New Orleans French Quarter: Local-Style

Lisa Fritscher March 14, 2011 7 Comments

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French Quarter New Orleans

We lived half a block from here

Before we decided to travel full-time in our RV, Dad and I lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Living in the Quarter is so much different than visiting, as I would imagine is true for any extremely popular tourist destination. For example, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is a hugely crowded tourist bar on Bourbon Street. It was also half a block from our apartment. I used to love going into the bar in my pajamas at 4 a.m. to use the ATM, entirely freaking out all the tourists who were dressed to the nines!

French Quarter Postal Emporium

We got our mail at 1000 Bourbon Street

We only had a mail slot at our apartment, so we had all packages sent to the French Quarter Postal Emporium, located at 1000 Bourbon Street. More than once, we were on the phone with someone giving them the delivery address. The response went roughly like this: “Bourbon Street?!?! I’ve never sent anything to Bourbon Street before! You mean people actually LIVE there?!?”

We left New Orleans in 2007, and Mardi Gras this year was our first opportunity to return. While many of the faces have changed, the Quarter still feels like our neighborhood. The feeling was just what anyone would have when going home after a few years away. But New Orleans is a welcoming place, where anyone from anywhere can feel at home within a matter of days. With that in mind, here’s your guide to doing the French Quarter Local-Style.

Getting Your Bearings

French Quarter Mississippi River

The French Quarter sits along the banks of the Mississippi River

It’s hard to tour local-style if you don’t know where you are. Download or purchase a map of the French Quarter before you arrive and try to memorize as many of the streets as possible. Here are the major points to remember. The French Quarter is a 14-block by 7-block grid. Although this may sound like a lot, remember that the Quarter was laid out in the 1700s. Each block is less than half of a modern city block, and the entire Quarter is pedestrian-friendly and extremely walkable. Plan to park your car, if you have one, and explore the Quarter solely on foot.

The Quarter is bounded by the Mississippi River and Rampart Street in the 7-block direction, and Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue in the 14-block direction. Don’t worry about compass directions, as locals never use them. Just orient yourself according to the river, and you’ll be able to follow whatever directions you may be given.

French Quarter Streetcars New Orleans

The streetcars are both local transportation and tourist attraction

Past Esplanade is the Marigny, an up and coming artsy district where the locals like to hang out. Past Canal is the Central Business District and then the Garden District. All the street names change when you cross Canal, but the one you want to remember is St. Charles (which is Royal inside the Quarter). That’s where the historic streetcar runs, easily transporting you from the Quarter to the Garden District. Past Rampart is the Treme. If you’ve ever seen the HBO show Treme, it is set in this neighborhood in the post-Katrina rebuilding period. Be very careful if you explore the Treme though, as the neighborhood changes block by block from “funky and interesting” to “dangerous.”

St. Louis Cathedral Jackson Square

Jackson Square and the Cathedral bisect the French Quarter

The Quarter is bisected by Orleans Street near Rampart and by Jackson Square, with the St. Louis Cathedral, near the river. From this area toward Esplanade is known as the Lower Quarter, while the area toward Canal is known as the Upper Quarter. The Upper Quarter is touristy, loud and contains most of the sightseeing attractions. The Lower Quarter is more residential, somewhat quieter and contains most of the local-oriented restaurants, bars and hangouts.

Where to Stay

Andrew Jackson Hotel Royal Street

The Andrew Jackson is one of many historic French Quarter hotels

The French Quarter and surrounding area offer plenty of moderate and high-end chain hotels, from the Holiday Inn to the Ritz-Carlton. While these properties are very nice, they are still chains. Why come to New Orleans to experience the same hotel room you could have in Peoria? The Quarter is filled with small, independent hotels and guest houses with a great deal of history. Some are reputed to be haunted.

