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Street Adventures - Canal Street

Canal Street: “The Great Wide Way”

Canal Street

Before we go any farther, you’re probably wondering, “Why Canal Street? Where’s the Canal?” The truth is there never was one. Oh, there were plans to build a canal that connected the river to Lake Pontchartrain, but it never happened. For some reason, however, the name stuck.

In the early days, Canal Street was a kind of dividing line – a neutral ground – between the French Quarter where the wealthy Creoles lived and the American side where the nouveau riche started building their mansions. Today all medians in New Orleans are called “neutral grounds.” Now you know why.

Most of our parents remember a time when locals would dress in their Sunday best and head down to Canal Street for shopping or to go to the theater. You could shop for your fur at Gus Meyer in the day and show it off under the glittering neon lights of the Orpheum or the Saenger Theatre that night. But, like most major downtown thoroughfares, New Orleans finest department stores moved to the malls, and the street turned into a sea of t-shirt and electronic shops. In recent years, Canal Street has experienced a sort of renaissance with the opening of many first-rate hotels and the swanky Shops at Canal, with its tenants Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Tiffany’s and Anthropologie. The Theatres at Canal Street are also a big draw. You can watch all the top new releases while sipping a martini and sharing a veggie panini.

Just across the street from Canal Place is Harrah’s New Orleans Casino. New Orleans only land-based casino had its ribbon cutting in 1999, almost 175 years after America’s first gambling casino opened its doors in New Orleans in 1822. Along with every kind of game imaginable, Harrah’s is home to several authentic New Orleans eateries, including Acme Oyster House and John Besh Steak.

Other highlights on Canal include the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, the largest freestanding museum in America completely devoted to bugs. Along with learning about insects here, you can actually eat them. Are New Orleans’ chefs inventive or what?  The Insectarium is just a short walk from the Audubon Aquarium of the America’s. Come pet stingrays, watch divers swim with sharks and more.

Moving further away from the river down Canal Street, you’ll pass the Saenger Theatre on the right. In 1927, Saenger’s architect Emile Weil had 150 lights installed in the theater’s ceiling, arranged in the shape of the constellations in the night sky. There were also machines that projected sunrises, sunsets and moving clouds. The Saenger has been renovated twice since its opening, most recently after Hurricane Katrina. Today, it’s a great place to catch Broadway plays.

Canal Street has its fair share of fabulous restaurants as well, including the Palace Café (try the white chocolate bread pudding). Werlein’s Music store used to be in this building. Louis Armstrong bought his first cornet here. And further down the street, is Mandina’s, a popular neighborhood Creole/Italian restaurant that’s been around since1932. The homemade oyster & artichoke soup is to die for here. For more restaurant ideas on and around Canal Street, click here.

Just before you hit the cemeteries at the end of Canal, you’ll see The Mortuary.

They say more than 20,000 funerals were performed within the walls of this old funeral home that was turned into a Haunted House in 2007. If you dare, check out The MystereTM Escape Rooms, including the Serial Killer’s Lair, the Embalming Room and the Ghost Lab.

If you have time, get off at the end of Canal and tour The Historic New Orleans Cemetery District. Most of these “Cities of the Dead” were built in the mid 1840s in response to cholera and yellow fever epidemics. One of the most beautiful is Metairie Cemetery, built in 1872. Come admire the magnificent above-ground tombs and see where New Orleans buried its heroes, scallywags and jazz cats. For a list of guided cemetery tours in the city, click here.