Walking Tour 1: The French Quarter

Start: The intersection of Royal and Bienville streets.

Finish: Jackson Square.

Time: Allow approximately 2 hours, not including time spent in shops or historic homes.

Best Times: Any day between 8am and 10am (the quiet hours).

Worst Time: At night. Some attractions won’t be open, and you won’t be able to get a good look at the architecture.

If you only spend a few hours in New Orleans, do it in the exquisitely picturesque French Quarter. In these 80 city blocks, the colonial empires of France and Spain intersected with the emerging American nation. It’s called the Vieux Carré or “old square,” but somehow it’s timeless—venerable yet vibrantly alive. Today’s residents and merchants are stewards of a rich tradition of individuality and creativity. This tour will introduce you to its style, history, and landmarks.

Start at the corner of Royal and Bienville streets, heading into the Quarter (away from Canal St.). That streetcar named Desire rattled along Royal Street until 1948 (then came the bus named Desire. Really). Imagine how noisy these narrow streets were when the streetcars ran here. Your first stop is:
1. 339–343 Royal St., Rillieux-Waldhorn House
Now the home of Waldhorn and Adler Antiques (est. 1881), the place was built between 1795 and 1800 for Vincent Rillieux, the great-grandfather of the French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas. The wrought-iron balconies are an example of excellent Spanish colonial workmanship.

2. 333 Royal St., Bank of Louisiana (Police Station)
Across the street, this old bank was erected in 1826, and its Greek Revival edifice followed in the early 1860s. The building suffered fires in 1840, 1861, and 1931, and has served as the Louisiana State Capitol, an auction exchange, a criminal court, a juvenile court, and an American Legion social hall. It now houses the Vieux Carré police station.

Cross Conti Street to:
3. 403 Royal St., Latrobe’s
Benjamin H. B. Latrobe died of yellow fever shortly after completing designs for the Louisiana State Bank, which opened here in 1821. He was one of the nation’s most eminent architects, having contributed to the design of the U.S. Capitol and White House. Note the monogram “LSB” on the Creole-style railing. It’s now an elegant banquet hall named for the architect. Peek inside if you can.

4. 417 Royal St., Brennan’s Restaurant
The famed, bright-pink Brennan’s opened in this building in 1955 and was crowned restaurant royalty almost immediately. Shuttered in 2013 following a sad financial, legal, and family squabble, it changed hands (but stayed in the family) and was gloriously restored and reopened in 2014. One of 200 buildings destroyed in the 1794 fire and rebuilt (also by Vincent Rillieux) in 1855, it has been home to the Banque de la Louisiane, the world-famous chess champion Paul Charles Morphy, and the parents of Edgar Degas. If it's open, take a gander at the elegant center staircase and pretty courtyard, with the turtle-stocked fountain.


5. 437 Royal St., Peychaud’s Drug Store
When Masons held lodge meetings here in the early 1800s, proprietor and druggist Antoine A. Peychaud served after-meeting drinks of bitters and cognac to lodge members in small egg cups, called coquetier—later Americanized to “cocktails.” And so it began (the cocktail and the much-debated legend).

6. 400 Royal St., Louisiana Supreme Court
Built in 1909, this was and still is a courthouse, covering the length of the block. The ostentatious baroque edifice laden with Georgia marble seems out of scale here—and many original Spanish-era structures were demolished to pave its way. Granted, those original buildings were indeed run down, and the new construction was positioned as slum-clearing. All this was well before the Vieux Carré Commission formed in the early 1930s to protect the historic French Quarter buildings. Ironically, rulings in this very courthouse upheld the preservation regulations fueled by the Vieux Carré Commission.

Cross St. Louis Street to:

7. 519–521 Royal St., Antoine's Wine Cellar
See the little barred window between these buildings? Watch how many people walk right by this hidden marvel. Peer inside to spy the 165-foot-long, wow-factor wine cellar belonging to Antoine’s Restaurant, around the corner. The 25,000-bottle capacity leaves oenophiles envious.

8. 533 Royal St., The Merieult House
Built for the merchant Jean François Merieult in 1792, this house was the only building in the area left standing after the 1794 fire. Legend has it that Napoleon offered Madame Merieult great riches in exchange for her hair, to create a wig to present to a Turkish sultan (she refused). Nowadays, it’s home to the excellent Historic New Orleans Collection.

Cross Toulouse Street to:

9. 613 Royal St., The Court of Two Sisters
This structure was built in 1832 for a local bank president on the site of the 18th-century home of a French governor. The two sisters were Emma and Bertha Camors, whose father owned the building; from 1886 to 1906, they ran a curio store here.

