97 Quirky New Orleans Discoveries
New Orleans. Endlessly interesting. Mysterious. Offbeat. What can you say about a city that has been through so much, yet remains as vibrant and intriguing as any city in America? We New Orleanians know that we have something special in this low-lying plot of earth between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. But how many of us take the time to explore those unique little treasures that dot our landscape? How many of us take for granted those little gems that make us stop and think, give us a giggle or make us cock our heads and say, “Wow.”
Each local has a favorite site – historic, quirky or inspiring – that he or she feels sets this city apart. Here is a locals’ guide to some out-of-the-way favorites, some of the area’s “best kept secrets” – 97 to be exact. Explore them with us as you walk the neighborhoods of New Orleans and some of its outlying communities. Most of all, appreciate the uniqueness of our city and those who still proudly call it home.
His brightly colored paintings of alligators and hound dogs, bordered with frames studded with bottle caps, decorate the walls of local bars and restaurants and the homes of folk art collectors throughout the country. But perhaps he’s best known for the four words that succinctly define his relationship with his fellow man, “Be Nice Or Leave.” Dr. Bob, a folk artist whose corrugated tin studio in Bywater was once a mule barn, is a man whose body of work personifies funky.
Each year more than 2,000 versions of “Be Nice Or Leave” are purchased by collectors from his studio, at Jazz Fest and art fairs across America. Even Dr. Bob is surprised by the popularity. After all, he started his artistic career as a woodcarver and fell into painting almost by accident. “I posted a sign, ‘Be Nice or Leave’ on the front door of my French Quarter apartment and it was stolen so many times that I decided to sell them at a local gallery,” he says. They sold out immediately and a career was born.
Today his folk paintings depicting bayou life and New Orleans grace the walls of celebrity collectors like Mariah Carey, Matthew McConaughey, Ellen DeGeneres and Emmylou Harris. He has painted Mr. Okra’s truck and been featured in national magazines like The Smithsonian.
He admits to being a heart-and-soul New Orleanian. Since the storm, he’s seen a change in some of his clientele. “I’ve sold a lot of art to people who have moved away. They want New Orleans art. They know they’ve left a place they love.”
Carousel at City Park
As a bright-eyed 6-year-old climbed on the colorful flying horse, she asked excitedly, “Are the tails made of real horse hair?” Another asked if all the animals bobbed up and down. A strapping young boy wanted to know if the lion roared when the carousel started. An older man asked where the brass rings were. Such is the unbridled joy the antique carousel has brought to all the children and children-at-heart who have boarded the ride for more than 100 years.
Built in 1906, City Park’s pride and joy is one of only a handful of authentic antique carousels left in the U.S. This carousel, like the city in which it resides, has survived fires, floods, winds, termites, mold and more rowdy kids than one can count. The menagerie marinated in 10 inches of stinky water after the levees broke and were rebuilt yet again.
The flying horses and other animals were worth saving. Each was elegantly handmade and lovingly painted over the last century. Beau Bassich, former CEO of the park, made it his mission to save this ride nearly 30 years ago when it had, once again, fallen on hard times. “Families have been riding this carousel for more than 100 years. It has a history with each one of us. It’s art and it’s fun,” he says.
The carousel, like the magnificent park in which it lives, is back and better than before. Give it a whirl. Your great grandmom probably rode it and so will your great-great grandkids – why shouldn’t you?
Arnaud’s Costume Museum
Anyone who knew Germaine Cazenave Wells knew that the woman lived big. So big that she reigned as queen of more than 20 Mardi Gras balls – some three or four times. As heiress to Arnaud’s Restaurant in the historic French Quarter, Wells also served as the unofficial queen of the neighborhood. Her annual Easter Parade brought out the glitziest, showiest hats in town, followed by an extravagant brunch at Arnaud’s.
So in 1978 when Archie Casbarian, then general manager of the Royal Sonesta, bought the restaurant, he had the wisdom to save many of Wells’ sequin encrusted hats and hand beaded ball gowns. Today they don a small museum on the second floor of the Bienville Street restaurant. Diners, those who stop by for a drink in the lush bar and the curious are invited to visit the site during restaurant hours.
“Before my father bought the restaurant and created the museum, the only people who were allowed to see the gowns were Mrs. Wells’ most beloved friends and special celebrity guests,” says Katy Casbarian, vice president of Arnaud’s. “But these gowns and crowns are pieces of the history of this restaurant, and guests love the quirkiness of it.” Wells was honored at a ball one last time when Casbarian opened the museum in 1984. She was in her 80s and wore, as one might expect, one of her lavish queen’s gowns, a tiara and long leather gloves. In her hands was a jeweled scepter, which she gracefully waved to the guests. Not coincidentally, that gown now adorns a mannequin in a glass case, who, like all the mannequins on display, looks much like Wells herself.
