Blake Walsh

20 Best Things to Do in the French Quarter, New Orleans

  • Published 2022/09/12

New Orleans is a city with a storied past, glittering nights, old-school cuisine, and music spilling out of every street corner.

Its name is almost synonymous with the French Quarter, the timeless historic heart of the city and often called the crown jewel of New Orleans.

Also known as the Vieux Carré, or ‘old square’ in English, the French Quarter is the best-known part of New Orleans and easily one of the most renowned half-square miles in the world.

It is the oldest neighborhood in the city, framed in wrought-iron balconies, tucked-away gardens and courtyards, sensory culinary experiences, and jazz beats pulsing out of the cracked stucco houses.

The colonial times of the 18th century shaped this neighborhood, which now carries the fingerprints of several cultures: French, Spanish, Creole, American, and many more.

All kinds of wanderers make their way into the French Quarter, in its vibrant nightlife and historic buildings, in its dim-lit clubs and hectic bars, in its artsy spectacles and lively streets.

Come and get familiar with the charms of this iconic neighborhood, starting with this list of the best things to do in the French Quarter.

Admire Marine Life at Audubon Aquarium of the Americas

Exterior of the Audobon Aquarium of the Americas

Dr. Victor Wong /

An extraordinary underwater world awaits you at this marine museum on the Mississippi River, among the best of its kind in the country.

Here there is a state-of-the-art aquarium where dwell some of the most enthralling living things the ocean holds: manta rays, sharks, jellyfish, penguins, sea turtles, and so much more.

The aquarium takes you to different underwater milieus, from the far-off Caribbean and the Amazon to the surrounding Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, and allows you to experience what the waters of the world hold.

Penguin at Audubon Aquarium

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Step into a water tunnel to spot fish swimming overhead, see sights that only divers get to see, and walk right up to the glass separator to look eye-to-eye with a creature from the deep.

Stroke a baby shark at the shark touch pool; be enchanted by the dignified sea horses, adorable sea otters, and playful penguins; visit the Amazon rainforest exhibit for strange snakes and colorful frogs; or gasp at the rare sighting of a white alligator.

You’ll be sure to stay for hours at this wonderful museum that’s swimming with aquatic life you’ve only ever read about before.

Building design of Audubon Aquarium

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Walk around Jackson Square

Scenic view of Jackson Square

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If the city of New Orleans had a town square, this would be Jackson Square.

The St. Louis Cathedral and an equestrian statue of the controversial Andrew Jackson for whom the square takes its name dominate the place, and a pristine green park surrounds it from every side.

Take a stroll on the park grounds and watch people from diverse walks of life as they come and go.

Applaud the buskers, jugglers, and magicians for their performances; get your fortune told or your palm read by the friendly mystics; or pose for the caricaturists and portraitists under the shade of the trees.

Art display at Jackson Square

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The cast-iron fence around the park actually serves as a ‘gallery’ for the biggest artist colony this side of New Orleans, and there you can admire and purchase the one-of-a-kind artworks lining the square.

You can also pop into the restaurants, bars, and shops on Jackson Square to partake of refreshments and browse through wares on a lazy afternoon.

Or have a good look around and admire the handsome historically-treasured buildings lining the square, some of the oldest in the French Quarter.

Jazz performance at Jackson Square

Chuck Wagner /

Take Pictures at St. Louis Cathedral

Interior of the St. Louis Cathedral

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St Louis Cathedral stands out among the historic buildings of the French Quarter, a beautiful and dignified structure with its three spires and stately symmetrical façade.

The building seen today is a reconstruction completed in the 1850s after a fire razed the original structure built in 1727.

St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest active Roman Catholic church in the country and the oldest place of worship in the entire state of Louisiana.

Exterior of the St. Louis Cathedral

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The image of the cathedral is a known icon and immediately brings the city of New Orleans to mind in its portrayals in paintings, photographs, and films.

