THE FRENCH QUARTER
DOWNTOWN NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Should you take your kids there?
Exotic... Colorful... Gritty...
Thatís New Orleans in three words. New Orleans is arguably the most unique
and exotic city in the USA. For those who have visited, or even read about
New Orleans, the distinctive architecture, music, food, sights, culture...
even smells... are all easily identifiable with just one look / listen /
taste / sniff. New Orleans is literally colorful from the Mardi Gras floats
to the neon of Bourbon Street... figuratively so by the diversity of its
native citizensí ancestry... a diversity that the city has known for
centuries. And gritty... whoa... New Orleans IS gritty... The streets in the
French Quarter are loud, narrow and very active. The famous New Orleans
music stems from adversity and heartbreak. The food is made from crops that
grow in persistent humidity and flooded land and delicious creatures pulled
from the swamp. After a few muggy outdoor New Orleans hours, youíll REALLY
feel the grit when your crystallized sweat-salt scrapes across your face as
you remove your shirt at the end of the day...
Downtown New Orleansí reputation as a haven for bacchanalia and debauchery is deserved. I have not visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras, nor have I been on Bourbon Street in the middle of the night... but I have heard and read several accounts from those who have... plus my experiences in the early evening give me a clue. During Mardi Gras, temporary jails are erected in the French Quarter, public nudity is encouraged by the revelers ( you all know how to earn beads), and wild drunkenness is what itís all about.
So, all that being said, why would I recommend the French Quarter to families traveling with children? Well... Iím not necessarily doing so. Itís surely not for everyone. My observations and comment are from the perspective of a Midwestern small-town, middle-middle class man with a cautious, yet adventurous spirit. As part of a 10-day southern vacation, we visited New Orleans for two days and three nights. During the day, we visited many family-friendly attractions (of which I will soon write about in another review). Early each evening, from around 7 to 10 PM, my 10 and 12-year old daughters and I strolled around the French Quarter.
Consisting of an area roughly1/2 mile by 3/4 mile (the most active area is considerably smaller), the French Quarter is very alive. It is bustling with activity 24/7. The streets are narrow and at least after dark, jaywalking, is the norm. Nothing is polished, shiny or new-looking... which contributes to the French Quarterís naughty charm. The area is almost entirely hedonistic, with bars, nightclubs, adult shops, gift shops and restaurants dominating the neon-bathed street frontage, although an occasional Walgreenís or IGA reminds visitors that real, live New Orleans residents are going about their daily lives among all the tourists. It is noisy. If you are not near any street musicians, youíll hear live or recorded music blaring from the shops and clubs. The architecture is like you have seen in the media. Second and third story terraces are typical and add a peculiar aspect of intimacy as you walk down the narrow, crowded streets. The French Quarter is crowded, even in the early evening and especially into the early AM hours. Ethnic diversity is extreme... everyone is a minority. We stayed at a downtown hotel adjacent to the French Quarter, the Wyndham at Canal Place. We left our van at the parking lot across the street for our entire NOLA visit. Be warned, parking for our 2 Ĺ days was $48. It would have been $60 in the hotelís garage. Parking in the French Quarter is practically non-existent and those with special physical needs may find it difficult to maneuver between the streets and in and out of the businesses. My kids and I were attracted to the vibrant carnival atmosphere, unusual shopping opportunities and overall French Quarter mystique.
Although you will seldom read about shopping in my reviews (not my cup-o-tea), shopping in the French Quarter is noteworthy. Of course, touristy gift shops are abundant. Some are expensive. Some are quite reasonable. All have character and are usually noisy. Youíll find lots of t-shirts, all sorts of colored beads, a bunch of things made out of chopped off alligator heads and feet, shot glasses, refrigerator magnets and the usual tourist fare. Royal Street is known for its upscale (and expensive) antique shops although most of them close up and lock their sturdy iron bars before dinner. If you are visiting with kids, donít miss the French Market on the east end of the French Quarter. It is a huge old-style open air market filled with a diverse group of vendors and their equally diverse wares. Along with the unusual, youíll find the cheapest t-shirts, clown dolls, alligator heads and voodoo dolls in the Quarter.
I read many articles on the subject of voodoo before visiting New Orleans and I was struck by the difference of opinion about the nature of New Orleans voodoo and the role of voodoo in New Orleans history and in todayís New Orleans culture. Therefore, I do not wish to muddy the waters any further by offering another inadequately informed viewpoint... but... Iíll say this... Voodoo symbols and Voodoo influences are very visible in New Orleans, and for the tourist, they are most visible in the shops. Cheap "voodoo dolls" and "gris-gris bags" are available in the same shops that sell the shot glasses, t-shirts, etc. To some, these shops may appear to blatantly exploit the voodoo religion (to offer a Christian analogy... "Austin 3:16" t-shirts). Among the multitude of flashy, noisy tourist shops, visitors will find an occasional "authentic" voodoo shop. I place "authentic" in quotes, because Iím not certain how much of what they display is in the interest of offering items for those who actually practice voodoo... or to present an "authentic" voodoo image to us tourists. Maybe itís a combination of both, but my cynical side suspects more of the latter. We visited two such shops. One was called "Rev. Zombieís Voodoo Shop". I do not recall the name of the other. Neither allowed photos inside the shop. Both were very, very dark inside with burning candles and a strong aroma of incense. Both shops asked for reverence for their voodoo altars. Both offered palm readings and other readings. The walls were covered with voodoo dolls and other symbols for sale although none could be handled until sold. These dolls and symbols looked much different than the ones in the touristy shops. Although a tad bizarre, all three of us enjoyed our visits to these mysterious shops. Be prepared to answer your pre-teensí inevitable questions however you feel is appropriate. Since my oldest daughter really wanted to have her palm read, we found a palm reader outdoors at the very public Jackson Square. For a $5 donation, she read my daughters lines and marked them with a blue ball-point pen. At the end of the 2-minute session, the palm-reader looked up at me and asked, "Sheís loving and caring, but sheís stubborn and strong-willed, isnít she?" I shook my head and said, "Thatís her." Although it doesnít take a psychic to get a dad to agree with a statement like that, the smile on my daughterís face after I acknowledged she had all 4 of those characteristics were worth far more than my $5 "donation".
