French Quarter Historical Buildings Walking Tour, New Orleans

French Quarter Historical Buildings Walking Tour (Self Guided), New Orleans

Widely known for its heritage sites with a variety of unique architectural styles, New Orleans has lots of beautiful buildings designed in the Greek Revival, American Colonial, or Victorian styles. Walking around the French Quarter, you'll enjoy these old historic buildings (some open to the public), their old ironwork gates and balcony railings, the antique brick- and stone-paved sidewalks taking you back generations...

Some three centuries ago, on March 29, 1721, New Orleans founder and Governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville selected the location for St. Louis Cathedral by drawing a mark in the soil with his sword while laying out the original city. The first church wouldn’t be built for several years, but the sacred spot was selected. Flanked by The Presbytère (circa 1797) and the Cabildo (circa 1799), with Jackson Square in the foreground, the iconic St. Louis Cathedral has been at the center of the city and embedded in the hearts of its New Orleanians everywhere.

While it may be difficult to decide which properties to visit next, the fascinating Hermann-Grima should not be missed. Located right in the French Quarter, this structure gives visitors a peak into the lives of the people who lived and worked within its walls.

New Orleans has no shortage of businesses or private residences that are reputed to be haunted, so if you’re interested in true life that’s definitely stranger than fiction, check out the LaLaurie Mansion. Also in the back of the Quarter, you will see the lovely Beauregard-Keyes House (1826) and adjacent Old Ursuline Convent (1734) – supposedly the oldest structure in the Mississippi River Valley.

To explore these and other places of most interest, follow our self-guided walking tour.
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French Quarter Historical Buildings Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: French Quarter Historical Buildings Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » New Orleans (See other walking tours in New Orleans)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.5 Km or 1.6 Miles
Author: ann
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • St. Louis Cathedral
  • The Presbytere
  • The Cabildo
  • Historic New Orleans Collection
  • Hermann-Grima House
  • Old Absinthe House
  • Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar
  • LaLaurie Mansion
  • Gallier House
  • Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden
  • Old Ursuline Convent
  • 1850 House
1
St. Louis Cathedral

1) St. Louis Cathedral (must see)

Most tourists recognize the St. Louis Cathedral's triple spires as the main symbol of the French Quarter. Many have taken photos of the gleaming white facade against a clear blue sky from across picturesque Jackson Square. Relatively few, though, have stepped inside the cathedral to view its beautiful interior. The stained glass windows depict the saintly life of France's King Louis IX, and the glorious murals and statuary beckon the visitor back nearly 300 years to its founding.

The St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States, built in 1727 and dedicated to King Louis IX of France. The original structure was burned during the great fire of 1794. The current building was completed in the 1850s.

The influences of the Spanish and the French are easily recognized in both the artwork of the church and also the flags displayed near the chandeliers in the main aisle of the sanctuary. The church was designated as a minor basilica by Pope Paul VI in 1964. Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in September 1987, and after the visit, the square in front of the church was renamed in the pope's honor.

The interior is open for self-guided tours when masses and other church functions are not going on. The fine pipe organ is frequently played for the enjoyment of visitors, and there is also a small gift shop.

Tip:
Note the sloping floor; Clever architectural design, somehow, keeps the building upright even as its ground continues to sink.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 8:30 am-4 pm; Mass: 12:05 pm
2
The Presbytere

2) The Presbytere

Built in the 1790s as a matching structure to the Cabildo, which flanks the St. Louis Cathedral on the other side, it is one of the nation's best examples of formal Spanish Colonial style, with a full panoply of Renaissance architectural forms. Destroyed by a hurricane in 1915, the cupola was restored to match its twin, the Cabildo. In 1970 the structure was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The first floor is dedicated to "Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond," an exhibition exploring the history, science, and powerful human drama of one of nature's most destructive forces. The well-narrated presentation and graphic display of what happened and how the people of New Orleans coped with the Katrina disaster make you feel as if you were there.

