Unlike many cities where a tour of mansions involves climbing on a bus or at the very least, a long drive in the rental car, New Orleans’ Garden District is accessible, compact, and easily walkable. The historic New Orleans neighborhood is also very easily reached via the Saint Charles streetcar. Indeed the area is best enjoyed on foot in order to stop and gawk at the exquisite examples of quintessential New Orleans architecture: a set of white columns, the scroll work of a cast iron fence, or a romantic Romeo and Juliet style gallery. And there’s no need to be shy about taking photos; the locals are used to visitors drooling over their houses.
While guided New Orleans walking tours can be found easily, the independent visitor may prefer to walk guided only by whatever draws his or her eye. Surprisingly, summer is one of the best times to explore New Orleans history in the Garden District, what with crepe myrtle trees in full bloom and arches of Live Oaks in leaf. From late spring to October is when the gardens of the Garden District are their lushest and greenest. Consider a morning walk as a prelude to lunch or a late afternoon walk, especially after rain has cooled the air, before a fabulous dinner on Magazine Street.
Bordered by Magazine Street and Saint Charles, Toledano and First, this uptown neighborhood, like much of the city, began as a plantation that was divided and sold into lots. Developed between 1840 and the 1870s, the Garden District offered luxurious houses and gardens to the rising mercantile elite, a contrast to the stacked townhouses and courtyards of the French and Spanish Vieux Carré. This new section, then on the periphery of the city, was considered “American,” English-speaking, and was intended to provide a healthy, leafy refuge against an increasingly crowded city.
The Garden District remains the city’s most prestigious neighborhood with most houses having price tags that run into the several millions. The district is on the National Register of Historic Places; it is also home to Lafayette Cemetery, a safe place for photographing beautifully aged tombs and angel statuary, as well as one of the city’s most famous three-cocktail lunch spots, Commander’s Palace.
Those needing a quick refueling station before walking should consider getting an iced coffee from Still Perkin’ at the corner of Prytania and Washington; for hearty Southern fare like fried chicken and catfish plates at their best, try nearby Joey K’s on the corner of Magazine and Seventh. Reserve ahead for the rich, Creole lunch at Commander’s Palace.
Five must-see houses in the New Orleans Garden District
1. Walter Grinnan Robinson House – 1415 Third Street. Built in 1859 and the work of New Orleans’ most famous architect Henry Howard, this mansion and its adjacent servant quarters and stable recently underwent a tremendous renovation. It’s also for sale. If you can imagine yourself sipping Champagne from the second story gallery, this home can be yours for a mere $9.5 million.
2. Payne-Strachan House – 1134 First Street. This 1849 Greek Revival center hall is where President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis died while visiting a friend. A plaque on the iron fence commemorates the event.
3. Brevard House – 1239 First Street, a.k.a. Anne Rice’s house. This 1857 stunner is a mix of Italianate and Greek Revival, with Ionic columns on the first floor and Corinthian columns on the second. The gardens here are particularly lovely.
4. Joseph Carroll House – 1315 First Street. A cast-iron masterpiece from 1869; Mark Twain partied hardy in this Italianate mansion in 1886. Make sure to turn the corner and see the delightful carriage house.
5. Bradish Johnson House/McGehee School for Girls – 2343 Prytania Street. If you have a preconceived idea of Southern elegance and privilege, this Reconstruction-era, white-columned confection will most likely match vision. Built in 1872 and designed by architect Lewis E. Reynolds in the French Second Empire Style.
All photos by Allison Alsup