who died within 24 hours of each other, depicting the heartbreaking effect of Yellow Fever in the city that occurred throughout much of the 19th century.
Looking for a place to run in New Orleans? St. Charles Avenue, the primary road linking the Garden District to the heart of New Orleans, was also a popular running spot. I found the wide space between the trolley tracks to be a popular runner’s destination. Exploring the side streets of St. Charles Ave (especially to the South) was a great tourist/workout combo.
One of the nation’s oldest and largest urban parks, City Park rolls over 1,300 acres in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood. We took the Canal St. trolley to the park, which has a terminating stop just outside the main entrance. The park is packed with activities, including putt-putt golf, an amusement park, full sized public running track, a 22,000-seat stadium (or ‘mini shoe,’ as I liked to call it), botanical gardens, and an art museum. Jessica and I didn’t have the opportunity to visit any of the major attractions, but we did enjoy the tranquil sites of the lakes, mature oaks (complete with Spanish Moss), and meandering paths through the landscape. We found the park itself was easier to appreciate from a distance as opposed to up close: It wasn’t well maintained but had huge potential if adequate attention could be given to the parks assets.
With the sun quickly setting, we opted for a quick round of putt-putt course, with the stakes of our next vacation left up to the winner. As seen by the scorecard, I credit my Tom Brady-like resilience for coming back from a 5-stroke deficit on the 17th hole to secure decision rights for our next vacation.
🔥 Johnny’s Po Boys is a great “cheap eats” spot we found nestled in the heart of the French Quarter. This place has 30+ options of the New Orleans signature sandwich at an affordable price. Dat Dog was also a great stop, but it’s not exactly classic New Orleans fare.
🔥 A trip to New Orleans isn’t complete without a breakfast beignet. I particularly enjoyed Cafe Beignet’s offering of the breakfast staple (which I admittedly thought was a tamer take of a funnel cake). We stopped in to the one on Dacatur Street, which was equipped with live music and a full-service bar at 9:30am!
🔥 The Avenue Pub sits east of downtown on St. Charles Avenue. I enjoyed the more neighborhood feel of the pub and their robust menu; they had all the Cajun and creole options I could want.
🔥 Lafitte’s Blacksmith claims to be the oldest structure used as a bar in the U.S. It sure felt like it while enjoying a much-needed cold beverage after taking in the hot and sticky French Quarter. There are some great local brews to try, my top two were Parish Brewing CO’s Canebrake and Abita’s The Boot (a Louisiana exclusive).
My experiences in New Orleans taught me there’s much more to appreciate and do in this eclectic city than just party on Bourbon Street. Its inevitable that there will be future professional functions in the Crescent City – and I can honestly say I won’t be completely disappointed to pay another visit.