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French Quarter Walking Tour (Self Guided), New Orleans

The French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré (Old Square) is the New Orleans' oldest and most popular neighborhood. Founded in 1718, it perfectly combines the tempting, noisy and nutty nightlife of Bourbon Street with important historic landmarks, art galleries, sophisticated cafés, and some of the city's oldest churches. On this self-guided walking tour, the Quarter will be brought to life with stories, legends, interesting facts and experiences involving the architecture, courtyards, food, beverages, musicianship, art and gardens that all lend to its distinct character.
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French Quarter Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: French Quarter Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » New Orleans (See other walking tours in New Orleans)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 17
Tour Duration: 3 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.5 Km or 2.2 Miles
Author: ann
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Jackson Square
  • Cafe du Monde
  • 1850 House
  • The Presbytere
  • St. Louis Cathedral
  • The Cabildo
  • Pharmacy Museum
  • Historic New Orleans Collection
  • Royal Street
  • Canal Street
  • Bourbon Street
  • Hermann-Grima House
  • Preservation Hall
  • Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar
  • Historic Voodoo Museum
  • Old Absinthe House
  • French Market
1
Jackson Square

1) Jackson Square (must see)

Because of its proximity to the Mississippi River, the St. Louis Cathedral, and the Cabildo, the lively Jackson Square was and is a popular meeting spot at the heart of the French Quarter. Named after Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans who went on to become the US president, it was a hubbub of activity since colonial times, when the militia performed drills, vendors sold their wares at the open-air market, and public hangings and beheadings were carried out.

Now revamped into a landscaped park with neat lawns and flowerbeds, the square somehow manages to not feel hectic, despite the streams of photo-snapping tourists, school groups, waiters on their breaks, and the odd crashed-out casualty. During the day, everyone passes by at some time or another, weaving their way through the tangle of artists, palmists, magicians, shambolic jazz bands, and blues musicians. In addition, the site has been the location of many festive events, movies and television shows – you might even get to be an extra in a movie yourself!

Why You Should Visit:
The view of Jackson Square is fairly iconic, featuring Jackson's equestrian statue at its center and the beautifully designed St. Louis Cathedral as its backdrop – but there's always more to appreciate than the view. Art/music festivals, mule-drawn carriage tours, artists selling their wares, quirky street performers... you never know what you'll find here. Good for some great tourist photos, a quick break on the chairs, and really a great place to take it all in. You'll see so much of New Orleans from just this little spot that it's kind of amazing.

Tip:
Go by 2pm to get the full effect: otherwise, the area dies down... until dinner.
Also, remember to walk up the steps and watch the boats go by on the Mississippi.
2
Cafe du Monde

2) Cafe du Monde (must see)

Open around the clock, the open-air Café du Monde (French for "Café of the World" or "the People's Café"), established in 1862, is perfect for relaxing at a table under the arcade and listening to the street musicians entertain.

The French brought coffee with them as they began to settle along the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River, circa 1700. During the American Civil War, the New Orleans Creoles developed the chicory-blended coffee (as there was a coffee shortage), which has continued to be served at Café du Monde and other New Orleans restaurants due to the added chocolate-like flavor of café au lait.

The Acadians (Cajuns) from Nova Scotia brought other French customs, such as the beignet, to Louisiana in the 18th century. Unlike most doughnuts, beignets are squared pieces of dough with no hole in the middle, sometimes served with fruit, jam, maple syrup, or even savory items. At Café du Monde, the fried delights are served warm with a thick coating of powdered sugar and are sold in orders of three.

Just keep in mind that the place is CASH ONLY and that the menu includes ONLY dark-roasted coffee with chicory (served black or au lait), beignets, white and chocolate milk, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Tip:
If too crowded, consider going around back to the take-out window and enjoying your treats on the Mississippi riverfront. In any case, beware that you may get covered in powdered sugar, so try wearing something white!
3
1850 House

3) 1850 House (must see)

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!

Tip:
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
4
The Presbytere

4) The Presbytere (must see)

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.

Tip:
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
5
St. Louis Cathedral

5) 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.

Tip:
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
6
The Cabildo

6) The Cabildo (must see)

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.

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: 10am–4:30pm
7
Pharmacy Museum

7) Pharmacy Museum (must see)

What a find this museum is! It has it all – education, spookiness, air conditioning, a picture-perfect garden setting and even a charming balcony. A self-guided (or guided) tour through the nation's first pharmacy, it tells the stories of its owners – including J. Dufilho, the first licensed pharmacist in the US – as well as of the supposed hauntings the building holds.