Napoleon’s Death Mask
Even in death, the strength of Napoleon Bonaparte is undeniable. Hours after he died, as was the custom, Napoleon’s face was set in a plaster-like substance and preserved for eternity. Four bronze casts remain today, one of which is displayed at the Louisiana State Museum in the French Quarter.
The mask was given to the city in 1835 by Dr. Francois-Joseph Antommarchi, Napoleon’s personal physician, who was present at the emperor’s death on the island of St. Helena in 1821. Its origin is shrouded in mystery as many have claimed its creation through the ages. Twice the mask disappeared. It was once rescued from a junkman’s cart and purchased by the city’s treasurer in 1866. Years later, it was thrown away during a renovation of City Hall, found in Atlanta and returned to New Orleans in 1909.
The emperor’s face – with its aquiline nose, high cheekbones and cleft chin – rests on an ornate bronze pillow inscribed with Dr. Antommarchi’s name. This summer, the mask is part of the museum’s “Treasures of Napoleon” exhibition at the U.S. Mint, a stunning collection of more than 250 pieces of the ruler’s memorabilia. After Aug. 3, it will return to its traditional home, near the grand stairway at the Cabildo.
“Whether you think of Napoleon as a despot or hero, you cannot deny that he had a huge impact on the world and our city,” says Suzanne Fischer, curator of material culture at the museum. “He gave the world ways to make a new government run, not based on bloodlines, but on merit. He gave France and Louisiana the civil codes by which we live. Because of his ideas, Louisiana and France are linked forever.”
St. Roch Cemetery
A peek inside the window of the small chapel tells the story of pain and loss, promises made and promises kept. On the walls and floors of the tiny church, crutches and canes, prostheses and offerings are left by faithful in the hopes that St. Roch, a medieval saint known for miraculous cures, will answer their pleas. It is the Lourdes of the New Marigny historic district, a beautiful, solemn spot where those in need can lay their sorrows.
But in 1867, New Orleans was in the grip of a Yellow Fever epidemic. In the hopes of sparing his congregation, Father Peter Thevis prayed to St. Roch for a miracle. His parishioners were spared and to honor the saint, the priest built this chapel in the church’s cemetery on St. Roch Avenue. Today, it’s in pristine condition, surrounded by hundreds of upright graves of New Orleanians.
A visit to the St. Roch Cemetery could inspire even an agnostic. Its whitewashed tombs bear photos of those lost, silk flowers in vases and loving tributes, like the marble plaque engraved, “From your friends, the Krewe of Centurions.” Good Friday is the most poignant day to pay your respects as hundreds of faithful walk the life-size grottoes housing the Stations of the Cross and quietly, mournfully sing, “Were You There When They Crucified Our Lord?” In that moment, on this holy ground, you’ll feel as if you were.
Third Floor, New Orleans Museum of Art
The much bigger-than-life size statue of Guanyin proudly stands at the entrance to the Asian Galleries, tucked away to the left of the elevators on the third floor of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Guanyin, the circa 1175 figure, was a kind of angel, less than a god, one who guided mortals in reaching nirvana. The magnificent artifact is the perfect welcome to the little known and least explored galleries of the museum.
Why don’t more NOMA visitors know about this incredible collection of non-Western art?
“It’s a universal problem in museums: the higher up a collection is, the fewer visitors it gets,” sighs Lisa Rotondo-McCord, NOMA’s assistant director for art and curator of Asian art. “So often, the top floor of a museum has some of the most interesting and unusual artifacts.” Indeed.
NOMA’s third floor has a plethora of treasures from Asia, India and Japan, boasting lustrous ceramics and delicately painted scrolls. Its pre-Columbian and Native American art are extremely rare examples of exquisite archeological materials and beautifully embroidered and beaded clothing. The African art collection is one of the best in the U.S., with more than 600 breathtaking masks, sculptures, ceremonial costumes and vessels. For the past three years, 80 of NOMA’s African art pieces have toured the U.S. with the New York Museum of African Art, a prestigious coalition for all. They returned to NOMA this May.
Next time you visit NOMA, begin your tour on the third floor and work your way down to the more familiar galleries. Guanyin is waiting to guide you towards enlightenment.
