Is there a better American city for walking than New Orleans? And is there a better place to escape buzzy French Quarter activity than the Garden District?
In the early 19th century, a plantation was sold to make acreage for the affluent Americans and British that were flocking to the city. Those big houses on large lots (thus, the name Garden District) remain, but in the years after the Civil War, the lots were subdivided for only slightly smaller homes. Fewer gardens, yes; but more architecture, more stories, more history await.
These homes remain well-loved and generally well cared for. Some are still in families that have owned them for generations. During Mardi Gras season, more of the flags marking residences of past and present Mardi Gras royalty are flown here than in any other neighborhood. Some are in the hands of newer owners. Author Anne Rice, a native, sold hers after her husband died. St. Louisan John Goodman owns a house here, and so does actor Nicholas Cage. Even before any celebrities arrived, though, movie companies loved filming in the Garden District. And their long-term rentals of some of these houses paid for necessary major renovations, as the warm, damp climate and tropical storms take their toll on buildings more than a century old.
Tour buses are not allowed inside the boundaries of the District, and the single bed and breakfast was grandfathered in when the zoning laws began. Plan on walking, or, if you must, a private car. But the wonderful St. Charles Avenue streetcar is the way to go. Alight at Washington Street and head toward the river, and you're in the heart of things. Keep an eye on the trees along St. Charles around here; there are beads hanging in the trees, thrown from floats that pass on Mardi Gras.
At Prytania Street, an old skating rink has been turned into a shopping precinct, with a good coffee shop and an excellent bookshop. On the opposite corner is Lafayette Cemetery #1, Lafayette being the separate city this originally was. The cemetery is safe to visit; if the gates are open, feel free.
The aqua blue and white building across from the cemetery is Commander's Palace. Commander's, as it's referred to, is a story in itself. At lunch, it's a particularly good place to watch the locals in their native habitat. Make a reservation, wear nice-casual clothing, and have a long, leisurely meal during or before your walk. You may have luck without calling first, but best not to chance it. No matter what, have the bread pudding souffle, which will float into your mouth.
From here, a stroll in any direction will work. Keep your eye open for details like large iron basins used as bases for fountains - they're sugar-cooking kettles from the sugar-plantation days, or a modern reproduction. If a walking tour seems like a good idea, several companies offer them. Historic New Orleans Tours, which I tried, is serious about its work: The guide was a former professor at Tulane, a fourth-generation New Orleanean and a preservationist, who did a great job.
If you continue toward the river—Magazine Street, parallel to St. Charles—is the boundary, full of shops and restaurants. A few blocks farther up Magazine brings you to Mahony's Po-Boy Shop, and the flagship of the wonderful designer of jewelry and now tabletop ware, Mignon Faget. The Magazine Street bus runs to Canal Street, near where the streetcar begins its run.
IF YOU GO:
• Currently, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar doesn't go all the way to the end of the line, but it still goes far enough to get to the Garden district. For information on it and the Magazine Street bus, plus other streetcars and buses, visit norta.com.
• The Garden District Bookshop and Still Perkin' Coffee Shop are at 2727 Prytania St.
• Commander's Palace does lunch on weekdays, a jazz brunch Saturday and Sunday, and dinner nightly. There is a dress code: No shorts, no t-shirts, no open-toed shoes for men. 1403 Washington Ave., 504-899-8221, commanderspalace.com.
• The Historic New Orleans Garden District Tour begins at the Garden District Bookshop, twice daily. Advance reservations recommended, 504-947-2120, tourneworleans.com.
• The award-winning poor boy sandwiches at Mahony's Po-Boys are served at lunch and dinner every day. 3454 Magazine St., 504-899-3374, mahonyspoboys.com.
• Mignon Faget shows off jewelry inspired by honeycomb, shells, knots, animal crackers and other wonderful things. (I bought a wishbone pendant there.) Closed Sunday. 3801 Magazine St., 504-891-2005, mignonfaget.com.