The New Orleans Garden District is best on foot. Neither car nor bike or any other mode of transportation can satisfy how walking will. Only a stroll allows your senses the time to take in the sights and smells and let your mind wander in the matchless sensation that is uniquely New Orleans Garden District.
I spent a month in the Lower Garden District in a little shotgun house. Each evening, for an hour or more, I walked the streets from Magazine Street with all the shops and cafes to St. Charles Ave. with the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world and all the lovely houses in between. Here are the things I reveled in.
1. THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE GARDEN DISTRICT
As a whole, the entire neighborhood of the Garden District is a National Historic Landmark. It’s that spectacular. It was developed between 1832 and 1900 and is one of the best-preserved collections of single-story Creole cottages and grandiose historic mansions in the Southern United States.
It was named the Garden District because at first, the homes were all massive with extravagant gardens. Now, the lots are smaller and colorful cottages and gingerbread Victorian houses are in between the mansions. The Garden District is known more for its architecture than its gardens now but the entire place is a tropical wonderland of floral delight.
FLORA, FAUNA AND WHAT’S THAT SMELL?
Each afternoon or evening, when I get a break from work – sitting on my computer writing – I’d take long walks around the Garden District. I wanted to cover it street by street. Often, when walking, I’d catch a scent in the air and have to stop to figure it out. Is it flowers, moss, or earth? Sometimes it’s Creole food or a combination of something I’ve never encountered anywhere else.
I’m not familiar with these plants, bushes, trees or flowers. I know the azalea and magnolia, but I’m not sure about the oleander, jasmine, and camellia that line the sidewalks. The massive live oak trees destroy the sidewalks, and nobody cares because it’s worth it to have them here. The resurrection ferns grow from their trunks like the hairy arms of a big Italian man. I’m in love.
The sidewalks are so deformed I keep tripping and stumbling, and I must look drunk. I hope I’m not earning a reputation. Each house is so detailed and unique – they call it gingerbread for a reason – the wood is cut and colored so intricately it’s hard to believe anyone would take that much care, but they do. Every yard too is one of a kind, a little bit wild, dark green with a burst of color and fragrance. They’re so beautiful I can’t stand it. I try not to stare too much, but it’s a lost cause.
2. ST. CHARLES AVENUE
Down on the northwest end of the Garden District, the houses, somehow are bigger and the history is older, as old as it gets around here. The streetcar on St. Charles Avenue is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world. Its dark green cars with vintage wooden benches (though they weren’t always vintage!) have been clattering down the streets for 150 years nonstop. That’s something worth stopping to pay attention to and taking a ride.
While the mansions in the center of the Garden District are magnificent, those on St. Charles are grandiose, antebellum behemoths. These are the homes with names and ballrooms, or maybe two. They have documented history the guides can tell you all about. They’ll be turned into hotels or museums if they’re ever sold.
Peppered here and there along the avenue are parks and fine hotels, restaurants and, of course, bars. I’ve dined at the restaurant in the fine Pontchartrain Hotel and drank at the dive Lucky’s Bar and Laundromat. I highly recommend both. There are little grocers and a sandwich shop, but best of all, a historic avenue is preserved and protected in a way so few things are anymore.
3. MAGAZINE STREET
One of the main thoroughfares separating the Garden District from the Irish Channel is Magazine Street. The street runs roughly six miles and is filled with glorious old houses, restaurants, shops, spas, bakeries, bars, cafes, galleries, antiques, and plenty of things you’ve never imagined.
Visitors could spend an entire day on Magazine Street or visit many times and always have something fun and new to explore. I spent many days walking down one side of the street and up the next and never grew bored with it.
The vibe on Magazine Street is low-key and tends to lean more toward locals out for lunch and some light shopping. While you can be sure there are plenty of tourists too, it doesn’t attract nearly the same crowd you’ll find in the French Quarter.
It seemed like every time I walked down Magazine Street, I found something new. There was always a shop I hadn’t noticed before, a restaurant, a café, a weekend market.
I love how serious they are about eating. Here, eating is an event and it’s fun to participate. I’d stop for coffee and sometimes fried chicken, once to buy an antique key and another time a moonstone bracelet.
A FEW PLACES I ATE OR DRANK WORTH TRYING:
- Tracey’s Original Irish Channel Bar – classics like Po’boys and crawfish boils on the weekend
- The Ruby Slipper – fantastic southern breakfast
- Surrey’s Café and Juice Bar – breakfast burritos the size of my arm
- The Rum House – is a Caribbean inspired place but the tacos and salads are good
- Gris Gris – for upscale southern cookin’ I got the dumplings and they were mouth-watering
- Haydel’s Bakery – for king cake (in season) and other sweets
- French Truck Coffee – is a New Orleans craft coffee roaster and oh so good
- Fat Boy Pantry – big sandwiches, ice cream and coffee
The New Orleans Garden District is the type of neighborhood I enjoy over and over again. It takes you back in to simpler times when beauty really meant something and boy, it sure did smell good.