Inside, you will find an ornate gilded altar, a towering pipe organ, breathtaking paintings and architecture, and stained glass windows portraying the life of the holy St. Louis.

Cherub statue in St. Louis Cathedral

Robert Crow /

You might even hear the monks singing and catch the organ music in the spiritual atmosphere if you chance upon the cathedral at the right time.

Though a Catholic place of worship, this cathedral’s beautiful interiors and rich history welcome people of differing faiths and nationalities.

Should you wish to attend Mass, light a candle, purchase a memento or give the cathedral a simple visit, it is always open from 9 am to 4 pm.

Top part of the St. Louis Cathedral

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Explore History at the Cabildo

Exterior of The Cabildo

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Once the governmental and judiciary center of New Orleans and now overseen by the state museum of Louisiana, the Cabildo is drenched in history.

The Cabildo is among the most historically significant buildings in the country: among many other events, it is the exact site of the Louisiana Purchase wherein the United States acquired the territory of Louisiana from Napoleonic France.

Today this elegant Spanish colonial structure displays rare milestones of America’s past.

View of the Cabildo

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Peer through windows into the past with exhibits on the different ethnic groups who have shaped the state, the story of Civil Rights and slavery, the battle of New Orleans and its subsequent commemoration, and colonial Louisiana’s local history and the Francophone identity.

See the We Love You, New Orleans! exhibition created for the city’s 300th anniversary displaying places, people, and objects most characteristically New Orleans like Mardi Gras memorabilia, vintage drug store signs, jazz instruments, and French Quarter nightclub posters.

Find almost 500 artifacts, works of art, documents, and three-dimensional objects, a vast and impressive collection piecing together the history of Louisiana under the Cabildo’s historic roof.

A canon at the Cabildo's hall

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Go Down Bourbon Street

Night scene at Bourbon Street

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This street at the heart of the French Quarter never sleeps: the parties, the nightlife, and the famous bars are sure to keep you hopping until dawn!

One of the street’s cultural touchstones is the Old Absinthe House, where you can discover if you have a taste for absinthe cocktails and chill out in the eccentric atmosphere.

Relax in the tropical ambiance of the Pat O’ Brien’s bar and sample their famous sweet red Hurricane cocktail – but beware of the hangover!

Try a Hand Grenade cocktail at Tropical Isle bar and try not to be overpowered by the distinctly potent concoction.

Bar at Bourbon Street

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Step into Galatoire’s and taste classic Creole cuisine, or try out the savory gumbo and Cajun dishes at Olde Nola Cookery.

Bourbon Street glows with the neon signs of bars, clubs, and hangouts, and these are just a few of the favorite haunts you can check out.

It also has good old-fashioned jazz clubs on every corner, famous balconies for singing karaoke, and a special section where the LGBTQ+ community of New Orleans thrives.

So if you’re ready for reveling, it might be time to go for a walk down Bourbon Street.

Pubs and bars at Bourbon Street

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Stroll Down Pirate’s Alley

People walking along Pirate's Alley

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Set between the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral, this quiet, unassuming alley is still one of the spookily romantic points of convergence in the French Quarter.

The old-world New Orleans essence wraps around the alley when the afternoon light hits it just right, when its lampposts flicker to life at night, and when trumpet music from Jackson Square seems to echo on its cobblestones.

The alley is the subject of many legends: one center around infamous privateer Jean Lafitte who, with his pirate brethren, allegedly sold boot-legged pirate loot to New Orleans citizens right in the alleyway.

Faulkner House Bookstore at Pirate's Alley

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Some say they still spot Jean Lafitte’s ghost walking the alley to this day; others claim to see the apparition of Reginald Hicks, another pirate killed in the war, who brings the strange sound of wedding bells and laughter.

Outdoor table and chairs set up at Pirate's Alley

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And other stories talk of the friendly ghost of a priest, Father Dagobert, who heroically buried the bodies of dead Frenchmen despite prohibition by Spain.

