By Adair Odom
Beads dangled from telephone poles and the sun shone through the canopy created by hundred-year-old oak trees. A streetcar whizzed by and jazz permeated the air from somewhere faintly in the distance. While the Big Easy is known for its lax (read: nonexistent) rules and laidback atmosphere, there’s more to New Orleans than waking up in desperate need of coffee and Advil after a night on Bourbon Street
The number of visitors to New Orleans has risen each year, with 9.78 million visitors to the city in 2015, According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Founded in 1718, the city of New Orleans is rich in both culture and history. The pride of its people can be heard in shouts of “Who Dat” and in a cup of Café au Lait and a beignet on the corner of Tchoupitoulas Street. The city is known for its vibrancy, on display well beyond Bourbon Street. The true gems of the Crescent City can be found while gazing up at the mansions on St. Charles Avenue or having an iced coffee at CC’s with friends.
An early walk through City Park on Saturday morning is a far cry from stumbling back from Pat O’Brien’s and is arguably much more rewarding. City Park is home to the world’s largest collection of live oak trees, some of which date back nearly 600 years. While the trees are certainly something to marvel at, City Park also consists of the New Orleans Botanical Garden, New Orleans Museum of Art and a small amusement park, Carousel Gardens.
It’s easy to get lost in the greenery of the botanical garden underneath stone archways. A few moments by the lily pond transport you into the scene at one of Monet’s paintings. The sculpture gardens at the Museum of Art feature 64 sculptures across over five acres of land.
At Carousel Gardens, the carousel itself, or “Flying Horses” as the New Orleans natives call it, was built in 1906 and restored after Hurricane Katrina. Like something from a fairytale, the animals on the carousel were hand carved and hand painted, some dating back to the 1800’s.
If the carousel looks familiar, it probably is. According to City Park’s website, the Park is home to several Hollywood movies, including “Now You See Me” and “22 Jump Street.”
For the more local experience, there’s Audubon Park in the Uptown region of New Orleans. Once a plantation and then used by both the Confederate and Union armies during the American Civil War, Audubon Park is no stranger to history.
On any given day, one of New Orlean’s famous second lines – a traditional brass band parade – is taking place on one of the wide gravel walkways, filling the air with jazz music.. Grassy knolls alongside the paths are spots for couples practicing acro-yoga, families picnicking and several people enjoying the warm morning sunshine.
A few blocks from Audubon Park is Tartine, a small, casual French breakfast spot for any tourist who wants to feel like a local. The smell of fresh-baked bread fills the air and the menu offers quiches, scones and of course, tartines – open sandwiches filled with different combinations of ingredients. The dining room is nothing fancy – simple tables with very little art adorning the walls. Yet it is remarkably cozy, as though a friend has made and served breakfast in their kitchen.
The converted houses and historic buildings on Magazine Street are filled with art galleries, unique boutiques and award-winning restaurants According to the New Orleans Official Guide, Magazine Street is named for a “magazin,” a warehouse built for housing products waiting to be exported.. Each and every shop on Magazine Street seemed to feature purple and gold dresses, rompers and tops– ready for the LSU faithful to wear on game day.
The James Beard Best New Restaurant of 2016, Shaya, sits on Magazine Street. Modern Israeli food might sound strange when eating in the gluttonous, Cajun city of New Orleans, but the pita bread itself is enough to make a stop.
The restaurant is rather small and simple, with the walls decorated with plants and mirrors. The air is filled with the smell of baking bread. The pita arrives in warm stacks, almost resembling pancakes, but with more body to each round loaf. Because the bread is not cut into slices, it encourages family-style sharing.
The pita is made in a wood burning stove that’s in the corner of the restaurant, once pulled out, it is placed on a plate and brought straight to the table, still doughy at the center. A myriad of spread and tapenades are offered alongside the pita – my favorite being the lamb ragú hummus, which offered the perfect amount of flavor to complement the pita.
The menu was comprised of items to be shared and featured inventive cocktails such as the Suzy B’Good, a combination of gin, mastiha, ginger and blonde ale. The menu offered items such as wood-roasted Brussels sprouts, crispy halloumi, falafel and a matzo ball soup that included slow cooked duck.
Take a walk down St. Charles Avenue, home to many a mansion as well as the main buildings of both Loyola University and Tulane University. If you’re visiting around Halloween time, be sure not to miss the “skeleton house” at the corner of St. Charles and State Street, known for the skeletons adorning the yard, each with their own pun. People surrounded the fence to see the skeletons, from the classics (Mr. Lazy Bones) to the politicians (Secre-TERROR-y of State Clinton).
Not far from the skeleton house is CC’s Coffee House, known for Louisiana’s famous Community Coffee. Started in Baton Rouge, Community Coffee is now the largest family-owned coffee brand in the United States. Due to its nearness to Tulane and Loyola, CC’s was was filled with students studying and professors grading papers. William Huye, a second year law student at Loyola, sat with his girlfriend while sipping an iced coffee.
“Being from Baton Rouge, I felt like I knew New Orleans pretty well growing up,” Huye said. “But it’s different now that I live here. I think that the culture here is unlike anywhere else and the people here are friendlier than anywhere else. Everybody wants you to love it here and it really rubs off on you.”
Sunday Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace is an experience that is classically New Orleans in the Garden District. Brightly colored balloons fill the dining room, reminiscent of a birthday party or celebration, while a jazz trio stops at each table to serenade with classic tunes.
Jazz Brunch felt quintessentially New Orleans, as it celebrated the vibrancy, the food and the music of the city all in one setting, yet it didn’t feel trite. Instead, it was authentic in all the good ways and it was evident from the tables around us that Commander’s Palace was not just for out-of-town visitors, but a place where locals gather to catch up with friends and loved ones on Sunday.
“Commander’s Palace is a place that is so integral to New Orleans because it’s more than just the food, it’s the atmosphere and the people. I think the same is true of New Orleans itself. It’s the atmosphere here, the “laissez les bon temps rouler” attitude that people are so drawn to in New Orleans,” said Jack Koch, a New Orleans native.
The culture of New Orleans is not found while sipping a Hurricanes or tossing back a Hand Grenade on Bourbon Street. The true spirit of the Crescent City is found in conversation over fresh-baked pita bread and hummus, in gazing at art in galleries along Magazine Street and most of all, in the locals you meet, who remind you that life is meant to be celebrated and lived vibrantly.