Music is everywhere in the French Quarter. The shops are all filled with music. There are many styles of music that are identified with New Orleans. Jazz is most closely identified with New Orleans, but is claimed by many cities as their signature style (e.g. St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago). Unique to the region, Cajun zydeco music is among the happiest styles Iíve ever heard. Usually featuring an accordion, zydeco is very uptempo, dancable and joyous. The blues is also rooted in this area. Youíll find these and more among the clubs and on the streets of New Orleans. Children are not permitted in the clubs. Top 40, rock, alternative and other pop styles are conspicuously understated. Street musicians are quite common. We encountered an outstanding vocalist soulfully singing a-capella on a lonely street corner. We encountered a not-so-good trombonist singing along the banks of the Mississippi River. And best of all, we stopped for awhile to watch an old time Dixieland Jazz Band (featuring a tuba, trombone, acoustic guitar and percussion). If you stop to appreciate the music, It is polite to drop a buck or two into the musiciansí instrument cases. French Quarter visitors are nearly always within earshot of some energetic music... adding yet another dimension to the cityís lively spirit.
Arguably, no other American city is as instantly identified by its food. The French Quarter is loaded with great restaurants featuring local cuisine. The only sit-down restaurant we visited was was The Gumbo Shop on St. Peter Street where we dined upon crawfish etouffee, seafood okra gumbo, alligator sauce piquante, chicken espagnole, a ham and cheese poí boy and praline ice cream. The French Quarter is mostly untouched by corporate icons. Except for the western edge, we did not see any Golden Arches, Burger Kings, Taco Bells or otherwise. If you need a quick bite, youíll find plenty of street-corner hot dog vendors and pizza-by-the-slice places.
To reiterate, we visited The French Quarter three times in the early evening, so I canít offer first-hand info as to what happens in NOLA after dark. New Orleans, and specifically, The French Quarter has a reputation for high crime... specifically for our purposes here... muggings, purse-snatchings and other theft. I have read that the crime has decreased in recent years, but the threat is still significant. All that being said... during our visit, the New Orleans police were very visible, both in vehicles and on the street. We were nearly always among a crowd and did not feel threatened, nor did we witness any criminal activity. The only exception was when we were quickly approached by a man on a lesser-walked street on the periphery of the Quarter. He offered to guess where I bought my sandals. I responded to his peculiar offer by telling him that I bought them at Wal-Mart (unfortunately the truth). He then offered to guess in which state I bought my sandals. I responded with a polite "no thank you" and we all walked our separate directions. Iím still puzzled by his possible intentions, but he didnít do anything I considered especially threatening. In short, I felt that we were pretty safe amidst the crowds and police presence.
Parking and Handicap Accessibility:
The French Quarterís charming quaintness contributes greatly to itís allure. Unfortunately, this quaintness is often a detriment to the physically challenged. Parking in the French Quarter is expensive and scarce. Because of the narrow streets, on-street parking isnít permitted in most areas. Parking violations are strictly enforced. The narrow streets and jaywalking pedestrians make driving difficult as well. In fact, jaywalking is the norm. Youíll likely see more groups of people in the streets than vehicles. A great deal of walking is necessary to take a really good look around. If you are equipped with a handicap-equipped van, a place to park it and a motorized wheelchair, getting in and around the French Quarter may prove frustratingly difficult.
Undoubtedly, the French Quarter is perfect for adults who are seeking the ultimate intense party atmosphere, especially during Mardi Gras. Alcohol consumption and adult entertainment take over late in the evening and into the wee hours of the morning, therefore, I can not recommend visiting the French Quarter with children after about 10:00 PM, but itís really all up to the parentsí own level of comfort. During the day and especially early in the evening (i.e. ~ 5-9 PM), the colorful neon signs, unique shops, delicious food, local architecture, omnipresent music and the general liveliness presents an enjoyable, one-of-a-kind experience for you and the kids.
Read my reviews from our 2003 travels on epinions.com:
|FRENCH QUARTER PHOTOS - AUGUST 2003|
|STREET CORNER||FRENCH MARKET||FRENCH MARKET|
|ST. LOUIS CATHEDRAL||STREET CORNER||JAZZ BAND ON JACKSON SQUARE|
|IN FRONT OF THE CATHEDRAL||PALM READER||GIFT SHOP|
|GIFT SHOP||GIFT SHOP||GIFT SHOP|
|PIZZA / DRINK PLACE|
|STREET SCENE||REV. ZOMBIE'S VOODOO SHOP||GIFT SHOP|
|STREET SCENE||BOURBON STREET||STREET SCENE|
|STREET SCENE||STREET SCENE||SHOP|
|THE FRENCH QUARTER FROM THE WYNDHAM AT CANAL PLACE||JACKSON BREWERY||RIVERSIDE MUSICIAN|