A story more grounded in reality is that of writer William Faulkner who wrote his first book Soldier’s Pay in his home on the alley, which would later become renowned independent store Faulkner House Bookstore.

Stories and all, Pirate’s Alley is among the classic French Quarter walkways, backed by historical buildings and distinctive businesses, and you’d do well to take yourself on a little stroll there.

Guided tour at Pirate's Alley

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Listen to Jazz at Preservation Hall

People waiting outside Preservation Hall

Andriy Blokhin /

New Orleans is universally known to be the birthplace of jazz music, which is rooted firmly in the soul of the French Quarter.

See how Preservation Hall honors this rich musical tradition, giving acoustic jazz concerts over 350 nights a year with a musical collective featuring over 60 master practitioners of the genre.

People line up every night to the gallery, where they fill an intimate square room with a humble stage area and wait for the magic of jazz to take them away.

Entrance to the Preservation Hall

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Every night as they play their blazing hot sets, the house band is dedicated to upholding the true spirit of jazz, playing catchy riffs and addictive grooves, busting out with solos, full-out swinging with tunes that twine together the modern and the classical.

Preservation Hall is small and cozy, but it’s not long before the audience is standing up to join the music, and you will find yourself joyfully enraptured while clapping and dancing to the beat.

You are guaranteed a fantastic show every time from Preservation Hall, and there’s even a chance of other musical legends dropping by to play along.

Jazz band in Preservation Hall

Mr. Littlehand, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Visit the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Signage of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

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Take a strange and unusual step back in time at this small but comprehensive pharmacy museum located in a two-story historic building in the French Quarter.

Fascinatingly packed with knowledge on early pharmacology, this museum once served as the apothecary shop of America’s first licensed pharmacist.

Here there are displays with eyeglasses, surgical tools, leather physician bags, old-time wheelchairs, birthing chairs, and apothecary jars that still have their original contents.

Exterior of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

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You will spy on all sorts of artifacts from the fields of dentistry, optometry, obstetrics, surgery, and of course, pharmaceutics.

The museum doesn’t shy away from the fact that medicine has a sometimes sordid past, and you will spot cases with sharply terrifying bone saws and bottles filled with leeches that were once attached to people’s skin for the sake of medicine.

A display in the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

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You will also find an array of voodoo potions, for the pharmacy once served as a secret exchange area for these superstitious cures.

At the back of the shop is a recreation of a 19th-century pharmacist’s workspace with wood blenders, mortars and pestles, old microscopes, and the ‘soda fountain’ established to render medicine more palatable.

This museum is an intriguing shrine to the past and the sometimes-dark history of the medical world.

Medicine bottles in the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Nat Thanapohn /

Discover Stories at The Presbytere

Daytime view of the Presbytere

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The Presbytere is another architecturally significant building on Jackson Square, a perfect example of a Spanish colonial structure designed to match the Cabildo in the 18th century.

It is now owned by the state museum and holds within it two critical pieces of Louisiana’s past and present.

The city of New Orleans inextricably connects to the events of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most shattering disasters in American history.

The Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond exhibit tells the story of the rescue, rebuilding, and aftermath of recovery from the tragic storm, and you won’t want to miss this heartbreaking and thought-provoking collection of artifacts and exhibits that also champions the survivor morale of the New Orleans citizens

Exterior of The Presbytere

I, Infrogmation, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

On the other side of the spectrum, Mardi Gras is a celebration inevitably woven into the fabric of Louisiana, and the Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana exhibit allows a look into these riotous festivities.

Examine exhibits tracing Mardi Gras’s medieval origins to the present; intricate parade floats to climb; costume masks and jewelry to examine; a rare peek into the mysterious Mardi Gras krewe societies; and a collection of records, albums, and sheet music centering on the festival.

See how these compelling displays hold pivotal knowledge about the strong spirit of the New Orleans residents.