The second floor contains an excellent exhibit detailing the history of Mardi Gras and many not-so-well-known aspects of the city's annual celebration. It's a very compelling and touching display that explains things via first-person accounts, photos, audio, video, and beautiful artifacts such as crowns, scepters, costumes, and accessories related to the tradition.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 10 am–4:30 pm
3
The Cabildo

3) The Cabildo

Just as with The Presbytère, the sister building on the other side of St. Louis Cathedral, the historical Cabildo has a storied history of fires, rebuilding, and roles as the seat of the former Spanish territorial government. Walking through the building, one can sense the history of former times. Ceremonies for the Louisiana Purchase transfer, a transaction that almost doubled the nominal size of the U.S., occurred here in 1803.

Against such background, The Cabildo is quite well qualified to house the premier collection of New Orleans and Louisiana historical artifacts – starting with the earliest explorers and covering slavery, post-Civil War reconstruction, and statehood. The detailed history is told from a multicultural perspective and touches on interesting topics like immigration and assimilation, antebellum music, mourning and burial customs, and the role of the Southern woman.

Portraits of historical figures and incidents are hung throughout the museum, though probably the most memorable section is the one explaining the city's connection with Napoleon, evident in the naming of various streets, as well as in the preservation of the French Emperor's death mask, donated to the museum by his doctor. The item and its story of it almost ending up in the dumpster is fascinating.

This three-story building is packed with the 300-year history of Louisiana – from its indigenous beginnings to the French/Spanish influence, the Battle of New Orleans, significant people in the state's past, and more. A great place to go if you like history and facts. As an extra, the upstairs offers great views of Jackson Square.

Tip:
Get a 20% off combo ticket with The Presbytère on the Cathedral's other side (or with any other Louisiana State Museum).

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 10 am–4:30 pm
4
Historic New Orleans Collection

4) Historic New Orleans Collection

Located in the French Quarter on Royal Street, this is a New Orleans treasure trove of quirky, well-described historical artifacts (for example, an original Jazz Fest poster or the "Fair Play for Cuba" leaflets that Lee Harvey Oswald passed out while in town), plus rotating exhibits, local art, and photography, furniture, archives and more.

Entry to the excellent temporary history exhibitions in the street-front room of the Merieult House is free, but to see the best of the collection, the architecture, and the history, you will need to take a guided tour, offered several times daily. The tour covers the galleries upstairs or the elegant Williams House on nearby Toulouse Street – a must for anyone interested in design and decorative arts.

You may also want to look at the courtyard café and the perfectly curated gift shop staffed by some of the savviest ladies in town.

Tip:
Any music lover would be happy to hear the Aeolian organ, completed in 1926 and recently restored (check out the "organ demonstrations" tour). It is a major deal for organ music lovers as only four working models still exist in the US.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 9:30 am–4:30 pm; Sun: 10:30 am–4:30 pm
5
Hermann-Grima House

5) Hermann-Grima House

Built in 1831 for Samuel Herman, a German-Jewish immigrant who married into a wealthy French-Creole family, this huge Georgian-style house is one of the best examples of upper-class Creole living you'll ever see. Featuring a courtyard, the only stable in the French Quarter, and a fully-functional outdoor 1830s kitchen, it is toured with a docent.

Remarkably enough, the Hermann-Grima House survived not only being subdivided into apartments or torn down but has also endured all the hurricanes throughout the years, not to mention the Civil War. Most of the furniture and original pieces are still inside. Moreover, a unique feature is the historically accurate special exhibitions, including presentations for the holidays, summer dresses, and something a little bit spooky in October. They also have a wonderful calendar of rotating shows in the gallery space at the historic Gallier House.

New Orleans' history and architecture are unique, especially considering its geography and climate, so even if you have seen every house museum in a southern city like Charleston or Savannah, you will learn new things on the one-hour tour here! Besides saving your receipt, you can also visit the nearby Gallier House at a discounted rate.

Tip:
The best time to visit is from October to May when cooking demonstrations take place in the kitchen using the tools used during the 19th century.
6
Old Absinthe House

6) Old Absinthe House

The two-centuries-old original bar from the Old Absinthe House was returned to its 240 Bourbon Street home in early 2004 and maintained its decrepit vibe in the good old NOLA way. There are autograph registers on display; one signed by Billy Joel and one ancient with signatures such as "I.P. Freely" in a spidery fountain pen. This place was frequented by Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and Frank Sinatra - some of the decors looks unchanged since those days. Thousands of business cards pinned to the wall serve as interesting wallpaper, and you can bring your own.

