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Travel Center
New Orleans
Gardens of Eden
02.09.12

Though scars remain from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has experienced a remarkable rebirth in recent years. Tourism has rebounded and, while Mardi Gras is still the main draw, there’s so much to see and do all year round. Here are our recommendations in and around the city to get the true flavor of the Crescent City.

French Quarter – Preserving Musical Legend

Preserving Musical Legend

If you want to witness the heritage of New Orleans at its purest, you must leave behind the accoutrements of modernity—food and drink service, air conditioning, amplifiers and microphones--for the pure New Orleans Jazz that’s found only at Preservation Hall. Built in 1750 as a private residence, the building later evolved into a tavern, then an inn, a photo studio and an art gallery, until it became a sanctuary for preserving local tradition in 1961. The small, intimate setting features tattered walls, a few wooden benches, floor seating and standing room to hear veteran and younger generation musicians perform musical legacy without a whit of gimmick or pretense. Travel back in time to hear bands strike up a sound the way locals used to, refreshingly bare bones without distractions. You’ll hardly have trouble getting into the spirit in this marvelously authentic and historic setting. Shout out your requests and let the music play. The hall opens at 8 p.m. nightly for three shows. Get in line early (about 45 minutes in advance) to grab a seat. It’s BYOB and $12 exact change for entry. If you forget a beverage, put your mind at rest. Pat O’Brien’s next door usually sends a waiter over to take drink orders as you wait in line, and water is available inside the hall for $1. You’ll want to stay hydrated as you sway, touch shoulders and dance to the warmth generated by the joyous sounds and spirit of a bygone era.

Esplanade Ridge – Painting & Pouring with Degas

Acclaimed French painter Edgar Degas called New Orleans home for a season of his life following the Franco-Prussian War in 1872. As the birthplace of his mother and grandmother, the city remained home to relatives, all employed in the cotton business, during the city’s affluent heyday. His wealthy Creole family purchased the prominent 1850 mansion—now called Degas House—from the man who built much of the surrounding Esplanade neighborhood. Built as the developer’s private residence, the mansion stood out for its beauty and its expansive grounds, which occupied most of the block. During his residence there, Degas painted at least 22 works, including "A Cotton Office in New Orleans", the first Impressionist painting ever purchased by a museum.

Today, the historic house on majestic Esplanade Avenue has become a bed and breakfast. You don’t have to stay there to see it, however. Degas’ grandniece leads tours by appointment. But if you fancy the life of an artist and wish to embody the spirit of Degas, reserve a spot at the popular “Bottles & Brushes with Degas” events. Under the tutelage of local artist Deana Lejarza, amateurs and artists alike can flourish in the relaxed and social atmosphere that begins in the early evening with a cocktail social hour. Painting commences at 6:30 p.m. with a particular painting chosen as the theme for the evening. Paint, brushes, canvas, instruction and a beverage await your hand in the only house Degas occupied that is open to the public. The hands-on-canvas event offers a unique chance to find your inner artist in the home of a master.

French Quarter – New Orleans Cooking & Tasting

New Orleans Cooking and Tasting

Next to jazz, the heart and soul of New Orleans lies in its food. Two distinct cuisines make up the flavors of southern Louisiana: Creole and Cajun. Stemming from the early aristocratic planters who arrived in the New World with recipes and chefs from Spain and France, Creole cooking traditions blended local ingredients with grand European fare and technique. Meanwhile, Acadian refugees (French colonists from Canada) who settled in Louisiana and were nicknamed Cajuns created their own blend of cooking—nutritious country fare made with locally available ingredients usually cooked in one pot.

To sample the delicious specialties of the region, sign up for a class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. Demonstration classes in the renovated 1830’s molasses warehouse brew up personable southern hospitality with good stories, laughter and company around tables of eight. Even non-cooks will enjoy the informative and highly engaging local chefs who cook up classics like jambalaya, corn and crab bisque, bread pudding, chicken and andouille sausage gumbo and pralines while relating the fascinating history of New Orleans. Sip iced tea or Abita beer while learning about the culture, ingredients and techniques of southern cooking. You’ll come away sated by superb finished productions and armed with paired recipes and plenty of tips to take home. Reserve a few weeks in advance, and bring your notebook and pen to jot down insider cooking hints. The adjacent General Store carries all the items you’ll need to take the spice of New Orleans to your own kitchen. For those who prefer to roll their sleeves up and cook, sign up for one of the hands-on cooking classes.

Tremé

New Orleans Cooking and Tasting

You may know the name from the HBO series, but Tremé is the oldest African-American neighborhood in America. The area derives its name from one Claude Treme, a model hat maker and real estate developer who migrated from France and settled in New Orleans in 1783. In later years, free persons of color and eventually those African slaves who either obtained, bought or bargained for their freedom were able to acquire and own property in Treme, where they built a vibrant community. This free community was virtually unique in an era when slavery dominated the South. Today Treme is celebrated for the achievements of African Americans and the area is home to several museums dedicated to African American life, art, and history.