Browse and Shop at the French Market

Clothes at the French Market

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On the banks of the Mississippi River sits one of New Orleans’s oldest cultural and commercial centers, a six-block market that has expanded and served the people for over three centuries.

The French Market began its life as a Native American trading post and then became a bustling cultural bazaar for French and Spanish colonists and African, European, and Caribbean immigrants.

Stroll through the Market today and explore your fill of artist kiosks, food stands, flea market stalls, jazz displays, produce festivals, performance areas, and a lot more.

Jewelry vendor at the French Market

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Help yourself to baked goods, fresh seafood, organic meals, famed gourmet pizzas, traditional Creole dishes, flavorful Cajun cuisine, exotic breakfast fare, and other food options along the Market.

Exterior of the French Market

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Admire the bohemian charm of the flea market, an alfresco spot where you can peruse through items all over the world: antiques, crafts, vibrant clothing, handmade jewelry, unique New Orleans souvenirs, and all manner of trinkets.

Appreciate the works of artists and craftsmen with their displays of paintings, prints, photographs, pottery, and meticulously crafted works that carry the essence of New Orleans, and listen to their stories of life experiences in the Big Easy.

Make the most of this historical and ever-evolving Market, a staple destination of the French Quarter.

Food at the French Market

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Go Aboard the Steamboat Natchez

Steamboat Natchez on the water

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When you think of the Mississippi River, you think of the likes of Mark Twain and the romance of the river that inspired writers like him – and you also probably think of river adventures on a steamboat.

Have a ride on the Steamboat Natchez, the last authentic steamboat left in New Orleans that will paddle you on a cruise down the river as you watch the city skyline in the distance.

Look for signature New Orleans landmarks along the river, listen to narrations of their history, and create fresh memories as you pass them by.

Front view of Steamboat Natchez

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Experience tucking into a hearty dinner while you float downriver and later walk on the decks and admire the sunset on the Mississippi with an authentic jazz band playing the soundtrack to your evening.

Pay a visit below-deck to view the 1929 engine of the Steamboat Natchez – guests are encouraged to go on tours and see the engine’s workings which are amazingly still in original condition after all these years.

Bask in the authentic experience of being on a genuine paddle wheeler with real calliope music playing in the air and feel like a character out of a long-ago story.

You’re sure to be charmed by this quaint river journey, so grab a seat on deck, relax, and let the steamboat take you away.

Tourists aboard the Steamboat Natchez

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Unwind at Café du Monde

Exterior of Café du Monde

Andriy Blokhin /

How about relaxing with a cup of coffee, baked goods, and a good long look at the city’s heart in one of the most iconic café stops in New Orleans?

Café du Monde puts a great southern spin on intellectual European café culture and is a must-go for first-timers in the French Quarter.

It is beloved among both locals and tourists, and you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing a table with friendly café denizens who are cruising the city just like you are.

Indulge in a cup of their signature strong coffee, brewed with chicory, which adds body and flavor and served either black or au lait: perfect for a morning wake-up call, an afternoon treat, or an evening nightcap.

Brignets at Café du Monde

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Pair it off with the café’s lavish beignets, French-style donuts fried and generously coated in powdered sugar – people say that everyone in New Orleans grows up eating them with coffee on the side.

Savor your beignets with other drinks like frozen coffee, white and chocolate milk, hot chocolate, or freshly squeezed orange juice.

Sip and snack while you listen to the live musician tunes in the outdoor area, absorb the French Quarter street scenes, watch the people chat and connect, and relish your quintessential New Orleans café visit.

People dining in Café du Monde

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Have a Drink at Laffitte’s Blacksmith Shop

Exterior of Laffitte's Blacksmith Shop

Flickr photographer Lobberich, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Immerse in local color at the oldest bar in New Orleans and one of the oldest in the entire country.