The Abita Mystery House
It is exactly the kind of place you would expect to find a two-headed chicken under glass, a 20-foot-long half alligator/half fish, a papier mâché tornado machine and a few gazillion bottle caps artfully displayed. That is assuming, of course, that you’re actually looking for such a place. And even if you aren’t, all of this and much more can be found at The Abita Mystery House, or UCM Museum (as in “You See ’Em,” get it?) in Abita Springs.
This museum takes weird to a new level. Opened about eight years ago (even the founder, John Preble, can’t give an exact date) and located in an old gas station (so old the creaky gas pumps don’t register past 99 cents per gallon) with several out buildings, the museum is a place to walk, gawk and find yourself cocking your head and repeating, “Huh? What in the world?” It is also the most fun you can imagine for only three bucks admission.
About 5,000 people pass through the doors each year, many from Europe who discover the museum in guidebooks. “Foreigners love it for the folk art environment. However, some locals call it the Useless Crap Museum. Not everyone gets the three-dimensional cartoon aspect of the place,” says Preble.
Dedicated to poking fun at Southerners, outrageous tales (look for the flying saucer that landed on the trailer), and primitive oddities, The Abita Mystery House is worth the drive across the Causeway. While you’re at it, bring some quarters to have your character and weight read on a rusty machine or have your fortune told by the mechanical voodoo queen. And bring your sense of humor, which may, just for the fun of it, get a wacky, but wonderful, workout.
Several years ago, my mother and Aunt Camille came to visit for a “feel-good” weekend. Both of the women were in their late 70s, living in Alexandria, and recently had been through sad times. New Orleans was always their favorite city, so my cousin Marcie and I wanted to perk up “The Moms.”
We started the first night with dinner at Galatoire’s and then wandered down the street to the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis streets and entered Chris Owen’s Club. Al Hirt entertained the first hour and The Moms were dazzled. Then, the lights blew on and Chris Owens took the stage. She sang, danced and twirled in her over-the-top neon coral costume and big hair. Every inch a lady in her skin-tight getup and feather boa, she invited the audience onto the stage. Before we knew it, Mom, Aunt Camille, Marcie and I were under the lights shimmying, shaking and trying not to laugh our heads off. We looked ridiculous (I have a video to prove it but you’ll never see it) and couldn’t have cared less. Chris Owens, Queen of Bourbon Street, was so enthusiastic and warm, we felt like her colorful ladies-in-waiting.
Since the 1960s, Chris Owens has made locals and visitors feel like they’re as cool, toned, glammed-up and coordinated as she is. None of us are but it doesn’t matter. We mortals love her for it.
Mom and Aunt Camille both died in 2006, months apart. Until their dying days, their evening at Chris Owens’ Club gave us all a brush with Bourbon Street pizzazz and just the tonic to feel good about life all over again.
New Orleans Glassworks and Printmaking Studio
Nearly 20 years ago, Tulane glassmaking instructor Jean Blair decided to open a glassmaking center in New Orleans, unlike any in the U.S. She found a former paper box factory on Magazine Street that had space, a smokestack and boiler. It also had the proper zoning and, with $2,000 working capital, Jean fired up the furnaces and got to work. Today, New Orleans Glassworks and Printmaking Studio is one of the premier facilities of its kind in the world and welcomes thousands of artisans, earnest students and visitors each year.
Jean, a full-time volunteer at the not-for-profit school, hasn’t lost a spark of her passion in the two decades of creating art. “There’s so much energy in this building! No two minutes are alike. It’s very stimulating teamwork,” she says. The glassmaking, for example, has reached such a level of sophistication that the New Orleans school has been sister school of the Louvre Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris for the past 10 years. Each year, the faculties of the two centers collaborate and at least eight French artists come to New Orleans to work with the local glassmakers.
The Magazine Street facility also welcomes New Orleans’ young adults (ages 10-17) to its summer programs, many of whom credit the school with spawning their careers in the arts, engineering and chemistry. Night classes attract business people and residents of the Warehouse Arts District who long for a new experience. The gallery also sells hand-blown glassware, custom-designed chandeliers and elegantly crafted engraved prints made at the studio to collectors world wide.
Visitors who wander into the gallery are invited to watch the artists at work. “We encourage guests to engage the artists, ask questions [and] learn about the arts,” says Blair. “We’re always learning and we enjoy sharing what we know.”
In what was once an abandoned furniture store, on a corner that was filled with drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes, now proudly stands one of the most interesting and tasty eating establishments this food lovin’ city offers. Café Reconcile can also claim a bigger distinction: a place of job training, education and most of all, hope for at-risk youth.
