You're Gonna Want to Read This Before Visiting the French Quarter in New Orleans

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Here's How to Do NOLA's French Quarter Rightunsplash

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A trip to New Orleans can be whatever you want it to be: a romantic weekend romp, a debaucherous girls' getaway, or even a cute hang with the fam. But no matter how you decide to do NOLA, no visit is complete without time spent in the city’s most famous neighborhood: the French Quarter. Vieux Carré (its French name, meaning “old square”) totally encapsulates the city’s festive spirit, and is home to renowned restaurants, chic cobblestone streets, and plenty of boozy activities (think: drinking hurricanes while you walk down the street and sipping Sazeracs in the neighborhood’s famous jazz clubs).

But the French Quarter is much more than just a nonstop party. Founded in 1718, it’s also the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, and therefore the historic heart of the city, filled with well-preserved architecture and relics that date back centuries. As a result, the vibe is very highbrow/lowbrow—you can immerse yourself in the rowdy madness that is Bourbon Street one minute, and then make your way (hopefully unscathed) to a more sophisticated spot moments later. It's the best.

If you're ever in the pretty city, you should pop by for a visit—and I'm here to show you how to do it right, with 20 must-dos to get the most out of your time. Consider this your go-to guide to a très perfect time in the French Quarter, and scroll down to get planning.

Get your fortune told on Jackson Square

Jackson Square sits right in the middle of the neighborhood, and its famous landmark, the towering St. Louis Cathedral, serves as a convenient marker. Today, the sizable square is best known for its buskers, and just like the larger neighborhood itself, the square contains several vibes. Think: part loud and raucous, part cheesy and touristy, and part charmingly historical. Spend a while taking it all in. There are the bucket drummers, tap dancers, clowns, living statues, bizarre dance performances that pop up whenever there’s a crowd, and authentic palm and tarot readers.

the st louis cathedral at the foot of jackson square in the french quarter of new orleans, louisiana
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Spend an afternoon at Lafitte's

As one of the oldest and most unique landmarks in the French Quarter, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop—a 1770s Creole cottage-turned-dive bar and daiquiri shop with a live piano bar in the back—is not to be missed. Legend says French pirate Jean Lafitte and his brother operated some of their shady activities out of this building, and owners claim it's the oldest building to house a bar in the country. Whether or not the legends are true (and the ghosts are real), it's an iconic stop nonetheless. Sidle up to the piano bar and enjoy the (slightly) quieter side of Bourbon Street.

an exterior view of lafittes blacksmith shop in new orleans, louisiana, usa, circa 1960 photo by archive photosgetty images
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Stand in line for beignets at Café du Monde

Like drinking hurricanes on Bourbon Street, waiting in line for beignets is a New Orleans rite of passage. This location is open until 11 p.m., so you can hold off until the crowd dies down to satisfy that craving for powdered sugar-dusted square donuts and café au lait. Better yet, hit the take-out window and enjoy your treat on a bench by the river or in Jackson Square.

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Stroll along Bourbon Street

If it’s your first time in New Orleans (and even if it’s not), it’s essential to spend some time on Bourbon Street, the famous stretch of strip clubs, daiquiri shops, bars, and music venues in the French Quarter. After dark, it turns into a veritable explosion of neon signage, bachelorettes, “Huge Ass Beers” to go, snake handlers, and street musicians. Whether you only last a block or two or settle in for a long, wild night, there’s no judgment either way. Quality varies from venue to venue, but without a doubt, this is the loudest, most musical, and most rambunctious part of New Orleans.

crowds in the french quarter during mardi gras 2013 in new orleans, louisiana
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Catch a show at Preservation Hall

Now that you’re ready to change gears and experience some, ahem, culture, go to a show at Preservation Hall, a truly special traditional jazz experience on St. Peter Street, just off of Bourbon. There are a couple of rotating house bands, all the best in the biz, that play a few shows a night. Get tickets ahead of time to guarantee a seat (or standing room).

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Browse the galleries and antique shops on Royal Street

Parallel to Bourbon, Royal Street is full of charm, and is arguably home to the best shopping (or at least window shopping) in the French Quarter. No need for an itinerary: Just wind your way through contemporary art galleries, fun boutiques, and a range of antique shops, from the strangely specific (like Brass Monkey, where you'll find walls of adorable antique pillboxes) to the refined.

