Bourbon Street, a Block-by-Block Guide
This street is a tourist destination for a reason. It’s a thoroughfare with an utterly fascinating history, home to some of the oldest bars, family-run restaurants and gay entertainment districts in the country. In short, while there’s plenty to discover off of Bourbon, there’s a lot to discover on the iconic street as well that may surprise you.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
A Brief History of Bourbon Street
Let’s start, appropriately enough, with the history of one of the oldest streets in North America. First, despite popular rumors to the contrary, Bourbon was not named for bourbon. That particular iteration of brown liquor had not even been invented when the street was laid out in 1721 by Adrian de Pauger. The street, then located in the colony of New France, was named for the French royal House of Bourbon (which bourbon, the drink, was ultimately named for).
Like much of the French Quarter, Bourbon Street’s historic architecture owes far more to Spain than France; most of the street’s French buildings were destroyed in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788, when the city was a Spanish colony. For most of its history, Bourbon was a modest residential street, populated by a mix of Creoles (New Orleanians of Franco-Spanish descent) and the successive waves of immigrants who settled the French Quarter.
Bourbon began morphing into an entertainment strip in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Red Light District of Storyville was established a few blocks away on Basin Street. Bleed-over from the Red Light District begot a shift in the Quarter, which became less residential and more entertainment-oriented. The earliest “jass” (i.e. jazz) artists weren’t headlining festivals in Montreal or Switzerland — they played for customers who patronized Basin and Bourbon Street’s sweaty brothels and music halls (on a side note, those music venues stopped being quite as sweaty when they started installing round-the-clock air-conditioning about half a century later — some of the first nightlife spots in the world to take that step).
Ironically, the shuttering of Storyville’s brothels in 1917 likely accelerated the French Quarter’s popularity as a place to party. At the time, Mayor Martin Behrman said, “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular,” and while the “it” he referred to was prostitution, the legal nightlife that surrounded that practice quickly filled the Red Light vacuum.
In the Quarter, the entertainment focus shifted to live music, gambling, burlesque shows, and drinking establishments, dozens of which opened on Bourbon. By the post-World War II period, Bourbon Street was similar in character, if not appearance, to the Bourbon Street of today, although live music was more heavily emphasized back in the day. The Meters played here, as did Dr. John and Louis Prima, among dozens of other acts that have defined successive generations of American music.
While there are still live music clubs on Bourbon, those venues have tended to spread into other parts of the city. On the other hand, Bourbon remains a nightlife epicenter for the New Orleans LGBTQIA+ scene, which established a presence here in the early 20th century, when the area had (more of an) “anything goes” reputation. In the present day, while the LGBTQIA+ culture is thankfully accepted across the city, the “Lavender Line” on Bourbon and St. Ann Street still marks one of the country’s most fabled gay nightlife blocks.
The Geography of Bourbon Street
Bourbon Street runs 13 blocks through the heart of the French Quarter, from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue; it becomes Carondelet Street past Canal, and Pauger Street past Esplanade. If you were looking at a map, Bourbon runs along a diagonal; confusingly to visitors, the “southern” part of Bourbon (near Canal Street) is Upper Bourbon, while the “northern” end (near Esplanade) is Lower Bourbon. In New Orleans parlance, Upper and Lower refer to the upriver and downriver flow of the Mississippi. If all of the above is confusing, don’t worry — it’s more interesting trivia than vital geographic knowledge.
Upper Bourbon is the area best known to visitors — the land of lots of neon, roaming bachelor and bachelorette parties, strip clubs, and enormous drinks served in souvenir cups. Lower Bourbon has most of the above, but not in such intense concentration; it includes the LGBTQIA+ blocks of Bourbon. While this is not the exhaustive list of every business and attraction on Bourbon (some even may or may not be here tomorrow), here are some of our favorite hangouts, running from Canal to Esplanade.
