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Get the Most Out of the French Quarter Fest

Photo by Zack Smith Photography. Courtesy of French Quarter Festivals, Inc.

French Quarter Fest is back, baby! And it’s its 40th anniversary, no less. For four days (April 13-16, 2023), a big chunk of the French Quarter — also known as the Vieux Carré, French for the “old square” (or “old quarter”) — will be transformed into a series of festival stages, each showcasing a different brand of music either rooted in or heavily influenced by, the sounds of Louisiana.

Woldenberg Riverfront Park

Most of the FQ Fest’s main stages are concentrated along the waterfront of the Mississippi River in the French Quarter. In 2019, the festival also added a stage, the Pan-American Life Insurance Group Stage, on the Riverfront’s Moonwalk, right across from Jackson SquareThe food lineup on the Riverfront includes Desire Oyster Bar, House of Blues Restaurant & Bar, Restaurant R’evolution, and more.

Need a tropical drink to beat the heat? While we’re not a city immediately known for tiki drinks, one of the finest tiki bars in the South is located just nearby: Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29.

The French Market & The Mint

The other side of Jackson Square is also a nexus of music stages and, importantly, food! Creole Country Cafe and Louisiana Fish Fry will be among the vendors at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, which is located in the Old U.S. Mint building on the corner of Decatur Street and Esplanade Avenue (400 Esplanade Ave.). The Mint will have lectures and other special events, which makes it a good spot for cooling off should the days get too hot.

The French Market features two stages, the Traditional Jazz Stage and the Dutch Alley Stage. If you need a bite to eat and want to try a classic Cajun diner, you can’t go wrong with Coop’s Place. If you want some liquid refreshments, Molly’s at the Market is one of our favorite neighborhood bars in the city.

Royal Street

Usually, Royal Street is an unbroken string of cute antique shops and art galleries. During French Quarter Fest, expect that scene to get livened up by several smaller music stages.

Decatur Street

Notable for the Bienville Statue, Decatur Street is where you’ll find the House of Blue Voodoo Garden Stage.

Jackson Square

The “town square” of New Orleans, as it were, Jackson Square is a geographic lynchpin for the entirety of the French Quarter, so expect it to be filled with food vendor booths for the duration of the fest, and as vibrant as ever. The food vendor lineup is pretty delicious: 9 Roses, Broussard’s, Jacques-Imo’s, Tujague’s, Plum Street Snoballs, and many more. It will also be the location of many of the French Quarter Festival’s special events, including the opening-day second line.

Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street has a reputation as a hard-partying locus of bachelor parties and wild weekend trippers, but during French Quarter Fest it showcases no less than four smaller musical stages, including the lovely Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta. The festival will also kick off with a parade on the 200 block on Thursday, April 13, 2023, at 10 a.m., followed by the opening ceremony on Jackson Square at 11 a.m. On the same day, at 8 p.m., you can enjoy the fireworks over the Mississippi River.

A few facts about French Quarter Fest and what’s new in 2023

Here are a few facts about the fest and what to expect this year:

  • The Fest celebrates local music and represents every genre from traditional and contemporary jazz to R&B, New Orleans funk, brass bands, folk, gospel, Latin, Zydeco, classical, cabaret, and international. It’s a medley, and a great way to sample the local music scene.
  • It debuted in 1984 as a way to bring residents back to the Quarter following the World’s Fair and extensive sidewalk repairs in the French Quarter.
  • The Fest employs more than 1,800 local musicians, with over 60 local restaurants participating as culinary vendors.
  • The food and beverage vendors are set up in several locations throughout the French Quarter: Jackson Square, the Jazz Museum at the MintJAX Brewery, and Woldenberg Riverfront Park.
  • You can buy the official 2023 poster.
  • More returning favorites include Tank and the Bangas, Kermit Ruffins & The Barbeque Swingers, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, John Boutté, Irma Thomas, Ani DiFranco, Big Freediaand many more. The who is who of the local music scene  — the massive and impressive list goes on.
  • Getting around the Fest should be fairly easy if you’re walking or biking. Parking will be limited, so arrive early and try these lots: French Market, 500 Decatur Street, 300 North Peters Street, 211 Conti Street, The Garage at Canal Place, plus street parking within walking distance.
  • The live-music hours every day of the festival are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • No coolers and ice chests, please. Help keep the festival free by purchasing food and beverages at the festival.

So, what’s the history of the French Quarter?

Glad you asked!

They don’t call this neighborhood the “old square” for nothing. The French Quarter was the original city of New Orleans, founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Rampart Street is named as such because it once marked the actual city walls (or ramparts) of New Orleans. The city centered on the Place d’Armes, now known as Jackson Square, was originally built as a military parade ground where criminals were hanged in public.

The name “French Quarter” is a bit of a misnomer; New Orleans was under Spanish rule from 1762 to 1802, and it was during this period that two huge fires (in 1788 and 1794) seared away much of the original architectural facade of the Quarter.

Thus, the buildings you see today retain more of a Spanish than French sensibility, as evidenced by wraparound balconies (which create a shady, breezy median space between the street and private residences — a useful architectural trick in hot, pre-AC New Orleans) and lush courtyards painted in bright colors, which form a reflective patina that wards off the sun.

The best example of actual French colonial architecture in the Quarter is the Old Ursuline Convent, which is also the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley (built in 1752). With that said, the streets of the French Quarter are largely named in honor of French nobility — Burgundy, Chartres, and, yes, Bourbon.

If the French Quarter marks the original layout of New Orleans, then the original inhabitants were the Creoles, people of French, Spanish, and eventually mixed French and Spanish descent. That phenomenon is eloquently realized when one considers the names of two of the main buildings on Jackson Square: the (Spanish-origin) Cabildo and the (French-origin) Presbytère.

It is also worth noting that St. Louis Cathedral, which dominates Jackson Square, is the oldest continuously operating cathedral in the USA, and a fine example of French Colonial architecture in its own right.

Although the Creoles called the French Quarter home for many decades, they began moving out as the area became more depressed and ramshackle, especially in the early 20th century. That was when city officials shut down the vice in the red-light district of Storyville.

In response, the purveyors of sin crossed Rampart Street into the Quarter, and the Creoles moved out, to be gradually replaced by Italian immigrants. Later, also came the bohemians, attracted by the area’s undeniable architectural charms, as well as the members of the LGBTQIA+ community seeking tolerance.

In 1965 the Vieux Carré Historic District was established, allowing for the preservation of the Quarter’s historic character. The 1984 World’s Fair turned the Quarter into a bustling tourism destination, which is around the same time that many residents began leaving the neighborhood.

The Quarter tends to weather hurricanes and storms pretty well. Power lines are built underground, and the neighborhood itself was built on “high ground” (well, a few feet of elevation, but that’s enough) — which keeps it (mostly) immune from flooding. Today, while the Quarter is largely an area for tourists, thousands of residents still call it home.

If you’re planning a stay in New Orleans, be sure to check out our resource for French Quarter Hotels.