French Quarter Tours du Jour

By: Jyl Benson

While the French Quarter is a fascinating place to simply sit and stare, it becomes ever more so when you make the effort to learn a bit about its history, quirks and secrets. A veritable panoply of guided tours are available to address all manner of subjects specific to the French Quarter and a knowledgeable, enthusiastic tour guide can peel back the wrappings and allow you to see what’s really inside. French Quarter tours are quick crash courses that take the form of everything from polite, informative walking tours to pub-crawls, paddle wheeler sojourns, horse-drawn carriage rides and bizarre nocturnal romps in search of ghosts and vampires.

Some tour guides work independently and offer their services almost as a “friend in New Orleans” – for hire. Some of them are highly specialized and offer a microscopic look at one area of interest. Others touch on a little bit of everything, like City Sightseeing New Orleans – New Orleans’ Hop-On Hop-Off tour that traverses four distinct neighborhoods in classic red open-top double decker buses. At the other end of the spectrum is Gray Line Tours, a comprehensive one-stop shopping Mecca on the tourism front with numerous tour options available from one brochure. The company offers investigative tours of the French Quarter and Garden District as well as a sweeping look at the entire city. Specialty tours include a cocktail tour, swamp and bayou tours, plantation tours and ghosts and spirits tours.

Due to its status as the epicenter of the New Orleans, many tour companies offer transportation from French Quarter hotels and landmarks for exploration of other parts of the area.

Highlighted below are a few of the many tours available. Some are noted for their outstanding reputations, others are noted for the unique nature of their offerings.

  • Hop-On Hop-Off Tours
  • Walking Tours
  • Carriage Tours
  • Riverboat Tours
  • Cemetery, Voodoo, Vampire and Haunted Places Tours
  • Music Tours
  • Swamp Tours
  • Plantation Tours

Hop-On Hop-Off Tours

For French Quarter tours and beyond, a tour that offers a few days of sightseeing is a great option for exploring.

City Sightseeing New Orleans – City Sightseeing New Orleans is New Orleans’ most flexible tour, with three days of unlimited Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing included with each ticket. Visitors can view the French Quarter on top of a red open-top double decker bus (or ride below in air-conditioning) while enjoying live narration from a guide. These tours also include walking tours and “City Deals” throughout the French Quarter for those who want to Hop-Off and enjoy its many attractions.
City Sightseeing New Orleans

Walking Tours

This is the very best way to familiarize yourself with the French Quarter. Get a comfortable pair of shoes, some sunscreen and a hat for the walk.

Friends of the Cabildo French Quarter Walking Tours – two hours long and led by highly trained volunteers with the Louisiana State Museum System who educate on architecture and historical fact. The tour visits Madame John’s Legacy as well as the 1850 House.

Free Tours by Foot – Presenting a new walking tour company with a new concept in New Orleans. Free Tours by Foot offers free, tip-based walking tours of the French Quarter as well as walking tours of other neighborhoods and cemeteries. We are a group of experienced local tour guides, who have come together to offer tours for tips. If our tours are not good, we don’t get paid. It’s the best money back guarantee in the business.
Free Tours by Foot

French Market Tour – Become a market insider on this behind-the-scenes adventure to experience the sights, sounds, and flavors of this historic 221 year old landmark, from literary and political tidbits to culinary history and current happenings at the French Market. Laugh (and learn!) as you hear entertaining stories of the Market’s rich history and culture.
For more information, see French Market Walking Tours. The tour’s listed at the top of the page.

Nola Tour Guy – Our walking tours are FUN: because we are experts at breathing life into the amazing history of New Orleans. & FREE: because this ensures the guide will give the best possible tour so you, the guest, will tip!
Nola Tour Guy, Fun Free Walking Tours! 504-300-9489

City Sightseeing New Orleans – City Sightseeing New Orleans boasts three included walking tours along their 18-stop route, including one starting at the New Orleans French Market. Learn about the French Quarter’s history and see some of its most popular attractions, then hop back on the tour bus to explore beyond the French Quarter!
City Sightseeing New Orleans

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve – These popular 90-minute walks are free and led by rangers from Jean Lafitte Park. These tours are hugely informative and focus on history and architecture.

Gray Line French Quarter Walking Tour – These tours make up at the River and Toulouse Street then range throughout the Quarter visiting all the key points including Jackson Square, the Old Ursuline Convent, the Pharmacy Museum, Washington Artillery Park, Royal and Bourbon Streets.

Kenneth Holditch’s Literary Tour – Area historian and university professor Kenneth Holditch is legendary for his knowledge of literary history, particularly the minutiae of Tennessee Williams’ life in the French Quarter.

Carriage Tours

Every day from about 8 a.m. to midnight mule-drawn carriages line up on Decatur Street in front of Jackson Square. These tours are a staple in New Orleans tourism. Some carriages hold four people, others hold six. They roll through the French Quarter, rain or shine, pointing out all of the expected sites. For something more substantial than the standard nickel tour, carriage drivers can be engaged for private tours of the city.

Riverboat Tours

See the city from the body of water that made it all possible.

Steamboat Natchez Cruise – Riding the last steamboat on the Mississippi River recalls an era when steamboats were the main source of transportation, communication and commerce. It cruises downriver to Chalmette (7 ½ miles) and back twice daily, and once in the evening for a Dinner Jazz Cruise with the Grammy nominated Dukes of Dixieland. During the day there is live jazz and optional food and beverage in addition to the historic and port narration.

Cemetery, Voodoo, Vampire and Haunted Places Tours

These tours range from highly educational and informative, such as those offered by the reputable Save our Cemeteries, to absolutely ridiculous to the point of insult. Due to their popularity, there are so many vampire, voodoo and whatnot tours currently available that over-competitive guides have been known to engage in battle over customers in Jackson Square.