The dream of beloved Jesuit Father Harry Thompson, the restaurant was his life’s passion in the last years of his life. He, along with contractor Craig Cuccia and attorney Tim Falcon, purchased the building and made it into a hip breakfast and lunch site that attracts an eclectic group of diners – attorneys, stockbrokers, construction workers and Junior Leaguers – from all over the city.
On this Friday, every table was taken by noon and a line snaked down the street. Inside the restaurant, catfish was frying, collard greens were steeping and macaroni and cheese glistened in oversized pans. The service was brisk, with a waiter who obviously took pride in his job. His smile told a story of self-worth and newly acquired people skills. “These kids come from such broken situations and in six weeks we see lives changed,” says Cuccia, now the program’s full-time director.
The program has been so successful that thanks to funding from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, Shell Oil and the state of Louisiana, Café Reconcile will expand in the next 18 months to include advanced culinary training and catering facilities. “The graduates of this program will have the best hospitality training available,” says Cuccia. “The job is a big part but the life skills, the nurturing of their souls, the compassion, are what turn them around. They leave here with the ability to break generations of poverty issues.”
The House of Dance and Feathers
At first blush, the modest little building located behind a small home on Tupelo Street in the 9th Ward, looks a little lopsided at best. Its corrugated tin roof undulates and the plexiglass walls sparkle. Up the newly built ramp and to the right stands a small treasure trove of the cultural history of the 9th Ward and its generations of residents.
Here at The House of Dance and Feathers a visitor finds remnants of a community that once was. The brainchild of Ronald W. Lewis, this small cultural education center tells a story of the neighborhood that has become the focal point of post-Katrina devastation and rebuilding. “My first museum was destroyed during Katrina, 14 feet of water, lost everything,” says Lewis. “But we’re rebuilding our home and the neighborhood. We want the truth about the 9th Ward told: this was a neighborhood filled with hardworking people, families, music and second-lines.”
Lewis points out that 70 percent of the homes in the 9th Ward were owned by families that lived there for generations. “The government – all three levels – wanted to bulldoze us! But we fought that. It’s our land. We own it; we’ll rebuild it.” He longs for the 9th Ward of his youth, a safe, rural environment where everyone knew everyone and church was the center of a family’s life.
His museum is filled with patches of Mardi Gras Indian costumes and decades of photos of life in the 9th Ward. There are mementoes of residents such as Fats Domino, Oliver Morgan, Trombone Shorty and 9th Ward social aid and pleasure clubs. Today’s photos show Lewis with architecture students from Harvard, the University of Arkansas, University of Southern California – all part of the area’s rebuilding efforts. His new museum was designed and rebuilt by students from Kansas State University.
Lewis been featured in a series on NPR, in The New Yorker and in several cultural anthropology university studies. “I’m just a community spokesperson and my museum just tells the truth of our culture,” he says. “I’m not a politician; that way I can be independent and get the job done.”
Some More Favorites
Devour a chocolate chirp cookie at the Insectarium.
Visit the Backstreet Cultural Museum and see the incredible collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes. The museum, located in a Creole cottage in Tremé, houses three main exhibits: “Mardi Gras Indians,” “Jazz Funerals” and “Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs.”
Spend some time in the beautiful Pitot House, an 18th century Creole home of New Orleans first mayor, James Pitot
Tour the African art collection at Dooky Chase.
Count the Purple Hearts at the National World War II Museum.
Hear Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Brass Band at Ray’s Boom Boom Room on Frenchmen Street any Monday night. No telling what famous musician or movie star will be in the audience and join him on stage for an impromptu performance.
Ride the Steamboat Natchez.
Learn how floats are made at Mardi Gras World.
Buy local produce, seafood and flowers at Crescent City Farmers Market.
Take a swamp tour and learn about the ecology of the wetlands.
Ride the Streetcar from one end of the city to the other – and back.
See the rare white tiger at Audubon Zoo.
Hear Kermit Ruffins and the BarbeQue Swingers play at Vaughn’s.
Visit Madisonville’s Maritime Museum.
Sample beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde.
Tour the Kemper Williams home at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Gaze under the stars at Louis J. Roussel Jr. Planetarium in Kenner’s Rivertown.
See the exquisite Mardi Gras jewels at The Presbytere. As lovely as jewels themselves, The Presbytere, designed in 1791 by architect Guilberto Guillemard, was originally named “Casa Curial” or “Ecclesiastical House.” Though the building never actually housed clergy, it housed the Louisiana Supreme Court and became part of the Louisiana State Museum in 1911.
Visit the Louisiana Toy Train Museum in Kenner’s Rivertown.
