At its core, New Orleans is a lot like the back room of a thrift shop, except on a much larger scale. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, all the eclectic goodies you could hope to find, densely packed wall to wall (or city limit to city limit).
In that regard, few urban parks in the country better reflect the makeup of their locality than New Orleans City Park. Think of any attraction, diversion or activity you’d like to enjoy in a city park—any—and it’s probably there.
How’d they fit it all, there just off Lake Pontchartrain northwest of the French Quarter? Granted, 1,300 acres is no small patch of land. But this is lots of stuff!
City Park Attractions
In no particular order:
- A botanical garden with more than 2,000 plants.
- Sculptures of familiar fairytale figures in a children’s garden.
- An amusement park with 16 rides including a century-old carousel of hand-painted wooden horses.
- The New Orleans Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden.
- A 7,250-yard, 18-hole golf course with a driving range.
- A second 18-hole course under construction, due in 2017, which will include a clubhouse.
- Two 18-hole mini-golf courses.
- A disc golf course.
- An equestrian center offering riding lessons.
- A dog park.
- Swans, ducks … and crocodiles.
- A lake entirely within park confines offering paddleboat/rowboat rentals.
- An overall 11-mile system of fishable bayous and lagoons (from which a 12-year-old once caught a 52-pound buffalo fish).
- A football-soccer-track stadium with 26,500 spectator seats, a 110-seat press box, three locker rooms, and a cutting-edge scoreboard and sound system.
- A second football-soccer-lacrosse stadium, older and smaller (5,000 seats) but with updated amenities including FieldTurf®.
- A practice running track.
- Miles and miles of hiking and biking trails.
- A 4-acre water park, also scheduled to open 2017.
- Children’s playgrounds that range from classic slides and swing sets to more modern climbing and tunnel systems.
- A 60-acre section of unspoiled nature that comprises eight distinct and varied ecosystems including wetlands—a favorite destination of birders.
- A youth farm where children are taught to grow healthy foods.
- More than 20,000 trees, ranging in age from post-Katrina replacements to a pair of oaks somewhere between 600 and 900 years old.
- A dedicated garden displaying miniature replicas of the streetcars and railroad trains that traversed New Orleans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
- A tennis center, lighted for night play, featuring 16 hard courts, 10 clay courts, and a practice court with two backboards.
- A café, pizza restaurant and food truck.
- A 24-hour coffee and beignet stand—a recently opened new location of Morning Call, a New Orleans institution for almost 150 years.
- Outdoor fitness equipment (useful after the beignets).
The Spirit of New Orleans
Many of those oaks have been there since the park opened in1854—and they’ll be there beyond completion of upgrades planned through 2018, when New Orleans celebrates its 900th anniversary.
When visitors and vacationers think of New Orleans, they think of the French Quarter, Mardi Gras parades, the Garden District, the Superdome, St. Louis Cathedral and all-hours jazz clubs in Faubourg Marigny aka Frenchmen Street. But to local residents, especially the stalwarts who endured and rebuilt after Katrina, City Park inspires great pride as one of the biggest symbols of the city’s resiliency.
In the aftermath of the devastating 2005 storm, the city authorized a Master Plan for renovating the park, which had been decimated like so much else of the region. The plan has involved dozens of individual projects—new planting and construction, renovations and beautification. Some of the work has been completed, some ongoing, some still in the queue. Stunningly, the city has accomplished this with the help of 35,000 volunteers.
The two ancient but sturdy oaks epitomize the bend-but-not-break spirit of New Orleans, but maybe even better examples of the residents’ ongoing pride in enduring institutions are the “Flying Horses.” That’s the local nickname for the beloved wooden carousel, which appears on the National Register of Historic Places.
Still powered by its original motor, The Carousel spins 53 horses (with tails of real horse hair), a giraffe, a camel, a 500-pound lion, and two chariots. It was built in 1906, but some of the riding animals were carved more than 20 years before that. So prized in this historic treasure that craftsmen painstakingly repaint every single figure every two years.
New Orleans City Park offers all you could expect from an entire vacation, let alone from an urban park. And it’s proof that not all largesse in New Orleans has to be sinful.