A few key terms come to mind when people think about New Orleans: Mardi Gras, Jazz music, Bourbon St., the French Quarter. I’m only really a fan of one of these things, although this cover of One Direction’s “Story of My Life” is everything, and I do love this cover of the Game of Thrones theme…
I’m really only a fan of two of these things and today I’m only going to talk about one of them: the French Quarter.
Most big destination cities have that one area that only tourists go to– Leicester Square, Times Square… They’re usually squares. Fun fact: the french name for the French Quarter is Le Vieux Carre– the old square. But the French Quarter isn’t New Orleans’ version of Times Square, where the only locals present charge you $10 to take a picture with them in Elmo costumes. The French Quarter is New Orleans’ “big tourist destination,” but it’s also one of the coolest places in the city.
So let’s talk about the French Quarter and the five things to do while you’re there.
1. Coffee at Cafe Envie
Coffee is a HUGE deal in New Orleans. Seattle may have created Starbucks, New York may have built a Starbucks on every block, but New Orleans is a port city. For most of the U.S.’s history, when coffee came to the states, it came to us first. We created the lifestyle. We have our own blends (like coffee and chicory), our own preferred coffee drink (cafe au lait with scalded milk and chicory), and our own franchises (CCs and PJs). When you’re in the French Quarter, you’ll probably notice the lack of Starbucks. The exist, holed away in hotels and in the malls, but we go local when we do coffee and when you’re here, you should too. One of the best places to get it is Cafe Envie on the corner of Barracks and Decatur.
The coffee at Envie is served from a beautiful antique bar. The walls feature exposed brick and giant windows that stay open on particularly nice days. It looks and feels like New Orleans should, and the coffee is pretty great, to boot. If you don’t want to hang around, you can also get breakfast (eggs scrambled, hash browns, grits, sausage gravy, and bacon) in a “Go cup” and stroll down the street with it as the city wakes up around you.
More info here.
2. A stroll down Royal St.
Bourbon Street is the most famous of the thoroughfares in the French Quarter, but Royal Street is the best place to spend a slow day. It’s full of New Orleans’ best restaurants, art galleries, voodoo supply shops, free museums. A large portion of it is closed off to cars during the day, and musicians and performers fill the street to complete the atmosphere.
3. Lunch in a courtyard
(pictured: the now closed Royal Blend Coffee)
Most buildings in the French Quarter feature lush, beautiful–and most enjoyably, quiet– courtyards, just far enough down their entrance alley to remain unseen. If you’re staying at a hotel in the Quarter, you’ll probably have access to theirs. My favorite way to experience a courtyard is lunch. Usually by midday, the crowds are at their worst, you’re tired of walking, hungry, tired of the constant barrage of jazz music, and a lunch escape is the perfect solution.
4. Ghost tour
The French Quarter features a lot of history. It’s nearly ready to celebrate its tricentennial, it’s burned down twice, been a part of three different countries, birthed jazz music, collected famous writers and artists. If you want to find out more about it, but don’t know quite where to start, or if you are an expert of New Orleans history and you just enjoy the stories, a ghost tour is the perfect way to learn more about the city.
Every night, ghost tours, vampire tours, and voodoo tours are held in the French Quarter. On them, you’ll hear all about some of the mort sordid and entertaining features of the Quarter’s history–and usually get a nice overview of the events that shaped the place. Along the way, you’ll probably stop off at Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop for a drink to-go and some information on New Orleans’ most famous pirate, too, which is quite a lot of fun on its own.
5. Nighttime beignets at Cafe du Monde
The most wonderful thing you’ll do in New Orleans–probably the most wonderful thing you’ll do in your entire life– is scarf down a plate of beignets from Cafe du Monde. Because beignets are square donuts covered in a mound of powdered sugar, they’re typically thought of as breakfast food. This results in a winding line to get into the open-air cafe from early into the morning until late afternoon.
But you’ll take my advice. You’ll know better. You’ll go at night, when half of the tables are empty and you’ve just gone on a ghost tour, so you’ve done a lot of walking. You’ve probably spent an entire day walking and would like nothing more than to fill your stomach with the best form a carb will ever take.
And you’ll enjoy it more.
Because you’ve earned this.
And one thing not to do in the French Quarter…
Get lost. Do not get lost.
I love wandering around a new city just as much as anyone else who refuses to use a map and gets a bit overwhelmed in crows. I love not giving any thought to going right or left and letting my feet carry me down little alleyways and quiet boulevards. Do not do this in the French Quarter. Do not try to escape the crowds.
It’s a lovely area to spend the day in. There are so many wonderful things to do and there’s so much culture to soak in, but New Orleans isn’t the safest city in the world, and if you aren’t familiar with it, it’s best to stick to the beaten path. If you do happen to wander off it, most locals would be glad to help you get to where you want to go. It’s not as though you’re walking through the haunted woods to grandmother’s house, but don’t make it your goal.
Lots of love,