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop remains cloaked in legend and superstition: people still whisper that this structure once served as the base of operations for privateer Jeanne Lafitte and his brother Pierre who ran a smithy to cover up their notorious dealings.

With documents tracing back to 1722, the building remains one of the oldest in the French Quarter and has survived two historic fires that razed the rest of the city.

It is also among the frequently photographed New Orleans landmarks: it has timeworn bricks and architecturally classic briquette-entre-poteaux or bricks-between-posts construction that draws in the history enthusiasts.

Signage of Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop

Kristi Blokhin /

Step into this aged but genteel historic bar with its cavernous candle-lit ambiance and classic mystique, warm yourself by the fireplace, turn up the jukebox, and don’t be shy about chattering with the locals.

Prepare your tastebuds for their classic Voodoo Daiquiri, affectionately called ‘Purple Drank,’ with its sweet and robust grape flavor and a brain-freeze lurking somewhere close.

On weekends, knock back a few drinks and join the friendly and lively crowd in requesting songs and singing along with the piano players, just like a tavern-goer from 300 years ago.

Front view of Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop

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Scope Out the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

Voodoo dolls in the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

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If there’s anything that runs deep in the veins of New Orleans, it’s voodoo.

This unusual little museum is densely packed from top to toe with the legends, mysteries, and traditions of voodoo and its impact on the city’s history.

Peruse the displays of voodoo objects from around the world: all kinds of relics, memorabilia, dolls, masks, beads, skeletons, portraits, candles, shrines, and historical documents abound, and they are sure to send more than a few thrills up the spine.

Exhibit in the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

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Look at a hallway display on Marie Laveau, a 19th-century priestess who practiced for years and is the most famous face of voodoo, deceased personas of the religion, and altars to different voodoo spirits.

Leave objects on the altars if you wish, drop a few coins for luck, or chat about readings and lucky gris-gris amulets with the museum guides.

Go on a walking Voodoo Tour to the famous St. Louis Cemetery where Marie Laveau’s grave lies; walk to Congo Square, the ritual and celebration site for many different practitioners; or even stop by the house where Laveau used to live.

Expand your knowledge into this sometimes misunderstood facet of New Orleans culture.

Exterior of the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

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See the Charms of Royal Street

Royal Street during Christmas

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Royal Street runs parallel to Bourbon Street, and its quiet and easygoing nature serves as a nice counterpoint to its energetic sibling.

On Royal Street is a classy stretch of unusual art galleries, funky clothing stores, quirky spots to eat, shops carrying strange furniture and accessories, and a lot more.

Try on the 40s and 50s dresses, rockabilly clothing, and corsetry at Trashy Diva; look up fabulous wigs and hair ornaments at Fifi Mahony’s; and pick up items enough for an unusual new wardrobe all down Royal Street.

Seek shade at the Royal & St. Peter’s corridor and hear live musicians, or stop by the Royal & Orleans intersection to buy paintings and watch the street performers and puppeteers.

People riding a carriage at Royal Street

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Buskers are always playing their trade down Royal Street, and for a song or more, you can flip them a few bills or coins.

Street performance at Royal Street

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Taste the Creole brunches at Court of Two Sisters, sample the savory food at Verti Marte, try the West African cuisine at Bennachin and check out many other restaurants featuring classic New Orleanian cuisine.

Enjoy the Cajun culture artworks at George Rodrigue Studios, the vibrant and childlike colors of Gallery Burguieres, and the nocturnal portrayals at Frank Relle Photography—in fact, you probably won’t resist popping into every single gallery on the street, as there are worlds of art there just waiting for discovery.

And keep an eye out for the beautiful old colonial houses lining Royal Street with their stunning architecture, some built with the wrought-iron balconies that are the emblematic ironworks of New Orleans.

You will have a great time sightseeing and exploring this charming thoroughfare of the French Quarter.

