It doesn’t have to be Mardi Gras to enjoy a good party in New Orleans. Don’t worry, if beers and babes aren’t your thing there are plenty of quiet corners.
I was worried at first that a day and a half wouldn’t be enough time to explore New Orleans, but less than 48 hours later and I’m happy to be moving on to Florida tomorrow. I’d heard so much about this city that I had to see it for myself even though its the middle of the summer and far from Mardi Gras. My first night in town I went right for all of the action– the French Quarter and Bourbon Street.
There are plenty of public parking lots around the city, but plan to pay city prices unless you’re lucky enough to find a spot in one of the $3 and $4 lots that I’m convinced must fill up before the sunrise. I found parking by the river and set off for a stroll through the city.
I was won over by the charm of the French Quarter with its rows of apartments and houses decorated in ornate wrought iron and lush hanging plants. It reminded me of Savannah, only without the moss draped oaks on every corner and with a lot more music and drunken revelry.
The French Quarter is also home to rows of souvenir shops where you can buy anything from art to voodoo dolls, masquerade costumes to adult apparel, authentic pralines to hundreds of varieties of Cajun hot sauce, t-shirts, jewelry, beads, and books. By the river you’ll find a long outdoor flea market with vendors selling jewelry and clothing for a fraction of the price of nearby stores. I nearly bought a t-shirt that said, “Road Trip 2014: New Orleans” (apparently I’m not the only one taking a road trip and passing through New Orleans–who knew?) but after holding up the small I saw that it was a man’s shirt and would be too big for me. The woman working the table said that the shirt was my size, but “You need more here,” she said motioning to her own over-sized breasts. I smiled, thanked her, and went on my way.
On a sunny summer evening, there were plenty of budding artists providing music and performances on the streets. Even some of the homeless people donned harmonicas and guitars. Most of the restaurants in the French Quarter also feature live jazz bands. The music and live entertainment really add to the charm of this city.
I couldn’t resist going into a live jazz bar for dinner even though it was next to impossible to find a restaurant that served anything vegetarian. I settled on Landry’s, a seafood chain in the heart of the city. The waiter didn’t seem so excited that I only wanted side orders and not the $30 fish dishes, but I was determined to enjoy myself. The garlic sauteed spinach and grape tomatoes were swimming in a sea of oil, but the sweet potato, oh the southern sweet potato, was amazing. It was larger than my outstretched hand and split down the middle. The center was filled with a stream of toasted pecans, cinnamon and spices, and what I can only imagine must have been melted marshmallow. The skin was seared black and the potato baked to sweet perfection.
By the time I left Landry’s, the sun was just beginning to set. I started to make my way back to my car, but when I passed by Bourbon Street I couldn’t resist taking a walk through the famed red-light district. I was breaking my own travel-safe rule of never being alone at night in an unfamiliar major city, but when I saw the crowds of people including parents with their young children and police officers on every corner, I figured I’d be safe.
I’d read about Bourbon Street in one of my tour books, but I don’t think I really believed it would be as risky as it was made to be. After all, it was a Sunday night. From the first neon sign and the store front covered in pictures of naked women, I knew it was everything it is known to be. The street is a long stretch of strip clubs (featuring both women and men) and bars (featuring both jazz and more modern music.) Women in bikinis and platform shoes stand in front of the bars trying to entice people to enter. From the outside the clubs all look the same– smokey and loud.
Though I’m glad I ventured down Bourbon Street after dark (I returned by mistake in the day time and it was definitely not the same), I couldn’t get away fast enough after I’d already seen the length of bars and clubs. It wasn’t the fact that I disagree with the idea of strip clubs or the over-flowing bars, the loud music or that in New Orleans it is legal to walk down the street drinking beer or liquor as long as it is not in a glass container that got to me. It was the fact that because drinking on the street is legal, everyone, including the parents with their young children, was recklessly drunk or well on their way to being so at eight o’clock at night. I’m sure there are many people that go to New Orleans for the beers and the partying, but it isn’t my scene.
After Bourbon Street, I decided I’d spend the following day touring the other areas of town– the Garden District, the cemeteries, and City Park. I parked somewhere in the financial district which is centrally located and walking distance from the French Quarter. I assumed erroneously that like most major cities, all of the districts would be within close proximity. It took me more than an hour to walk from the Financial District to the Garden District. Don’t get me wrong, I love to walk. I spent a week hiking through the national parks of the southwest and walked four miles to visit Arlington National Cemetery when I was in Washington, D.C., but when the temperature is in the high nineties and the humidity level is about 3,000%, walking just isn’t the same.
