Discover the neighbourhoods of New Orleans through the eyes of editor Oliver Jones.
“New Orleans has always been shrouded in mystery; swampy daydreams of voodoo and jazz, that whole Creole thing that sticks in the dialect and flavours the food, the spontaneous musical gatherings and serendipitous encounters with colourful locals – it’s no wonder there’s such tangible pride in this city. New Orleans is built on diversity. A collection of neighbourhoods each echo these different strands of culture and style, and the deeper I explored them individually the more I realised that I was encountering many different personalities, faces of a city that is brimming with infectious excitement. I heard many locals use the old gumbo metaphor to describe their city, each ingredient representative of the cultural contributions that make the city so unique – as loathe as I am to attribute shrimp, rice and okra to each suburb, as a simile it works quite well. Let me do my best to describe this captivating melting pot – or gumbo, if you prefer.
Remember: New Orleans is far bigger than just the French Quarter. The St Charles Streetcar, its iconic green colours clattering west on the oldest tracks in the city, rattles into the heart of the Garden District. Grand French mansions line St Charles, cutting through a leafy and peaceful suburb a world away from the lively streets of downtown. After pushing the stiff doors of the streetcar open, I strolled past the famous Commander’s Palace restaurant, heading south. Magazine Street, which at this end hosts vintage clothes, antique shops and unmissable brunch and dinner spots, unravelled at the next junction. I cycled the length of this street all the way back into town, every few blocks playing host to more coffee hangouts, bistros and quirky boutiques – I stopped frequently, relishing the calm and quirky atmosphere on what was a gloriously sunny day. Soon, the glass monoliths of the Central Business District rose into view. Ducking under the expressway that passes overhead, the Warehouse District begins.
The name is telling; three, four story brick warehouses decorated with bold signwriting hark back to a bygone era. Now, this trendy neighbourhood has been sympathetically reinvented, with a new wave of bars, galleries and eateries. Passing the popular National WWII Museum, the old warehouses spring to life with exceptional foodie spots like Cochon and Compere Lapin. I fired off a few shots on my old camera, the setting effortlessly picturesque – I’m a sucker for this kind of post-industrial style and the Warehouse District had been demonstrably careful in retaining its heritage. Gallery-hop down Julia Street or sink into a hip coffee joint and people watch – this artsy area is full of vibrant characters.
Moving from the turn-of-the-century warehouses under the glare of the vast skyscrapers, you can hop across Canal (dodging the streetcar) and enter NOLA’s most iconic neighbourhood – the French Quarter. My first steps past Canal were greeted with the wrought iron balconies and colourful French mansions that so gracefully differentiate themselves from the modernity of the CBD. This is quintessential New Orleans – bars and brunch spots vied for my attention, Royal Street inspired my inner treasure hunter with antiques hiding behind shop windows, and as the balconies and narrow streets encroached my periphery they broke to a clearing at the buzzing Jackson Square. Artists, buskers and fortune tellers drew crowds. Heading toward the Mississippi, the famous white and green canvas of Cafe du Monde sneaks into view. It’s a true stalwart, and even though it’s incredibly popular, the café au lait and beignets are still the best, and the cheapest, in town. The floor is caked in the powder-sugar of these addictive little treats, proving popular late into the night. The Quarter still proves itself to be a place of old-world glamour, of decadence – an exiled Parisian flair quite at home on the Mississippi.
Further up Decatur and the balconied townhouses, effortlessly romantic, hide boutiques, instrument workshops and small art yards. The tone becomes more liberated, more quirky, and picking up the pace across Esplanade, a cultural crescendo is brewing.
Frenchmen Street dominates my memories of New Orleans. It quickly became a go-to nightspot. It’s real, it’s authentic, it sets a frenetic tempo that was totally enrapturing – jazz bars and corner buskers screech with golden brass and earthy drumming, creating a heady atmosphere that’s palpably moreish.
First impressions are important; my top tip? Head here close to the weekend once the sun is setting and look out for Dat Dog on the corner of Chartres. Though the hot dogs are great, that’s not why we’re here. Head straight for the stairs near the back and hang around for a prime spot on the balcony. With a drink in hand, this is the best spot to really feel out the unique character of the street, with regular brass bands and hip hop improv blasting New Orleans flair on the corners of the intersection.
From intimate jazz clubs like Spotted Cat to riotous nights dancing in the Blue Nile or Maison, Frenchmen is a seriously cool strip where real Orleanians get down. It’s also a great place to eat – locals’ haunts like Adolfo’s promise a good feed before you swing and skip in and out of the bars. The quality of the live music is breathtaking; here I was treated to funk and soul bands whipping the crowd into shape, to small, contemporary jazz groups jamming out improvs that left me grinning from ear to ear. Passing musicians would occasionally pop in and jam for a few songs before disappearing back into the night. It’s an easy scene to romanticise; the talent bursting from these casual young cats that just happen upon our happening, well, they leave a lasting impression on those lucky enough to be watching – it confirms the city’s infatuation with music is still authentic and mesmerising.
I could wax lyrical about Frenchmen for much longer. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. Our final neighbourhood beckons, however. Heading east of Frenchmen takes you into the Marigny & Bywater, a hip neighbourhood of young creatives and unmissable local haunts. Sticking close to the Mississippi gains you access into the post-industrial Crescent Park, which runs the length of the river into Bywater. Aside from a means to an end, it proved a great spot to catch the sun set behind the CBD with a beer in hand. At the far end, you’ll reach the end of Bywater. On this final corner sits Bacchanal Wine Bar, a remote yet unmissable hangout where a large outdoor courtyard lights up at night with cool locals and even cooler music. From here, snake back through the neighbourhood and explore the quiet streets. The colourful shotgun homes are stupendously picturesque, every few blocks interrupted with a quirky bar or roastery. I spent some time marvelling at the technicolour streets, a pang of jealousy hitting me as I thought about my grey flat in south London. It was in Bywater that we ate at Nina Compton’s new restaurant, Bywater American Bistro – a shining example of the reinvention this neighbourhood is undergoing. Back on Chartres Street, more gems dot the roadside; from the bohemian yard of Dr Bob’s Folk Art to the bright pink calling of Euclid Records, Bywater is, if loosely connected, a patchwork of boho cool.
New Orleans isn’t a city I’ll forget anytime soon; in fact, I’m facing the realisation that I only barely scratched the surface. I met some incredible people, with an infectious joy and vivacious attitude that was compelling, impressive and, well, just really cool. The passion they shared for their hometown was, as a tourist, not just remarkably reassuring but also incredibly useful – I learnt about places I’d never have found in a guidebook, I heard stories to remember. Most of all I felt lucky. I felt lucky to be welcomed into a snapshot of New Orleans, and to indulge in it if just for one week. Louis Armstrong once sang ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’ – I don’t think I could ever assume that position, but I certainly feel one hop, step and skip in the right direction.”