10. 640 Royal St., Le Monnier Mansion
No one thought the 1811 building would survive a fourth-floor addition in 1876, creating the city’s first “skyscraper.” [’]Sieur George, fictional hero of George W. Cable’s scandalous Old Creole Days, “lived” here.

Cross St. Peter Street to:

11. 700 Royal St., The LaBranche House
The lacy cast-iron grillwork, with its delicate oak leaf and acorn design, makes this one of the most photographed buildings in the Quarter. This is one of 11 three-story brick row houses built from 1835 to 1840 for the widow of wealthy sugar planter Jean Baptiste LaBranche.

Turn left at St. Peter Street and continue to:

12. 714 St. Peter St., Lacoul House
Built in 1829 by prominent physician Dr. Yves LeMonnier, this was a boardinghouse run by Antoine Alciatore during the 1860s. His cooking became so popular with the locals that he eventually gave up catering to open the famous Antoine’s restaurant still operated today by his descendants.

13. 718 St. Peter St., Pat O’Brien’s
Now the de facto home to the famed Hurricane cocktail, this building was completed in 1790. Later, Louis Tabary put on popular plays here including, purportedly, the first grand opera in America. The pretty, popular courtyard is well worth a look, maybe even a refreshment.

14. 726 St. Peter St., Preservation Hall
Scores of people descend here nightly for traditional New Orleans jazz. A daytime stop affords a glimpse, through the ornate iron gate, of a lush tropical courtyard in back. Author Erle Stanley Gardner, of Perry Mason fame, lived upstairs.

Continue up St. Peter Street until you reach Bourbon Street, and turn right: Walk one block to Orleans Street and stop at the corner. The beige, three-story hotel with the wraparound balcony is the:

15. 717 Orleans St., Bourbon Orleans Hotel

Site of the famous quadroon balls, where wealthy white men were introduced to potential mistresses: free women (and girls) of color who were one-fourth black (quadroon) or one-eighth (octoroon). During these balls, the men and the young women’s mothers would carefully negotiate placage arrangements, which often included financial, educational, housing, and child support for the mistresses. Imagine the discussions on those balconies . . . . The building later became a convent for the Sisters of the Holy Family, the second-oldest order of black nuns in the country. Their founder (whose mother was a quadroon mistress!), Henriette DeLille, has been presented to the Vatican for consideration for sainthood.

Turn left onto Orleans and follow it a block to Dauphine (pronounced Daw-feen) Street. On the corner is:

16. 716 Dauphine St., Le Pretre Mansion
In 1839, Jean Baptiste Le Pretre bought this 1836 Greek Revival house and added the romantic cast-iron galleries. The house is the subject of a real-life horror story: In the 19th century, a conspicuously wealthy Turk, supposedly the brother of a sultan, rented the house. He brought an entourage of servants and beautiful young girls—all thought to have been stolen from the sultan—and threw lavish high-society parties. One night screams came from inside; the next morning, neighbors found the tenant and the young beauties lying dead in a pool of blood. The mystery remains unsolved. Local ghost experts say you can sometimes hear exotic music and piercing shrieks.

Turn right on Dauphine Street and go 2 blocks to Dumaine Street and then turn right. You’ll find an interesting little cottage at:

17. 632 Dumaine St., Madame John’s Legacy

This structure was once thought to be the oldest building on the Mississippi River, originally erected in 1726, 8 years after the founding of New Orleans. Recent research suggests, however, that only a few parts of the original building survived the 1788 fire. Its first owner was a ship captain who died in the 1729 Natchez Massacre; upon his death, the house passed to the captain of a Lafitte-era smuggling ship—and 21 subsequent owners. The structure is a rare example of the original French “raised cottage.” The above-ground basement is of brick-between-posts construction (locally made bricks were too soft to be the primary building material). The hipped, dormered roof extends out over the veranda. Its name comes from George W. Cable’s fictional character who was bequeathed the house in the short story [’]Tite Poulette. Now part of the Louisiana State Museum complex, it’s open to visitors Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 4:30pm; admission is free.

18. 915 Royal St., Cornstalk Hotel
Legend persists that the fence surrounding this sweet Victorian was ordered by the home’s owner to ease his wife’s homesickness for her native Iowa. Oddly, the same story is told about a house in the Garden District with a similar fence. It was forged in Philadelphia, and only one more exists (at the Banning Museum in California, but from New Orleans). In any case, it’s awfully pretty, isn’t it? Enough so that Bill and Hillary Clinton and Elvis himself have walked the supposedly haunted halls here.