It was Oscar Wilde who gave one of the great quotes about any beverage: "After the first glass [of absinthe], you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." The drink was once outlawed in the US, but now you can legally sip the infamous libation.

The ritual goes like this: sugar cube on the slotted spoon, cold water 'dripped' over the ice cube, melting the sugar and causing the green liquor louche into an opaque opalescent white. It is where the "green fairy" comes into play, as you see the green absinthe changing before your eyes, creating what might appear to be a fairy swirling in your glass. The bartender will probably light the sugar cube on fire, which is always exciting.

Opening Hours:
Sun-Wed: 9am–3am; Thu-Sat: 9am–5am
7
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar

7) Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar (must see)

Nestled in the heart of the French Quarter, on Bourbon Street, what a surprise is to find this typical early Creole cottage, which seems to have been transported from a different era. It is believed to be the oldest structure continually used as a bar in the southern US and supposedly served as a front for slave trading, contraband, and other illegal activities involving the city's most famous pirate, Jean Lafitte, and his "Baratarians," a thousand-strong band of smugglers.

Built in the 1720s, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and in 2013 Esquire Magazine ranked it among the best bars in America. Even if you are not drinking, take a walk inside and look around - it is especially atmospheric. No electric lights are allowed here, so even amid the chatter and the blaring jukebox, the cavern-like, candlelit interior is akin to time travel. A must if you love history, stories, and old buildings!

Tip:
The sneaky strong "purple drink" – otherwise known as Voodoo Daquiri – is what some people come here for, but you'll probably be more interested in catching the piano player (and singer) who is very good at engaging the crowd in sing-alongs, therefore, be sure to arrive after 9 pm!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10 am–3 am
8
LaLaurie Mansion

8) LaLaurie Mansion

If you desire a thrill, have watched "American Horror Story", or are interested in dark, gory history, this place is perfect for you. The only downside is you can't get in, but the outside is really all you need to see for the shivers; night or day.

Part mansion and part hell, this dwelling is known as one of the most haunted in New Orleans. Its most famous occupants were Madame Lalaurie and her husband, a doctor, who perpetuated acts of unspeakable cruelty upon their slaves. Finally, one slave set fire to the house to escape the misery, and upon their sadistic acts being uncovered, the LaLauries bought off the police and fled to New York, then France, leaving behind a number of dead and dying former servants. When the discovery of the abuse became widely known, a mob of local citizens attacked the residence and "demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands". A sheriff and his officers were called upon, but by the time the mob left, the property had sustained major damage, with "scarcely any thing remaining but the walls."

Nicolas Cage, the most eccentric actor of his generation, bought the house in 2007 for a rumored $3.4 million, having figured "it would be a good place in which to write the great American horror novel". He didn’t get too far with the novel and allegedly lost the house to the IRS.
9
Gallier House

9) Gallier House

This is a really interesting mid-19th-century home that was designed and owned by prominent New Orleans architect, James Gallier Jr., who used it as a type of architectural lab for trying out ideas before incorporating them in other people's homes. It boasts numerous technological and architectural advancements for its time, offering a glimpse into 19th-century cutting-edge design, such as indoor plumbing in a really nice bathroom. The slave quarters and kitchens are still there, but what steals the show is the master bedroom and its beautiful complete set of furniture, the likes of which you don't see anymore (hardly anyone has ceilings that high!).

What makes the tour even more interesting are the details about day-to-day living with no electricity, no central heating, and certainly no air-conditioning (they did somehow manage to provide a measure of airflow through the house during the hot summer months while at the same time deal with the stench of the street below, and the insects). A realistic glimpse into the challenges and hardships of living in that era for the owners and particularly their slaves.

The house also observes a custom known as Summer Dress, in which, during the summer months, furniture, rugs, and linens are covered or replaced with lighter weight fabrics to help cool the house during hot summer months.

Why You Should Visit:
A richly appointed house that feels very authentic: you can easily picture the family and slaves going about their daily routines. Guides are knowledgeable and keep visitors engaged with an inductive teaching approach, so you will learn a lot.

