FRENCH QUARTER WALKING TOUR
Begin at Jackson Square, whose long history has encompassed a cast of characters. Originally called Place d’Armes, it was renamed in the mid-1800s to honor the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Still surrounded by government, religious, and commercial buildings, the iron-fenced square—with its French-style gardens—remains the heart of the French Quarter.
The crown jewel of Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral Basilica (+1 504 525 9585) is a quiet reminder of the city’s religious ties. The nation’s oldest active cathedral, with soaring ceilings and a painted altar, was the gift of a Spanish benefactor in 1794.
The Spanish Council ruled New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana from the Spanish Colonial Cabildo (+1 504 568 6968. Tues.-Sun.; Adm. fee). In an upstairs chamber, the transfer papers for the Louisiana Purchase were signed in 1803. Part of the Louisiana State Museum, it now contains historical exhibits, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask. Flanking the other side of the cathedral is the nearly identical Presbytere (+1 504 568 6968. Tues.-Sun.; Adm. fee), built in 1795 to house priests (though it never served that purpose). It now houses changing exhibits.
Facing one another across Jackson Square, the redbrick Pontalba Buildings were constructed as apartments between 1849 and 1851 by Baroness de Pontalba, daughter of the cathedral’s wealthy benefactor. You can glimpse the Creole life-style of the first residents at the 1850 House (523 St. Ann St. +1 504 568 6968. Tues.-Sun.; Adm. fee), re-created with plush, locally made furniture.
Under orders from King Louis XV, France’s Ursuline Sisters came to the outpost city in 1727 to found a convent and girls school. Built in 1734, the beautifully restored Old Ursuline Convent (Chartres and Ursulines Sts. +1 504 529 3040. Tues.-Sun.; Adm. fee) is the original colony’s only remaining building, and may well be the Mississippi Valley’s oldest structure built by Europeans.
The late federal-Greek Revival Beauregard-Keyes House (1113 Chartres St. +1 504 523 7257. Mon.-Sat.; Adm. fee) was the home of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard and novelist Frances Keyes: he from 1866 to 1868 and she in the 1940s. Decorated as it appeared in the mid-1800s, the house holds personal belongings of both former residents, plus an 1830s walled garden.
Noted local architect James Gallier, Jr., designed his 1857 Victorian Gallier House (1118-1132 Royal St. +1 504 523 6722. Mon.-Sat.; Adm. fee) with such fabulous, then modern features as bedroom ventilators and a flush toilet.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (941 Bourbon St.) The notorious 18th-century freebooter Jean Lafitte is said to have used this weathered, colonial cottage—now a rustic, smoke-filled bar—as a blacksmith shop to front his illicit contraband trade.
Voodoo queens and doctors once reigned in this niche of the French Quarter, practicing the religion of their African ancestors. Packed with old and new gris-gris, altars, voodoo dolls, and other objects, the somewhat spooky New Orleans Voodoo Museum (724 Dumaine St. +1 504 523 7685. Adm. fee) loosely traces the religion’s history in the city.
Though the West Indian cottage known as Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St. Private) doesn’t look like much, it’s one of the oldest buildings in the Mississippi Valley. The present structure is an exact replica, built in 1788, of the circa 1726 original.
Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter St. +1 504 522 2841. Nightly at 8:00; Adm. fee) In this city where jazz made some of its most significant advances, no place recalls the old-time, no-frills music as well as this bare bones venue for native singers and musicians. Lines are long to enter the no- food, no-drink establishment, so show up early.
Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St. +1 504 523 4662. Tues.-Sat.; Fee for tour) Part of a well-endowed private research facility, the 1792 Merieult House—a rare survivor of the 1794 fire—showcases a collection of documents pertaining to New Orleans history. Visitors may also view the changing exhibits in the Williams Gallery.