New Orleans Beyond the Bars: Exploring Crescent City Culture

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Mardi GrasWith Mardi Gras recently passed, many people find their thoughts turning to the Crescent City. Of course, most people seem to think first of the bacchanalian parties and parades, but there is so much more to the Big Easy. If the mania of Carnival is not quite to your taste, there are many alternatives, especially if you have an interest in history, architecture, food, or music.


For one thing, there is the stunning Spanish architecture of the FrenchQuarter. That’s right, I said Spanish architecture. You see, New Orleans was under the Spanish rule from the time of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 until 1801, and during that period, a massive fire destroyed almost all of the existing city. The architecture you see there now is composed of decorative wrought iron and other Castilian embellishments. The only surviving French building was Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, which is now a prominent local bar.

Then, an easy streetcar ride from the Quarter, lies the GardenDistrict. The charm of the working-class French Quarter gives way to Victorian elegance. Houses range from Spanish, French, and Italian styles to British and “Greek Revival” — providing a feast for the eye. Each one is framed by the subtropical profusion of carefully sculpted plant life that gives the area its name.

Art & Museums

While one can soak in history simply by walking the streets of the Crescent City, there is an abundance of museums and historic sites, many within a mere few blocks of the streetcar line. If the ’40s are a period that interests you, The NationalWorldWarIIMuseum (formerly the National D-Day Museum) is a required stop. If you want an overview of local history and culture, then the CabildoandthePresbytere on Jackson Square are the places to see.

For art fanciers, the NewOrleansMuseumofArt has been serving the community for over a century, bringing exhibits ranging from Faberge Eggs to Dr. Seuss. It also boasts an extensive collection of works by masters of the School of Paris, including paintings and sculptures by Picasso, Degas, Braque, Dufy, and Miro, among others. This is also the home of the amazing Besthoff Sculpture Garden, a personal favorite, I’ll admit.

If the artistry of Carnival floats appeals to you, then a visit to MardiGrasWorld is highly advised. This is where you can take a tour and see the handiwork of Blaine Kern Studios, the people who have created the lion’s share of parade floats in New Orleans since 1947.


Then there is the food. If you’ve a culinary bent, you will find yourself in heaven. From the well-known coffee and beignets (doughnuts) served at CafeDuMonde since 1862 to the famous and hallowed halls of CommandersPalace, food permeates the culture. There are some “musts” beyond them that are often overlooked. Here are a few of them.

Mmm...shrimp and andouille in a creole mustard sauce © by jeffreyw

The finest hidden gem in the city is LouisianaBistro, tucked away in the third block of Dauphine St. in the French Quarter. This small but elegant dining room is where Chef Mars produces amazing works of culinary art. The secret weapon here for the adventurous is the menu’s “Feed Me.” Priced by the number of courses desired, it involves the Chef coming to your table to quiz you on your likes and dislikes. He then proceeds to whip up three, four, or even five courses in a jazz improv fashion. It’s always unpredictable, and always the best meal in the city.

Another restaurant with a character that could only have been born in NOLA is the Upperline.  Not only is the food here utter genius, but the environment is amazing. There are over 400 art objects and pieces of memorabilia collected by owner JoAnn Clevenger adorning the walls, including a relic or two from the now departed Bourbon House (a club whose patrons in the ’50s included not only Clevenger but also Tennessee Williams and Lee Friedlander). Best of all, it is right across the street from The CreoleCreamery, the best handmade ice cream in the city.

Another innovative restaurant and the only place I know of that you can eat under a pineapple-shaped chandelier is TheGreenGoddess in the French Quarter. Funky, fresh, and experimental, this is a great place to see native Creole cuisine mix it up with influences from around the globe. Just as varied is the array of drinks that range from Brazilian cashew fruit juice to Green Chartreuse-based cocktail known as “The Gentle Giant.”

Let’s end the list with a truly legendary diner. The Camellia Grill in the Riverbend area, right on the streetcar line, has been serving up breakfast and sandwiches since 1947. The food is top-notch, classic diner food with a NOLA twist, and the staff is hyperkinetic and hugely entertaining. It’s an old-school establishment that both locals and tourists patronize on a regular basis, and what better recommendation is there than that?

As you can see from the list above, New Orleans is a city with something to offer to any traveler. These few items merely scratch the surface. Take a trip there once, and it will capture your imagination!

George Williams is a professional journalist for firstSTREET Online, a leading provider of innovative gift ideas for seniors and beyond. George blogs about health, technology, and travel advice for seniors on the firstSTREET Blog.

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