NEW ORLEANS IS a misunderstood place. It’s not easy to peg and therefore is sometimes misrepresented. If one person calls this city languid, someone else may call it lax. For those who want order, New Orleans may feel unruly. And just when a visitor is braced for the lazy ways of a town that knows it doesn’t have to impress anyone, he or she will be amazed at how snappy and friendly it can be.
Like many older cities, New Orleans is a thousand juxtapositions of the appealing and the appalling. The French Quarter might be reproachable if it weren’t for its historic landmarks, beautiful homes and glamorous restaurants, but even those things would lose their panache if you took away naughty Bourbon Street. New Orleans is where one goes to flirt with decadence.
The biggest mistake a visitor can make is to assume that New Orleans is a package deal: neat and clean, with sweeping vistas of moss-hung oak groves and a Disneyesque lineup of all the cliche’ attractions one expects. The treasures are there, but they are scattered throughout the city and must be sought out. In fact, some of the special elements of New Orleans will reveal themselves only when you aren’t trying to find them: a decorative frieze on a stained terra cotta building, a quiet alley, someone playing a lute from a French Quarter balcony. A tour map can be helpful, but rushing around trying to see the right New Orleans will almost guarantee failure. This is a city that doesn’t rush. Doing a few things at a leisurely pace will be infinitely more satisfying than trying to do everything.
THE FRENCH QUARTER
Begin here. The trick is to wander, but with a plan. Start at Jackson Square on Decatur Street, the riverside boundary of the district. It’s considered the heart of the Quarter. Most of the square is occupied by a small, wrought- iron-fenced park with garden paths, a large statue of Andrew Jack-son and pigeons. The backdrop of the square is the stark St. Louis Cathedral, named for Louis IX, patron saint of Louisiana. Shooting off behind the cathedral are the cramped arteries of the Quarter. To the right of the cathedral is the Cabildo, the former seat of the reigning governments (French or Spanish, depending upon the year). Now part of the collection of buildings that constitute the Louisiana State Museum, the Cabildo will house the exhibit The Sun King: Louis the XIV in the New World in conjunction with the World’s Fair. On three sides of the square are large pedestrian alleys that are always filled with portrait artists, jugglers and musicians. It is the most festive spot in New Orleans and a perfect people-watching arena.
Across the street from Jackson Square is the Moon Walk, named after a recent New Orleans mayor, Moon Landrieu. This is the pedestrian access to the riverfront. From the plank walkway with their wooden benches, you can watch the barges, ships and paddle-wheelers go about their weary way. Nearby is the old Jax brewery, a big white box of a building beside the railroad tracks that is now being converted into a specialty shopping facility. Down the river, on the other side of the Moon Walk, is the bustling Café du Monde, famous for its café au lait and beignets-square, holeless donuts smothered in powdered sugar and served piping hot, still three for 60 cents.
As you continue down Decatur, you’ll find a long row of shops, bars, restaurants and a jazz and refreshment plaza on the river side of the street. Some good, inexpensive seafood bars and restaurants can be found on Decatur, as well as antique stores, art deco shops and junk boutiques. The street splits at North Peters Street, and the area inside the remaining pie sliver is called the French Market. A part of town where people have been bringing their products to sell since the early 1700s, the French Market is still a spot where locals congregate not only to buy food for the evening meal but to swap news and gossip. On certain days, the fruit and vegetable stands are joined by a sea of card tables displaying every variety of fleamarket items from rock T-shirts to antique Mardi Gras beads and jewelry. At the end of the French Market, on Barracks Street, is the old U.S. Mint, which houses a small museum and a carnival exhibit. There, in front of the mint, sits an old streetcar-named Desire. Gussied up but with no place to go, Desire doesn’t run anymore, but others just like her do-up and down St. Charles Avenue from Canal Street to beyond Audubon Park. The St. Charles line is the only remaining route in town, but the cars run on schedule and serve New Orleans as bona fide public transportation, just as they have done for more than 100 years.
Stroll down Decatur to Esplanade, the tree-lined avenue that defines the Quarter’s northeast side. From here, take any and all routes back to the Quarter. Chartres (locally pronounced Charters) Street has some interesting shops, many fine examples of French Quarter architecture and usually fewer tourists. One block northwest of Chartres is Royal Street, the district’s second most familiar thoroughfare. In addition to the many striking Creole cottages and New Orleans-style apartment buildings, Royal boasts dozens of antique stores and specialty shops.
One block northwest of Royal is Bourbon Street. Save at least one trip to Bourbon for the evening, when the revelry is in high gear. Several blocks of this infamous avenue are blocked off at night so that gawkers and go-go goers alike can follow their pursuits from a middle-of-the-road vantage point. Bourbon Street is dirty, noisy, crowded, rude- and quite a bit of fun. Taken, that is, in moderate doses and with several grains of Gulf sea salt. In fairness, Bourbon Street is also where you’ll find some of the city’s best bars, restaurants and music-especially jazz, which begins and ends at Preservation Hall. Away from the center stretch of flashing burlesque signs and general hoopla, however, Rue Bourbon (as it says on the signs) is just another quaint Quarter street.
Generally speaking, the south part of the Quarter-toward the intersection of Canal and Decatur streets-is more crowded and has more of the stores, bars and restaurants. The north side-toward Esplanade and Rampart streets-is predominantly residential. Don’t hesitate to peer through the small gates that seal off private alleys from the streets. You’ll see glimpses of umpteen courtyards, each more secret and alluring than the last. You might even be invited inside. And since many restaurants and bars in the Quarter are tucked into courtyards, it’s worth walking in just for a peek. The rule in the Quarter is to explore.
BEYOND THE QUARTER
The stroll of the French Quarter turns into the shuffle and the strut of Canal Street when the two meet, and suddenly New Orleans is a very different place. Canal is the boulevard, enormously wide and lined with palm trees and gas lamps for several dozen blocks. Streetcar tracks run down the middle, although they’re no longer in use. Like New York’s Times Square, Canal Street is wall-to-wall retail stores and high-rises, movie theaters and billboards. And like Times Square, it’s busy and dirty in places, but it’s a sight to be seen. At the end of the boulevard, you’ll find the Mississippi River and the main steamboat docks.
Just up the street from here, you can catch the St. Charles streetcar and begin your trip away from the Quarter, past the central business district toward Uptown and the Garden District, the city’s venerable residential area. As you travel around Lee Circle, a small park dominated by a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, you’ll be heading up the most prestigious address in town: St. Charles Avenue. St. Charles parallels the river, although you can’t see it. As you pass businesses and hotels, the street becomes more shady, and while the streetcar moves at a leisurely pace, you’ll probably wish it would stop. House after house resembles every New Orleans fantasy you’ve ever had: tidy Victorian three-stories, odd-colored gingerbreads, oak-draped mansions and pillared townhomes.
The Garden District includes several dozen blocks along St. Charles as well as the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it.Return later in a car or on foot and explorethe smaller streets that branch away from themain thoroughfare. Farther along St.Charles are Tulane University and, acrossthe street, Audubon Park: 340 acres of openfields, stately fountains and oak alleys. Inside the park is the Zoological Garden, a zoothat is both very good and very attractive,with many natural-habitat environs for itsextensive collection of animals. Time permitting, travel out of the city to where someof the special enchantments of New Orleans-Lake Pontchartrain, plantation homes-lie in wait.