Nearly 300 years old, the French Quarter in New Orleans most certainly deserves its distinction as one of America’s most beloved tourist destinations. Oozing with history and character, the Quarter is an embarrassment of cultural riches with historic cathedrals, former pirate hideouts, and even slave trade remnants. Antique shops, fine art galleries and a trove of some of the finest dining establishments in the world inhabit this magical grid. And then there is the infamous nightlife. With its “Let the Good Times Roll” atmosphere and dozens of all-night bars, the French Quarter also acts as a muse to America’s inner party animal with Bourbon Street as its Mecca of vice. With as many personalities as there are ingredients in a gumbo, the French Quarter indeed offers something to everyone of its 10 million annual visitors.
But unbeknownst to many, there is plenty life outside of the roughly 125 square block Quarter. The next time you visit the Crescent City, instead of making a beeline downtown, venture out and discover one of these unique offerings:
- Audubon Park—Hop on the streetcar at Canal Street and ride up fabled St. Charles Avenue to Audubon Park, one of the most unique green spaces in the country. Walk underneath century-old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss around the recently renovated public Audubon Park Golf Course, a nifty little par 62 course. Before you get back on the streetcar for downtown, take a quick stroll through the beautiful Tulane University campus just across St. Charles Avenue. Street car fare: $1.25 one-way.
- Audubon Zoo—At the back of Audubon Park across Magazine Street lays the Audubon Zoo, one of the top ranked zoos in the country. Immortalized in the song “They All Ask’d for You” by local music legends, The Meters, Audubon Zoo creates a number of different habitats that span the globe including zoo standards like elephants, rhinos, and giraffes with exotic residents like rare white tigers and white alligators. Open Tuesday-Sunday; adult admission $13, children 2-12 $8. www.auduboninstitute.org
- Woodlands Plantation and Spirits Hall—If you have ever gazed longingly at the label on a bottle of Southern Comfort with its etching of an antebellum plantation house and wished you could go back there in time…you can! Drive forty minutes south of New Orleans to West Point a la Hache, Louisiana and check into the Woodlands Plantation House, a full-on southern bed and breakfast which has graced the label of “SoCo” since 1934. Wake up each morning and walk next door for your made-to-order breakfast at Spirits Hall, an 1883 structure that was transplanted to the property and restored in 1998. The 50-acre former sugar cane plantation backs up to the Mississippi and dishes out amazing views as well as fishing and birding tours. Rates start at $110. 504-656-9990 or www.woodlandplantation.com
- The National WWII Museum—Dedicated in 2000 by Congress as the country’s official WWII Museum, this sprawling exhibit in the city’s Warehouse District gives dramatic battle time accounts beginning with the Normandy invasion and culminating with victory in the Pacific. A mesmerizing experience for even non-war buffs. Open 7 Days a week 9am-5pm; Regular Admission $14, children under 5 are free. www.nationalww2museum.org
- Rock N Bowl—For twenty years, this 18-lane institution in Mid-City has combined two of the greatest symbols of Americana—live music and bowling. Catch burgeoning local New Orleans bands while you try to pick up that spare. Lanes are $18/hour and shoe rentals are a buck a piece. Open Tuesday through Saturday at 5pm and rockin’ until 3am or later. 504-482-3133 or www.rocknbowl.com
- Commander’s Palace Jazz Brunch— This Garden District gem built in 1880 has maintained its culinary supremacy for over a century. Home of power lunches and epic dinners, its weekend Jazz Brunch stands out with a roving troupe of jazz players and decadent dishes like Crawfish Boudin and Eggs and Truffled Crab and Eggs. Upscale dress, jackets suggested, no shorts. $$$$ www.commanderspalace.com 504-899-8221.
- New Orleans Cemeteries—Simultaneously beautiful and creepy, New Orleans cemeteries or “Cities of the Dead” showcase spectacular above ground mausoleums, crypts and statues of cherubs and weeping women. There are several throughout the city including Laffite Cemetery in the Garden District (directly across from Commander’s Palace), St. Patrick Cemetery near City Park and St. Louis Cemetery #1 which serves as the final resting place of Voodoo Priestess, Marie Laveau. Gray Line Tours will drive you to 2-hour guided tour of St. Louis #1. www.graylineneworleans.com
- Jean Lafitte National Park—the fabled Louisiana swamps lie just a half hour south from the Quarter at the Barataria preserve in Marrero. Boardwalks and trails wind through these preserved wetlands where you can get up close and personal with alligators, snakes, birds and other critters. It’s like walking through a real live bayou zoo (and it’s free!). Open Daily 9-5pm. 504-589-2330 ext. 10 or www.nps.gov/jela
- The Fairgrounds Race Course—Millions know it as the home of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival but the Fairgrounds main identity since 1872 has been as a horse race track. The third-oldest race course in the U.S., the Fairgrounds underwent an extensive renovation after Katrina and hosts races every Thursday through Monday now through the end of March. Six bucks get you admission to the clubhouse where you can comfortably bet on races and enjoy food and drinks. It also boasts a massive slot machine complex to round out your gambling day! www.fairgroundsracecourse.com
- Magazine Street Shopping—Spared from Katrina’s flood waters, Magazine Street’s merchants have created a thriving escape from the tourists of the Quarter starting downtown and snaking all the way uptown to the Zoo. Dotted with dozens of one-of-a-kind locally operated antique stores (like the Magazine Antique Mall), clothing stores (like Hemline) and restaurants (like Nacho Mama’s), it’s easily worth a day to itself. www.magazinestreet.com