New Orleans City Park: Heat, Art, and Relaxation

by Nick Hilden  |  Published March 10, 2015

Tucked away in the Northern section of New Orleans sits City Park, one of the largest and oldest urban parks in the United States, and home to the New Orleans Museum of Art along with a host of other attractions. It’s a fine place to spend an afternoon – just remember to dress for the heat.

New Orleans City Park. (Photo: Britt Reints via Flickr)

New Orleans City Park. (Photo: Britt Reints via Flickr)

If you’ve never experienced an August in New Orleans, let me tell you – it’s hot and muggy.

Actually, hot and muggy doesn’t even begin to describe it. The heat – which easily hovers near one hundred degrees at midday – wouldn’t be so dramatic were it not coupled with Louisiana’s swampland humidity. Between the moisture that saturates the air and the unabating sweat that soaks through every inch of your clothing, it’s a humidity that does its best to drown you.

From the moment I got off the bus that had carried to the park via Esplanade Avenue, my resolve to explore was already being mercilessly battered by the sun. And in New Orleans, a cold drink is the best way to beat the heat, so I began my visit to City Park– which happens to be one of the largest and oldest urban parks in the country–searching for a cold beer to ward off the beast.

In most places, eleven in the morning might seem like an early hour for beer. In New Orleans, however, it is as fine a time as any. And it being New Orleans – a city devoid of open container laws – I had a suspicion that somewhere in the massive park there must be beer for sale.

So up the main entryway, past the Museum of Art, which I would explore later, and along one of the park’s little lakes I went, drawn by the sound of brass-laden jazz music. In New Orleans it’s usually a safe bet that were there is jazz, there is also beer.

It is a pleasant park, with expanses of well-groomed lawn and crops of regional foliage. Ancient oaks abound, especially in the sculpture garden, which offers an array of statues both abstract and realistic, along with some much-needed shade.

Eventually I reached the source of the music – a little café and entertainment center where a large band was entertaining fifty or so tourists. This, I discovered, was Parker’s Café, a place where shade and beer could be had.

From there, after two hastily downed brews, I set out into the park with the SFP shield afforded by alcoholic imbibement.

It should be noted here that it is not merely the opinion of the author that drinking is a semi-integral part of the New Orleans experience. Booze and the Big Easy cradle one another the same way that the Mississippi River cradles the city itself.

A Park Full of Attractions

Reinvigorated, I ventured northward where I came upon a small amusement park. Though I did not experience its rides myself, I have it on good authority that they are worth checking out.

Nearby one finds a number of attractions, from the Storyland fairy tale theme park for children, to wooded paths and a botanical garden, to a golf course and more. Suffice to say, there is something for everyone.

Wandering back south, I decided to check out a lake where I’d seen a number of people enjoying paddle boats and other small water craft. The lake is adjacent to the art museum, and while the boating looked fun, I decided that it was time to check out the art museum. From the moment I walked through the doors I knew that I’d made an excellent decision.

Ah, air conditioning.

An Organized, Well-Cooled Place

The New Orleans Museum of Art isn’t the largest I’ve ever seen, but it is certainly one of the best laid out.

When browsing many art museums, one is forced to wander up and down random hallways, and you usually get the sense that you’re missing something. Not so at NOMA. It is rather straightforward – make your way through the ring of rooms on the first floor, ascend to the second, and repeat.

The NOMA offers an array of works from highly recognizable artists, including Degas, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Pollock, O’Keeffe, and Rodin. For a museum of its modest size, it is rather impressive that it has been able to gather so many renowned names under one roof.

But the giants of painting aren’t all it has to offer. The NOMA also houses a vast collection of native art that has survived from the pre-Columbian and Spanish eras, along with art, ceramics, glass, and sculptures from all over the world spanning several centuries.

It is, all in all, a fantastic place to spend a few hours. Once I finished my I made my way to the nearby streetcar that would carry me down Canal Street, where I hoped to find food and drink.

As the streetcar moved along its track, a much-appreciated cool breeze flowed through its open windows. The nearer we got to the river, the more bustle passed by. At some point I looked to the right and saw a marquee announcing that Dr. John was performing later that night. To the left directly across the street, another boasted that Crosby, Stills and Nash would be playing at the same time. Further down the street another world-class musician was advertised, then another.

That’s just how it goes in New Orleans. Everything is fused into one – the music, the heat, the booze, the food, the art, the history, and the heat one more time, just for good measure.

I’ve never been to a place where I found the people to be so outgoing, so friendly, and so ready and willing to have a good time. It’s not hard to see why that is.