On first impression, New Orleans comes across as a semi-artificial city, set up for big drinkers, revelers, and those who like to party all night. Almost like a spring-break destination without the beach, I soon discovered that this façade really only extended as far as Bourbon Street and once you venture out of the bar-infested strip and it's 24-hour-a-day seediness, you emerge into a quaint and surprising destination. Escape from the French Quarter entirely and New Orleans takes on a very different charm. It's a city where people are genuinely hospitable. The adversity and aftermath of Katrina seems to have only strengthened the resolve of its citizens to show off their creative and culturally rich home.
One of my favorite detours was a mere stone-throw away -- Royal Street. Just one street parallel to Bourbon and running through the French Quarter and beyond to the funky Marigny neighborhood, Royal Street is home to one of the country's largest and most enticing collection of antique stores and galleries. Although several are what I would term "high antiques" -- with lavish chandeliers, French Baroque furniture and items with sizeable price tags -- others are more eclectic and offer a variety of specialties from historic books to tin toys, estate jewelry to vintage clothing. As for prices, yes there are many prohibitively expensive museum-quality pieces on offer, but don't let that put you off browsing. If I could afford to make a few purchases at my meager travel writer's salary, you too can become the proud owner of an original piece of New Orleans art or a small trinket. I found it extremely difficult to just walk past the James H. Cohen store which specializes in antique weaponry, rare currency and jewelry. In fact I walked out with a slightly inflated credit card bill after succumbing to a few Louisiana Civil War mementos, but it was definitely worth it.
Go one street further parallel towards the Mississippi to Chartres Street's Canal Street end, and you come across a select few art and photography galleries that are more contemporary with affordable pieces. On both Chartres and Royal Streets, you'll get to discuss the art works at a personal level (plus get some great hints about places to visit, eat and indulge) at smaller spaces owned and operated by the artists themselves, like Natalie Fine Art (www.nataliefineart.com) at 829 Royal and the adorable Café Baby (www.markbercier.com), which is a gallery not a café at all, at 239 Chartres.
New Orleans cemented its position as a major arts city last year when it held the inaugural Prospect 1 Art Biennial (www.prospectneworleans.org), which was hailed as the largest biennial of international contemporary art ever organized in the United States. The next festival, to be held from November 2010 to January 2011 also promises big things with installations, collections and public art on show throughout the city in outdoor spaces, museums and historic buildings.
I've lived in New York City for eight years and never taken a horse and carriage ride around Central Park but something in the French Quarter lured me to take the quintessential tourist experience (albeit with a mule) and I must admit, clip-clopping down the narrow cobblestone streets passing 18th- and 19th-century homes was quite soothing and enjoyable. The carriage driver was also rather knowledgeable about the city and as a native, provided some humorous anecdotes. You can either join a group tour with about 12 people for approximately $15 to $20 per person for half an hour, or opt for a private version for $45 from the Decatur Street side of Jackson Square anytime of the day or evening.
We rode straight passed the block where Brad and Angelina have their primary residence (although the carriage driver referred to it only as Brad Pitt's home), and although lovely, I couldn't understand why they would choose to live in such a tourist-infested zone, rather than among the sublime and elegant oak tree-shaded streets of the Garden District. On a side note, the people of New Orleans are totally enamored with Brad Pitt. He's done a lot to raise the profile of the city with his Make It Right Foundation and its efforts to help rebuild New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. I was rather amused by the "Brad Pitt for Mayor" T-shirts available at Storyville Apparel (www.wearyourstory.com/brad-pitt-for-mayor.html) at 3029 Magazine Street.
The Garden District is a stunning enclave of historic estates, pristine examples of Queen Anne and Victorian architecture, historic cemeteries, bountiful gardens, cool cafes, and shops. In the heat of summer it was actually a relief to drive around in an air conditioned car, but if you don't have a car, take the St Charles Streetcar instead (www.norta.com) -- no air-conditioning but plenty of ambience and a steal at $1.25 per person.
Magazine Street, especially the section between Washington Street and Napoleon Street is located on the edge of the Garden District. Visit the Magazine Antique Mall located at number 3017, Aesthetics and Antiques at 3122, and, if you're after a handmade piece of one-of-a-kind wooden furniture, look no further than Wilkerson Row at number 3137.
Take a walk or drive west up Esplanade Avenue on the edge of the French Quarter to the massive 1300 acre park area known appropriately as City Park. Home to the New Orleans Museum of Art (www.noma.org), it also offers Botanical Gardens, a children's fairy tale playground featuring larger than life storybook exhibits, the Hines' Amusement Park, a golf course, recreational fields, several lagoons, and the largest collection of mature live oak trees in the world. This is the place where you see locals enjoying their city, away from the glare of tourists' eyes.
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