The Garden District, or what I saw of it, is a corner of town covered in mansions. You can stroll down the street admiring the iron work that wraps around most houses, the flowers and hanging plants on every porch, or the old and twisted oak trees that dot the sidewalks. Had I not visited Savannah in April, I probably would have enjoyed the Garden District a lot more. Was it worth walking miles in the heat on deserted streets in a high-crime city? Probably not. If you’re set on seeing the Garden District, I’d recommend either driving through if you have a car, hopping on public transportation, booking a sightseeing tour, or renting a bicycle.
When I checked online, I was under the impression that Lafayette Cemetery was one of the most beautiful in the city and located within the Garden District. Instead, it was a mile walk from where I was toward the French Quarter. Walking over, I had in mind a cemetery that stood more like a park with pathways, grand tombs, stone sculptures, and plenty of character. Instead, I found an area cramped with dilapidated tombs and piles of bricks. Even some of the newer stones for people who had died in the 1990s were not well kept. In the few minutes I spent in the Lafayette Cemetery I saw three ghost tours. One was led by someone in an all purple suit another by someone wearing military fatigues and walking with a limp. The crowds of people on the tours were all carrying beers and fanning themselves furiously with the cardboard signs they’d been given for identification purposes. I could be wrong, but it seemed as though they were all calculating how quickly the tour would end so they could find a place to refill their beverages.
By the time I left the cemetery, I desperately needed to find a restroom, but because I wasn’t willing to buy a drink in a bar just to use a bathroom, I had to walk back to the river to the only public restroom I remembered seeing on my travels. It was then that I somehow found my way back to Bourbon Street. Even in the daylight of a Monday afternoon the music was blaring, the mostly-naked women were beckoning people inside, and everyone on the streets was bumbling around with beers in hand. Bourbon Street is like one long bachelorette party where you drink too much because it’s expected and wake up feeling equal parts exhilaration and regret.
By the time I found my way back to my car, the skies were threatening a thunderstorm (I’d walked through one the night before, but the overhanging porches in the French Quarter provide enough covering to keep you dry as you duck into the stores.) I had just about had enough of the city and probably would have driven toward Florida if I hadn’t already booked a motel for the night. Then I remembered there was one more place on my list of things to do– City Park.
You’ll need a car or taxi to reach City Park– it’s about four miles from the center of the city– but it instantly became my favorite part of town and I’d highly recommend it for anyone else like me who needs time walking barefoot in the grass and hugging trees after too much city dwelling.
I was suspicious when I pulled into a large, free, and empty parking lot at the end of the park. I expected to return and find my car booted, towed, or locked in, but it remained untouched and the solitary vehicle for the remainder of my stay.
As I cut across the grass from the parking lot, I immediately thought of Savannah. Centuries old oak trees reach their gnarled and moss draped branches across the sky creating a canopy fit for a fantasy movie. It’s hard to believe that this space exists in the same town as Bourbon Street.
A pond runs through the center of the park and is home to several varieties of ducks and at least two swans. You can rent canoes to head out onto the water. Tuesday through Sunday you can play mini-golf on the in-park course or take your children through Storyland– what looked like an amusement park of sorts with storybook characters along the way. I was both sad and grateful that Storyland was closed on a Monday because I don’t think I could have resisted walking by without going in and even though people often mistake me for being one of the students at the high school where I work, I don’t think I could have passed for a four year old waiting in line to use the slide.
The New Orleans Museum of Art also stands in City Park. You can browse through the displays inside for a reasonable price or take a stroll along the Sculpture Garden on the outside for free. The Sculpture Garden was one of my favorite stops with the variety of creations from Greek gods to a giant safety pin created by what appeared to be mostly American immigrants from all over the world. Like the sculpture garden in St. Louis, many of the pieces in City Garden were strange and unexpected, but maybe because I was in New Orleans and risky and odd are par for the course that I fell in love with the man hanging upside down from his feet and the full-bodied mother stepping on what looks to be her husband while holding an infant in her arms.
New Orleans Short and Simple
If you’re headed to New Orleans any time other than Mardi Gras and looking for a party, Bourbon Street with its bars, clubs, and open-container freedom is the place for you. If you like shopping you won’t want to miss the French Quarter. Walk or drive through the Garden District to see the mansions with both natural (plants and trees) and man-made (wrought iron fences) decorations. If you’re not one for cities or crowds and need a natural place to recharge, be sure to make a stop or day-long visit to City Park where you can play golf or tennis, go for a canoe ride, have a picnic, or stroll along under the oak trees.