French Quarter Festival, an Insider’s Guide – Episode 008
In this episode we dive into the New Orleans French Quarter Festival. The fest takes place in April, usually the second full weekend, though it varies if Easter is that weekend. It spans four days (Thursday through Sunday), features local musicians exclusively and is completely free! And when I say local, I mean almost all acts are from New Orleans. A couple exceptions for Cajun and Zydeco artists who mostly come from Southwestern Louisiana.
We cover all the essentials plus you’ll get the insider tips and lagniappe you’ve come to appreciate from Beyond Bourbon Street. I also include things to do, see and eat beyond the fest, but still in the French Quarter.
During the show I tossed out lots of insider tips. Here are the highlights you need to make your visit to New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival a top notch experience. For the details and the history, listen to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.
2016: April 7-10
2017: April 6-9
2018: April 12-15
2019: April 11-14
2020: April 16-19
Where to stay
The obvious answer is probably the best one in this case. If you can, stay in the French Quarter. In 2014 the French Quarter festival attracted nearly 750,000 visitors. They did not publish numbers for 2015 likely because there were big rainstorms throughout the festival, which severely impacted the crowds. Nonetheless, this is a popular festival. It gets crowded. Staying in the French Quarter puts you right in the action. And while it is crowded it attracts lots of locals, so hotels are not all that hard to come by. They are not the cheapest rates, but you’ll have lots of options.
French Quarter – Each of these has lots of local character.
Omni Royal Orleans
Westin Canal Place – easily the most corporate feeling of the hotels listed here. I included it because the rooms are large, the location is terrific, and many rooms have a view of the Mississippi River. This is also an excellent location if you are staying with kids.
If for whatever reason you want to be outside the French Quarter, you have lots of options from local hotels to large chains. Above all, heed my advice and stay within walking distance. These are the hotels I recommend beyond those in the heart of the French Quarter.
Central Business District
Warehouse District (also known as the Arts District)
RV park in the Treme
Other areas – Along Esplanade Avenue you’ll find several B&Bs. Across Esplanade heading out of the French Quarter you enter the Marigny then the Bywater neighborhoods. You’ll find B&Bs in the Marigny as well as many AirBnb listings.
FQ Fest Ultimate Toolkit
A key to enjoying the festival is knowing what to expect and what to bring with you. Here’s what you need when you walk out the door each day to head to the festival.
- Festival map with stage & artist listings (will post when the 2016 map is available)
- FQ Fest cubes – see details for each day below
- FQ Festival app – for Apple or Android
- Comfortable shoes
- Credit card
- Travel plan
- Parking is a challenge
- Remote lots
- towel, sheet or bag chair
- charger & cables for your phone
The Festival Details
The French Quarter festival is four days, from Thursday – Sunday.
Thursday is sort of a soft-opening if you will. Well, New Orleans-style. Which is to say a ton of music and food, but a little less than the other days. On Thursday the festival opens with five stages on a day the festival organizers call Locals Lagniappe day. In many ways it is the best day to go to the festival. It is certainly a day to consider taking the kids, especially the younger ones. It’ll be crowded, but much less so than the weekend.
The five stages all on or close to the Mississippi River and Decatur Street. You have a stage in Jackson Square, three stages in Woldenberg Park up along the Riverfront, and one other stage at the Bienville Statue which is located on a sliver of land where Decatur and N. Peters intersect, right at Conti Street.
On Friday, the festival expands to twelve stages. On Saturday and Sunday, it goes all the way to 23 stages. By the time the weekend ends more than 1,700 musicians will have performed!
Beyond the Festival – What to See?
One of the wonderful things about this festival is that it is in the French Quarter. Instead of thinking about it as simply a terrific music festival, which it is, I suggest turning it into an exploration of the French Quarter with a lot of great music mixed in! I would keep this list of ideas in mind and be on the look out for them as you wander from stage to stage. Again, it will all be on the website.
Old Ursuline Convent – St. Mary’s Catholic Church is the site of the Classical Music Stage. St. Mary’s is attached to the Old Ursuline Convent which was designed in 1745 and constructed from 1752-1753 and is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. It was a convent during the French colonial period.
