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
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 – the oldest continuously active one in the US – to view its surprising interior; the stained glass windows depicting the saintly life of France's King Louis IX, the glorious murals and statuary beckoning the visitor back nearly 300 years to its founding. The influence of both the Spanish and the French is easily recognized in both the artwork of the church and also the flags displayed near the chandeliers in the main aisle of the sanctuary.

Take a free tour for some fun facts (there doesn't seem to be a set schedule, but check with the office to see if they can give you an idea of a likely time) or just pick up one of the informative self-guides available in the vestibule for a $1 donation. The fine pipe organ is frequently played for the enjoyment of visitors (though, again with no set schedule) and there also is a small gift shop.

Why You Should Visit:
The church is awesome to see, but all the happenings that take place in front of it are also a treat. The stained glass is most representative of the best found in Catholic churches, but you don't have to be Catholic to take photos and look around.

Note the sloping floor: Clever architectural design somehow keeps the building upright even as it continues to sink.

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

2) The Presbytere

A visit to The Presbytère is recommended and worthwhile for at least three reasons.

(1) 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 the one atop its twin, the Cabildo, and in 1970 the structure was designated a National Historic Landmark.

(2) 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.

(3) 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 which explains things via first-person accounts, photos, audio, video and beautiful artifacts such as crowns, scepters, costumes and accessories related to the tradition.

The whole exhibition space is much larger than expected – be ready to take about 60-90 mins to get through both floors (especially if you read each poster/artifact).

Why You Should Visit:
Great variety of viewpoints and presentation styles to engage anyone's interest.

Go upstairs and visit the Mardi Gras exhibits first, then go through the Katrina exhibit last, as doing it the other way around might prevent you from enjoying the upstairs exhibits fully.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 10am–4:30pm
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; in fact, ceremonies for the Louisiana Purchase transfer – a transaction that nearly doubled the nominal size of the US – occurred here in 1803 and were re-enacted two centuries later, in 2003.

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/assimilation, antebellum music, mourning and burial customs, or the role of the Southern woman. Portraits of historical figures and incidents are hung throughout, though probably the most memorable section is that explaining the city's connection with Napoleon, evident in the naming of various streets, as well as in the preservation of the French Empreror's death mask, donated to the museum by his doctor. The item and its story (it almost ended up in the dumpster) are fascinating.

Why You Should Visit:
Three stories packed with the 300-year history of Louisiana – from its indigenous beginnings to the French/Spanish influence, 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 provides great outdoor views of Jackson Square.

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: 10am–4:30pm
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 historic 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 arranged throughout a combination of preserved buildings, museums and research centers. 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, which might cover the galleries upstairs, or the elegant Williams House on nearby Toulouse Street – a must for anyone interested in design and decorative arts.

How long you may want to take for a visit depends largely on whether you just want to have a quick look, spend more time on individual pieces, or are enthusiastic about listening and talking to the knowledgeable staff members (they are very approachable... so approach and ask away!). Finally yet importantly, have a look at the courtyard café and at the perfectly curated gift shop staffed by some of the savviest ladies in town.

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 lovers as only four working models of the kind still exist in the US.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 9:30am–4:30pm; Sun: 10:30am–4:30pm
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 Gregorian-style house is one of the best examples of upper-class Creole living that 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 being 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 in the historically accurate special exhibitions, including special exhibitions for the Holidays, Summer Dress, and something a little bit spooky in October. They also have a wonderful calendar of rotating exhibitions in the gallery space at the historic Gallier House, which are always free to the public.

New Orleans history and architecture is 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 neaby Gallier House at a discounted rate.

The best time to visit is from October to May, when cooking demonstrations take place in the kitchen using the tools that were in use during 19th century.
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 maintains its decrepit vibe, in the good NOLA way. There are autograph registers on display, one signed by Billy Joel, and one ancient one with signatures such as "I.P. Freely" in spidery fountain pen. This place was frequented by Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra which is exciting, since some of the decor 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 said 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 really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." The drink was once outlawed in the US (certain green colorings, not the actual wormwood used to flavor the drink, caused blindness and madness), 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 to louche into an opaque opalescent white. This 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 lit the sugar cube on fire, which is not the most authentic method, but nevertheless quite exciting.

Opening Hours:
Sun-Wed: 9am–3am; Thu-Sat: 9am–5am
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 it 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, having 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, the building 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 perfectly ancient and especially atmospheric, so even amid the chatter and the blaring jukebox, the cavern-like, candlelit interior (no electric lights whatsoever) is nearly akin to time traveling. A must if you love history, stories, and old buildings!

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 9pm!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–3am
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.
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.

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)
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.

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)
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)
1850 House

12) 1850 House

A well-preserved townhouse, complete with a courtyard, provides rare public access beyond the storefronts to the interior of the Pontalba Buildings, 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" styles inspired by Rococo, Gothic and Classical precedents. 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 who came to the rapidly growing city in the early to mid-19th century.

The $5 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 a surprisingly enjoyable look at life in the good, or 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've never seen a 1850s southern home before, this is a must!

Take time to visit the downstairs store run 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: 10am–4:30pm

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