I concluded my first visit to New Orleans in a giddy high. To a Big Easy virgin, I had no measure of comparison for pre- and post-Hurricane Katrina, so all of the city, good and bad, informed my unbiased opinion – and I loved it.
What I found there was not unusual, but it was unexpected. The city is young and lively. It has grit, and eyesore, and a bunch of progress to make. But, it remains all Southern gentility. In the wake of a devastating natural disaster, its residents have found renewed interest and energy in rebuilding it to be even better, while preserving the unique character that makes it perennially popular. Mansions on Esplanade Street are either one of two things: beautifully restored and commanding well over a million, or visibly falling apart from years of being taken for granted. This unapologetic unfinished french stitch is why New Orleans has always been so charming, and still is.
Since Katrina, New Orleans’ tragic beauty attitude has added a third facet: hip. New restaurants dot the city. New bars have sprouted in areas not known for nonviolent nightlife. And transplants from every state have reinvented themselves in New Orleans, helping drive renewal in the process.
If you visit, you will notice one thing New Orleans does better than many other cities: neighborhoods. I was fascinated by them for their diversity and vibrancy.
The French Quarter satisfies typical tourist urges. Photo opportunities, street bands, funky shops, and the famous beignets of Cafe du Monde. Bars are inherent, tucked into every last corner. All this within a walkable square mile or so. Venture off of Bourbon Street though, and you can find some fabulous retail (Nadine Blake) and culinary (Sylvain) secrets too.
Head out to the Garden District to see some of the grandest and most tasteful mansions in the world. Money is spent far and wide in New Orleans, but rarely in the way the Nouveau do elsewhere. Most streets extend out from Downtown, following the bends of the Mississippi River: St. Charles Street hosts the historic streetcar line in its grassy median, and Magazine Street connects many of the city’s most desirable areas for young people, like the Lower Garden District, Central City, Irish Channel, and Uptown. I found the gorgeous, impeccably curated Box Paper Scissor on Magazine. $80 later…I was in locale lust.
Uptown, East Carrollton, and the areas around Audubon Park are probably the prettiest and youngest parts of the city (in terms of people and spirit). Highly treed, with lots of friendly restaurants and neighborhood bars (Phillips on Maple), restored homes and apartment blocks, and as much youthful energy as you can get from two highly rated universities (Tulane & Loyola), right off the streetcar line.
On the other hand, the Bywater, southeast of the CBD, is the Brooklyn of New Orleans. It is less homogenous, with a recent influx of hipsters, yogis, and homebuyers seeking affordability and authenticity amid working class residents. Art galleries, tapas restaurants (Maurepas), and charming bars (Bacchanal) have opened in the area…making it a destination for the city’s residents and visitors, and a bit more livable for the existing neighbors.
If you’re gay and visiting the city, you may be pleasantly surprised by how LGBT friendly it is. In a state famous for its conservative leadership and for being a full card-carrying member of the bible belt, the city is a liberal island of progressivity and laissez-faire. This attitude extends to its alcohol policy. There isn’t one! Nearly everywhere allows open containers (no glass in the French Quarter please), and most places will give you a to-go cup if you’re headed to the next bar.
Despite all the fun parts of the city have to offer, much is still depressed and in need of TLC. Like many places, the action is concentrated in a relatively compact area near Downtown. City Park, north toward Lake Pontchartrain, is the elephant in the room – a green space 50% larger than Central Park in New York and host to some of the area’s best cultural attractions: New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans Botanical Garden, and numerous sporting events. Looking forward, I would love to see it and its proximate neighborhoods become high-priority destinations.
Thanks both to its known and still undiscovered attractions, and laid back style, New Orleans lends itself to tourism, a job it has done well for years. The city will continue to be great, despite its rocky recent past, because nearly anyone can find something to enjoy: liberal drinking, fantastic architecture, haute cuisine, Southern elegance. I enjoyed a bit of everything, and feel like a second trip is essential to fully appreciate two additional aspects I missed on my trip: music, and history.
If you have never spent a weekend in the Crescent City, it is an easy flight from most cities in the South (90 minutes from Tampa). Stay at one of the big time hotels on Poydras Street Downtown, or find a quaint B&B in the French Quarter or Garden District. You are destined to slide into a balmy, sweet groove.