Vacationing in the Big Easy: The French Quarter

New orleans vacation

Recently, I’ve had quite a few folks ask me about suggestions for things to do when in New Orleans (probably knowing that it’s my favorite place ever as evidenced in this post and this post).  Well, I sat down, began to type away, and before I knew it, I had the longest single blog post known to man.

Then it dawned on me that with my extensive knowledge of NOLA (not bragging, just true) attributed to the fact that I grew up next door in Mobile,  AL, I thought I would spread out all my tips and tricks over the course of four blog posts in an attempt to make it more accessible.  So…  today, tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday will be a Creole-Cajun-ever-so-amazin’ lovefest.   (Cayenne pepper may be involved.)

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First off, NOLA can be surprisingly expensive (or maybe it wouldn’t surprise you), so while I will offer as many money saving tips as I can, bear in mind that many of these activities are going to cost some money.

Also, if you are able-bodied, then you can take advantage of NOLA’s pedestrian accessibility (just get a street map when you get into town — fortunately the streets are mostly a grid system).  I also recommend doing the walking thing as parking is basically non-existent and hideously expensive (of course, your hotel will usually have parking, but it will cost around $20/day).

There are cabs, buses, and streetcars, too (don’t call them trolleys or you’ll get in trouble with the locals), but you can save these for the evening or when you want to visit the Garden District, which is a bit further away.

To make this series as comprehensible as possible, I’m going to go one neighborhood at a time. There’s definitely more to NOLA than what I’ll talk about in these four posts, but areas that are more residential (or known for higher crime rates) are not listed, as I haven’t visited those as much (and there isn’t much that would appeal to a tourist in the first place).

I’ve decided to start with the French Quarter — the neighborhood that, to most tourists, is quintessentially New Orleans. It has some of the most well-known sights, including Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, St. Louis Catherdral, and blocks and blocks of iconic French and Spanish architecture.  Perhaps it’s cliched to say it, but this really is my favorite part of the city — the sense of history and culture is almost palpable.  Being in the Quarter actually gives me butterflies in my stomach… but in a good way (is that completely crazy?).  Ok, no more anatomically awkward comments.  Here are some of my favorite places to see and things to do in the Quarter:

The Historic French Market

Even if open air markets aren’t your thing, you can still appreciate the French Market for its size and history; as they say on their website, it’s “Three Centuries of History, Seven Blocks of Shopping.”  It began as a Native American trading post, and continues to be America’s oldest– and still operating — public market.

Today it houses numerous booths and markets, including a flea market, farmers market, a bazaar market, boutiques, shops, restaurants, and food stands, containing everything from tourist junk paraphernalia to handcrafted items made by NOLA locals.  The vendors are constantly changing, but two of my more recent favorites are the Carnival Candle Company (soy candles with wonderful scents) and Milk Studios (they have magnets and coasters, similar to the ones I’ve made, but featuring iconic images of NOLA).

Cafe Du Monde

While there are a few Cafe du Monde locations in metro NOLA, the original — and perhaps better known — location is right in the French Market.  This NOLA outpost features cafe au lait and beignets (as in unbelievably delicious fried doughnuts covered in powdered sugar).  They’re open 24/7, their service is great, and everything is freshly made on the premises.  A visit to Cafe Du Monde is a must when in New Orleans.  (Cash only.)

 

Jackson Square

Where else can you have your portrait painted, take a carriage ride, get your palm read, and listen to the world’s best jazz music all in one place?  Jackson Square!

Of course, if you want you to partake in any of the activities, you’ll need cash, whether it’s buying art or seeing a fortune teller.  However, the fabulous street musicians are free (though tips are highly encouraged — you should put this in your vacation budget, because these musicians are EVERYWHERE and they’re AMAZING).

New Orleans Street Musicians

In recent years, country, bluegrass, folk music, and dance groups have begun to emerge as new forms of NOLA street entertainment, but the classic jazz music still remains.

And if you’re in search of a carriage ride, most of these depart from Jackson Square, but be prepared: this is not the most budget-friendly activity as most rides range from $30-100.  It’s definitely a splurge, but if you find one that will do a history or architectural tour, then it’s a splurge that’s worth it.