19. 919 Royal St., Andrew Jackson Hotel (Old Federal Courthouse)

Just after General Andrew Jackson slammed the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Louis Louaillier, a member of the legislature, criticized the popular general. Stonewall responded by tossing Louis into jail, ditto the judge who ordered Louis’ release. When the wartime prisoners were released, the judge hauled Jackson back into this here courthouse, citing him for contempt of court and fining him $1,000. Twenty-nine years later, Congress ordered Jackson to be repaid with interest (his impeachment trial came 24 years after that). The courthouse survived until 1990, when this hotel was built.

Continue down Royal Street for half a block (good gallery browsing here). Turn left on St. Philip. Go one block to:

20. 941 Bourbon St., Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop

This National Historic Landmark claims to be the oldest continually operating bar in the country and the legend is that it was the headquarters of Jean Lafitte and his pirates, who posed as blacksmiths and used it to fence goods they’d plundered on the high seas. It still reflects the architectural influence of late-1700s French colonists. It may also be the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley, but that has not been documented. An unfortunate exterior renovation trying to replicate the original brick and plaster makes it look fake (it’s actually not), but the candlelit interior is still an excellent place to imagine 19th-century Quarter life and swill some grog.

Turn right onto Bourbon Street and follow it 2 blocks to Governor Nicholls Street. Turn right and go 1 block to the corner of Royal Street:

21. 1140 Royal St., The Lalaurie Home

Two-time widow Madame Delphine Macarty de Lopez Blanque wed Dr. Louis Lalaurie, moved into this residence in 1832, where the couple impressed the city with extravagant parties. One night in 1834 fire broke out. Neighbors crashed through a locked door to find seven starving slaves chained in painful positions. The sight, combined with Delphine’s stories of past slaves having “committed suicide” and rumors of hideous live-subject medical experiments conducted within, enraged her neighbors. Madame Lalaurie and her family escaped a mob’s wrath and fled to Paris. After her death, her body was returned to New Orleans—and even then she had to be buried in secrecy. Tales of hauntings persist, especially that of a slave child who fell from the roof trying to escape Delphine’s cruelties. The building was a Union headquarters during the Civil War, a gambling house, and home to actor Nicolas Cage. Haunted himself by financial difficulties, Cage returned the house to the bank in 2009, which converted it to condos.

22. 1132 Royal St., Gallier House Museum

James Gallier, Jr., built this house as his residence in 1857. He and his father were two of the city’s leading architects. Anne Rice based Lestat and Louis’s home in Interview with the Vampire on this house.

Turn left onto Ursulines Street, toward the river.

23. 617 Ursulines Ave., Croissant D’Or 

For a little rest or sustenance, stop in the popular Croissant D’Or, 617 Ursulines St. (www.croissantdornola.com; tel. 504/524-4663). The pastries here are very good, as is the ambience—inside or out.

At the corner of Ursulines and Chartres streets is the:

24. 1113 Chartres St., Beauregard-Keyes House
This raised cottage was built as a residence in 1826 by Joseph Le Carpentier, though it has other important claims to fame. Notice the Doric columns and handsome twin staircases.

Across the street is the imposing:

25. 1100 Chartres St., Old Ursuline Convent

Built in 1752, this is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. It was home to the hearty French nuns of Ursula, who helped raise young girls into marriageable prospects for the lonely men settling this new territory. Many locals claim to be direct descendants of those proper young girls—so many, in fact, that the math doesn’t add up. But it beats the alternate ancestry of criminals and other heathens.

Continue along Chartres until you get to Esplanade Avenue and turn right. This is one of the city’s most picturesque historic thoroughfares, with grand 1800s townhouses gracing the tree-lined avenue. At Decatur Street, you’ll see:

26. 400 Esplanade Ave., The New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint
This was the site of Fort St. Charles, built to protect New Orleans in 1792. Andrew Jackson reviewed the “troops” here—pirates, ragtag volunteers, and a nucleus of actual trained soldiers—whom he later led in the Battle of New Orleans. It’s now a Louisiana State Museum housing coin and jazz collections.

Follow Esplanade toward the river and turn right at the corner of North Peters Street. Follow North Peters until it intersects with Decatur Street. This is the back end of:

27. The Historic French Market
This European-style market has been here for well over 200 years, and today it has a farmers’ market, food booths, arty-crafty goods, and flea market stalls with souvenirs. Do stop to shop.

