The French Quarter of New Orleans is really not very French at all. While discovered and initially settled under French rule, most of the buildings here today were built during the Spanish era in Louisiana. This is due to two significant fires that took place during the 18th century.
The ornate decorative buildings are wonderful examples of the architecture of the period and today are protected under the designation as a National Historic Landmark. Additionally, there are many buildings (like St Peter House Hotel where we stayed) that are designated as National Historic Sites.
Many of the buildings are colorful and have beautiful balconies and "galleries" on the exterior that add that well known look to the houses, restaurants and other buildings throughout the area. Today, many house antique shops, artists' galleries and other businesses catering to locals as well as the tourist trade. You'll want to head away from main tourist areas within the French Quarter, however, to find these little treasures.
Overall, the French Quarter is approximately two-thirds of a square mile and can be easily traversed end to end or corner to corner. The entire area is flat making it a very easy walk . . . if you are sober and can avoid the cracks in the sidewalks and nastiness in the street gutters.
I mention the "nastiness" as I must say, New Orleans and particularly the French Quarter is not a very clean or nice smelling city. In the summer it is hot and there are a lot of trash cans and city garbage trucks leaking on sidewalks and streets. Admittedly, we did see the street cleaners on Saturday morning, but they really didn't help to take the stench out of the air. I have heard some comment about the very nature of the area, especially Bourbon Street. Given the amount of drinking that takes place it is reasonable to expect a fair amount of puking to take place too.
Anyway, enough of that ugliness, which I might add is probably the worst or most negative side to being a tourist in the French Quarter.
For us, we did enjoy our evening walks after dinner or the time spent on Saturday walking around before and after our cooking demonstration class. Unlike so many other cities, walking here you can really get a feel for the people and culture of New Orleans. The area around Saint Louis Cathedral is especially eclectic with the musicians, artists, tarot card readers and fortune tellers.
Because I'm not a big shopper, I'm not a good reporter on such activities. I will say that along Royal and Bourbon Streets there are a lot of shops that cater to the tourist trade and folks from out of town. Of course beads are a popular item to buy, especially if you're a guy hoping to get a look at boobs. Not sure where that tradition began or why women would show off theirs for a cheap string of colorful mardi gras beads, but with enough booze, I suppose anything can happen.
If you're not coming here to eat or drink, then perhaps the best reason to come to the French Quarter is to enjoy local music . . . either jazz, zydeco or blues. There are also some places that offer Latin and disco for those seeking what might be considered non-traditional New Orleans offerings.
There seems to be a little of something for everyone here but be careful if you are planning a family vacation to the Big Easy as the Quarter does show a different side after dark. I don't think I would bring my kids down here after dark especially on Bourbon Street with places like The Penthouse Club and Déjà Vu Showgirls.
Von's top five things to do during your family trip to the French Quarter:
5. A horse & buggy tour of the area
4. Brennan's three course breakfast
3. Dinner and jazz at a nice restaurant
2. Enjoy an afternoon at the Louisiana State Museum
1. Take part in a cooking demo at the New Orleans School of Cooking