A village within a city is how I would describe the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. There is no other place in the world that I am aware of that is quite as unique. Founded in 1719 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the French Quarter, also known as Vieux Carré (“OldSquare”) is like a trip to a foreign land, where time has no meaning, the folks are friendly, and the culture is judgement free.
Spanish Colonial architecture dominates, from the period of development in the late 1700’s when the city was under Spanish rule. High ceilings, stucco and brick siding, and wrought iron balconies were the design elements of the day, to give the occupants relief from the heat and humidity, that can at times overwhelm in the late summer. The buildings seem to meld seamlessly, juxtaposed with modern skyscrapers which lie just beyond in the adjacent Business District.
The Quarter consists of 78 square blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River to the east and Rampart Street, a four-lane boulevard, to the West. Esplanade Avenue marks the north and Canal and Decatur Streets contain the south edge. Within those boundaries lie a tourist’s wonderland of history, hyperbole, legend, jazz, drink and rich and varied food that has no equal anywhere else in the world.
On the eastern edge, next to the river, is Jackson Square, a park that once overlooked the river before higher levees were built in the 1900’s. Jackson Square was built in the style of Place des Vosges in Paris, France. In the center is an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, commemorating his victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The square is bordered by Parisian styled buildings on the north and the south, where wrought iron fencing and park benches line shade covered brick walkways. One can always find artists here selling their works as well as jazz musicians flavoring the air with their brass instruments. The western edge of the park is bordered by the Saint Louis Cathedral and two museums which once served as the city hall and a dormitory for the Catholic priests and bishops in the city.
Walk towards the river from Jackson Square and you’ll find the famous Café Du Monde, and beyond that the French Market, an open-air market where a visitor can find items, crafts and food from all over the world. The oldest of its kind anywhere in the United States, the French Market originated in or near the current location 1791.
Royal Street hosts many antique shops, selling treasures from the region’s past. One can find everything from jewelry, once belonging to southern aristocracy, to art, to architectural elements which once adorned their homes. One block over is Bourbon Street, famous for its bars and nightclubs. Everything from modern rock to Dixieland jazz can be heard as you walk past the myriad of bars. Voodoo shops, wax museums, and many other shops offering various oddities seem to be around every corner. The northern section of the Quarter hosts a sizable LBGTQ community and several drag bars, famous for their flamboyant shows.
The French Quarter is the heart of a city known as the “Big Easy”. The pace is slow and relaxed. Take advantage and explore, no one there is in a hurry. Depending on the hotel you selected, you may awake to a breakfast buffet that features Bloody Marys or Irish Coffees. Stopping by one of the many daiquiri shops at 10 in the morning to buy a Hurricane (frozen rum drink) is not wrong, or unusual. You’re not in the real world, enjoy it.
The French Quarter is not inexpensive. It is possible to find bargains but, in most cases, when seeking lodging and food, be prepared to pay. Rooms can range from $150 a night for a no-frills situation, to well over $1000 for 4- or 5-star accommodations. Double those rates during Mardi Gras. Restaurants vary greatly as well, and a family of 4 can easily pay $200 for breakfast. But, oh what you are getting! The Quarter turns out more renown chefs than most any other place on the planet. The unique flavors of the Cajun and creole cuisine can’t be matched, anywhere!
Visit the French Quarter in the spring, after Mardi Gras has ended. Or visit in the fall, early October or later. The breezy and warm weather will be perfect for most travelers. Avoid the Quarter in Late July to mid or late September. The heat and humidity during that time is truly oppressive. If you do visit during Mardi Gras be prepared to find hotel accommodations outside the Quarter, and in some cases outside the city; desirable rooms in the Quarter during Mardi Gras are booked years and even decades in advance. The Royal Sonesta, a popular 4-star hotel on Bourbon Street, has a 17-year waiting list for a room with a balcony during Mardi Gras.
The French Quarter is a destination, it demands days’ worth of your attention. Two days is not enough, 4 days is not enough. It seems as though a person can never see and experience it all. And just when you think you might be getting close to seeing it all, it changes. The Quarter is a dynamic gem that will call you back time and time again.