New Orleans’ French Quarter

Blog Entry November 22, 2015

The Royal Sonesta in the French Quarter
The Royal Sonesta, with it’s raw bar called Desire, on Bourbon Street. We always got rooms on the other side of the hotel — quieter at night that way.
When I was younger, I visited New Orleans with my parents frequently. My mother loves the French Quarter: my parents honeymooned at the Royal Sonesta. We always stayed when we went to New Orleans for my parent’s professional conferences. I remember going there as a very young girl and having my imagination fired by the feeling you get of being in another world.

The only other place I’ve visited on the North American continent that looks like the French Quarter is Montreal. And no wonder, since they were both primarily built by the French. I’ve never been to France, but I’ve always imagined it looking like these places. It’s a wonderful place to walk around and dream of travel, which was one of my favorite activities as a child. As an adult, my life revolves around travel, as I dreamed it would.

When Richard said he wanted to visit New Orleans on the trip down I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to walk with him in the French Quarter and share some of my memories. But particularly, I wanted to enjoy some of the fantastic food with him. For me, the French Quarter is all about sensory experience: the look, the sounds, the smells and tastes.

But the French Quarter is not someplace you want to drive around. The streets are incredibly narrow, as you would expect for a 300+ year-old location. So the best strategy if you aren’t staying in a nearby hotel or at the French Quarter RV Resort (they have regular buses), would be to find a parking lot off Canal Street.

Image of One of the Canal Lines streetcars
One of the Canal Lines streetcars that run up and down the center of Canal St.
I recommend Canal because it’s a large street with lots of hotels off it, which often provide the lowest price for parking. Also, there are multiple stops for the Canal/Cemeteries and Canal/City Park/Museums streetcar lines. Harrah’s New Orleans Casino is at the bottom of Canal as well, if you are so inclined. Just be aware that you’ll have to turn left across the streetcar line to get to most of these hotels, and that the maze of streets in the French Quarter can be tricky with unpredictable one way streets (one of the many reasons you don’t want to drive in the French Quarter itself).

So we parked at the Astoria lot, which is valet. Not my favorite thing to do, but it was convenient to Bourbon Street. We visited during the day, which is my recommended time to see the French Quarter, unless you are a heavy partier and intend to use cabs to return to your hotel after drinking. On a Sunday there wasn’t a lot of folks on Bourbon St, so we walked down Bourbon to St. Ann to Jackson Square.

To me, Bourbon Street is a lot more fun in the daytime. You can look down the side streets and see all the little alleys and courtyards. You can stop and check out the history plaques and read about the buildings. When you hear good music coming out of a place, you can stop and listen. And you can do all this without drunks bumping into you!

St. Ann Street is a good one to cut down to Jackson Square. It runs parallel to Canal. It’s not a huge street, but it’s big enough to feel safe during the day. If you’re there at night, I wouldn’t recommend taking side streets unless you are in a group (I wouldn’t recommend going to Bourbon St. at night unless you are in a group, either). Although it has stores and museums and restaurants on it, you can also see that people still really live in the French Quarter, that it’s not all places that cater to tourists. It’s a living place.

From St. Ann, we came out on the top end of Jackson Square. Jackson Square is bounded by the river and Decatur St. (what I think of as the bottom) and the Presbytere, St. Louis Cathedral, and the Cabildo on the top, which line Chartres St., though cars can not cross the square on the top here. The Presbytere is part of the Louisiana State Museum, featuring a huge collection of Mardi Gras artifacts. The Cabildo was the seat of government during the Spanish colonial era. We didn’t have much time (seeing all three of these gorgeous sites would have taken all day), so we went in to the St. Louis Cathedral. Having recently visited several of the oldest churches in America in New York, we wanted to see St. Louis since it is a different architectural design.

Image of Inside Saint Louis Cathedral
The interior of Saint Louis Cathedral, built in 1727.
St. Louis Cathedral is spectacular inside. Covered in brilliant murals, the Cathedral reflects some of the different cultures brought together in New Orleans: Latin on the murals, French on the Stations of the Cross, and Spanish and French influence in design and style.