Buskers at Royal Street

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Check Out Pontalba Buildings

Exterior of the Pontalba Buildings

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One of the better maintained French Quarter structures is the Pontalba Buildings. Micaela Almonester de Pontalba erected it sometime in the 1840s.

She is the daughter of a Spanish Creole who paid for the construction of the Presbytere, St. Louis Cathedral, and Cabildo.

The uniqueness of the buildings on the east side of the square lies in their architecture.

Facade of the Pontalba Buildings

Richard Espenant /

These identical red brick, four-story buildings provide retail space on the ground floor with residential units above.

The buildings were once occupied by the town’s elite, but now they are rented out to a broader range of tenants.

Pontalba Buildings may be found by using the alley to the left of St. Louis Cathedral, known as Pirates Alley.

Lights at Pontalba Buildings

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Explore the Area’s Heritage through The Historic New Orleans Collection

Exterior of The Historic New Orleans Collection

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As a research center, museum, and publisher, The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is committed to preserving the heritage of New Orleans and the Gulf South.

THNOC began in 1966 to promote education about the region’s diverse cultural heritage via exhibitions, publications, and a public research center.

As an added bonus, it provides a full slate of educational programs and a wealth of materials for educators and students of all ages.

Signage of The Historic New Orleans Collection

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The Historic New Orleans Collection is a great place to visit in the French Quarter.

It has something for everyone, is always spotless and easy to navigate, has excellent on-site food and shopping, and is free of charge.

Visit a Renowned Architect’s Home, Gallier House

Side view of Gallier House exterior

Infrogmation of New Orleans, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Located just off Royal Street, James Gallier, Jr. and his family previously called this stunning Creole townhouse home.

By the middle of the 19th century, Gallier had established himself as one of the city’s most distinguished architects, having created residences for several prosperous New Orleans families.

Gallier House, established in 1860, takes visitors back to the Victorian era with its ornate decor, antique toys, and narrative about a young family struggling to make ends meet in a country on the verge of civil war.

Front view of Gallier House exterior

Infrogmation of New Orleans, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It has indoor plumbing, a connected kitchen, and a ventilation system in James Gallier, Jr.’s “ahead of its time.”

The home is also credited for inspiring the setting for Louis and Lestat’s New Orleans home in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.

Interior of the Gallier House

Infrogmation of New Orleans, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Catch a Performance or Experience the Paranormal at Le Petit Theatre

Exterior of the Le Petit Theatre

Infrogmation of New Orleans, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This theater opened in 1916 and is only a year younger than the company it houses.

The structure is one of the first stops for many out-of-towners exploring the French Quarter as it teetered oblivion and revival.

Take in one of the many one-time-only performances, such as plays, concerts, comedies, lectures, and movies, held there.

The building is said to be haunted, and at night you may listen to tour groups discussing the legend of the “woman in white.”

If you’re lucky, have an encounter with its otherworldly residents!

The building also houses Dickie Brennan’s Tableau Restaurant, serving up excellent traditional elevated Creole fare in what was previously the theater’s little second stage.

Sample the Beers of Brieux Carré Brewing Co.

Brieux Carré Brewery Co. consists of a diverse group of beer enthusiasts.

It seeks to capture the laid-back attitude of its namesake city, New Orleans, through its carefree brewing style.

Since its founding in 2017, Brieux Carre Brewing has created some of the most creatively titled, high-quality beers in the expanding Gulf Coast craft beer market.

The name is a pun on the ancient moniker for the French Quarter, the French phrase “Vieux Carre,” meaning “old square.”

Its mission is to push itself creatively by introducing new recipes to the taproom every week.

At the same time, it will always offer a wide range of beers on tap to please all craft beer enthusiasts.

Final Thoughts

One will have a finger on the pulse of New Orleans as they take in the sights and sounds of this renowned neighborhood.

The French Quarter will bring you on a spirited jaunt into the side of the city always heard of in stories.

Come and get to know the French Quarter and see for yourself what its buzz is all about.

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