Displayed are all sorts of antique medical equipment and medicines – from voodoo potions and live leeches to impressively numerous 19th-century dental instruments, to all variant of snake oil, old makeup, and countless other curious items and methods, both fascinating and terrifying. There is even a pharmacist's work area that displays the microscope, mortar, and pestle that doctors used to make their medicines, while the nearby garden shows the herbs that were a part of many prescriptions to patients. All in all, money and time well spent!

Why You Should Visit:
To learn about the history of NOLA via medical history, health habits and beliefs of NOLA people; soda origin, old medical quackery, life in the French Quarter during its early years, and much more.

Tip:
Show up just before 1pm to take the one-hour guided tour in the style of an entertaining lecture/presentation (Tue-Fri, for the same price as the self-guided tour but so much better); after which you'll be free to explore the museum at your leisure.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 10am–4pm
8
Historic New Orleans Collection

8) 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.

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 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
9
Royal Street

9) Royal Street (must see)

If you want to experience the finer things in life, this is one of New Orleans' best streets where you can do so. In contrast to nearby Bourbon St., it displays a more sedate culture and refinement, with miles and miles of upscale galleries, boutiques, eateries, and local flavor such as potted ferns hanging from balconies. One of the city's oldest arteries, it's definitely one where you can get some good people-watching in while having all the main attractions within walking distance.

With their ornate and beautiful design, many of the 18th- and 19th-century buildings lining the avenue are dedicated to first-class selections of antiques and artworks rivaling those displayed in major museums; be sure to browse the sublime collection at the old M. S. Rau store (630 Royal) that welcomes gawkers. Other notable stores sell jewelry and decorative carnival masks ranging from simple feather-and-ceramic styles to handcrafted, locally made varieties with heftier price tags.

Royal Street is so unique that one will find it difficult to choose where to begin and where to end. From visiting the Gallier House to touring the Historic New Orleans Collection or eating at the restaurants displaying scenic gardens, ornate fountains, and beautiful courtyards, there is a lot to see and do here.

Why You Should Visit:
Certainly refreshing if you need a break from NOLA's bar/party scene, as the vibe is more family-friendly and the stores have many souvenirs appropriate for family and friends, especially as you approach the heavily trafficked areas near the river. Several blocks of Royal are closed to vehicles between 11am–4pm, and colorful street performers entertain for tips.

Tip:
Have a handful of dollar bills to tip the street performers: it's their livelihood and most are talented!
10
Canal Street

10) Canal Street

Canal Street is a famous street in New Orleans and, at 170 feet, one of the widest in the United States. Located in the French Quarter, this street served as a cultural dividing line for the Creoles and the new American residents.

The name of the street comes from a canal, that was never built, that would connect the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Canal Street is the starting point for many of the major avenues and streets that run through the French Quarter. It is also a location for the many parades which occur during Mardi Gras.

Canal Street was a major social spot for the locals and also a most important shopping center. Major department stores such as Karuss’s, Godchaux's, Gus Mayer, Sears, and DJ Holmes lined the streets. Today stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Georgiou, Adrienne Vittadini, and Bananna Republic are a few of favorite shopping centers.

Although many of the old department stores are now gone, Canal Street still has many hotels, souvenir shops, and restaurants that visitors and residents enjoy. The street is still a major transportation hub. A recommend must-do is to ride one of the many streetcars that run up and down the street and to follow-up with lunch or dinner at the Canal Street Restaurant.
11
Bourbon Street

11) Bourbon Street (must see)

Set in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter, this street is an attraction in its own right, stretching thirteen blocks from Canal to Esplanade Avenue. Renowned for its bars and strip clubs, as well as the live jazz scene, Bourbon is just as rich in historic sights and iconic venues, including some of the most luxurious spots in the city, such as the timeless Royal Sonesta Hotel and Galatoires Restaurant where you can taste the best of French Creole cuisine in a festive yet elegant atmosphere.

Among the iconic bars here are Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop on the corner with St. Phillip St; the Old Absinthe House – birthplace of the famous Absinthe House Frappe; and the 24/7 Lafitte-in-Exile, the oldest gay bar in the U.S. among whose regulars during their time in New Orleans was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tennessee Williams. If you're in the mood for jazz, head to Fritzel's European Jazz Club, an almost 200-year-old building hosting live jazz gigs every night of the week!