Why not try out the Andrew Jackson Hotel, located on Royal Street in the residential Lower Quarter, which stands on the site of the courthouse where future President Andrew Jackson, already a war hero, was charged with contempt of court and obstruction of justice? Or how about the Dauphine Orleans, located in the tourist-oriented Upper Quarter, which was created from a collection of historic buildings? You might get a room in the cottage where John James Audubon painted his famous “Birds of America” series or one in a former bordello. If you prefer a more upscale atmosphere, try the Hotel Monteleone. It’s been one of New Orleans’ most luxurious (and haunted!) hotels since the 1880s.

What to See

World-famous Bourbon Street

World-famous Bourbon Street is a must-see. Once.

Without a doubt, you must see world-famous Bourbon Street. The epicenter of French Quarter tourist activity is the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter in the Upper Quarter. It’s fine to take younger children down Bourbon during the day, and even at night mid-week. Keep an open mind, as Bourbon Street makes no secret of its strip clubs, bars and lingerie shops, but your odds of seeing anything truly risqué out on the street are fairly low. Keep the kids away on weekend nights and particularly during Mardi Gras, when the anything-goes atmosphere is decidedly adult oriented.

St. Louis Cathedral Statue of Jesus

The statue casts a wonderful shadow on the Cathedral at night

Once you’ve checked Bourbon Street off your list, move on. The truth is that most locals rarely visit Bourbon Street at all, except the section that stretches through the residential Lower Quarter. If you are interested in antiques and art galleries, head a block over to Royal Street. The collection of galleries is highly impressive. You’ll pass the back of the St. Louis Cathedral between St. Ann and St. Peter, so stop and check out the statue of Jesus.

Hurricane Katrina took down two immense live oak trees, one on each side of the statue. The trees broke the forefinger off one hand and the thumb off the other, but the statue remained standing. Relief workers found the pieces, but the Archdiocese decided not to repair the statue until the city is whole again.

Tarot readers New Orleans

The tarot readers ply their trade in the shadow of the Cathedral

Head down Pirate’s Alley, which runs beside the Cathedral. This is where infamous pirate Jean Lafitte allegedly set up a black market. If you’re in the mood for a break, the Pirate’s Alley bar has coffee and tea as well as a full menu of alcoholic beverages. If the adults are feeling particularly adventurous, try the absinthe. Legalized in the United States in 2007 after a nearly 100-year ban, absinthe was hugely popular in 1800s New Orleans.

Be sure to tour St. Louis Cathedral, an elegant minor basilica that is the oldest Catholic Cathedral in the United States. Then pay a visit to the fortune tellers in Jackson Square, just outside the Cathedral. They work for tips and are highly entertaining, even if you do not believe in palmistry or tarot. Take a break inside the park, where on warm afternoons you will find families playing in the grass or catching a nap.

Moon Walk New Orleans

Take a stroll along the river on the Moon Walk

Across Decatur Street from Jackson Square is the Moon Walk, a riverfront walking path named after former Mayor Moon Landrieu, father of current Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Senator Mary Landrieu. The view of the Mississippi River is well-worth the trek. As you face the river, the Riverwalk, a shopping complex that houses the New Orleans Cruise Terminal and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is to your right, along with Harrah’s Casino. Across the river is Algiers, a small residential community. A free passenger ferry crosses the river at regular intervals until midnight, which you can catch at the foot of Canal Street.

Cafe du Monde New Orleans

Cafe du Monde is a French Quarter institution

When you have had your fill of the Moon Walk, stop by Café du Monde on Decatur Street. This French Quarter icon has served café au lait (chicory coffee with lots of milk) and beignets (French doughnuts coated in powder sugar) since 1862. Open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, it closes only for Christmas and occasional hurricanes. The restaurant was spared during Hurricane Katrina, but took advantage of the down time when the city was under a mandatory evacuation order to perform some needed upgrades. It reopened in October 2005.

Now follow the river in the opposite direction from the Moon Walk to the French Market. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, this six-block combined flea market and farmer’s market has been in the same spot since 1791. Shopping opportunities are seemingly limitless, from fresh-picked produce to sunglasses and New Orleans souvenirs.

