Are you heading to New Orleans and looking for the best things to do there? On the top of most lists is a Garden District walking tour. Should you take a self-guided tour or a historical guided tour? A few choices are available, so it’s essential to make the right choice for you.
When I first started planning my trip to New Orleans, I have to say I didn’t really know anything about the Garden District. I knew the city was organized into several different districts and neighborhoods, but thought the Garden District was just the area where parks and gardens were found.
Of course, the French Quarter is world-famous, and a must-visit. This earliest neighborhood of the city showcases the beginnings of the Crescent City on the Mississippi River with a healthy dose of jazz and partying thrown in. However, just as important historically, the Garden District shows a different side of the city.
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Garden District History
According to the history books, the Garden District was established in the 1840s as a kind of suburb for the American elite of New Orleans. The way our guide explained it, they were tired of living amongst the lesser well-off in the tightly packed French Quarter. They needed room to spread out. I gotta say, after spending a night or two around Bourbon Street, I can definitely see where they were coming from!
They created this new city, Lafayette (not to be confused with the current Lafayette), on the land recovered from an old plantation. The lot sizes were huge, with grand mansions and grander-sized gardens surrounding them. When early travel writers in the late 19th century visited the area and saw all of the garden landscaping, they coined the term Garden District.
Some of those huge mansions and gardens still exist, but many of the lots were eventually subdivided. These “smaller” lots still have some mighty impressive architecture, but a little less garden.
Today, the entire Graden District lies roughly between St. Charles, Jackson, Magazine, and Delachaise streets. The entire district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Things to do in the Garden District, New Orleans
The main reason to visit the Garden District is to see the amazing architecture. Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and even shotgun cottages can all be found in the district. With all of these different styles, it seems like it shouldn’t work as a whole. But it does. Maybe it’s the wrought iron fencing, or the beautiful landscape, or even the massive live oaks lining the streets, but somehow it all works.
Built in the 1880s, the Crescent City Skating Rink serves as a local hub for the district. This is a gorgeous wooden building that today houses an excellent coffee shop, a few local boutique shops, and an excellent bookstore. In fact, the bookstore is the place to go if you’re looking for Garden District reading material.
The Rink is centrally located and is often the meeting point for guided tours. If you’re on a self-guided tour, this is a great place to start. There is a clean bathroom inside, and some seating areas. Overall, this is a great place to escape the heat or wait out a passing rain cloud.
Another landmark in the heart of the Garden District, only a few steps from the Rink, the Commander’s Palace has been serving award-winning Creole dishes since the 1890s. Some of the standout dishes are the turtle soup and the bread pudding soufflé. And the list of former chefs is a veritable who’s who of southern cooking with big names like Emeril LaGasse and Paul Prudhomme.
The Jazz Brunch on Saturdays and Sundays is a Garden District institution. Enjoy the masterfully prepared dishes and some uniquely creative cocktails while immersed in the cool jazz of a live band.
This is affordable fine dining, so dress appropriately. Or if you’d like to try some of their famous dishes but don’t have the time for a sit-down meal, order to-go next door at Le Cafe Blue.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
One of the city’s oldest and most historic cemeteries, Lafayette No. 1, sits on one whole city block in the Garden District. Family tombs, crypts, and mausoleums house the remains of more than 1,000 families and 7,000 people. While it might seem a macabre place to visit, the architecture and history here are amazing and well worth it.
This cemetery has been the sight of a few notable media moments including scenes from Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Diaries. However, the most notable event occurred when author Anne Rice created her own funeral procession that ended in the cemetery with her sudden appearance from her casket.
Garden District Tours
There are no shortages of guided tours to take in New Orleans, and the Garden District is no exception. I prefer to get a good mix of history, local stories, and architecture in my tours. If I can throw little food into the mix, all the better. That’s why I loved the Garden District Food and History tour I took.
With just the right balance of Cajun and Creole food tasting, and viewing mansions while listening to the local history, I never felt bored or restless. On so many tours, I’m usually the one wandering away from the long-winded guide. This was not the case here. I enjoyed every minute of it.
If you’re just looking for a chance to get out, walk around and enjoy the scenery without a guide, feel free to use our self-guided walking tour map.
Self-Guided New Orleans Garden District Tour Map
Getting to the Garden District
Driving to the Garden District is easy and straightforward, however, as most of the residential parking is on the street, parking may be a problem. The better way to get to the Garden District is on the historic St. Charles Streetcar. Get off at the St. Charles and Washington stop to begin your tour.
Some of our Recommended New Orleans Hotels
- Quarter House: In the heart of the French Quarter with a beautiful courtyard and pool
- New Orleans Marriott Warehouse Arts District – Personal favorite, near the art galleries, bars and brunch spots of the Arts/Warehouse District
- Drury Plaza Hotel – Excellent rooms and value in a good location in the Central Business District, St. Charles streetcar stop just around the corner
No visit to New Orleans would be complete without a visit to the Garden District. While it might not be as old and colorful as the French Quarter, the history and architecture here are sure to amaze. Incredible mansions, lushly landscaped gardens, and one of the city’s oldest cemeteries are just waiting to be explored.
Author Bio: Jim Vail, is an avid traveler and explorer. He’s been to all fifty states and traveled around the world. He’s happiest shooting wildlife photography, camping, and hiking in the mountains, or fishing on the side of a river in Alaska.