New Orleans outside of the French Quarter
New Orleans' Contemporary Arts Center is located in the Warehouse District, the city’s official arts district. (Shaney Hudson)
Since 2010, visitor numbers to New Orleans have soared to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels. Traditionally, tourism has focused on the city’s oldest and most historic neighbourhood, the French Quarter. However, intrepid travellers are pushing beyond the plastic beads and bad hangovers of Bourbon Street, the epicentre of most tourist debauchery, keen to discover a different side of the city. And as any resident will tell you, if you really want to find the heart of the Big Easy, you have to look outside of the French Quarter
The Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, just a few blocks away from the French Quarter, is home to a cosmopolitan mix of immigrants and working class, artists and musicians, along with some of the best-preserved architecture in New Orleans. While some grumble about its growing gentrification, the area still has an edginess about it, especially at night, when the city’s hallmark gas lamps cast strange shadows through the lacy ironwork of the Creole cottages and shotgun homes.
Locals let loose on Frenchman Street, a three-block music strip that is home to one of the best collections of jazz clubs in the world. Stop by the Blue Nile, where locals cheer from the balcony and revellers carrying cups of indiscriminate liquor spill into the street.
Franklin Street marks the official boundary where Faubourg Marigny gives way to bohemian Bywater, and like most neighbourhoods in New Orleans, the line between slightly dodgy and do-not-walk-here-at-night begins to blur. However, on a Thursday night, it is worth the cover charge and cab fare to see jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins blow his horn at Vaughan’s (4229 Dauphine Street, 504-947-5562). During the day, the neighbourhood is best known for the grassroots St Claude’s Ave Art District, where you will find art co-operatives like the Good Children Gallery and the NOLA Art House, an art colony that lives beside and works within a sycamore treehouse.
However, the city’s official arts district is located in the Warehouse District, which is home to the renowned Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Contemporary Arts Center and one of the city’s best attractions, the National World War II Museum.
In many respects, the Warehouse District best exemplifies the city’s post- Katrina renewal, with a curious collection of world-class galleries and high end restaurants scattered among empty lots. Award-winning restaurant Cochon opened in 2006, offering a contemporary twist on traditional Cajun cuisine, and a new 1,100-room Hyatt hotel and conference centre opened in November 2011 next door to the re-branded Mercedes Benz Superdome.
The focus of global media attention during Katrina, the Superdome now glitters bronze during the day and dances in coloured lights at night. In a major coup for the city, it will host Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, along with a number of other high-profile national sporting events.
Hop on the historic St Charles Avenue Street Car, which threads through the centre of the Warehouse District, and stay on the line until you reach the elegant Garden District, a neighbourhood that emerged largely unscathed from the storm.
Set up in the 1830s as a residential area for those who did not want to associate with the Europeans living in the French Quarter, the land parcels were large, the money used to fund the buildings was new, and each white-columned mansion was built to outdo the one before it. Framed by pristine gardens, a picture-perfect Southern neighbourhood was created.
Those who invested in large homes also invested in grand crypts at the nearby Lafayette Cemetery Number One, where tombs were built above ground due to the high water table. Today, they stand in varying states of decay, ravished by time, vandals and wild weather.
Across from the cemetery is the shockingly aqua and white Commander’s Palace, open since the 1880s and still offering a $0.25 lunchtime martini special. There is a limit of three, because as the menu tells you, three martinis at lunchtime is enough.
While many movies have featured the grandeur and glamour of the Garden District throughout the years, more recently, US cable network HBO has turned the spotlight on the grittier side of New Orleans life in their critically acclaimed series Treme.