We asked locals for advice and got a friendly earful. They pointed us to hidden gems away from French Quarter and Bourbon Street crowds: seance rooms; vampire boutiques; restaurants serving farm-raised snapping turtle soup and crawfish pie; 24-hour bars with excellent live music and fancy $5 cocktails — want that to go?
We were impressed by their fierce love for this freewheeling “Paris of the South.” Boasted one longtime resident: “We don’t have laws in New Orleans. We have suggestions.”
In that spirit, we offer some of our favorite discoveries.
I was hooked on SecondLine Arts and Antiques the moment I spotted the necklace of raccoon vertebrae and beaded garfish scales. Excellent swamp vibe, and only $25. Deeper into the sprawling French Quarter store, I found the edgy, Crayola-bright paintings of street artist Nathan Pitts (a.k.a. Nathan Henry): two for $40. An hour later, I was still wandering, lost in a world of blue morpho butterflies and sitting Buddhas, doll heads and deer heads, chandeliers and painted skulls, vintage hats and glittering masks, handmade light fixtures and fine old European furniture.
More than 150 local artists and collectors rent booths in the eclectic shop, which goes all-out in supporting local creativity. “The concept is to give starting-out artists a chance to showcase their work at a very low rent and commission rate,” says manager Victoria Williams. It’s a welcome antidote to the same-same tourist souvenir shops nearby.
1209 Decatur St.
Grand aboveground mausoleums and family tombs draw hordes of tourists to New Orleans graveyards. We stopped by a few of these “cities of the dead,” taking in the stately, megabuck monuments, before visiting the haunting, hidden-away Holt Cemetery in the Navarre neighborhood. Nothing fancy or pretentious at this humble site, a resting place established for city indigents in the 1870s. Despite the city’s high water table, almost all the departed here are buried below ground, and flooding can push up bits of bones and burial goods that keep death very real and very present. I was stirred as I wandered the muddy cemetery, taking in beloved stuffed animals now covered in muck, half-buried Mardi Gras beads, sunken graves, bouquets of dusty plastic flowers, pieces of PVC pipe laid out in rectangles to mark off family plots, ripped bits of shroud cloth and hand-lettered wooden tomb markers leaning underneath old trees hung with moss. I kept thinking of poet John Donne’s famous line: “Death, be not proud. ”
The Holt’s most famous resident is jazz king Charles “Buddy” Bolden, described by pianist Jelly Roll Morton as “the blowingest man since Gabriel .” Bolden died penniless, and is buried in an unmarked grave in this poignant place.
4901 Rosedale Drive, next to Delgado Community College .
Voodoo, brought to New Orleans from Africa by slaves, is a serious and seriously exploited religion in the city, with many shops selling poorly made, mass-produced potions and relics. My daughter, a longtime student of pagan practices, wanted to find something authentic, and locals pointed us to Crescent City Conjure in the Marigny District. The African American-owned shop is a hoodoo, not voodoo, center for serious practitioners of the magical arts from around the country. The owner of the small, cheery, brick-walled place makes goods by hand and personally blesses them, using herbs, roots and other earthy matter such as the grave dirt used in “ancestral powder,” which is said to open spirit communication with those gone beyond.
Original conjure oils — which may be bottled in front of you — include offerings named Follow Me Boy Oil, Crown of Success Oil and Fast Money Oil. You’ll find hand-poured Happy Home candles, Fiery Protection Gris-Gris bags and a bath mix called Get Yo Mind Right. Tarot card readings cost $50-$75; spiritual services and spells, including love work and vexing, are individually tailored and priced. “Even if people know nothing when they come in, we’re hoping they can feel something special in the air,” says owner Sen Elias .
2402 Royal St.
New Orleans is fertile ground for little back-street museums, some no bigger than a dusty room or two: alligator museums, wax museums, voodoo museums, cocktail museums, jazz museums. We started at the two-story New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, opened by the city’s first licensed pharmacist in 1823. Its old-timey cases reveal marvelous medical curiosities: leeches, snake oil, voodoo love drops and rectal dilators that promised to cure insomnia, piles and other ills. Unfortunately, it was soon packed with a large tour group that filled every cranny, led by a guide with the voice of Zeus. We slipped out to search for something less trampled. To avoid big tours, the best time to visit is late afternoon, but all bets are off in peak season.
514 Chartres St.
General admission, $5
No crowds at the Museum of Death. Its creepy content weeds out the squeamish (and its website cautions parents against bringing children). Our exploration of death began at the front desk, which displayed a macabre image of a man run over twice by vehicles. Inside the building were autopsy photos, mounted dog heads, fetal pigs, beheading photos from China, a Donner family display case, and walls dedicated to the lives, letters and drawings of serial killers including Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. I had no idea Bundy was a necrophiliac, but you’ll find plenty of stuff you didn’t need to know here. This museum even has the infamous Thanatron, Jack Kevorkian’s suicide machine, with a name that means “instrument of death” in Greek. In the video room, you can take in a series of grisly murder scenes set to upbeat Dixieland Jazz. Seriously unsettling.
227 Dauphine St.
General admission, $15
To lighten up, we headed to the little Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture. There, we checked out the private collection of brilliantly colored, feathered, sequined, beaded costumes from carnival ball royalty and Mardi Gras krewes. We had the insanely fun Costume Room to ourselves for a half-hour, laughing and flashing selfies as we tried on ensembles from rack after rack of genuine Mardi Gras costumes, including elaborate — and surprisingly heavy — headdresses and king-and-queen-of-the-ball regalia. The museum has an interesting gift shop, where my daughter bought a bewitching flower-and-ribbon-adorned antler headdress that looks right out of a scary fairy tale.
1010 Conti St.
General admission $12; docent tours $15
Putting an interesting twist on the city’s all-hours, open-container cocktail culture is the Backspace Bar and Kitchen, tucked away in a dive-bar stretch of the French Quarter. This comfy, low-key spot with stone floors and fireplace is dedicated to writing and writers. We found manual clickity-clack typewriters and old books on shelves, and icons of Southern literature on walls: Truman Capote, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty.
Authors are honored in food, booze and merch: “Don’t be ‘a writer.’ Be writing,” advises a Faulkner T-shirt. You can dine on a Hemingway Cuban Sandwich with pulled pork and prosciutto ($12.50) and sip on a Death in the Afternoon cocktail ($10.50), an intoxicating mix of champagne and absinthe the author claimed he invented with friends, and which was named after one of his books. As you do, contemplate Hemingway’s famous line: “I drink to make other people more interesting.” The place is also known for its mean Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans, a heady combination of absinthe, rye and Peychaud’s Bitters ($9). Mmmm and whoa: Step carefully down those uneven Big Easy sidewalks.
139 Chartres St.
Lyke is a writer based in Washington state. Her website is marylynnlyke.com.
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