When you leave the French Market, exit on the side away from the river onto Decatur Street toward St. Ann Street. You’ll pass 923 and 919 Decatur St., where the Café de Refugies and Hôtel de la Marine stood. In the 1700s and early 1800s these were gathering places for pirates, smugglers, European refugees, and outlaws. Today it's muffuletta time:

28. 923 Decatur St., Central Grocery

If it’s around lunchtime, pop into Central Grocery (tel. 504/523-1620), and pick up a famed muffuletta sandwich. Eat inside at the little tables, or take it with you and dine alfresco in Jackson Square, near your next stop.

Decatur Street will take you to Jackson Square. Turn right onto St. Ann Street; the twin four-story, redbrick buildings here and on the St. Peter Street side of the square are:

29. The Pontalba Buildings
These highly coveted buildings sport some of the most impressive cast-iron balcony railings in the French Quarter. They also represent early French Quarter urban revitalization—and early girl power. In the mid-1800s, Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba inherited rows of buildings along both sides of the Place d’Armes from her father, the wealthy Spanish nobleman-turned-magnate Don Almonester (who rebuilt St. Louis Cathedral, among other developments). In an effort to counteract the emerging American sector across Canal Street, Baroness Pontalba had the structures razed, and under her supervision the Pontalba Buildings were begun in 1849 (you can see her mark today in the entwined initials "A.P." in the ironwork.) These high-end apartments were built in the traditional Creole-European style, with commercial space at street level, housing above, and courtyards in the rear.

The Baroness also had Jackson Square built, including the cast-iron fence and the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. Her scandalous personal story is equally fascinating.

At the corner of St. Ann and Chartres streets, turn left and continue around Jackson Square; you will see:

30. 751 Chartres St., The Presbytère
This, the Cabildo, and the St. Louis Cathedral—all designed by Gilberto Guillemard—were the first major public buildings in the Louisiana Territory. The Presbytère was originally designed as the cathedral’s rectory. Baroness Pontalba’s father financed the building’s beginnings, but he died in 1798, leaving only the first floor done. It was finally completed in 1813. Never used as a rectory, it became a city courthouse and now houses the excellent Louisiana State Museum.

Next you’ll come to:

31. St. Louis Cathedral
Although it is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the U.S., this is actually the third building erected on this spot—the first was destroyed by a hurricane in 1722, the second by fire in 1788. The cathedral was rebuilt in 1794; the central tower was later designed by Henry S. Boneval Latrobe, again remodeled and enlarged between 1845 and 1851 under the direction of Baroness Pontalba. The bell and stately clock (note the nonstandard Roman numeral 4), were imported from France.

The building on the Cathedral’s right is:

32. 701 Chartres St., The Cabildo
In the 1750s, this was the site of a French police station and guardhouse. Part of that building was incorporated into the Spanish government statehouse (known as the “Very Illustrious Cabildo”). It was still under reconstruction when the transfer papers for the Louisiana Purchase were signed in a room on the second floor in 1803. Since then, it has served as New Orleans’s City Hall, the Louisiana State Supreme Court, and, since 1911, a Louisiana State Museum.

Think those old Civil War cannons out front look pitifully obsolete? Think again. In 1921, in a near-deadly prank, one was loaded and fired. That missile traveled across the wide expanse of the Mississippi and six blocks inland, landing in a house in Algiers and narrowly missing its occupants.

Walk down the narrow alley between the Cabildo and the Cathedral. You’ll come to Pirate’s Alley:

33. 624 Pirate’s Alley, Faulkner House Books

In 1925, William Faulkner lived here. He contributed to the Times-Picayune and worked on his first novels, Mosquitoes and Soldiers’ Pay (soon to be a major motion picture),making this lovely store a requisite stop for literature lovers and book buyers of any persuasion.

To the left of the bookstore is a small alley that takes you to St. Peter Street, which is behind and parallel to Pirate’s Alley.

34. 632 St. Peter St., Tennessee Williams House

Have a sudden urge to scream “Stella!!!” at that second-story wrought-iron balcony? No wonder. This is where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the greatest pieces of American theater. He remarked that he could hear “that rattle-trap streetcar named Desire running along Royal and the one named Cemeteries running along Canal and it seemed the perfect metaphor for the human condition.”

Return to Jackson Square. On the left side of the cathedral on the corner of Chartres and St. Peter streets (with your back to the Mississippi River and Jackson Square) is:

35. 813 Decatur St., Café du Monde 

You’ve finished! Now go back across Jackson Square and Decatur Street to Café du Monde (tel. 504/525-4544) for beignets and coffee. Do climb the stairs up to the levee and relax on a bench, and watch the river roll.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.