Over the years it was a school, the archibishop’s residence, and a meeting place for the Louisiana legislature. Today it is a museum and is part of the Catholic Cultural Heritage center, including St. Mary’s Church and the St. Louis Cathedral. It is open for tours Monday – Friday from 10-4 and Saturday from 9-3.
The Beauregard-Keyes House sits across the street from St. Mary’s and the Old Ursuline convent. It is on property originally owned by the Ursuline nuns and was built in 1826. Today, it is a museum which focuses on two of its former occupants. One was the Confederate Army General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, better known as PGT Beauregard. The other is American author Frances Parkinson Keyes who purchased the home in the 20th century.
Even if you don’t take the tour which is $10 per adult, peak through the iron gate to see the gardens. I did just that the other day.
Gallier House. One block behind the Beauregard-Keyes House towards Rampart (away from the River) is the Gallier House. In the last episode we discussed the Irish arcihtect James Gallier Sr. We also mentioned his son, James Gallier Jr. who was a noted architect himself. You can visit the son’s home, aptly named the Gallier House, on Royal Street, between Ursulines and Gov. Nicholls. It has been restored in the style of the 1850s and is fully furnished. The grounds also include a carriageway, a courtyard garden and slave quarters.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is at the corner of Bourbon and St. Phillips Streets. One of the oldest bars in the united States it was built between 1722 and 1732. It was reputed to be where the pirate Jean Lafitte was said to have conducted his business operations which included smuggling along the Barataria waterways.
Madame John’s Legacy is the one spot I don’t want you to miss! Located on Dumaine Street between Chartres and Royal, it is part of the Louisiana State Museum and offers free admission. The building is one of the oldest residences in the French Quarter, and dates to 1788.
There are no furnishings in the home today. Instead, the focus of the museum beyond the architecture is a collection of Newcomb Pottery. Newcomb pottery gets its name from the women’s college at Tulane University. More specifically, the college had a pottery program from 1895 to 1940 which focused on the arts and crafts style. It is believed more than 70,000 pieces of art were produced over the 45 year life of the program. It remains popular today.
Madame John’s Legacy is definitely worth a quick stop as you are wandering from stage to stage. You’ll get a break from the sun and the heat, get a quick history lesson and see something for free I bet many New Orleanians haven’t even seen!
Where to Eat?
If you are looking for inexpensive, here’s several places you should go.
Central Grocery – My go to place for inexpensive and delicious! Located on Decatur Street towards Esplanade Avenue just past Jackson Square you’ll find Central Grocery on your left. It is known for the muffaletta, an italian sandwich served on a large italian bread. This is a great meal to pick up and eat while listening to local music at the French Quarter fest.
If you are staying in or near the Quarter and looking for a place to have a nice dinner, you’re in the right spot. I would eat at Mr. B’s Bistro one evening – be sure to get the gumbo ya ya – chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, and the BBQ shrimp. If you want a nice lunch, but a bit lighter get the gumbo and a big salad.
Another option is Chef Duke’s Cafe Giovanni just off Canal Street. A nice blend of italian and New Orleans. I love their Oysters Giovanni, also known as stained glass oysters which is the appetizer you need to try. Picture a ring of fried oysters surrounding a painting in the middle of the plate. The paint is actually five individual sauces used to paint ‘stained glass’ on the plate. Beautiful and delicious. Check it out!
K-Paul’s. This is the restaurant of the late Paul Prudhomme who put cajun cooking and particularly blackened redfish on the map. If you go, make a reservation and ask to be seated upstairs (where the locals sit).
I also enjoy the shrimp and grits at NOLA restaurant – the more casual of the Emeril Lagasse restaurants. It’s a nice space, in the French Quarter with good, creative food, but more casual than Emeril’s flagship place over in the Warehouse District.
When you put all this together, you get a fun and inexpensive outing whether you live in New Orleans or coming in town specifically to enjoy the festival. While you’re enjoying the fest, check out some of the historic sites you’ll pass as you wander between stages. Grab some food and maybe a drink and you’re set to pass a good time!