Why You Should Visit:
Nice to walk around and look at the art shops during the day and check out the food options, but come night time it gets pretty wild. Be prepared for sensory overload: the lights, the noise, the smells, etc. There will be something here to surprise the unsurprisable. Definitely ADULT entertainment.

Tip:
If you visit, try the famous hand grenade drink. Also, don't take pictures of street performers if you don't intend to tip them.
For those looking for some hard-core jazz music, that appears to have all moved over to Frenchmen Street.
12
Hermann-Grima House

12) 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.

Tip:
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.
13
Preservation Hall

13) Preservation Hall (must see)

Located just a few blocks from the Mississippi River, in the heart of the famous French Quarter, the aptly named Preservation Hall is a legendary venue, and much of its charm is found in its rustic, intimate, old school vibe: shabby walls with paintings of local musicians, bench seating, a strict no-phone policy, no amps, and no bar. The focus here is really on keeping New Orleans jazz alive – though, in more recent years, the house band has also collaborated for tours and recordings with a number of artists outside the genre, including gospel, hip hop, rock, and other inventive blends of styles. There are a lot of seasoned musicians, as well as a few younger ones and it's all great.

Tip:
Plan to get there 45-60 minutes before the shows, which are at 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10pm daily. The good news is that the Hall is right around the corner from Pat O'Brien's, so you can enjoy a hurricane cocktail to go while you wait. Admission is $20/person; of course, you can also reserve seats online, but that privilege costs some $40.
14
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar

14) 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!

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 9pm!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–3am
15
Historic Voodoo Museum

15) Historic Voodoo Museum

Strange, unique, spooky, fun and scary, this museum, established in 1972, offers a curious and introductory insight into the world of Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo. Despite consisting of only two rooms, it is jam-packed with historic Voodoo relics, paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts and, as such, is quite interesting whether you are just discovering Voodoo or are a die-hard fanatic. The local priestess will even give you a psychic reading in person or by phone. For those who wish to take the experience further, ritual services with local practitioners – from blessings and curse removals to weddings and other ceremonies – can be arranged.

They limit visitors in the museum proper, and as two come out, two more can go in – which means you can see everything without feeling rushed. The gift shop sells love potions, books, chicken feet, gris-gris (amulet) bags, snake oils, books, dolls, candles, and other mementos. There is also a Voodoo Cemetery Walking Tour that takes you to the tomb of Marie Laveau, renowned local Voodoo practitioner of Creole descent.

Operation Hours:
Daily: 10am–6pm
16
Old Absinthe House

16) 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
17
French Market

17) French Market (must see)

Spanning the length of six blocks, the French Market technically begins at Café du Monde and stretches downriver from Jackson Square to the US Mint. Spread across its numerous tables and stands, you can find everything from souvenirs to clothing to street-food outlets of every conceivable kind, with some excellent fruits and veggies to boot. Often you can hear music as well, as the market makes for a great performance space.

The crepe stand is out of this world, but there's no shortage of other great-smelling food kiosks and restaurants throughout, with just about anything you could ask for, from crayfish to po' boys to beignets. Also, in addition to the tourist-focused NOLA and Mardi Gras masks, t-shirts, shot glasses, etc., you may find locals who make unique, colorful jewelry (pins, earrings) or will offer an assortment of handmade art items in clay, stone and wood. Their wares are reasonably priced and make great souvenirs; just don't forget to bring cash as not all of the booths accept cards.

While mostly a shopping center, this popular spot is surprisingly historic. The oldest of its kind in the US, it has been a gathering place for many different ethnic groups, starting with the Native Americans who came here to sell their baskets and beads and later including Creoles, Germans, Sicilian and Chinese, who once traded fragrant herbs, mysterious wild birds, and even alligators. Today, the market's graceful arcades have been mostly enclosed to protect from the sun, though still open at the sides to allow for a breeze.

Why You Should Visit:
If you're visiting New Orleans, it's worth taking one stroll through this market. Definitely designed for tourists (so don't buy everything in sight – you may find a cheaper item elsewhere!), but it's a beautiful sight at least. And if nothing else, a vendor or cafe may provide you with the perfect treat to make your taste buds happy.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 9am–6pm; Sat, Sun: 10am–6pm

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