St. Louis Cathedral

Overlooking Jackson Square (including the statue of Jackson himself) is the gorgeous St. Louis Cathedral, reflecting NOLA’s rich Catholic history.  Aside from walking the beautiful interior of the cathedral (a free activity, I might add), you can also pay a small admission fee and check out the adjacent museums, the Cabildo and the Presbytere.  While I am a huge history nerd, I must admit that you will probably only enjoy these museums if you know nothing about New Orleans history.  If that’s the case, you’ll be pleased (and properly educated).  Otherwise, skip ’em!  (Josh enjoyed his trip to the Cabildo because he was unfamiliar with Gulf Coast history, being an Atlanta native.  I grew up in Mobile, so New Orleans history was just part of the curriculum.)

Ghost Tours

I mentioned before that I know my fair share of NOLA history.  However, when Josh and I took a ghost tour back on our honeymoon, I learned all kinds of things I didn’t know before.  And contrary to the name, the ghost tours were less about ghosts and more about good ol’ history and legends (our guide also pointed out Brangelina’s NOLA home, so that was exciting).

There are more ghost tour companies than I could shake an ectoplasmic stick at, and a lot of them are… well, kind of ridiculous.  However, we decided to go with Haunted History Tours and they were great.  Unlike other companies, there were no plants, no actors hidden in alleys, no fake blood — nothing eye-roll worthy.

I truly believe that even if you are a skeptic, you would enjoy the experience — it was the highlight of our trip!

(Don’t forget to tip your tour guide if they do a good job — a lot of them are students and starving artists!)

Bourbon Street

And the moment you’ve all been waiting for.  Ask almost anyone off the street what they think of when they hear “New Orleans” and Bourbon Street will likely get a mention.  Despite the name and inescapable connotations, Bourbon Street was actually named for a French ruling family, not the whiskey.  However, that hardly seems accurate when you take a stroll down this street and spot more Spring Breakers, bachelorettes, strippers, bars, and frozen hurricane machines than you could have thought possible.  Despite all of this madness, there is something of a charm to it…

…On some level.

If bars and strip clubs are your thing, you wont’t find a shortage of these on Bourbon Street.  However, if you’re not interested in these kinds of activities — as Josh and I were notthere are still plenty of wonderful restaurants there.  And since there are so many bars, they are all in fierce competition with each other, and you can get some amazing deals on drinks, if that’s your thing.

Still, if bars aren’t your thing, Bourbon Street still has one more card up it’s sleeve:

Preservation Hall Jazz Club

 

Did I say the ghost tours were our favorite part of our trip?  Well, perhaps our visit to Preservation Hall Jazz Club ties for first.

While most jazz clubs are found elsewhere in the Quarter and on Frenchmen Street, PHJC is one shining Bourbon Street beacon — no neon lights involved.  Originally founded in a time when jazz music’s popularity was dwindling, PHJC was created to preserve the history and integrity of the jazz music tradition.

Affectionately called “the Hall” by local musicians,  PHJC has no bar or climate control, save a few ceiling fans and open windows.  As with most jazz clubs, the music plays an ambient role, accompanying dancing, drinking, and socializing; however, at PHJC the music is the main event.

Performances are nightly from 8-11 p.m. at $15 a ticket.  But be warned, the PHJC is immensely popular and lines begin forming 30 minutes to 1 hour before the shows, so get there early.

Restaurants

 

As with all of New Orleans, the food is out of control fabulous in the Fench Quarter.  There are dozens of seafood options, including jambalaya, étouffée, gumbo, poboys, shrimp and grits, and she-crab soup (just to name a few of my faves), but there’s also options for the non-seafood enthusiast (but what’s wrong with you?).

To check a more extensive list, you can go to the restaurant section of New Orleans’ official tourism website.  The French Quarter is pretty extraordinary in that the “worst” restaurant would be considered the “best” anywhere else (though there are no bad restaurants).

Whew!  That was some serious blog posting.  Perhaps that could have been two separate posts.  Ah well.  From here on out, they will be quite a bit shorter (Scouts’ Honor).

Stay tuned! Here’s the schedule of upcoming NOLA posts:

Tuesday:  The Riverwalk and the Central Business District (Algiers Point included)

Thursday:  The Treme and Frenchmen Street (Congo Square and Louis Armstrong Park, too)

Friday: The Garden District and NOLA Daytrips

If you’re not feeling the NOLA vibe this week, worry not — I’ll be back on Monday with something completely different!

P.S. — Did I mention I’ve been hanging out over on the New York Princess Party Blog?  About once (sometimes twice) a week, I offer up ideas, projects, and all things princessly for parents and their kids.  While some posts are written with NYC party planning in mind, many are totally useful for any parents in any city.  Today’s all about summer crafts and activities for kids, but there’s plenty more on the blog.  Go check it out!

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