10 Spots Every History Buff Must See in the French Quarter
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
Few American cities pack as much history as New Orleans does — over 300 years of it. And few areas have more stories to tell that the French Quarter, all within just 78 square blocks. That’s what makes the French Quarter a must-visit destination for history buffs. Here are some of our top picks if you’re in that number.
On foot, by bike or bus — the Quarter is easy to navigate. In fact, you could cover most landmarks in one day should you choose to, as they’re all located within walking distance from each other, and the street grid in the French Quarter is easy to navigate. Even better — no hills.
One of the easiest ways to see the French Quarter and beyond is via the guided city tour on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus. That red double-decker bus rolling around the city is hard to miss as it makes a total of 18 stops along its 2-hour loop, covering many French Quarter landmarks, including some of the ones listed here. You can hop on and off as you see fit (hence its name) to see the city, including the CBD and Uptown. A one-day ticket of unlimited rides is $39, but the best value is the three-day ticket for $10 more (tickets for kids ages 3-10 are $10 for any tour). The buses visit every stop approximately every 30 minutes, and the three-day pass includes two free guided walking tours, of the French Quarter and the Garden District.
This storied “city of the dead” is a wonder to behold: You’ll find the elaborate, crumbling above-ground graves dating back to 1789, with some famous people entombed within, including the vodou queen Marie Laveau, and Homer Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson. While the cemetery remains an active gravesite, it’s only accessible via guided, licensed tours. The policy was enacted in 2015 due to the ongoing vandalism. You can book a walking tour at Basin St. Station Visitor Center nearby, and it’s also one of the stops on the Hop On Hop Off city tour bus.
French Market was founded in 1791 as a Native American trading post and has been operating continually since, making it the oldest public market in the country. Similar in structure to a traditional European market, this open-air mall covers roughly five blocks, from Cafe du Monde on Decatur St. across from Jackson Square to the daily flea market at the end of Esplanade Avenue. Many retail shops and restaurants surround it in every direction. The flea market area hosts dozens of local artisans, plus vendors from all over the world. You’ll find souvenirs, handmade masks and jewelry, t-shirts, music, and more. The food stands at the Farmers Market Pavilion offer a slew of spices, produce and local food that is uniquely New Orleans.
Known since the 18th century as Place d’Armes, this timeless landmark was renamed in honor of Andrew Jackson following the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Jackson’s bronze statue is the focal point of the square, surrounded by the lavish flora and facing the Mississippi River.
Jackson Square is also a host to the open-air artist market and performance space, with local art displayed along the fence. You can have your sketch done, dance to a brass band, or have your fortune told. Carriage rides are offered in front of the square. When you cross the street to the riverside, you’ll find the French Market, Café du Monde, and Shops at Jax Brewery.
St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States. It stands between its two historic neighbors, the Cabildo and the Presbytere, overlooking Jackson Square and the block-long row of the Pontalba Buildings. St. Louis Cathedral is one of the most instantly recognizable buildings in the world, its famous steeples showing up on many a postcard and in quite a few films. You can check out the Cathedral’s stunning interior during its hours of operation, attend a mass or a music concert. If you’re just passing by, depending on time of day, you may get to hear its bell or witness an occasional wedding party spilling out of the Cathedral, followed by a second line.
Did you know that the 1803 Louisiana Purchase was signed at the Cabildo? This historic building served as the seat of government during the Spanish colonial rule, and was built to replace the building claimed by the fire in 1794. Standing tall right next to St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo is now part of the Louisiana State Museum. It houses such precious artifacts as a painting of Marie Laveau by Frank Schneider; a self-portrait by Julien Hudson, an antebellum artist and free man of color; and Napoleon’s death mask, one of only four in the world.
On the other side of St. Louis cathedral is the Presbytère, built in 1791 in the style to match the Cabildo. It’s called “Presbytère” because it was built on the site of one, which served as a residence for Capuchin monks. The building served as a courthouse in the late 19th century and is now also part of the Louisiana State Museum, just like the Cabildo.
The Presbytère houses two permanent exhibits. The magnificent “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” tells the story of the Carnival traditions in Louisiana, including Cajun Courir de Mardi Gras, Zulu coconut throws, 19th century Rex ball costumes, and much more. “The Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” exhibit documents the natural disaster and the ongoing recovery.
- The Mississippi River/Riverfront
The Riverfront of the mighty Mississippi is adjacent to the French Quarter (just across Decatur St.). It’s a great stop to watch the boats go by, catch a street performance, or take in some public art. You can stroll the Moonwalk, a walkway named for the former New Orleans mayor Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, or have a picnic in the grassy Woldenberg Park.
If you want to take in more sights of the Mississippi, consider the Creole Queen Historic River Cruise. During this informative and entertaining adventure down the Mississippi River, an authentic paddlewheeler takes you from the port of New Orleans, past the French Quarter, and all the way to the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Chalmette battlefield. The narration, provided by a historian, is packed with river lore and facts about the founding of the city and the Battle of New Orleans. The cruise sails twice daily, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It offers the optional Creole buffet, with bottomless mimosas during the morning cruise. The cruise stops at the Chalmette battlefield for a one-hour guided tour by National Park Rangers.
This ancient, at least by North American standards, bar is housed in a Creole cottage on the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip streets. Lafitte Blacksmith Shop was built between 1722 and 1732, and it’s said to be the oldest structure used as a bar in the U.S. It’s also said to have been used by the infamous Lafitte Brothers, Jean and Pierre, as a base for their smuggling operation in Barataria, operating as a facade for the privateers. We won’t likely know the truth beyond the legend, but the bar is dripping in magic and history.
This convent was built in 1752, which makes it the oldest surviving example of the French colonial period in the country, circa Louis XV. The building has first served as a convent for the Ursuline nuns, and then, as centuries ticked on, it had been, at some point: a school, an archbishop’s and priests’ residence, archdiocesan offices/archives, and is now part of the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Its museum is open for self-guided tours.
Built in 1835, the Old U.S. Mint uniquely served as both a U.S. and a Confederate Mint. The building is now a museum (free to the public) and research facility. It also serves as a site for music festivals performances. The permanent collection showcases coins and stamping presses. Upstairs, you’ll find the “New Orleans Jazz” exhibit featuring priceless pieces like Louis Armstrong’s first cornet and Fats Domino’s Steinway grand piano, plus historic recordings and rare film footage.