Laissez les bons temps rouler: The French Quarter of New Orleans
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
At the confluence of culture and the crossroads of history and time, the French Quarter of New Orleans is an enigma slouching under the weight of its own myth. It is a city with an identity crisis, unsure whether it is what it appears to be, or whether it is simply living up to its own legend. No matter what the answer is, the motto remains the same: Laissez les bons temps rouler!
During our first visit to the Big Easy, Caro and I found ourselves seated in the courtyard of O’Brien’s—that slick tourist hub—surrounded by palms and enveloped in the sultry heat of a Louisiana summer afternoon, sipping on Hurricanes. We were reading history off the menu, particularly the passage describing the city’s numerous flirtations with natural disaster—a past which gave birth to the establishment’s signature drink. It was August 2005.
Two weeks later New Orleans was sinking.
Years after Katrina, we returned to find a city slowly returning to normalcy. Which is a bit of a misnomer for a town like New Orleans. A few things had changed. Tourism was slow. Bus tours dedicated to the disaster had become a thing, showing off the high-water marks on front porches in the Ninth Ward. But the city finally had its nose above water. It was recognisable as itself—that witchy blend of voodoo gumbo that is more complex than the recipe for a Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane and just as likely manufactured to enchant and to inebriate in equal measure:
- 2oz Spanish Creole
- 2oz Cajun French
- 2oz African VooDoo
- 1oz Faded Antebellum Wealth
- A tablespoon of Jazz
- Another tablespoon of crazy
- Garnished with magic and myth
1. French Quarter City Walk
A ubiquitous guidebook says that Bourbon Street is tame by day, but we have seen a woman walk straight up the centre of the thoroughfare in broad daylight, wearing only a mini-skirt and tassels on her tits. We also encountered a grandmother in a gold-lamé bikini and headdress driving a tricycle adorned with Christmas lights and pumping disco music from a ghetto-blaster.
I could go on. But then shit just gets crazy after nightfall. You have to see it to believe it. So take advantage of the “open container laws,” grab yourself a Hand Grenade and just take it slow.
Upper Bourbon Street is an eight block section that will allow you to stroll pass such landmarks as Pat O’Brien’s Pub, Marie Laveau’s House of VooDoo, The Old Absinthe House, and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. If fine dining is your thing, dress up to the nine’s and check out Galatoire’s. It’s a bit of a gem amidst the purposeful sleaze of souvenir shops and strip clubs.
Royal Street is another highlight of the French Quarter and of an entirely different flavour. The wrought-iron balconies and lush flowers draped over them offer up a quieter old-world vibe ripe for photography. Here there are high-end antique shops (MS Rau) and fine art galleries (George Roderigue) that will feel like a clean bath after the debauchery of Bourbon. And an eggs Benedict breakfast at Brennan’s with strawberries and cream will set you back more than $100USD—if a bath is your thing.
Decatur is the hangout for hipsters and locals (which are often one in the same). You can still do the touristy thing and grab beignets from Café du Monde, but do continue further down past Esplanade to the Marigny Triangle for some of the city’s best music. It’s beyond the raucous bombast of Bourbon’s rock. A real favourite of ours down here is David’s Found Objects which is part antique shop, part costume shop, with a few Mardi Gras cast offs thrown in. And while you are in the area, drop down Barrack’s Street to French Market Place. A rule of thumb for us is never pass up a flea market, and the French Market is cool bazaar with some quality artists in amongst the kitch and cheap sunglasses.
Chartres Street is another funky alley with unique shops, restaurants and boutiques. A real oddity is the Pharmacy Museum. We are not habitual museum goers, per se. Food and music and people-watching are our things. But this place will make you believe that New Orleans is more than just a sum of its myths.
2. Jackson Square
Chartres Street runs straight through the north end Jackson Square. And Jackson Square is home to many of the city’s tourist attractions: the Pontalba Buildings, the Cabildo, and the Presbytere. St. Louis Cathedral presides, stoically, over them all like a saint among sinners. The square is actually a park, and around it, painters, sketch artists, and caricaturists ply their trades. You can even have your future divined by one of the many fortune tellers in front of the cathedral. Though it’s best to have this done after dark for maximum impact. Music, and more particularly, Jazz, is often performed free around the park by solo artists and bands, alike.
Carriages line the south end of the square should you wish for a more leisurely view of the French Quarter, and across the street, you can climb the dyke at Washington Artillery Park for a view of the mighty Mississippi and the District of Algiers across the river.
Just down the street on Decatur is the Crescent City Brewery and a little further along, on the corner of St. Louis Street is Johnny’s Po Boys—possibly the best sandwich place in town. And one of the most affordable eateries in the French Quarter.
After dark, on a sultry summer evening, Jackson Square is another great spot for people watching.