Voodoo Museum New Orleans

The Voodoo Museum gives a peek into New Orleans rich history

Lower Decatur Street is packed with low-priced restaurants, bars and shops of every description. Take a few minutes to look around before back tracking to Dumaine Street. Today Dumaine is sort of voodoo row, featuring the Voodoo Museum, Esoterica Occult Goods and the Voodoo Authentica shop. The Museum is well worth the price of admission which, as of 2011, is $7 for adults with discounts for students, seniors and children. Here you will find displays, photos and information detailing the history of voodoo in New Orleans. When you are finished, stop by one or both of the shops to get a sense of the role that voodoo plays in modern New Orleans life.

Tips for Parents

French Quarter Acrobat Troupe

The acrobat troupe always draws a huge crowd

It would be easy to spend a month in the French Quarter and not see nearly everything. The Quarter is a vibrant community filled with colorful characters. Use this guide as a list of suggested highlights, not a hard and fast tour schedule. There are dozens of treasures not mentioned here, and it is very easy to get distracted by the events of the day. Relax, take your time and keep your eyes open. Walking parades known as second lines take place at seemingly random times. Street performers, from musicians to balloon artists, compete for attention. Spontaneous conversation with a local resident can turn into a day of lounging and chatting. New Orleans is the sort of place where it is best to slow down, say hello to everyone and expect utterly random good things to happen.

The Clover Grill New Orleans

The Clover Grill is hugely popular. Read your menu closely for a good laugh!

Keep an eye on the kids, but let them feel free to explore (under your guidance). The French Quarter is a carnival for the senses, and you never know what may catch their eyes. Set some ground rules in advance for purchases, as there is a seemingly endless assortment of trinkets and souvenirs. Take frequent rest stops and keep everyone drinking water, as the heat and humidity can be intense. Try to tour on a sunny day, as rain tends to send locals and tourists alike scurrying for cover.

Although popular media depicts the French Quarter as an adult-oriented place, there are plenty of things for kids to enjoy. Confine your visit to Bourbon Street to daylight hours or early evening midweek, and you and your family can have a wonderful time exploring the rest of the Quarter local-style!

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avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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7 Comments to “New Orleans French Quarter: Local-Style”
  1. avatar Ghost Hunting in New Orleans' French Quarter says:

    [...] a long-time French Quarter resident, I strongly recommend Haunted History. Featured on the Discovery Channel, the History [...]

  2. avatar Cities of the Dead: Exploring New Orleans’ Legendary Cemeteries says:

    [...] Orleans is sometimes known as the “City in a Bowl”. The original city, today’s French Quarter, is approximately eight feet above sea level. Much of the rest of the city is well below. New [...]

  3. avatar The Steamboat Natchez New Orleans says:

    [...] your food outside if you want to get photos of Jackson Square and various French Quarter landmarks as you sail past. We chose the dining room, and I ended up dashing out to the open deck [...]

  4. avatar Audubon Aquarium New Orleans - Stingrays, Penguins and Hurricanes says:

    [...] city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Opened in 1990, the Audubon Aquarium is located on the edge of the French Quarter where Canal Street meets the Mississippi River. The Aquarium was one of the first attractions to [...]

  5. avatar Audubon Insectarium, New Orleans - Eat a Bug! says:

    [...] lots nearby, some of which offer a discount with paid museum admission. If you are staying in the French Quarter or along one of the streetcar lines, however, we strongly suggest walking or taking public [...]

  6. avatar Touring Jackson Square New Orleans says:

    [...] Square is the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter in Louisiana. Overlooking the Mississippi River, Jackson Square has been a free speech zone and hub [...]

  7. avatar Off the Beaten Path in New Orleans: Smaller French Quarter Attractions says:

    [...] would be easy to spend an entire vacation in New Orleans’ French Quarter just shopping, eating and catching the street performers. Bigger attractions like the Audubon [...]