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Immerse yourself in Voodoo history

Voodoo, a spirit-based religion known for its rituals and gris-gris (talismans), was brought to New Orleans by enslaved West Africans in the 18th century, and lives on as an essential part of the city’s culture. After a tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1 to see Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s grave, head to the Historic Voodoo Museum for some additional knowledge on the subject. After, Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo or Voodoo Authentica are good places to shop for gris-gris, Voodoo dolls, candles, and more.

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Two words: Ghost. Tour.

Even if a tour of the French Quarter’s most haunted spots doesn’t turn you into a believer, it’s definitely worth spending a couple hours learning the history of the neighborhood through this spooky lens. A tour with Haunted History Tours includes stops at places like Marie Laveau’s house (where the Queen of Voodoo is said to still haunt her home), the LaLaurie Mansion (the utterly eerie torture chamber made more infamous by American Horror Story), and the many hotels and bars where sightings of phantom bloody Civil War soldiers, pirates, and more have been reported over the years.

a sunny day in an old cemetery with ruined ornamental tombs lafayette cemetery no 2 in new orleans
Nirian - Getty Images

Fill up on oysters

Gulf oysters taste great fried, raw, or dredged in parmesan and butter and put under a hot flame. You’ll find all three at many places throughout the Quarter: Acme Oyster House is worth the wait, Drago’s is home to the original char-broiled oyster, and Felix’s is a great old-school spot for a dozen on the half shell. Why not visit all three?

new orleans, la april 30, 2020 charbroiled oysters are prepared in the parking lot of st dominic church by staff from dragos seafood restaurant many local restaurants have resorted to curbside service and orders to go during the stay at home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus william widmer for the washington post via getty images
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Munch on a muffuletta sandwich...

Family-owned for centuries and still true to its humble Sicilian roots, Central Grocery is the birthplace of this famous overstuffed sandwich, made with cured meat, provolone, olive salad, and a special round sesame bread. Napoleon House also makes it great, and a few other places in town (including Rouses grocery stores) serve decent ones in a pinch.

new orleans, louisiana august 11 a muffuletta sandwich at central grocery in new orleans, louisiana, on tuesday, august 11, 2015 photo by melina marathe washington post via getty images
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...Or a po' boy (or two)

With so many good restaurants in town, it’s easy to overbook yourself. But try to save room to grab a casual po’ boy for at least a meal or two. The sandwiches—which are basically French loaves stuffed with fried seafood or decadent roast beef—are famous from a few places in town. Parkway in Bayou St. John neighborhood is a must, but the majority of the po’ boy bucket list contenders lie within the Quarter: find inventive hipster renditions at Killer PoBoys, seafood po' boys at Acme, classics at Johnny’s, and anything to go from Verti Marte.

a delicious shrimp po boy sandwich shallow dof
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Kick back on a steamboat

When you’re ready for a break from the humid Quarter streets, book a jazz brunch or evening cruise on an authentic steamboat, normally complete with live music, a buffet of traditional New Orleans food, and a bar. I suggest Steamboat Natchez, where you can hit the upper deck and watch New Orleans float by while you take on the Mississippi River.

boat on the mississippi river
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Check out a festival

In late April, French Quarter Fest fills the Quarter with free live music staggered across a few stages, plus great food stands and increasingly growing crowds. During other times of year, especially spring and early summer, you’ll catch specialty festivals like Southern Decadence (over Labor Day Weekend), Tales of The Cocktail, Creole Tomato Fest, and the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.

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Stay for a parade (or two)

During Carnival season—the much-anticipated stretch of time from January until Fat Tuesday in February or March—New Orleans party culture is at its absolute peak. It's also when you'll find major Mardi Gras parades that start Uptown and end at Canal Street, where the CBD meets the French Quarter. Within the Quarter, a few smaller “foot” parades, like Barkus, ruled by dogs, and Krew Du Vieux, full of political satire-themed foot floats, are lots of fun. If you're visiting at a different time of year, look out for the Easter Parade, Halloween Parade (Krewe of Boo), Southern Decadence Parade, Pride Parade, and more.

new orleans holds annual mardi gras celebration
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Catch outdoor jazz and more near the French Market

Wandering along the river on North Peters Street, you’ll often encounter live jazz performances outside of the French Market, where you can shop for tchotchkes and eat alligator-on-a-stick. After a nice stroll, head to the New Orleans Jazz Museum for more live music and interactive exhibits inside the old U.S. Mint Building.

a jazz band busking playing in the street on bourbon street french quarter new orleans louisiana usa walking down the street in the french quarter
Phil Clarke Hill

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