Exploring the French Quarter
During our recent trip to New Orleans, my brother Aaron told us that while he’d been to the city several years ago, he never ventured into the French Quarter. With that confession, he and I agreed that he’d never truly been to New Orleans since no trip there is complete without visiting the city’s oldest neighborhood, the French Quarter.
This time around, there was no way that Aaron was going to miss out on the French Quarter again, especially since our hotel was right in its heart. During our three nights in NOLA, we had plenty of time to wander through The Quarter’s streets both independently, and during our walking tour with Free Tours by Foot during which we learned a lot of the nitty gritty details about the history, architecture, and culture of the French Quarter.
A Little Background
In 1718, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, a French colonizer from Montreal, founded New Orleans and made the French Quarter its center. New Orleans, along with all lands drained by the Mississippi River, remained in French control until it was claimed by the Spanish in the mid-1700s during the French and Indian War which was North America’s “contribution” to the global Seven Years’ War. Although the Spanish held the territory for 40 years, the French eventually got their hands back on the area under Napoleon Bonaparte, but they didn’t keep the territory for long once they got it back. In part, in an effort to keep the British out, the French sold Louisiana to the U.S. in what’s known as the Louisiana Purchase. The irony is that the U.S. borrowed money from the British to make the purchase happen! However, another reason that the French sold Louisiana was because they needed money after taking a fiscal hit as a result of funding military efforts during the Haitian Revolution.
Following the end of the revolution in 1804, an influx of Haitian refugees moved into Louisiana, and many settled in New Orleans and contributed to all facets of the culture – from the food and architecture to the locals’ ethnic makeup and religion (i.e., Haitian Vodou has greatly influenced Louisiana Voodoo).
One of the joys of exploring the French Quarter is admiring the neighborhood’s architecture. Two major fires – the great New Orleans Fire in 1788 along with another fire in 1795 – destroyed much of the French architecture in the French Quarter, and most of the buildings were rebuilt in Spanish style which is the most evident architectural style in The Quarter today. And if you’ve ever been to certain Spanish cities like Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, for example, the architectural similarities are obvious.
Creole architecture is also very popular in the French Quarter. What is “Creole,” exactly? As our guide explained, most Creoles were people who were born in Louisiana to immigrant parents. There are two types of Creoles – the French Creoles and the Louisiana Creoles who are of mixed racial heritage. Back in NOLA’s early days, Creoles were city people who primarily lived in the French Quarter. Like Haitians, Creoles have influenced much of the city’s culture, including the architecture.
In addition to being one of the first licensed pharmacies in America (prior to getting licenses, all that was required to be a pharmacist was a 6-7 month apprenticeship – yikes!), the Pharmacy Museum is also one of the best examples of a Creole townhouse in the French Quarter.
As our guide explained, this house has a hidden half level that’s used for storage since basements weren’t an option unless the house was raised. There’s a back stairwell that leads to the residential area of the townhouse, and out front, horses and carriages were able to pass under the underpass above the sidewalk.
Like I said, Haitians also made great contributions to the city’s architecture, and you’ll find many brightly-colored homes and buildings in the French Quarter that are reminiscent of West Indian cottages. Shotgun houses are also popular in New Orleans. Having their roots in West Africa, Haitians who held onto this architectural tradition in spite of slavery, built many of their New Orleans homes in the shotgun style.
Alleys & Courtyards
The French Quarter is full of many alleys and courtyards. Many of the neighborhood’s restaurants and hotels feature beautiful courtyards where you can get out of dodge for a bit of peace and quiet, and you never know what kind of boutique shops you’ll come across in one of The Quarter’s many alleys.
On a side street next to St. Louis Cathedral you’ll find Pirates Alley which got its name because it’s believed to be haunted by pirates’ ghosts. Pirates played a unique role in New Orleans’ history, and Jackson even agreed to allow the notorious French-American pirate and privateer, Jean Lafitte, and his men to fight in the Battle of New Orleans in exchange for their pardon.