Louis Armstrong Park

New Orleans Cooking and Tasting

Just steps from the French Quarter, this 32-acre park commemorates New Orleans’ favorite son, jazz great Louis Armstrong in a giant arched entryway and a statue. It’s also on the site of Congo Square—originally known as "Place des Nègres"—where slaves gathered on Sundays to dance and socialize. This tradition flourished during the French and Spanish colonial periods prior to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 which brought Louisiana under U.S. control. The park is also home to the Mahalia Jackson Theater which now hosts opera and Broadway productions after a recent $22 million renovation.

Garden District – Southern Enchanted Elegance

Garden District

It is said that many past residents of the New Orleans’ Garden District still wander the area as spirits. After a day on foot, you’ll understand why. Take the St. Charles St. streetcar and ride into genteel history in the city’s piece of shaded Eden. Stately mansions with sprawling grounds grace the quiet Old-World residential neighborhood that offers scenic respite from the busy French Quarter. On a guided walking tour, or simply with a neighborhood map in hand, stroll under a canopy of massive oaks cloaked in Spanish moss and marvel at storied 19th-century architecture. As one of the first suburbs developed after the Louisiana Purchase, the Garden District began as a subdivision of the immense Livaudais family plantation. Largely settled by immigrants to display their newfound wealth, the properties displayed a new residential planning style that featured gardens surrounding each home. Spectacular pre-Civil War Greek Revivals and Antebellum plantation homes showcased new American wealth in an era when the Garden District swirled as the vibrant social center of the city. Italianate, Queen Anne Victorian and shotgun homes (single-story, one-room-wide homes with an entry on either end) later appeared to create a fascinating blend of mansions and cottages shrouded in lush foliage and flowers.

Wander past sweeping verandahs, columned porches and majestic gardens steeped in southern charm and tradition and inhabited by celebrities and socialites past and present. Poke through boutiques, specialty and antique shops, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants on Magazine Street. Distinguished gentlemen can get a vintage shave and haircut at Aidan Gill barbershop, while history and vampire buffs visit Lafayette Cemetery, featured in many of Anne Rice’s novels. Top off your day at the historic and top-notch Commander’s Palace for an elegant Creole dinner filled with southern delicacies. After such a day, it won’t be hard to identify with the spirits who insist on inhabiting the area.

Lower 9th Ward – Soul of Resilience

Lower 9th Ward

If New Orleans had a Ground Zero in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it would be the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. The impoverished, largely African-American district was practically decimated in Katrina’s wake. Over six years later, while the city’s more affluent areas have been rebuilt, the Lower Ninth still only has a fraction of its residents back in place—less than 20%—and abandoned houses with FEMA signs are a sign of how little has changed. Glimmers of hope, however, spring forth in rebuilding and relief efforts put forth by individuals and non-profit aid groups that continue to serve the area. Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours provide an added dimension by bringing visitors to see the neighborhood for themselves.

Get out from behind the windshield and media filters to experience reality through the eyes of locals during a gentle four-hour bicycle excursion. The wide-seated cruiser bicycles offer a unique foray into the heart of the Ninth Ward by frequenting local places and meeting residents in a respectful and non-intrusive manner. A passionate resident tour guide leads the way and imparts first-hand knowledge of the devastation, rebuilding efforts and the deeply rooted history of the area. Plenty of fascinating streets and stops blend scenery, history and first-hand accounts of what actually happened during and after Katrina. Besides visiting the levee and learning about the wetlands, taste delicious local Po’Boy, shrimp and smoked sausage at a neighborhood shop; visit the 9th Ward’s community center for a talk with its director; stop at Fats Domino’s home for fascinating stories of R&B legends; and drop in at the inspiring House of Dance and Feathers—a backyard museum extraordinaire. Be inspired and motivated into action as you cycle through the district and witness the pride and perseverance of its charismatic citizens. Ten percent of all proceeds go to two local charities serving the neighborhood.

Cities of the Dead

Cities of the Dead

Buried history takes on new meaning in New Orleans. From the city’s earliest days, settlers in New Orleans struggled with proper burial of the dead. The high water table and shallow ground prompted easy flooding, pulling caskets to the surface despite attempts to keep them down. Eventually, the final resting places of the deceased were constructed above ground. As neighborhoods of their own, these so-called Cities of the Dead feature rows of tombs resembling avenues and streets. Stone crypts and mausoleums look eerily like small houses, embellished with elaborate sculptures and artwork, many with their own iron fences. The city’s 31 historic cemeteries reveal fascinating history and serve as unique cultural elements that play into the mystical culture of New Orleans’ otherworld.

Sign up for a cemetery walking tour to learn about the fascinating stories and various burial styles that include family tombs, society tombs, copings and wall vaults. The older St. Louis Cemeteries on the outskirts of the French Quarter feature antebellum mortuary art, twisted paths, dead ends and crumbling tombs interred with politicians, jazz musicians, civil rights pioneers, Civil War heroes, society figures and notorious local legends like Creole voodoo queen Marie Laveau (buried in Saint Louis Cemetery #1, the city’s oldest). The Lafayette Cemeteries in the Garden District house many who lived in the surrounding mansions and trace the city’s growth from early Creole settlement in the 18th century to later immigrant influx and yellow fever outbreak in 1853. Metairie Cemetery has its own fabulous tombs and fascinating residents, including Confederate General Beauregard, jazz legends like Louis Prima and Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse chain. For safety and educational reasons, guided walking tours through one or more of these cemeteries are recommended and best done in daylight.