3. Preservation Jazz Hall
Sometimes you just have to do the touristy thing. This is one of them. You can get great Jazz in any number of places in the French Quarter. You might even get better Jazz outside the French Quarter in any club on Frenchman Street. But the Preservation Jazz Hall is really a pretty cool experience for all that. After all, where else can you pay $50USD to sit on the floor? Although the band runs through a lot of crowd favourites, they are great musicians. We saw an eighty-year-old trumpet player fall asleep on “stage” and wake up in time for his solo. I was also almost struck by a trombone slide. The vibe is a little forced, but it works. Reserve your ticket in advance. This place sells out most nights.
4. The Garden District & Lafayette Cemetery
Take the streetcar named “Desire” on the St. Charles Line (how cool is that?). You can grab it on Canal Street. The fare is $1.25 each way. A few minutes past Lee Circle, you will pass Jackson Avenue, essentially the beginning of the Garden District. But you want to get off one stop later at Washington Avenue. Walk one block down to Prytania. This is the perfect place to begin.
Nineteenth century wealth gave birth to the Garden District. And, yeah, it’s technically not the French Quarter, so we are cheating a bit. But on a sunny day, you can hardly beat a walk among the opulence of the other half. And…it’s free.
There are many Garden District Walks available on the Internet, but we’ve prepared an interactive map you for you here with 14 points of interest, including the cemetery. It’s a simple rectangular walk through one of the prettiest areas of the District.
5. A Riverboat Cruise
You can’t very well visit New Orleans without a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi. The Natchez is the only authentic paddle-wheeler on this area of the river. Its sister ship, The Creole Queen, looks the part, but is powered by diesel engines. Both offer tours. New Orleans harbour is a working harbour and one of the busiest in the world. The city tour is a great two-hour ride with plenty of beautiful vistas and historical narration. You can also do a Harbour Jazz Cruise in the evenings on either boat, which includes music and a meal.
The Natchez departs from the Toulouse Wharf behind the Jax Brewery. The Creole Queen is docked behind the Spanish Plaza at the base of Canal Street. If you go in the early evening, you get the best of both world's--daytime views and nighttime lights.
Mardi Gras Warehouse in Algiers (Kern Studios)
So, be forewarned, this is strictly a city hack. Mardi Gras World in Port of New Orleans is a wildly popular museum and 400 000 square foot warehouse complex where many of the floats for Mardi Gras are constructed. You can visit year-round and for $22 you can even tour "behind-the-scenes" to see artists at work. We hear its wonderful. But those of a certain age will remember that the Kern family began their business in Algiers Point way back in the 1930s. And the original Mardi Gras World was opened there in 1984. While it has been moved across the river since then, the original 77 00 square foot warehouse in Point Algiers still exists.
One afternoon in 2014, we took our kids across the river on the Algiers ferry at the base of Canal Street to investigate. The Kern studio warehouse is only a short walk from the terminal on Homer Street. The thing about New Orleans in the summer is that it is hot. Very hot. The bay doors to the warehouse were wide open and most of the workers had gone to lunch. We interrupted the nap of the only man left, who spoke only Spanish. When we asked if we could take a walk around, he shrugged.
And so we did.
If you have more time:
The Jazz Clubs of Frenchmen Street
Just across Esplanade, and therefore just outside the French Quarter, Frenchman Street runs diagonally away from Decatur and hosts a dozen jazz clubs. The Snug Harbor Jazz Club, The Maison, and The Blue Nile are just some of the more famous. The Spotted Cat is another. An evening here in this neighbourhood is easily spent.
Founded in 1854, City Park is one of the oldest urban parks in the country. Comprising 1300 acres, it also feels like an entirely different city from the French Quarter. It sat under water for weeks after Katrina hit, but an outpouring of support has seen it rehabilitated. Today it has the largest stand of mature live oaks in the world. Other highlights include the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, The Botanical Garden, and the wonderful Carousel Gardens Amusement Park.
Bayou Airboat Tour
The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is a gorgeous example of the bayou. We visited twice. Once with Jean Lafitte and the last time with New Orleans Airboat Tours. The latter is a family run business, heavily involved in wetland management. The airboat captains live in the bayou area and are wonderful ambassadors. You will speed over the backwaters of Lake Salvador and Cataouatche, up natural channels and canals, and under the Spanish moss of cypress and live oak. You will see herons, roseate spoonbills, egrets, and kingfishers. And, of course, alligators. The airboat experience is loud and exhilarating, but aside from the natural wonders, you will also receive a glimpse in to the world of Cajun culture.
Oak Alley Plantation
The beauty of this former sugar plantation hides a dark past of racism and discrimination. From the "Big House" to the slave cottages Oak Alley has been painstakingly restored with a mandate to educate. It lies an hour from New Orleans, and is well worth a day trip.