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Uptown & the Garden District

If you can see just one thing outside the French Quarter, make it the Garden District. These two neighborhoods are the first places that come to mind when one hears the words “New Orleans.” The Garden District has no significant historic buildings or important museums—it’s simply beautiful—enough for authors as diverse as Truman Capote and Anne Rice to become enchanted by its spell. Gorgeous homes stand quietly amid lush foliage, elegant but ever so slightly (or more) decayed. You can see why this is the setting for so many novels; it’s hard to imagine that anything real actually happens here.

But it does. Like the Quarter, this is a residential neighborhood, so please be courteous as you wander around. To see the sights, you need only mosey around and admire the exteriors and gardens of beautiful houses. I’ve mapped out a comprehensive walking tour to help guide you to the Garden District’s treasures and explain a little of its history. Naturally it starts with a ride on the St. Charles streetcar. You might also check out the best shops, galleries, and bookstores on Magazine Street, the eclectic shopping strip that bounds the Garden District.

Meanwhile, a little background: Across Canal Street from the Quarter, “American” New Orleans begins. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, an essentially French-Creole city came under the auspices of a government determined to develop it as an American city. Tensions between Creole society and the encroaching American newcomers began to increase. Some historians lay this tension at the feet of Creole snobbery; others blame the naive and uncultured Americans. In any case, Creole society succeeded in maintaining a relatively distinct social world, deflecting American settlement upriver of Canal Street (Uptown). The Americans in turn came to outpace the population with sheer numbers of immigrants. Newcomers bought up land in what had been the old Gravier Plantation (now the Uptown area) and began to build a parallel city. Very soon, Americans came to dominate the local business scene, centered along Canal Street. In 1833, the American enclave now known as the Garden District was incorporated as Lafayette City, and—thanks in large part to the New Orleans–Carrollton Railroad, which ran the route of today’s St. Charles Avenue streetcar—the Americans kept right on expanding until they reached the tiny resort town of Carrollton. It wasn’t until 1852 that the various sections came together officially as a united New Orleans.

Again, as with the Quarter, it was great good fortune for the crucial economy generated by tourism that the Garden District was largely undamaged by Katrina and Rita, and its beauty remains as intoxicating as ever.

Trolling St. John's Bayou & Lake Pontchartrain

Bayou St. John is a body of water that originally extended from the outskirts of New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain, and it's one of the key reasons New Orleans is where it is today. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was commissioned to establish a settlement in Louisiana that would both make money and protect French holdings in the New World from British expansion. Bienville chose the spot where New Orleans now sits because he recognized the strategic importance of the bayou's "back-door" access to the lake, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. Boats could enter the lake from the Gulf and then follow the bayou until they were within easy portage distance of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Native Americans had used this route for years.

The early path from the city to the bayou is today's Bayou Road, an extension of Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter. Modern-day Gentilly Boulevard, which crosses the bayou, was another Native American trail -- it led around the lake and on to settlements in Florida.

As New Orleans grew and prospered, the bayou became a suburb as planters moved out along its shores. In the early 1800s, a canal was dug to connect the waterway with the city, reaching a basin at the edge of Congo Square. The bayou became a popular recreation area with fine restaurants and dance halls (and meeting places for voodoo practitioners, who held secret ceremonies along its shores). Gradually, New Orleans reached beyond the French Quarter and enveloped the whole area -- overtaking farmland, plantation homes, and resorts.

The canal was filled in long ago, and the bayou is a meek re-creation of itself. It is no longer navigable (even if it were, bridges were built too low to permit the passage of watercraft other than kayaks), but residents still prize their waterfront sites, and rowboats and sailboats sometimes make use of the bayou's surface. This is one of the prettiest areas of New Orleans -- full of the old houses tourists love to marvel at without the hustle, bustle, and confusion of more high-profile locations. A stroll along the banks and through the nearby neighborhoods is one of our favorite things to do on a nice afternoon.

Getting There -- The simplest way to reach St. John's Bayou from the French Quarter is to drive straight up Esplanade Avenue about 20 blocks (you can also grab the bus that says ESPLANADE at any of the bus stops along the avenue). Right before you reach the bayou, you'll pass St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 (just past Leda St.). It's the final resting place of many prominent New Orleanians, among them Father Adrien Rouquette, who lived and worked among the Choctaw; Storyville photographer E. J. Bellocq; and Thomy Lafon, the black philanthropist who bought the old Orleans Ballroom as an orphanage for African-American children and put an end to its infamous "quadroon balls," where well-bred women of mixed color would socialize with and become the mistresses of white men. Walking just past the cemetery, turn left onto Moss Street, which runs along the banks of St. John's Bayou. If you want to see an example of an 18th-century West Indies-style plantation house, stop at the Pitot House, 1440 Moss St..

Esplanade leads into City Park at Wisner Boulevard—you’ll see an equestrian statue in the center of the traffic circle just outside City Park’s grand entrance. Turn left on Wisner for about 3 miles as it hugs the border of City Park. It’ll jog right into Beauregard Street; then turn right on Cloverleaf and look for water—and Lakeshore Drive. Turn left. You’ve reached Lake Pontchartrain, which you’ve probably figured out.  Meander along Lakeshore Drive for a couple of miles until you reach a marina (the road will curve and become West End Blvd.). It’s hard to believe that this area (called Lakeshore), home to commercial fishing since the late 1800s, was totally devastated by the 17th Street Canal breech. The storm piled boats atop each other, smashed buildings into rubble, and destroyed a lighthouse. Now, there’s a thriving restaurant hub and shopping along Harrison Avenue, and the nearby Lakeview residential neighborhood boasts some of the highest property values around. That canal is just ahead of you, as is the fishing-oriented Bucktown neighborhood. But this is probably a good spot to turn back—or hit up Deanie’s for old-school seafood just like a local.

Lake Pontchartrain is some 40 miles long and 25 miles wide, and is bisected by the 24-mile Greater New Orleans Causeway, the world’s longest over-water bridge.

Floating Across the River to Algiers Point

Algiers, annexed by New Orleans in 1870, is about a quarter-mile across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Generally ignored because of its location, it became a sort of God’s country after the hurricane because it did not flood at all, and many services, such as mail delivery, were restored quite quickly. It still has the feel of an undisturbed turn-of-the-20th-century suburb, and strolling around here is a delightfully low-key way to spend an hour or two (daytime only). It is easily accessible via the Algiers ferry that runs from the foot of Canal Street. This unfancy ferry is one of New Orleans’s best-kept secrets—it’s a great way to get out onto the river and see the skyline (and at 30 min. it’s perfectly timed for kids’ attention spans).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.