The trees are what made me fall in love with New Orleans.
My husband was born 45 minutes from the city in a little town called Cut Off. He brought me for the first time 15 years ago, right when we started dating. We drove into the city and straight to The Tree of Life, a massive oak tree in Audubon Park. Climbing up into the broad, wild-limbed branches, flowing like water to the earth, captured my imagination immediately.
Since that first trip, we have visited almost every year: first as a married couple and then with our babies, who have now grown into kids. We spend a large part of every visit in the city’s incredible green spaces. New Orleans may have initially captured my heart with its trees and the lush park spaces, but the elegant, columned architecture, the food, the music and the vibrancy of this unique and resilient city has kept me coming back.
Big Easy as a family
I know New Orleans is a popular destination for adults, but over the last 10 years, we have brought our kids from babyhood up. The city has so much to offer for families. The two main park spaces in New Orleans are Audubon Park and City Park. On almost every trip, we visit Audubon Zoo. I love the wild-garden feeling of the zoo grounds. In the summer, the zoo has a water feature called Cool Zoo with a lazy river, an alligator waterslide and other splashy fun. Our favorite section of the zoo is the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit, home to rare white alligators who have a phantom-like quality as they float by you with their bright eyes. Also, part of the Audubon Nature Institute is the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, located next to the Mississippi River, near the French Quarter. The aquarium has also featured in many of our previous visits and is rated one of the Top 10 in the country.
For our visit this year, we had only a single day to spend with our kids, ages 6 and 9. City Park in New Orleans is larger than Central Park in New York City. Much like the entirety of the city itself, the park is a mixture of green, water-rich landscape and historical architecture. City Park is also the home of our first stop of the morning, the New Orleans Museum of Art Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The garden is architecturally innovative with double bridges, a sunken sidewalk next to channels for water, rain gardens and a boardwalk style walkway over the wetlands. The design was created to be low-impact and floodable. I expected a small collection in the gardens and I was impressed to discover an established and expansive assemblage of art. I loved too many pieces to list, but highlights of the collection, which was especially engaging for kids, included a massive safety pin by Claes Oldenburg, an also enormous and sharp-legged spider by Louise Bourgeois and the mirrored labyrinth by Jeppe Hein. The gardens are free and open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
City Park is also the home of the New Orleans Children’s Museum, botanical gardens and even a small amusement park for kids called Carousel Gardens. Just outside the gates of the sculpture garden is my favorite location of the New Orleans institution, Cafe du Monde. The green-and-white awning looks like a step back in time, settled perfectly in the lushness of the park with a playground close by. We crowded into a little table on the patio to sip chicory coffee and enjoy crispy, hot beignets all snowy with powdered sugar. “Don’t exhale!” my husband chides me as I forget to hold my breath while taking a big bite and blow powdered sugar all over my clothes.
A walk through Mardi Gras history
Since it was my birthday the week before, I was able to finally demand that we go to a place I’d always wanted to see: Mardi Gras World. Mardi Gras World is a 15-minute drive from City Park. They have a free shuttle but we were tight on time. The heat was absolutely blazing as we parked the car and walked to the 300,000-square-foot warehouse. The building is next to the Mississippi River, shadowed by the bridge behind and marked with giant purple writing. The sights inside were enough to distract us from our sweaty foreheads. The space is enormous and filled with fantastical sculptures from a sampling of past Mardi Gras floats: Louis Armstrong, Shrek, the Wicked Witch of the West, Chucky and his bride: all sorts of characters and themes. Before you tour the facility, you watch a 20-minute movie about the history of Mardi Gras and the artistry of the parades.
The kids were fascinated by the historical footage and astonished to walk through the warehouse of sculptures from previous years. Many are crafted of Styrofoam and there is a window to peek in and see some of the artisans at work, cutting shapes with a robotic saw.
Eat, eat, eat!
When I travel, I love to eat. Finding delicious, local food is a priority everywhere we go, but in New Orleans there is an abundant selection of choices. This trip, we tried a new restaurant for every meal. One of the best meals was dinner at Jacques Imos. Jacques Imos is a funky, eclectic place. Once you are inside the entire ceiling is covered with painted canvases. You walk right through the bustling kitchen to get from the bar to your table. We loved that and tried to spy on the chefs to see what they were making. The food was hearty and delicious with fresh spinach salad, sweet, crispy corn muffins and a blackened redfish that caused me to keep leaning to my husband and saying, “This is so good!” For the adventurous, try the alligator cheesecake. Make reservations in advance for this popular spot.
For a light lunch, perfect for a hot day, I recommend Saba. Saba is a Mediterranean restaurant with small plates of hummus, baba ganoush and pickled vegetables, as well as all the massive hot pita bread you can eat. Our children ate only bread here and felt very much as though they were living their best lives. Saba is less than a mile from Audubon Park.
As our final stop of our very full day, we went for ice cream. If you go to New Orleans with or without children, please promise me you will go to Angelo Brocato’s Italian Ice Cream parlor. Angelo Brocato’s originally opened in 1905 and, even after sustaining substantial damage in Hurricane Katrina, they are still serving Italian ice, gelato and other Italian desserts under a glowing neon sign on Carrollton Street. We loved the quaint pink shop with glowing cases filled with vibrant cookies and apothecary jars filled with treats. Try the spumoni or the infamous lemon ice, or get your gelato in a crisp pastry cannoli shell.
We left Angelo Brocato’s late and headed in the direction of our beds, feeling happy and joyful with our day in the city. I’m already looking forward to next year’s adventures.
If You Go
New Orleans is about an 8-hour drive from Austin.
For a quieter place away from the hustle of the French Quarter, try The Pontchartrain Hotel, originally a luxury apartment building in the 1940s. It’s located in the Garden District and close to the street car line. https://thepontchartrainhotel.com/hotel/
New Orleans Museum of Art Besthoff Sculpture Garden, https://noma.org/besthoff sculpture-garden/
Cafe Du Monde, https://shop.cafedumonde.com/
Mardi Gras World, https://www.mardigrasworld.com/
Jacques Imos, https://jacques-imos.com/
Saba Mediterranean, https://eatwithsaba.com/
Audubon Zoo and Aquarium of the Americas, https://audubonnatureinstitute.org/zoo
Angelo Brocato, https://www.angelobrocatoicecream.com/