Anytime I’m asked where my favorite places are, my “happy places,” the French Quarter of New Orleans is at or near the top of the list. The architecture, the food, the people of New Orleans are all amazing, but being in “the Quarter” just feels comfortable. It helps if you enjoy touristy stuff, crowds of people, and a little bit of boisterous behavior, but there are lots of things to see and do for the whole family, whatever your tastes.
Following Hurricane Katrina, the French Quarter came back to life bit more family-friendly. Make no mistake, you’ll still find a raucous party atmosphere on Bourbon Street in the evenings, but you’ll also find throngs of families, with teens and toddlers in tow, roaming through the streets and shops. Some call it the “Disneyfication” of the French Quarter. I wouldn’t go that far, but it certainly is tamer than the pirate days of Pierre LaFitte! The French Quarter today is an enjoyable, walkable destination that’s filled with history, color, and fantastic food.
My perfect Vieux Carre stay is at my favorite French Quarter hotel, the Westin Canal Place. It’s at the southwestern edge of the district, separating it from the Warehouse District, and is situated between Harrah’s Casino, the Aquarium of the Americas, and the Mighty Mississippi River. (Technically, the river is a block away, but you can see and walk to it from the hotel!) I enjoy getting a room that overlooks the River and the Quarter with a view of Jax Brewery and Jackson Square beyond.
Since we’re talking about the perfect day, we can start with the Jazz Brunch at Court of Two Sisters. It’s only about 10 minutes by foot, but it’s fun to catch the trolley that runs along the river. Hop off at Jackson Brewery and walk up Toulouse to Royal Street. You might want to allow an extra few minutes (like 30 or so!) to browse through the Toulouse Royal gift shop – it’s just about my favorite, despite all of the touristy stuff. Don’t worry, breakfast is right next door.
Once we’re sufficiently stuffed, we can start walking it off by heading back down Royal to Bienville Avenue to check out Germaine Wells Mardi Gras Museum, above Arnaud’s (which is a fantastic place to eat). Being a private collection of costumes and memorabilia, it’s not as grand as Mardi Gras World, but it is free!
Our next stop is the Musee Conti Wax Museum, around the corner at Conti and Dauphine. This is not Madame Tussaud’s gallery of celebrities; instead, it details much of New Orleans’ history. It’s a great compliment to a tour of the French Quarter, giving some depth and color to the places you’ll see. From there, it’s back down Conti to Bourbon Street because you can’t visit Vieux Carre without strolling down its most famous thoroughfare. (Really, it’s a law…or something…) By day, it’s a great walk filled with traditional jazz bands, street performers and artists suitable for the family. Along the way, you may be tempted by Café Beignet but I urge you to resist. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great but we’ll get beignets later; we need to press on to Dumaine Street and one of the Quarter’s darkest haunts, New Orleans’ Historic Voodoo Museum! It’s not so spooky but is very historically relevant and the staff is really fun. If you have the time, the walking tour run by the museum is excellent.
Afterwards, we’ll head down Dumaine towards the River, turning right on N. Peters Street to join the crowds at Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral. There’s more history at the Cabildo, part of the Louisiana State Museum, and the Cathedral next door. There are generally an assortment of artists and street performers all around the Square, and across the street at Washington Artillery Park, overlooking the river. Even after many visits, I still enjoy the carriage tours that line up in front of the Square.
There are some good restaurants if you’re ready for lunch or dinner, but I like heading across the street to my true New Orleans “Happy Place,” Café du Monde. Now we get beignets and a café au lait. It tends to get pretty crowded, so if you can’t get a table, take your snacks to go and walk back over to Artillery Park. Behind the cannon, there is a walkway that takes you right to the shore of the Mississippi River. Where else can you enjoy a quintessential New Orleans snack while dipping your toes (or not) in the river that made this city? (Also, if you ever have to drive into the city, the is parking here is convenient to the French Market and Jackson Square, making it a good starting point, too.)
After our beignet break, we’ll walk downstream from Artillery Walk to take in the Moon Walk. If we’re lucky, we’ll catch a paddlewheeler and the cable cars passing by. At the Dumain Station trolly stop, cross over to le Marche. We can’t resist visiting the artists at Dutch Alley, or strolling through the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park. (Note: Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park Visitor Center operations have been temporarily moved to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve French Quarter visitor center on Decatur Street, open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am – 4pm.)
At the end of Dutch Alley, it’s left on St. Phillip Street to visit the city’s patron saint, Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans. Her statue stands proudly where Decatur and North Peters Street converge. Behind her, the French Market begins. This has been the trade center of New Orleans since 1791, with goods arriving at the from around the world at the docks (now long gone). Today, you can still find global influences as you wander the Shops of the Colonnade, but it’s mostly restaurants and souvenir shops.
When you hit Barracks street, you’re looking at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Jazz was born right in New Orleans, and this museum celebrates the genre’s rich history, influences, and world-wide embrace. After visiting, you’re probably ready to sit for a bit. Across the street is the French Market Station, where we’ll board the Riverfront Streetcar headed upriver. (Or, keeping with the theme, you can walk back along N. Peters Street.)
Riding the historic streetcars is as much a tradition in New Orleans as it is in San Francisco! Each ride is $1.25, and you can pay when you board. No change is given, so have exact fare ready, or get a Jazzy Pass at vendors around town. A pass is handy for riding the streetcars to visit the Garden District, City Park, Louis Armstrong Park, historic (and beautiful) Faubourg Marigny, and the Cemeteries.
Our destination is the Aquarium of the Americas. You would expect to see fish and wildlife from the adjacent Mississippi River, but there is so much more, representing habitats from around the world. The walk-through Caribbean Reef is my favorite, with the penguins being a close second.
If you map out our walk, you’ll notice we only managed to hit the highlights of about half of the French Quarter, and a little beyond. There is so much more to do in the neighborhood, and in New Orleans itself but, to keep this from reaching “Epic Novel” length, we’ll stop here and encourage you to visit le Vieux Carre (which is French for Old Square), birthplace of New Orleans, legends, and bon temps (good times).
While you’re here, check out our New Orleans Photo Gallery!
Beyond the French Quarter, we enjoy visiting the Audubon Institutue’s installations, which pretty well cover New Orleans, A(quarium) to Z(oo)!
Have you been to New Orleans? We’d love to hear about your favorite parts of the city and the French Quarter in the Comments!