Tip:
This house is run by the Women's Exchange which also runs the Hermann-Grima House. If you do one you'll get a discount at the other – just save your receipt. Note, however, that you cannot enter by yourself, so check the times for the tours.

Group Tours:
Thu-Tue: 10am, 11am, 12pm, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm (and by appointment)
10
Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden

10) Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden

The Beauregard-Keyes House is significant and worth a tour for its Greek Revival architecture, lovely quaint garden, and for once having been the residence of Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a New Orleans native who ordered the first shots of the Civil War and remained a hero in the South long after the war was lost. Ursuline nuns used the property from the early 1700s until the 1820s when the new house was designed to combine elements of a Creole cottage with Greek Revival features, including a Palladian facade, curved twin staircases, Tuscan portico, and generous dining room.

In 1945, author Frances Parkinson Keyes was looking for a place to write and live in New Orleans. She stumbled onto the property and spent the next 25 years restoring the historic gem to its Victorian roots and writing novels, one of which was set in the house and included Beauregard as a character; another was based on Paul Morphy, the grandson of the original owner, considered to be one of the greatest modern chess masters. Keyes was already an avid collector and her collection of veilleuses (a teapot that also has a cup and a night light) is the second-largest in the world. Make sure to also view the many antique dolls, French sofas, rare porcelain tea pots, and numerous fans and folk costumes displayed.

Tip:
The tour ends in the small but well-stocked gift shop (and that is where you pay your admission, at the end!). Note that the gardens can also be accessed without the tour.

Guided Tours (~45min):
Mon-Sat: 10am–3pm (on the hour)
11
Old Ursuline Convent

11) Old Ursuline Convent

By some accounts, the Ursuline Convent is the oldest structure in the Mississippi River Valley. Built in the 1750s, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, it served as a residence of the archdiocese, but also as a school, orphanage, and make-shift hospital.

The building, located at 1100 Chartres Street, is considered the finest surviving example of French colonial public architecture in the US. Built of stucco-covered brick, typical for French Neoclassicism, it is a formal, symmetrical building designed with a lack of ornamentation, but worth a self-guided tour (there are officially no guided tours, but the lady who works here is an amazing source of knowledge and interlocutor if you need her).

Exhibits are well-designed and give insight to the history of the city as well as of the Convent, plus one gets a chance to see the former bishop's chapel in the nearby church (not open otherwise to the public) with its stunning stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross, and statuary. Another beautiful feature is the cypress hand-carved staircase.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 10am–4pm (last admission: 3:15pm); Sat: 9am–3pm (last admission: 2:15pm)
12
1850 House

12) 1850 House

1850 House is a well-preserved townhouse, complete with a courtyard, which provides rare public access beyond the storefronts to the interior of the Pontalba Buildings. It was designed for the wealthy Baroness de Pontalba, who had them built in 1849, when New Orleans was one of the largest cities in the US, riding on the wealth of its booming port. These buildings were the height of fashion among the prosperous middle class, particularly for the decorative iron balconies of the apartments, admired as much today as they were in antebellum times when they considerably spurred the craze for ironwork.

Run by the Louisiana State Museum, the three-story residence presents a demonstration of a well-to-do family's life in the 1850s during the most prosperous period in Southern history. Faithfully furnished with domestic goods, decorative arts, and innovations of the day (including walk-in closets and private bathrooms), it comprises several "revival" artworks and furniture inspired by Rococo, Gothic and Classical styles. Note the Old Paris porcelain, New Orleans silver, the six-piece bedroom suite comprising a large half-tester bed, a dressing table, two mirror-faced armories, a washstand, a nightstand, and paintings by several French-trained artists.

The guided tour vividly illustrates the contrast between the upstairs portion of the house, where the upper-middle-class family lived in comfort, and the downstairs, where the staff toiled in considerable drudgery to make their masters comfortable. It's quite an informative look at life in the good, and not so good, old days.

Why You Should Visit:
Great for some local history and color; worth a look if you are interested in how the area was established and the city's historical aspect. If you have never seen an 1850s southern home before, this is a must!

Tip:
Take time to visit the downstairs store run by the Friends of the Cabildo, which offers handmade art, jewelry, pottery, and crafts, by local artists, as well as books on every subject – from New Orleans history to food to voodoo.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 10 am–4:30 pm

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