The 100 Block of Bourbon Street
Bourbon House (144 Bourbon Street)
The Bourbon House is one of the city’s grand dame, old-school seafood houses. Run by the Brennan family restaurant empire, they serve excellent raw oysters, decadent pastalaya, and one of the truly great iterations of barbeque shrimp; their version is cooked in a buttery sauce that is balanced by a generous helping of rosemary.
Photo courtesy of Galatoire’s on Facebook
The 200 Block of Bourbon Street
Olde Nola Cookery (205 Bourbon Street)
If you’re in the market for something simple and noticeably New Orleans, and you’re wandering around the 200 block of Bourbon, Olde Nola Cookery is a good choice. We basically always have time for barbeque shrimp, which is not grilled or smoked, but rather cooked in a lemon butter and pepper sauce. Plenty of gumbo and Cajun pasta dishes round out the menu — that latter category includes some delicious fare like crawfish tails served over fettuccini alfredo and a shrimp and alligator jambalaya, also tossed with fettuccini.
Galatoire’s (209 Bourbon Street)
Stepping into Galatoire’s is stepping back in time; the restaurant opened its doors in 1905, and not much seems to have changed since (our understanding is they only started accepting credit cards in the ‘90s). The cuisine is old-school, heavy Creole classics — chicken Clemenceau and crabmeat sardou — but folks come for the scene as much as the food. On Fridays, the oldest of old-school New Orleans families line up around the block (or pay people to wait in line for them) and engage in daylong drinking and dining sessions. It’s a spectacle for sure.
Galatoire’s “33” Bar and Steak (215 Bourbon Street)
For decades, nothing changed at Galatoire’s, one of the grandest of old New Orleans restaurants. Then they started accepting credit cards, and eventually, Galatoire’s “33” opened. The times are a-changing, but “33” has the original Galatoire’s charms — and it also happens to have some very fine steaks.
Old Absinthe House (240 Bourbon Street)
It’s always a good idea to sidle up to the classic copper bar, and you won’t be the first to do so: The Absinthe House dates to 1806, making it older than most American states, and has hosted Franklin Roosevelt and Oscar Wilde, among other patrons. It can get crowded, but when the bar is (relatively) quiet, we like to order the signature absinthe and dream of boozy days (and famous patrons) past.
Musical Legends Park by Cheryl Gerber
The 300 Block of Bourbon Street
The Jazz Playhouse (300 Bourbon Street)
This is a legitimately lovely music venue in the heart of Bourbon Street (inside the Royal Sonesta). The lineup is straight unadulterated jazz, and the Playhouse hosts some of the most talented and exciting acts in the country.
New Orleans Musical Legends Park (311 Bourbon Street)
Life-size statues of local musical legends line this park, which is a (sort of) quiet respite from the noise and thrum that lines this portion of Bourbon.
The 400 Block of Bourbon Street
Hideout Bar (417 Bourbon Street)
Oceana’s Hideout Bar is 24/7, has outdoor seating, and serves the kind of New Orleans/Southern fare you just might be craving after midnight.
Tropical Isle by Cheryl Gerber
The 500 Block of Bourbon Street
The sadly now-shuttered club owned by the late, great Chris Owens dominates the block.
The 600 Block of Bourbon Street
Tropical Isle (600 Bourbon Street)
Besides the Hurricane, the Isle’s signature Hand Grenade is the most famous drink in the French Quarter. They taste like candy, but they are very potent. Tropical Isle also has locations at 435, 610, 721, and 727 Bourbon Street.
Old Opera House (601 Bourbon Street)
This live music venue was a French-style opera house back in the day.
Maison Bourbon (641 Bourbon Street)
The sign outside the door says, “Dedicated to the preservation of jazz,” and Maison Bourbon does not disappoint in this regard — it’s a good spot for a live show. It also has a lovely courtyard and a big balcony.
