Picturing New Orleans, I don’t see the shops on Magazine Street, the French Quarter crowds, or the hip bar and restaurant ecosystem of the Marigny.
Closing my eyes and picturing New Orleans, I don’t see the shops on Magazine Street, the French Quarter crowds, or the hip bar and restaurant ecosystem of the Marigny. My mind goes to the neighborhoods, east to the Bywater and beyond or north to Mid-City and above. These areas may lack the ever-present sound of street musicians or the lure of antiques in every window, but people here are charmed by something else.
My favorite neighborhood has always been to the west: Carrollton-Riverbend. Proximity isn’t the only reason. The area captures the dynamic of this city at large. It’s simultaneously historic (predating the U.S. at large) and modern, boasting a handful of the city’s best new restaurants and shops. It’s diverse and connects the bordering Uptown and Hollygrove neighborhoods. The postcard mansions and streetcars of St. Charles Avenue stand a few blocks from no frills daiquiri shops and dive bars that host world-class musicians, which themselves are a few blocks from some breathtaking natural areas and a pair of universities.
Start at the corner of Carrollton Avenue and Oak Street (accessible via picturesque street car ride if you’re coming from more central locations) where Rue de la Course will be waiting for you. The coffee shop sits in a repurposed vintage bank that maintains its above-door gargoyles and generally regal interior. It’s the lone remaining site of what used to be a beloved local chain of chicory-slinging cafes, and its crowds indicate it’ll remain for some time. A large cookie and a coffee make for great reading, chatting, or studying companions on either floor (the upper has an unspoken library-esque atmosphere), but grab a black drip or a house latte if you prefer cream and skip this trip’s first snack option.
Turn away from Carrollton Avenue and take a brief detour down Oak Street. The larger of two commercial strips in this part of town, Oak Street could easily occupy an entire afternoon on its own with beloved institutions like the Maple Leaf Bar (perhaps the best small music venue in town) or Jacque Imo’s (unapologetic, no-frills, decadent cajun and creole food). Those landmarks are surrounded by specialty kitchen or comics shops and many food and drink options. Among that last category, new neighbor Simone’s Market makes for a great place to stock up pre-walk. It’s a small, private-owned spot to make groceries with an emphasis on local farms, companies, and people. Snag an excellent sandwich or opt for an old-school savoy Scotch egg to-go before heading back towards Carrollton Avenue.
At Carrollton, turn right and head south towards St. Charles Avenue. You’ll pass a small Episcopalian school proudly boasting NFL superstar Odell Beckham Jr. as an alumnus and the block-spanning 160+-year-old Carrollton Courthouse to your left. In this building, a Louisiana district judge recognized slaves as people nearly a decade before the 13th Amendment.
If you’re thirsty, the triangle where Carrollton and St. Charles Avenue intersect offers two reliable options for a no-frills go-cup. Cooter Brown’s, contrary to its unappetizing name, has a craft beer selection rivaled by few places in town. And New Orleans Original Daiquiris offers virtually any flavor you can imagine. I’d recommend keeping it simple—say, Pina Colada instead of Crawgator—and small, 12oz. over the 40oz. option, because you’re always better served wanting more daiquiri as opposed to the other extreme.
Cup in hand, choose your next path. If the weather is nice, continue directly south and cross both Leake Street and the tracks to quickly reach the Mississippi Levee Trail. If not, take a left and push east on St. Charles, taking a scenic detour past modest (for St. Charles standards) but charming homes and the occasional street car, before turning right down Burdette Street and staying straight in order to reach the Levee Trail via paved paths. The latter route is quintessential New Orleans—iconic street name titles on the cracked sidewalks, everything dotted by overhanging trees and colorful houses—while the former is quintessential Louisiana—elevated views of barges and Mississippi river life while dog walks and occasional horseback rides pass you by.
Either way, head east, which is left if facing the river, once reaching the Levee Trail until it reaches its picnic-ready conclusion. In addition to the river scenery, I always find myself peeking into the Army Corps of Engineers facilities riverside and stopping to admire a New Orleans Pelicans-muraled basketball court at Leake and Prytania avenues on the way. The trail ultimately opens up into a large riverfront green space known as The Fly, essentially a “beachfront” lawn at the foot of Audubon Park that overlooks the river. On a comfy weekend morning, you’ll see kids running around as families grill and college students lounge in the sun with a few cold drinks.
If all the walking has you hungry again, fear not—it’s difficult to be anywhere in New Orleans without a decent bite nearby. A mere 10 minutes away—15 if you’d rightfully prefer to stroll north through Audubon Park—you’ll come across Tartine. To reach the cafe, head north on River Drive towards the park and continue along the walking path until you can exit via a left on Prytania Street. Follow Prytania for a block and turn left on Broadway. It will be to your right at the intersection of Perrier and Broadway. The small, welcoming shop offers excellent breakfast and lunch options, especially if you’re into the namesake French-style, open-face sandwich. The ham tartine—with fig mustard and triple-cream brie on an indulgent baguette—is worth every calorie.
End your Carrollton adventure by finally enjoying the most likely target for anyone traveling this far west in the city: Audubon Park. Head back east (a right) down Prytania Street and turn left once you hit the park. Bikers and runners are prevalent, but the path has lanes to protect those of us just wanting to exist for a while alongside extravagant Audubon homes and gardens and the various art pieces lining the golf course perimeter. Audubon Park brings together people from all walks—neighbors, college kids, tourists, the occasional New Orleans athlete or film crew—and makes for an excellent place to ponder the rest of your day.
There’s plenty more nearby: learn about the city’s other musical legacy (bounce and hip-hop) at the archives within Tulane’s Amistad Research Center north of the park, catch the most extensive skeleton collection you can imagine during Halloween season at the corner of St. Charles and Nashville, or feast on Vietnamese bacos (bao fused with tacos) at Ba Chi Canteen in the university’s Maple Street district just to your west. New Orleans remains a city where you’ll never be lacking for options, which is partially why the serenity of a Carrollton-Riverbend stroll remains my favorite.