Carrollton – Hunting for Art Treasures

Carrollton

As a bastion of creative spirit and energy, the art market in New Orleans thrives on a sophisticated mélange of Southern tradition and cultural influences from Europe and Africa. Plenty of fashionable art galleries dot the city. Royal Street in the French Quarter offers eight blocks of galleries, while Julia Street in the Warehouse/Arts District lures contemporary aficionados. Trendy Magazine Street in the Garden District plays host to an interesting blend of hip and alternative spaces. But for those on the hunt to unearth diamonds in the rough, head off the beaten trail to one of the city’s monthly art markets. With a goal to find and support local and regional artists, the city’s Arts Council runs the Arts Market of New Orleans on the last Saturday of the month (10 a.m. –  4 p.m.) in Palmer Park. As the last stop of the St. Charles streetcar, it’s easy to find and worth a look. The juried market features quality original works screened in advance by a juried selection process, showcasing up to 125 artists each month. With local and regional artists in attendance, artwork here includes all manner of mediums—from painting, ceramics, glass, wood, textiles, jewelry, photography and printmaking to handmade clothing, candles, soaps and more.

River Road – Plantation Oasis

River Road

Outside city limits, travelers can slow down the pace and step back into a time of antebellum splendor. Built to emulate the villas of wealthy Europeans, fabulous 18th-century plantation homes dot the famous River Road like vintage jewels illuminating grand southern living style. Named after the Indian tribe that first occupied the land, Houmas House Plantation & Gardens began its road to refinement as a French Provincial house built on the property in the 1700s. With the estate’s established wealth in sugar production, later owners added more land and a grand Greek Revival mansion, completed in 1828. Nicknamed The Sugar Palace, it sold for $1 million in 1857 to Irish bachelor John Burnside. Saved from destruction during the Civil War when Burnside declared immunity as a subject of the British Crown, the plantation home continued to flourish. It later survived the great flood of 1927, fell into decline following the Great Depression and later re-emerged following renovation as a summer home.

Houmas House is unique among the River Road homes in that it still serves as an active residence. A free-standing, three-story spiral staircase and rare twin Garconierres—separate dwellings built on wealthy plantations for teenage boys to embark on “manly” endeavors and to separate them from the girls—add extra attraction. Take the hands-on tour of the magnificent home, which allows visitors to approach and touch the antique artifacts, and look for the ghost of a little girl on the staircase. Outdoors, over 30 acres of lush, sprawling grounds surround the mansion, enlivened by fountains, statues and lively songbirds. Verdant lawns border vivid clusters of azaleas and irises during spring.  Wander under centuries-old oaks that John Burnside named “The Gentlemen,” and contemplate the legends of spirits left behind when all but 8 of the 24 stately giants were later felled. Locals insist the eight remaining oaks became strangely disfigured overnight when 16 workmen died trying to move the fallen oaks off the property during the Great Depression. For a taste of antebellum aristocracy, try a southern Sunday brunch on replica family china in the original 230-year-old French house behind the mansion, or enjoy a leisurely lunch tasting superb Nouvelle Louisiana cuisine in the excellent Café Burnside. Afterwards, with a mint julep in hand, recline in languid luxury under the canopy of a leafy gentleman.

French Quarter – Local Festival Favorite

Local Festival Favorite

The New Orleans Jazz Festival in late April is world famous, but the locals will tell you they prefer the more local French Quarter Festival. Held a few weeks before Jazz Fest in less humid temperatures and a far more picturesque setting, the festival lures locals to the charming streets of the city’s historic French Quarter. Presented on different music stages over the course of four days, the sounds of all types of classic New Orleans’ music emanate from alluring locations like Bourbon, Royal and Chartres Streets, the Old U.S. Mint, Jackson Square and the breezy Riverfront Park skirting the Mississippi River. Louisiana’s biggest free music event also hails itself as “The World’s Largest Jazz Brunch,” and it’s no lie. The irresistible scent of New Orleans’ Creole and Cajun cuisine wafts from street food and beverage vendors operated by local restaurants plying local delicacies like po-boy, crawfish pies and jambalaya.

Rather than confining patrons to one location, the festival lets you wander past quaint Creole cottages and into open houses, pop into a restaurant for some lunch or dinner, stop in at your hotel for a nap and find a stage when you’re ready for more music. Nineteen of the 20 stages erected around the neighborhood are reserved for Louisiana artists. Over 800 local musicians perform to appreciative crowds and represent every genre of New Orleans’ music, from contemporary and traditional jazz to brass bands, R&B, Cajun Zydeco, Latin World International, funk, folk, gospel, classical and opera. With plenty of cultural clout, music of all stripes and no admission fee, it won’t be long before it’s just as notorious as the Jazz Festival. Try and go on opening day to avoid the larger crowds on weekends.

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