The French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré, is one of the most famous neighborhoods in New Orleans, Louisiana. As the oldest neighborhood in the city, dating back to 1718 when the city was founded by French colonists, the French Quarter is known for its beautiful architecture, vibrant nightlife, and unique culture. However, with its seedy reputation and touristy atmosphere, some wonder if the French Quarter lives up to the hype or if it’s become too commercialized to be worth visiting. In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of visiting the French Quarter to help you decide if it’s worth seeing or not.
The History of the French Quarter
The French Quarter was originally established as the city commons – the center of city life where markets, churches, and municipal buildings were located. Under both French and Spanish rule in the 18th century, the neighborhood expanded with residential buildings, shops, taverns, and warehouses built in the distinctive French and Spanish colonial styles.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Americans began moving to New Orleans in greater numbers, leading to new architectural influences. However, two major fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed much of the colonial architecture. The buildings that were rebuilt retained the Spanish and French influences, helping preserve the historic character of the neighborhood.
Today, the French Quarter covers just over 80 blocks and is known as the largest intact example of historic French and Spanish architecture in the United States. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
One of the main attractions of the French Quarter is its distinctive historic architecture, unlike anywhere else in the US. Features include:
– Buildings constructed in the late 18th century French and Spanish colonial styles, with stucco walls, large casement windows, wrought iron balconies, and interior courtyards.
– Brightly painted exteriors in shades of yellow, pink, purple, and blue.
– Intricate ironwork decorating balconies and galleries.
– Steeply pitched tiled roofs.
– Lush private courtyards,藏seen through street side gates.
– Second floor overhangs, providing shade below.
Strolling through the streets of the French Quarter, this unique historic architecture is on full display. Turn any corner and you’ll discover a colorful building facade with decorative iron balconies. Peek through an open gate and you may spot a serene courtyard filled with flowers and fountains.
The architecture provides a window into the city’s past and creates an old world, European atmosphere unmatched elsewhere in the US. Exploring the French Quarter is like stepping back in time to 18th century New Orleans.
The French Quarter is a food lover’s paradise, filled with world class restaurants serving up quintessential New Orleans cuisine. Some culinary highlights include:
Cajun Food: Originating in the French-speaking Acadian region of Canada, Cajun cuisine features bold seasonings like paprika, cayenne, onions, and garlic. Classic Cajun dishes found in the French Quarter include jambalaya, gumbo, étouffée, and blackened redfish.
Creole Food: Developed by French and Spanish settlers in New Orleans, Creole cuisine blends French, Spanish, Italian, African, and Native American influences. Known for complex layers of flavor, popular Creole dishes include gumbo, jambalaya, po’ boys, and trout meunière.
Beignets: These squares of fried dough tossed in powdered sugar provide the quintessential New Orleans breakfast experience. Cafe du Monde is the most famous spot to try them.
Po’ Boys: A sandwich made with meat or seafood served on a loaf of French bread, po’ boys come loaded with regional toppings like fried shrimp, roast beef with gravy, or oysters.
Seafood: Situated on the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans excels at fresh seafood. Oysters, shrimp, crawfish, crab, and Gulf fish all shine on French Quarter menus.
In addition to Cajun and Creole establishments, the French Quarter is home to some of New Orleans’ most acclaimed fine dining venues, known for artful presentations and modern twists on classic dishes. Food is an integral part of the culture here.
Nightlife & Live Music
Nighttime in the French Quarter is when the neighborhood truly comes alive. Once the sun sets, the streets fill up with revelers looking to experience New Orleans after dark. Here are some highlights:
– Bars with live jazz, blues, and Dixieland music pumping out of doorways. Legendary spots include Preservation Hall, Fritzel’s, and Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse.
– Packed Bourbon Street, where the party goes until dawn with bars, strip clubs, street performers, and pulsating neon lights.
– Elegant piano lounges where you can sip an old fashioned cocktail while listening to talented musicians.
– Dance clubs open late into the night spinning funk, rap, house, and retro music.
– Local dive and neighborhood bars where locals mix with tourists for a more relaxed vibe.
In addition to the nightlife scene, French Quarter restaurants feature plenty of live music with jazz brunches being a popular weekend draw. If you want to experience New Orleans’ famous ability to crank up after hours, the French Quarter certainly delivers.
Beyond food and nightlife, the French Quarter provides plenty of shopping opportunities. While much of the neighborhood caters heavily to tourists, there are still interesting stores and markets worth browsing.
– Spice shops with an array of hot sauces, herbs, seasonings, and blends inspired by New Orleans cuisine.
– Voodoo shops selling candles, potions, and voodoo dolls.
– Art galleries filled with Southern Gothic and New Orleans inspired contemporary art.
– Antique stores crammed with rare finds.
– Mask and costume shops with elaborate selections for Mardi Gras.
– Handmade jewelry crafted from materials like alligator teeth and Mardi Gras beads.
– French Market with local farmers and artists selling produce, crafts, and souvenirs.
– Kitchenware stores featuring brightly colored pots and pans.
– Clothing boutiques selling both vintage and contemporary fashion.
Wandering in and out of shops provides a break from sightseeing and allows you to bring home a piece of New Orleans culture.
To dive deeper into the history and culture of New Orleans, the French Quarter provides several museum options. Top picks include:
– The Cabildo – Housed in a historic 18th century government building, the museum spotlights the diverse history of Louisiana with exhibits on Native Americans, the colonial period, the Civil War era, and reconstruction.
– The Presbytere – Located beside St. Louis Cathedral, this former church now serves as a museum focused on the history of Mardi Gras and life in Louisiana throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
– The Historic New Orleans Collection – Spread across several historic French Quarter properties, this impressive complex of museums displays permanent and temporary exhibits on all facets of New Orleans history and culture.