Today, Tony Seville’s Pirates Alley Café and Olde Absinthe House, is a popular bar in Pirates Alley that’s located on the site of the former Spanish Colonial Prison of 1769. Back in the day, it’s believed that the bar was a popular hangout for pirates. It’s also where merchandise could be bought on the black market.
Adjacent to Faulker House Books in Pirate’s Alley you’ll find the Faulker House which is where the Nobel Laureate lived when he wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay.Tennessee Williams House
This famous playwright from Mississippi called NOLA home for many years. His time in the city inspired his play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which was based on an actual streetcar line that ran from 1920-1948 through the French Quarter, to the Bywater district, and back up Canal Street.Nuñez House
This house is where the Great New Orleans Fire started in 1788 on a Good Friday. The home belonged to the Spanish army’s treasurer, and as a result of unattended prayer candles, eighty percent of the city burned to the ground. It only took five hours for the fire to destroy the city because it was hard to find help to put the fire out on a holy day, and because at the time, most of the French-styled buildings were constructed of cypress which burns easily.Madame John’s Legacy
This former residence was built after the 1788 fire, and it’s significant because it was unscathed by the subsequent 1795 fire. The house offers a great example of Louisiana Creole residential design at the end of the 18th century, and it’s a National Historic Landmark. There are very few houses left in the French Quarter that are built in this style although this design was popular in the French West Indies, Illinois Country, and Canada.Napoleon House
Napoleon Bonaparte died before he ever had the chance to move into this building which was supposed to be his residence upon his exile. Instead, one of NOLA’s early mayors, Nicholas Girod, lived in the house. Today, this National Historic Landmark houses the Napoleon House, a popular bar and restaurant of the same name that’s known to serve a mean Pimm’s Royale cocktail.
Notable SitesJackson Square
Before Andrew Jackson became our nation’s seventh president, he owned hundreds of slaves and was dubbed a “hero” of the Battle of New Orleans, the final major battle of the War of 1812 during which Jackson prevented the British from taking control of New Orleans which was a strategic move to end the war.
In his honor, Jackson Square was built, and Jackson himself laid the first cornerstone of his statue in 1856. The square’s original fence is still intact from 1851.St. Louis Cathedral
Just behind Jackson Square is the French Quarter’s signature St. Louis Cathedral. Completed in 1794, the cathedral is the oldest continually active Catholic cathedral in the U.S. Nothing in the original French Quarter was taller than the cathedral since nothing could be higher than God. The Cabildo, the old city hall where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, sits to the cathedral’s left, while the Presbytère, the former home of Roman Catholic priests, sits to the cathedral’s right. Both buildings have since been converted into museums.French Market
Spanning six blocks, the French Market is a cluster of commercial buildings that were originally established as a Native American trading post before European settlers arrived. It used to be called the “Meat Market” because it was the only place in The Quarter where meat could be sold. Today, the French Market hosts a variety of cafes and bars, a daily flea market, and a weekly farmers market.Pat O’Brien’s Bar
Pat O’Brien’s opened its doors in the French Quarter in 1933, but during Prohibition, it was known as Mr. O’Brien’s Tipperary, and a password was required to get in. The building dates back to 1791, and it features many bars that lead to a huge outdoor courtyard. The bar is famous for its Hurricane cocktail which was created during WWII when liquor such as whiskey was in short supply. So liquor salesmen forced bar owners to purchase several cases of rum in exchange for purchasing a single case of liquor. Because Pat O’Brien’s had so much rum in stock, the bar concocted the rum-based Hurricane which got its name from the hurricane lamp shaped glass it was served in.
Royal Street dates back to the French Colonia era, making it one of the oldest streets in the city. It’s a great place to find antique shops, galleries, restaurants, and hotels. Bourbon Street, on the other hand, has a bit more notorious reputation as a spot for nightlife and strip clubs.
On either street you’ll find a variety of street performers playing instruments, singing, and dancing. You’ll even find this human Transformer who can either walk upright or convert into a moving automobile!
*To check out the free walking tours offered by Free Tours by Foot in New Orleans, click here.