One of the main driving architectural features of all cathedrals is a beautiful ceiling. The idea was to beautify these ceilings to guide the parishioner’s eyes upward, towards God. Other architectural features do this as well, but the spectacularly painted ceilings in St. Louis’ do it to perfection. I wanted to sit in the pews and cast my eyes upward all day.

But we weren’t just in the French Quarter for the sights. Soon our stomachs reminded us that we were here for food as well! We left the Cathedral and went down St. Peter to the nearby Gumbo Shop.

Image of Outside the Gumbo Shop
The Gumbo Shop’s sign hangs from a balcony on St. Peter’s Street.
The Gumbo Shop is a small restaurant tucked into a converted residential space. There are three dinning areas: the front room, an outdoor courtyard, and the back room. It is an intimate space, but even at the end of the lunch rush, still not too loud. There was a line for seating when we got there, but everyone moved through pretty quickly.

Image of Crawfish Etouffee at the Gumbo Shop
My Crawfish Etouffee at the Gumbo Shop. Ooo-Eee was it good!
We started with the grilled Boudin sausage appetizer. The Boudin was rich, with a snappy natural casing and a soft interior, perfect for smearing on a French roll. Richard got the Creole combination platter: shrimp creole, jambalaya, and red beans and rice. I snuck some tastes and the red beans and rice were perfect – porky with that long cooked bean creaminess and just the right amount of smokiness. The Shrimp Creole and Jambalaya were both tasty as well, but I could have eaten a bucketful of the red beans and rice. I got the Crawfish Etouffee. The sauce was made with a shrimp stock and that extra dark roux you find down here, liberally studded with crawfish tails. Unlike other Creole/Cajun sauces the Etouffee sauce is made with the traditional trinity — onion, carrot and celery — instead of the Creole/Cajun trinity — onion, carrot, and green bell pepper. We both emptied our plates.

Image of Art vendors in Jackson Square
Art vendors in Jackson Square
After the Gumbo Shop, we strolled leisurely around Jackson Square down to the river. Jackson Square is a center for arts production, so the fence around the park that occupies the center of the square is a walking gallery for local artists selling their wares – everything from fine art, mixed media, street performers, and even fortune tellers is on display here.

Image of View of New Orleans Downtown from Riverfront
View of New Orleans Downtown from the French Quarter Riverfront
The riverfront affords beautiful views of downtown and the Crescent City Connection Bridge. If the wind had not been so high, we could have sat and watched the ships make their way down to various terminals for hours. Especially if we had a couple of beignets and some coffee from Café du Monde. Unfortunately the line on a Sunday afternoon for both take out and dine in at the Café were way too long, so we just sat a while and admired the view.

From Decatur St there are several streetcar stations for the Riverfront streetcar. We took the Riverfront streetcar line back to Canal, then took the Canal/Cemeteries line back up to our parking garage. A word of caution about the Canal lines. Both the Cemeteries and the City Park/Museum lines go up the center of Canal St, so don’t worry about which of these you get on if you only want to go up Canal a coupl of blocks. But the stations are in the middle of the street, and crossing can be difficult, so watch traffic carefully.

Image of Inside the Riverfront Line Streetcar
Inside the Riverfront Line Streetcar
If you’re going to do a lot of traveling on the streetcars (seeing the Garden District from the streetcars – the St. Charles St line — is my mom’s personal favorite) then get one of the Jazzy Passes. Normal rate is $1.25 for one way with $0.25 for a transfer. The Jazzy Pass is $3 for one day, which can be ordered online. But you’ll want to allow 5 to 10 days for delivery, more details on NORTA’s Jazzy Pass page.

Image of Buildings around Jackson Square
Around Jackson Square are plenty of places to sit and people watch.
The French Quarter is, in my opinion, a magical kind of place that everyone should visit at least once in their lives. To truly see it, though, allow yourself more than an afternoon if possible. Even though you can get a little taste of everything in one afternoon, like we did, to really appreciate it, you’ll want to spend more time. New Orleans itself also has a lot to offer in terms of museums, cultural events, dining, and live music. Just make sure if you are planning to stay in one of the state parks outside of the city over a weekend to make reservations some time in advance, since these parks (Foutainebleau State Park, for example) fill up. Profiter de la vie et de la danse!

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