Story by Lane Holman
As young marrieds, my husband and I took a trip to New Orleans about 20 years ago. We stayed in the French Quarter and spent nights eating seafood, listening to jazz at Preservation Hall and getting drinks at historic bars like the Old Absinthe House. Mornings, we’d sleep until noon o’clock.
As parents two decades on, the city’s storied Garden District is more our speed, with a calmer, quieter vibe, a family-friendly atmosphere, and honestly a tendency to smell better in hot weather.
Not far from the city’s Central Business District, the Garden District is a rectangular section of town south of St. Charles Avenue, north of Magazine Street, bordered on the west by Toledano Street and on the east by Jackson Avenue. Picking up its name as early as 1852 because of the neighborhood’s super-sized lots, the Garden District boasted luscious gardens and gorgeous landscaping, differing dramatically from the more tightly packed parts of town. Eventually, many properties were carved up and sold, making for a building boom that led to the more close-set district of today.
While visitors often choose hotels like the classic Ponchartrain on St. Charles or a funky, fun inn like Creole Gardens, hundreds of short-term rentals can be found through sites like Airbnb. Though immensely popular, they’re the source of controversy in New Orleans, which created a Short Term Rental Administration and imposed strict limits on whole-house rentals that are not owner occupied. If you rent through Airbnb, VRBO or FlipKey, be sure to ask the owner/manager if they’re in compliance with local ordinances.
On our most recent visit, we stayed in a short-term rental apartment on the ground floor of a charmingly modest home. It was ideally situated several blocks from the restaurants and retailers of Magazine Street. We could pop into Breaux Mart, a well-stocked local grocery chain for breakfast fixings.
Intriguing examples of the district’s architecture were right outside our doorstep. We enjoyed peeping through the iron fencing at the Brevard House at 1239 First St., which has infamously served as the home of author Anne Rice, as well as her fictional witches. Built in 1857, it’s a mix of Greek Revival and Italianate styles, with columned double front porches and renowned gardens.
At 1415 Third St., you’ll find the palatial Walter Grinnan Robinson House, also a Greek Revival Italianate with unusual curved sides, rather than corners, on its façade. It stands like a huge, lovely wedding cake on its grounds.
If you’re interested in local lore seasoned with the macabre, try a ghost tour like the one offered by Haunted History. It starts, appropriately, at the gates of the LaFayette Cemetery, known to “American Horror Story: Coven” fans as site of a jazz funeral. Established in 1833, LaFayette Cemetery features New Orleans’ signature above-ground tombs and wall vaults (nicknamed “ovens”), and includes such intriguing group tombs as “The Secret Garden” for four friends who wished to be buried together.
After paying respects to the dead, you can celebrate the one of delights of living with a meal at The Commander’s Palace, nearby at 1403 Washington Ave. One of the world’s renowned creole restaurants, it has been in business since 1893. If you want to eat at the iconic teal Victorian building, best to make a reservation weeks in advance. On an earlier visit we savored the Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict, barbecued suckling pig on biscuits with poached eggs with tasso hollandaise sauce and Creole Bread Pudding soufflé.
For shopping, the world would be a better place if more malls were converted skating rinks like The Rink. Judy at the Rink on the second floor is a favorite stop, with local art for home and hearth. Consider a visit to the Garden District Book Shop, just across the hall from Judy, and a stop at Still Perkin’ on the ground floor for iced coffee and carrot cake to build your stamina for more shopping.
You could devote your Garden District trip to shopping and eating along Magazine Street’s 10-plus blocks in the area and not run out of things to do.
Bustling, colorful and friendly, Dat Dog feels like a visit to a friend’s place — a friend who will put just about anything on a hot dog bun and make it into something delicious, like duck sausage with blackberry sauce. We enjoyed their Sea Dog special, with beer-battered cod, along with their Classic Datburger, a rolled beef patty with cheese.
Alongside its regular lunch and dinner menu, the comfy, low-key Red Dog Diner offers breakfast until 2 p.m. daily, proving that they know their customers. We enjoyed a mid-day breakfast while seated on their sidewalk; their egg dishes and biscuits were satisfying, as was the people-watching.
The local chain Fleurty Girl is by far the best source for unusually interesting souvenirs. Owner Lauren Thom offers unique gifts, jewelry, accessories and her signature T-shirts in her five stores around town.
A local favorite for vintage clothing, Funky Monkey is well worth a perusal. Whether you seek a pastel flamingo-print guyabara from the 80s or a sensible 50s cloth coat or some weird fake-fur platforms, these folks can help you.
An eye-popping and well-curated selection of wallpapers make Spruce a must for anyone who loves to look at cool visuals. Paw through sample books from Fornasetti, John Robshaw and House of Haddon, along with local and regional artist-produced wallpapers, and your head will spin happily. The showroom also features fabric, furniture and design services.
Slightly further afield along Magazine Street, both Casamento’s and Shawarma on the Go merit visits.
Step into Casamento’s Restaurant with its glossy tile walls and friendly staff to feel like you’ve travelled back nearly 100 years to when Joe Casamento founded the place. One of New Orleans’ iconic places for seafood, Casamento’s offers some of the finest oysters you can find anywhere. (Consider the fried oyster loaf if you don’t do raw.)
For a quick sample of the city’s newer food culture, consider Shawarma on the Go, which Iraqi immigrant Abbas Alsherees opened inside a Jetgo Gas Station in 2016. Outstandingly moist chicken shawarma and gyros, perfectly lemony hummus and baba ganoush, and tasty falafel draw a steady stream of customers to the immaculate but humble surroundings.
New Orleans’ signature destinations like the festive French Quarter and idyllic Audubon Park remain major draws, but the Garden District proves an ideal place for taking a walk on the mild side.
At St. Charles Avenue, Garden District visitors can catch New Orleans street car for $1.25 (or 40 cents if you’re 65 or over). New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) also sells Jazzy Passes for 1, 3, 5 and 31 days, available in both magnetic card and app form. It offers a convenient vantage for sightseers that avoids the challenges of driving and parking in the city. Be aware that during events like the Jazz & Heritage Festival, streetcars can fill to capacity, so give yourself extra time to get places.
Consider the dozens of guided tours available, such as the New Orleans Garden District Grandeur tour, viator.com/tours/New-Orleans/Garden-District-Grandeur. Or set your own pace with the do-it-yourself tours of freetoursbyfoot.com/self-guided-garden-district.