Those who have been to Disneyland might be forgiven if they experience some déjà vu upon first seeing the French Quarter. The same might be said for those who have visited Paris. It’s more worn than Disneyland, of course, and more compact than Paris, on which it was based. But despite the fact that Walt actually did replicate a French Quarter street in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, there ain’t nothing like the real thing baby—and there's certainly no other square mile in the U.S. that resembles the French Quarter. This one turned 300 years old in 2018 and is one of the most visually interesting neighborhoods in America. The endless eyefuls of florid architecture, the copious cultural oddities, and the stories that seem to emanate from the very streets make it easy to look beyond the ubiquitous souvenir shops and bars. We certainly make the occasional foray to Bourbon Street in all its tacky, outlandish glory, and believe it should be experienced (at least once). But the operative word is “occasional,” and the key to this city is getting out and fully exploring it.
A French engineer named Adrien de Pauger designed the Quarter in 1718. Today it’s a great anomaly in America, where many other cities have torn down or gutted their historic centers. Thanks to a strict local preservation policy, the area looks much as it always has and is still the heart of town.
Jackson Square bustles with musicians, artists, fortune-tellers, jugglers, and those peculiar “living statue” performance artists entertaining for change (we try to always carry some $1 bills, so we’re prepared to throw something in the hat of those that catch our eye or ear). Pay attention to that seemingly ad-hoc jazz band that plays right in front of the Cabildo—these talented musicians might be in jeans now but may very well be in tie and tux later, playing high-end clubs. Royal Street, our favorite street for strolling, is home to stellar street musicians, numerous antiques shops, and galleries, with other interesting stores on Chartres and Decatur streets and the cross streets between.
The closer you get to Esplanade Avenue and toward Rampart Street, the more residential the Quarter becomes (in the business sections, the ground floors are commercial and the stories above are often apartments). Peep in through any open gate; surprises await in the form of graceful brick- and flagstone-lined courtyards filled with foliage and bubbling fountains. At the same time, be mindful that throughout the Quarter, you are walking by people’s homes. Please be courteous, quiet, and clean, folks.
The Vieux Carré Commission is ever vigilant about balancing contemporary economic interests in the Quarter with historical preservation. There are few chain stores or restaurants, and no traffic lights in the whole interior of the French Quarter (they’re relegated to fringe streets); streetlights are the old gaslight style. Large city buses are banned, and during part of each day Royal and Bourbon streets are pedestrian malls. No vehicles are ever allowed around Jackson Square. The Quarter streets are laid out in an almost perfect rectangular grid, so they’re easily navigable. It’s also well-traveled and thus relatively safe. Again, as you get toward the fringes and as night falls, you should exercise caution; stay in the more bustling parts and try not to walk alone.
Our French Quarter walking tour will give you the best overview of the historic structures in the area and its history. Many other attractions that aren’t in the walking tour are listed so make sure to cross-reference as you go along.
As mentioned elsewhere, driving in the French Quarter isn’t ideal. But if you must, and you’re planning on a full day of sightseeing, you can reserve a parking spot at lots owned by Premium Parking (www.premiumparking.com). It’s not a bad idea to have a designated parking destination, and it’s a very good idea during events and peak seasons.
In addition to the destinations listed here, you might be interested in the Germaine Wells Mardi Gras Museum at 813 Bienville St., on the second floor of Arnaud’s restaurant (www.arnaudsrestaurant.com/about/mardi-gras-museum; tel. 504/523-5433). It has a collection of Mardi Gras costumes and ball gowns dating from 1910 through 1960. Admission is free, and the museum is open daily during restaurant hours.