In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue; 190 years later, an explorer by the name of René Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle claimed the Mississippi river and its environs as French territory.
La Salle thought he was finding a new water route to China (sorry, buddy). Though his cumbersome name never quite caught on in nursery-rhyme history books, his regional settlements did have a lasting impact, and paved the way for Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville to found La Nouvelle-Orléans.
Now, hundreds of years later, New Orleans still has a distinctly European feel. Signs indicating roadways to the Vieux Carré (“Old Quarter”) dot the highways, and locals sport t-shirts with the Cajun French phrase, Laissez les bons temps rouler, a literal translation of “Let the good times roll.” And this city’s residents and ambiance certainly embody that motto. Enjoy the culture, food, markets, and festivals which mark NOLA’s place at the crossroads of French, Spanish, Creole, and American history.
Start at Café du Monde for Beignets
800 Decateur St (map here)
Every NOLA native knows about this staple, where patrons line up in piles for delicious French pastries. Brought to NOLA in the 1700s by French colonists, these puffs of sugar-coated (rather, sugar-drenched) fried choux pastry come piping hot, their paper sleeves soaked almost instantaneously with excess oil. They’re sold in packs of three or five, but opt for the smaller, as these are substantial treats. Pro tip: even careful eaters will be covered in sugar by the end of your snack, so avoid wearing black.
Go Next Door to the French Market
2-48 French Market Pl. (map here) Open daily 10AM – 6PM
This expansive market sells everything you could possibly hope to purchase in New Orleans, and contains a flea market, food stalls and actual restaurants. Buy your friends a requisite t-shirt or keychain (or voodoo doll, depending on the status of your relationship), and head to its open-air farmers market to sample a variety of local dishes, which picks up where the tchotchkes leave off. Stop by J’s Seafood Dock for a portion of spiced and boiled crawfish or a bowl of jambalaya, a Louisiana specialty influenced by both its French and Spanish roots.
Time to Really Chow-Down at Coop’s Place
1109 Decateur St. (map here)
NOLA is truly teeming with good restaurants, and as a weekend visitor, you’ll only scratch the surface of the city’s incredible culinary offerings. One must-try dish—red beans and rice—can be found just around the corner from the French Market at Coop’s Place. This Cajun-style restaurant also offers incredible gumbo, jambalaya, and a whole lot of fried seafood. Those familiar with Southwest France’s traditional dish of Cassoulet will likely enjoy an order of red beans and rice—it’s also brimming with meat and artery-clogging goodness!
Enjoy the Architecture in the French Quarter
This tiny, walkable neighborhood represents the oldest and arguably most vibrant parts of the city—day or night. Thanks to Adrien de Pauger, the French engineer who laid out the original plans for the Vieux Carré, the quarter has a European feel. The bright architecture is a mélange of Spanish, French, and Creole, and the ubiquitous balconies double as lovely aesthetic decorations and bases for Mardi Gras partygoers to sling beads into the February crowds. Bustling 24/7, the infamous Bourbon Street deserves a walk-through during the daylight before it gets too rowdy.
Pay a Visit to the Saint Louis Cathedral
615 Pere Antoine Alley (map here)
The same man who was responsible for the French Quarter’s layout, Adrien de Pauger, also designed this first version of this impressive Basilica during his time in Nouvelle-Orléans. Unfortunately it burned down, and the modern-day church is the result of several rebuilds and facelifts, but you can still see some French and Creole history in the cemetery where Étienne de Boré, Homer Plessy, and voo-doo queen Marie Laveau reside. Surrounded by manicured gardens and grounds, this white cathedral is oddly reminiscent of Cinderella’s Castle, with dramatic blue-grey spires pointing to the sky like its Disney counterpart.
Head Uptown to Lilette for Dinner
3637 Magazine St. (map here)
Although many remnants of France’s brief conquest in NOLA are concentrated around the French quarter, there are quite a few terrific dining homages spread throughout the city. Venture to Magazine street and enjoy a slow meal of French-Italian fare and wine at Lilette. This Uptown favorite, headed by owner/chef John Harris, offers the ambiance of a local Parisian restaurant and an interesting menu. Lilette does what New Orleans does best: blends flavors and inspirations for a unique and satisfying result.
And If You’re There… Celebrate Mardi Gras
For the 50 weeks of the year Mardi Gras isn’t happening, head to Bourbon Street or Frenchmen Street for a good time. For the other two weeks of the year… this huge weeklong celebration of parades, parties, and general mayhem (note: the best kind of mayhem) overtakes New Orleans every year in the days leading up to lent, and we have the French to thank for that. When the French founded NOLA, they brought this tradition and its customs. During the Spanish and subsequent US rule, authorities tried to suppress many Mardi Gras traditions like masked balls and wearing costumes. Luckily, locals continued to fêter, and the festivals grew and evolved until they became the huge celebration that we now know and love. Thanks for the help, France!