Photo courtesy of Cat’s Meow on Facebook
The 700 Block of Bourbon Street
Cat’s Meow (701 Bourbon Street)
You’ve never heard “Sweet Home Alabama” until it’s belted out by a crowd at the Meow. We have to give this spot credit: It was an early adopter of karaoke, back when people sneered at the idea of karaoke in a bar. The Meow’s enormous popularity is proof of the success of a then-risky business idea.
Pat O’Brien’s (718 St. Peter Street/600 block of Bourbon Street)
While the address for Pat O’s is technically on St. Peter Street, you can enter the bar complex in the middle of the 600 block, right next to Willie’s Chicken Shack. Inside, you’ll find one of the most attractive courtyards and bars in the French Quarter, which is a pleasant surprise for a lot of visitors. There are also dueling pianos. Take a seat, enjoy the tropical ambiance, and order a specialty drink — the Hurricane, of course. The drinks may be sweet, but we’re not going to sugarcoat this next bit of advice: beware the Hurricane hangover.
Bourbon Street Honky Tonk (727 Bourbon Street)
One of the five locations of the Tropical Isle chain with potent drinks and, as you might have guessed from the name, live country music.
Bourbon “O” Bar (730 Bourbon Street)
“Bourbon Street” and “quiet bar that serves craft cocktails” aren’t two concepts that seem to jive, but Bourbon “O” manages to pull it off. OK, maybe it’s not always quiet, but the drinks are gorgeous and well-prepared, which is a welcome development at this stage during our Bourbon Street stroll.
Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub (733 Bourbon Street)
Fritzel’s is a good spot for live jazz; they regularly feature plenty of old-school Dixieland. It’s calm and laid back in almost inverse proportion to much of the rest of Bourbon Street — a great stop if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the crowds, or if you just want to listen to some good music.
Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo (739 Bourbon Street)
This is one of our favorite tourist voodoo shops. The walls are adorned with masks, gris-gris bags, spell candles, and all kinds of other cool magical paraphernalia. Check out the handmade voodoo dolls fashioned from Spanish moss, and have yourself a consultation — these folks are true believers.
Bourbon Pub & Parade by Cheryl Gerber
The 800 Block of Bourbon Street
Oz (800 Bourbon Street)
The corner of Bourbon and St. Ann streets is known as the Lavender Line, which marks the beginning of the LGBTQIA+ section of Bourbon Street (you may also be subtly tipped off by the enormous rainbow flags). Oz is one of the more popular gay dance clubs in the city; expect drag queens, shirtless dancers, and all the rest.
Bourbon Pub Parade (801 Bourbon Street)
A late-night nightclub with two balconies, dance floors, shirtless folks on the bar, drag queens, and a lot of unsa-unsa. It serves as one of the focal points of the annual Decadence fest.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop by Cheryl Gerber
The 900 Block of Bourbon Street
Clover Grill (900 Bourbon Street)
The Clover is one of our favorite 24-hour diners in New Orleans (on a side note, there aren’t a ton of 24-hour diners in this city, which is a shame). The food is great, but we really come for the atmosphere, which is a heady mix of drag queens, off-work servers, bartenders, hotel staff, tourists, and musicians all hunkering down for burgers and scrambled eggs at three in the morning.
Cafe Lafitte in Exile (901 Bourbon Street)
The self-proclaimed oldest gay bar in the country is open 24/7, and features karaoke nights, disco parties and a huge wraparound bar and balcony. It’s a little more laid back than Oz and the Pub Parade.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (941 Bourbon Street)
One of our favorite Bourbon Street haunts, Lafitte’s (not to be confused with Lafitte in Exile, above) operates out of the oldest building that has served as a bar in the country. It looks the part, too; the walls are all moldering stone and wood, although the scene is pretty modern: there’s a piano bar and the signature “purple drank,” a frozen daiquiri that can quickly end your night (or get it started).
For more, check out our guide to the Famous Streets of the French Quarter.
Also, are you planning to spend some time in New Orleans soon? To stay close to all the action, book a historic boutique hotel in the French Quarter at FrenchQuarter.com/hotels today!