Hear any performance of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
Enjoy live theatre at Le Petit Theatre, the oldest community theater in the U.S.
Relish hip cabaret at Le Chat Noir.
Eat a mega hamburger, then sit back and enjoy local music at Snug Harbor.
Snuggle up with your honey at the Monteleone’s Carousel Bar.
Learn how writers write at the Tennessee Williams Festival.
Groove out at Jazz Fest.
Vow to do all your Christmas shopping on Magazine Street.
Make friends with the penguins at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
Take the Algiers Ferry across the Mississippi River and back.
Picnic at the Fly.
Hear jazz at its finest at Preservation Hall.
Hear Irma Thomas at Tipitina’s or MNSKP at Carrollton Station.
Take a tour of primitive art at the House of Blues.
Gaze a while at Lulu King Saxon’s “Uptown Street” at the Ogden Museum of Art.
Find the “secret door” at M.S. Rau Antiques on Royal Street.
Experience pop art and culture at the Contemporary Arts Center.
Sample an omelette, pecan pie and a mocha freeze at Camellia Grill.
Catch a fish in Lake Pontchartrain.
See the Mardi Gras Fountain change colors at the Lakefront.
Walk down St. Charles Avenue and gaze at the mansions.
Take a walking tour of the Garden District.
Take a carriage tour of the French Quarter.
Check out a book or CD from any library.
Walk the 1.8 mile track at Audubon Park.
Purchase a funky bauble at the Flea Market in the French Quarter.
Eat Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s, where the fare was created.
Eat Bananas Foster at Brennan’s, where the dessert was created.
Shop for a really special gift on Royal Street.
Learn about African American history at the Amistad Center at Tulane University.
Ride the mini train through City Park’s 600-year-old oak trees.
Watch potters at work at Shadyside Potters or Hands in Clay on Magazine Street.
Visit Marie Laveau’s tomb.
Visit the Voodoo Museum and purchase some gris-gris.
Have your tarot cards read or buy a piece of art on Jackson Square.
Learn how to make a Creole delicacy at the Savvy Gourmet or New Orleans Cooking Experience.
Tour an art exhibit of at Loyola’s Diboll Gallery.
Gaze at Newcomb Pottery and Tiffany windows at Newcomb Art Gallery.
Meander through the Besthoff Sculpture Garden and see works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Fernando Botero and more.
See religious artifacts, a hand-carved staircase and manicured gardens at the Old Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley.
Experience Victoriana at its best at the Gallier House.
Learn about native Louisiana Plants at the Botanical Garden of City Park.
Walk through the Louisiana Swamps at the Audubon Zoo.
Visit the Beauregard-Keyes House, home of both General PGT Beauregard and Dinner at Antoine’s author Frances Parkinson Keyes. The author moved into the (home now known as) Beauregard-Keyes House in the 1940s and wrote 29 of her books there.
Research jazz and Louisiana history at Tulane’s Special Collections.
Tour Longue Vue House and Gardens, one of the most elegant city estates in America.
Learn about New Orleans’ amazing architecture at the museum of the Preservation Resource Center.
Learn about the birth of jazz at the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park.
Visit the Pharmacy Museum and learn about primitive medicine.
Tour The Old U.S. Mint, the only building to serve as both the U.S. and Confederate Mint.
Enjoy a theatrical or musical production at NOCCA.
Visit Jean Lafitte National Historic Park.
Take a late night ghost tour of the French Quarter.
Take a cemetery tour and learn the real reason we bury dead above the ground.
See the 1865 Columbiad Cannon at the Civil War Museum.
Visit the Louisiana Children’s Museum.
Explore Louisiana Artworks – artists start to take over this month.
Pray for a miracle at the National Shrine of Blessed Seelos.
Visit McKenna Museum of African Art in Central City.
Walk hand-in-hand with your honey on the Moonwalk. The “Moon Walk,” incidentally, was named for former mayor Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, the man who led the transformation of the riverfront area from run-down shipping hub to scenic promenade.
Eat a snowball at Hansen’s or Plum Street Snowballs.
Visit Spanish Plaza/Churchill Circle/World Trade Center – the city’s international area.
Learn about the “mystery” of the Mystery Room at Antoine’s.
Visit the Old Algiers Courthouse.
Try to hug the McDonogh Oak
Located in City Park in New Orleans. This tree has a circumference of just over 24 feet; the tree was named in honor of city benefactor John McDonogh and is a member of The Live Oak Society, founded in Louisiana in 1934.
Visit Bayou Segnette.
Watch Roller Girls duke it out at Mardi Gras World.