Gray Line Ghost & Spirits Walking Tour – Includes roundtrip transportation to cemetery and the tomb of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans! Walk through St. Louis Cemetery #1, the site of the classic movie “Easy Rider,” as your professional licensed guide recounts the background of the famous and infamous people who are buried there. Make a wish or cast a spell at the tomb of Marie Laveau – the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans – and discover how she was able to be in two places at once. Listen to the evolution of Voodoo – which is still practiced today – and learn how it became such a factor in the Crescent City. Learn about our unique above ground burial customs and the tombs of various “societies.”

Historic New Orleans Walking Tours: Cemetery & Voodoo Tour – Historian and preservationist Rob Florence has a talent for sprinkling just enough intrigue and mystery over the facts to keep them compelling. His tour visits St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the grave of Marie Laveau, and a voodoo temple.

Save Our Cemeteries – This outstanding non-profit group works to preserve the city’s fragile, crumbling burial places. The tours are led by S.O.S.-trained volunteers who unveil the mysteries of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District as well as St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which is adjacent to the French Quarter. The wise folks at SOS are wise to the reality that these places are compelling enough without the mythical embellishments some others place on the Cities of the Dead.

New Orleans Ghost & Vampire/Cemetery & History Tour – British import Tom Duran used to conduct Jack the Ripper site tours in London and now dons a creepy Victorian top hat and cloak for his nightly visits to vampire sites and haunted houses. The less creepy Hannah, a self-proclaimed “good witch” conducts the Cemetery & History tour each morning.

Music Tours

Learn serious facts about the history of jazz or bang your head at a nightclub. The offerings are diverse.

Gray Line Crescent City Nights Walking Tour – Enjoy an evening as a native New Orleanian and meet people from around the world on this intimate tour of dining and music in the French Quarter! The evening begins with a three course dinner at Tujague’s Restaurant, a New Orleans tradition since 1856 and the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans. Your tour guide will then lead you on a stroll along world famous Bourbon Street on your way to a local nightclub to enjoy native jazz music. Enjoy a complimentary cocktail as you listen to the sounds of New Orleans music.

Cradle of Jazz Tour – Board a bus and visit the birthplaces of JellyRoll Morton and Buddy Bolden with jazz aficionado and historian John McCusker during his three-hour Saturday morning tour into the heart and history of the city’s definitive musical style. The tour also visits the cemeteries, old jazz clubs and other significant musical sites.

Off the Beaten Path Tour – Gray Line’s three hour van tour explores the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods outside of the French Quarter and loads participants up with facts, figures and details on Louis Armstrong. You even get to buzz past his bright yellow house. Available for groups only until further notice.

Swamp Tours

Though there are days when the French Quarter may feel like a swamp to really see one you will have to leave the neighborhood. Several of the numerous swamp tour companies distinguish themselves for their quality while others merely ride along on ridiculous bits of pseudo Cajun folklore and pantomimed accents, which people seem to eat up. The Louisiana bayous and swampland are stunning, majestic and mysterious. In summer, when the heat can be brutal, a morning tour is recommended. Insect repellent and sunscreen are a must. Reservations are required. These tours offer transport from French Quarter hotels.

Gray Line Swamp & Bayou Tour – After a short motorcoach ride across the Mississippi River, take a fascinating boat trip into the Louisiana Swamps & Bayous. Experience the timeless beauty of South Louisiana in a custom built, all weather swamp boat. Native guides will reveal the mysteries of the swamps and bayous and the Cajun “joie de vivre”. Hear how the Cajuns turned soup into gumbo, the washboard into a musical instrument, and the swamps of Louisiana into a paradise. Alligators! Observe the nesting grounds of alligators, egrets, raccoons, nutria, and many species of snakes. Some wildlife are more numerous during the warmer months of the year. Swamp Boat You will be treated to a Bayou Nature Wildlife Show by a local naturalist. Snakes, alligator snapping turtles, raccoons and nutria will be among the animal guests. These tours have been featured on The Discovery Channel, The Travel Channel, CBS, NBC & ABC. Bring your camera to capture the “bon temps” (good times) on the bayou!

Pearl River Eco-Tours – While Swamp Tours may be numerous, this one, located 45-50 minutes from downtown New Orleans, distinguishes itself in a number of ways. The folkloric approach is avoided in favor of a learning adventure that is richly informative and exciting in its own right. The company’s young president and founder is a lifelong resident of the area. The tour which heads deep into the Honey Island Swamp and White Kitchen Nature Preserve, has become a favorite for its intelligent focus and quality experience. The site’s attention to detail – such as comfortable, well-appointed flat boats; a large, covered dock seating area; clean handicap accessible restrooms; complimentary insect repellant and sunscreen; and available refreshments – are unique bonuses not often encountered at this type of facility.

Plantation Tours

Most companies offer pick-up from French Quarter hotels or central locations in the Quarter.. Check with your concierge for exact pick-up times and locations.

Gray Line ‘s Oak Alley Plantation Tours
Motorcoach guided tours leave from the Gray Line Lighthouse in the French Quarter at Toulouse Street and the River, visiting Oak Alley. RIding upriver to the Plantation, you can also take in some swamp and River Road scenery.

Editor’s note: Since Hurricane Katrina many of the tour operators have changed their routes and schedules. Be sure to check in with them when you come to town for the current offerrings.

Jyl Benson is a New Orleans-based writer and publicist and frequent contributor to Time, New Orleans, St. Charles Avenue and the Times Picayune. She also regularly contributes to travel and guide books on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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