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NEW ORLEANSThe French Quarter is the heart and soul of New Orleans, the oldest part of the city and a center of great food, music and culture. It's far more than just Bourbon Street; it's rows of stately antebellum buildings and wonderful shops, galleries, restaurants and music halls. There may be plenty of other places to visit here, but none is more quintessentially New Orleans than the French Quarter.
New Orleans, founded in 1718 around what is now Jackson Square, originally encompassed only the French Quarter, also called Vieux Carre, or "Old Square." Control of the city shifted from the French to the Spanish in the late 1700s and briefly back to the French before the United States took over the city as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
During Spanish control, fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed nearly all of the French Quarter. Hundreds of buildings were rebuilt in the Spanish style--with the ornate iron balconies and galleries, shuttered windows and central courtyards that make the Quarter instantly recognizable. On many corners, tile panels still adorn the sides of buildings with the streets' earlier Spanish names.
If this is your first visit to New Orleans, a good way to get oriented may be a walking tour of the Quarter. You'll get familiar with the streets and landmarks, and pick up the basics of local history.
Several companies offer walking tours; Historic New Orleans Tours, for instance, conducts a daily two-hour French Quarter History Tour that starts on Bourbon Street and costs $15 for adults. Horse-drawn carriage tours are also available on Decatur Street in front of Jackson Square.
Once you have the lay of the land, you can follow your interests.
Everyone's interested in good food, and the Quarter has good food to spare. Dining establishments range from down-home seafood and po-boy sandwich joints to some of the finest restaurants in the country (see story, page 22). Take your pick.
There's also Bourbon Street, or course, where it's possible to get a frozen daiquiri or a Hurricane--that's three different rums, grenadine plus orange and pineapple juice--at just about any time of day.
If you're not hungry or thirsty, you may feel like window shopping. In that case, take a stroll down Rue Royal and Rue Chartres, where you'll find plenty of small shops selling antiques, jewelry, perfume and clothing, along with galleries offering paintings, sculpture and photographs.
Many of the antique stores deal in furniture--desks, dining tables, grandfather clocks--but some specialize. James H. Cohen & Sons Inc. on Royal Street, for example, sells antique guns and coins. Lucullus, on Chartres Street, offers antique glassware, china, silver, cooking implements and other "culinary antiques."
Breaking the bank on a chandelier may not be what you had in mind, in which case the historic French Market might be more fun. It's a flea market in an open-air shed off Decatur Street where vendors peddle everything from jewelry and leather goods to--on a recent weekend--a foot-long alligator skull. The market has operated on the site since 1791 and is in the middle of a $5 million expansion that will include renovated sheds for vendors. The large Crescent City Farmers Market operated here before Hurricane Katrina, and market officials say they hope it will return once the renovation is complete.
For those in need of a pick-me-up, the famous Cafe du Monde is just up the street from the French Market. You can sit outside and, if your timing is right, catch a sidewalk jazz band's performance as you drink chickory-laced coffee and sample a beignet.
Further up Decatur Street is the Jax Brewery building, formerly a local beer brewery that's been converted into a mall with more than a dozen shops and restaurants and, on the second floor, a museum devoted to Jax beer.
For the truly curious, there is the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on Rampart Street. The temple seeks to educate people about the voodoo religion and offers such services as African bone readings; but it also operates a gift shop where you'll find medicine, fertility and "rain fetish" dolls and other carved figures.
The spirit world is a minor industry in the French Quarter, with several companies offering ghost tours, voodoo tours and cemetery tours (see related story).
Haunted or not, the Quarter's historic houses also are worth a look. Amid all of the Quarter's other historic buildings are the Beauregard-Keyes House on Chartres Street, the Gallier House on Royal Street and the Hermann-Grima House on St. Louis Street.
The Gallier House, with restored Victorian interiors, and the Hermann-Grima House, an 1831 federal mansion with a courtyard garden, offer several tours Monday through Friday, for $6 for one house or $10 for both. The 1826 Beauregard-Keyes House--owned at different times by Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and author Frances Parkinson Keyes--offers hourly tours Monday through Saturday.
The Quarter has also attracted more recent illustrious residents, including actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and Nicolas Cage (who moved out before Hurricane Katrina). No tours of their houses are available.
The French Quarter is also the home of the Louisiana State Museum, which operates five historic buildings including the Cabildo on Jackson Square, which the Spanish built in the 1790s and that later was the site of ceremonies consummating the Louisiana Purchase.
After a long afternoon of walking, you may be ready to unwind. Try Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a dimly lit tavern on the corner of Bourbon and St. Phillip streets. Built before 1772, it's one of the oldest surviving structures in the city and is said to have been used by the pirate brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, who aided Andrew Jackson during his defense of New Orleans against the British in the War of 1812.
There are, of course, plenty of other watering holes to choose from. As tour guides frequently point out, if you walk more than 20 feet and don't pass a bar, you're not in the French Quarter anymore.
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