– French Quarter Phantoms – This tiny ghost museum provides an overview of famous French Quarter ghost stories and hauntings.
– The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum – Visit this museum to learn about the history and folklore surrounding the voodoo religion in New Orleans.
– The Mardi Gras Museum – Get an inside look at the long history of Mardi Gras with colorful exhibits of costumes and parade memorabilia.
The museums of the French Quarter provide great opportunities to escape the crowds, beat the heat, and learn more about what shaped this unique neighborhood over three centuries.
In addition to architecture and museums, the French Quarter is home to some of New Orleans’ most iconic landmarks:
– Jackson Square – This historic park surrounded by some of the neighborhood’s oldest buildings provides views of St. Louis Cathedral, street artists, and horse drawn carriages.
– St. Louis Cathedral – The oldest continuously active cathedral in the United States, this iconic church stands directly on Jackson Square.
– Bourbon Street – While often chaotic, no trip to the French Quarter is complete without strolling down the neon-lit entertainment hub of Bourbon Street.
– Cafe du Monde – Open 24 hours, this cafe is famous as the home of New Orleans’ signature beignets and cafe au lait. Expect lines around the clock.
– Preservation Hall – See where New Orleans jazz was reborn during the 1960s at this iconic and intimate music venue.
– Pat O’Brien’s Bar – Home of the neon flaming fountain and the famous Hurricane cocktail. An iconic New Orleans watering hole.
– French Market – This open air market in the colonial style has been in operation since the 1700s.
– Royal Street – Known for its antique shops, galleries, and restaurants, this street provides a beautiful glimpse into Creole architecture.
No first time visit to New Orleans is complete without stopping by these landmarks, which together create the vibrant character unique to the French Quarter.
Downsides of the French Quarter
While the French Quarter clearly has much to offer in terms of cuisine, architecture, history, and entertainment, it does come with some downsides. Here are the most common complaints:
Touristy: As the oldest and most famous neighborhood in New Orleans, the French Quarter caters heavily to tourists. This can make the area feel fake, commercialized, and like a bit of a tourist trap at times. Finding authentic local experiences takes effort.
Crowded: Heavy crowds pack the narrow streets, especially during peak seasons and events like Mardi Gras. This can make simply walking down the street challenging. It also creates long lines at attractions.
Noise: With a lively nightlife scene, late night noise especially on weekends can be an issue for some visitors. Light sleepers may struggle with the sound of drunken revelers into the early morning.
Dirty: With limited street parking and sanitation crews strained by crowds, garbage on the street is an unfortunate eyesore in parts of the French Quarter. Watch your step.
Unsafe: Though improved in recent decades, pickpockets and petty theft aimed at drunk tourists remain issues. Visitors, especially solo, should take care particularly late at night on less populated streets.
Expensive: As a top tourism area, the French Quarter suffers from inflated prices at restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops. Finding good value requires research.
So while the culture and history of the French Quarter make it worth seeing, visitors should be prepared for some of the hassles that can come with such a popular neighborhood.
Tips for Visiting the French Quarter
To make the most of your time exploring the French Quarter while minimizing the downsides, here are some top visitor tips:
– Avoid visiting during busy event times like Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest when hotels and flights spike in price and crowds hit peak levels.
– Walk or take transit to get around. Driving and parking can be challenging with limited garage options and confusing restrictions.
– Eat at least one meal outside the most touristy blocks. Nearby neighborhoods like Faubourg Marigny offer excellent Creole food without inflated prices.
– Head 2-3 blocks off Bourbon Street to find less crowded bars and get a more local flavor.
– Go early in the morning to attractions like Cafe Du Monde to beat both crowds and the heat.
– Check out Frenchman Street for live local music at clubs not just aimed at tourists.
– Consider staying outside the Quarter in neighborhoods like the CBD or Garden District for easier access, lower prices, and a quieter experience.
– Stick to well populated streets at night and travel with others when possible for safety. Avoid poorly lit areas.
– Negotiate with street artists and vendors on prices rather than accept their first price to get better value.
Avoiding the biggest crowds and tourist traps takes a bit more effort and research but provides a more rewarding and authentic experience in America’s most European feeling city.
Is the French Quarter Worth It?
So is visiting the historic French Quarter worth it? Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons:
– Amazing architecture unlike anywhere else in the country
– Delicious regional cuisine from casual to fine dining
– Packed nightlife and live music scene bursting with energy
– Interesting museums and important landmarks
– Colorful history as the founding neighborhood of New Orleans
– Shop for local art, antiques, and other treasures
– Very touristy atmosphere at times
– Crowded sidewalks and attractions
– Noise, especially at night, can be an issue
– Public sanitation is a challenge
– Petty crime aimed at tourists is a concern
– Hotels, food, and activities come at inflated prices
Overall, while the commercialization and popularity of the French Quarter can be a turnoff, its incredible history and architecture combined with New Orleans’ unique culture make it a destination worth experiencing. By avoiding peak times, venturing outside the tourist bubble, and traveling smart, visitors can enjoy a French Quarter experience that lives up to its reputation. Just don’t expect a completely authentic experience – the French Quarter is the Disney World version of New Orleans. But strolling along its historic streets you’ll discover a blend of French, Spanish, and American culture like nowhere else in the United States.<
The French Quarter clearly delivers on old world architecture, both fine and casual dining, lively nightlife, and important history as the original site of the city. However, the constant crowds of tourists, noise, inflated prices, and sanitation issues can diminish its charm. Avoiding the busiest times and digging deeper into the authentic local scene provide the best experience. With the right approach, the French Quarter offers an incredible opportunity to soak up 300 years of culture, cuisine, and architectural history in the heart of New Orleans. Just don’t expect a completely off the beaten path experience.