CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Atlas Obscura

8 minutes minute read

The Atlas Obscura Guide to the

Hidden French Quarter

It may be famous for Mardi Gras, but New Orleans has subtle, surprising wonders on tap all year long—even in the touristy French Quarter. Around every cobblestoned corner, you’ll find historic ephemera, bits of Creole culture, environmentalism, and no shortage of spooky stories, whenever you happen to visit.

EXPLORE

The Hermann-Grima house has a long history—and it's still being unearthed. HERMANN-GRIMA + GALLIER HISTORIC HOUSES

MEMORABLE MANSION

1. Hermann-Grima House

If you fancy checking out one of the earliest examples of American architecture built in the French Quarter, stop by the Hermann-Grima House. This 6,000-square-foot Federal-style home—short and wide and perfectly symmetrical—looks almost just as it did when it was built in the 1830s and belonged to Creole families of European ancestry. Look closely, though, and you’ll find the contributions of free people of color hiding in plain sight.

Historians are pretty sure that some handsome artisan work, like the carved frieze above the dining room, was made by non-Europeans, and have confirmed that a free woman of color named Julie Bois owned and tended to this area before the Hermann family acquired it from her. To revise the principally white narrative about the history of the site, work is underway to resurface the stories of people of color who lived around the courtyard. Researchers recently conducted seven archaeological digs near the original hearth, beehive oven, and 19th-century cistern, and found a trove of pottery sherds.

820 St Louis St, New Orleans, LA 70112

PLAYING DRESS UP

2. Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture

The annual Mardi Gras festivities are a hallmark of New Orleans life, infamous for vibrant floats and colorful costumes. Some of these, including a menagerie of feathered headpieces and heavily-sequined bodices, are on display at the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture. Visitors also learn about the history of famous Mardi Gras “krewes,” groups of people who travel together by float and are united by their costume choices. If you’re itching to get in on the action, pop into the museum’s “dressing room” to try on vintage costumes for your own personal Mardi Gras parade—any time of the year.

1010 Conti St, New Orleans, LA 70112

The park features musicians, both living and bronzed. ANDRIY BLOKHIN/ALAMY

SCULPTURAL SAX

3. Musical Legends Park

This tree-lined space tucked between the rowdy bars of Bourbon Street offers a nice respite from the surrounding debauchery. The park boasts life-size bronze statues of local jazz legends including Fats Domino and Pete Fountain, and a stage where live acts play under the stars. Next to the stage, look for the giant, brightly colored saxophone statue. It's a recent gift from Belgium, where the inventor and musician Adolphe Sax first fashioned the instrument in the 1840s.

311 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70130

IMMIGRANT HISTORY

4. Irish Cultural Museum

Scores of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine docked in New Orleans in the mid-19th century, and this quaint museum, which sits in a classic French Quarter courtyard, tells their stories. Since Catholicism was already established in New Orleans, thanks to the Spanish and French rule, Irish Catholics were more welcomed here than in some predominantly Protestant parts of the country. This museum has loads of books on the history and traditions of Irish people in Louisiana, such as the annual ritual of throwing groceries from St. Patrick’s Day floats to feed the poor. As you wander the courtyard, be sure to look down: The streets are paved with ballast stones, which were historically used to balance the ships taking goods back and forth between America and Europe. When you’ve finished exploring, duck into the museum’s bar and coffeehouse, just across the courtyard, to refuel. (Unsurprisingly, they make a mean Irish coffee.)

933 Conti St, New Orleans, LA 70112

The wall is plastered with business cards and photographs. SYLVIA PITCHER PHOTOLIBRARY/ALAMY

OUTLAWED LIBATIONS

5. Old Absinthe House

Absinthe once played an outsized role in French Quarter society. Pharmacists and physicians tried to use this anise-flavored spirit to prevent malaria and other maladies, and its high alcohol content (up to 75 percent alcohol by volume) made it a mainstay in bars, too. With this in mind, Cayetano Ferrer, a mixologist from Catalan, opened up a bar called The Absinthe Room in this exact location in 1874, and began serving absinthe-based drinks in the classic Parisian style: placing a sugar cube atop a slotted spoon, and then pouring water on top until it drained into the absinthe-filled glass.

To dodge the strictures of Prohibition, the barkeeps temporarily moved to incognito digs in a warehouse elsewhere on Bourbon Street. Because the old location flew under the radar, it was spared. As a result, the wood paneling from the bar counter is still in place, as are the two marble fountains that held water for cocktails. Other artifacts from the past abound at an exclusive upstairs space, too, where you’ll find a 19th-century ledger book, signed by each person who patronized the haunt—which is also one of a few sites that lay claim to the legend about being the place where Andrew Jackson and the pirate Jean Lafitte met to hash out a plan for defending the city during the War of 1812.

240 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70112

The collection is part museum, part research center. HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION

AMAZING ARCHIVE

6. The Historic New Orleans Collection

In a past life, this well-maintained building, which dates to 1792, was a map shop. Today, it houses a collection that charts different eras of the city’s history, featuring everything from Louisiana’s first constitution, written in 1812, to an antique refectory table, the oldest piece of furniture known to have been made in the state. History buffs should also head across the road to the Williams Research Center, a related offshoot. Free and open to the public, the archive holds over 30,000 items, including documents detailing life along the Mississippi River and rare drawings and prints of the Gulf South.

533 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130

The museum is packed with tinctures and more. TRAVELING NEWLYWEDS/NEW ORLEANS & CO.

HISTORIC APOTHECARY

7. New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Before you enter the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, in the 1823 home and shop of Louis Dufilho Jr., said to America’s first licensed pharmacist, stop at the window. There, you’ll see hanging glass globes filled with colorful liquids. The hues once served as visual keys warning passersby about illnesses that plagued the city, such as yellow fever and cholera. Inside, you’ll travel back to an era when ailments were treated with everything from voodoo love potions to heroin-laced tinctures. Pore over old syringes, gold-coated pills (status symbols that proved to be medically worthless), and a stack of Dufilho’s handwritten prescriptions behind the vintage cash register. Upstairs, peek inside an old treatment room and learn how quinine was prescribed for everything from fainting spells to gonorrhea. Don’t miss the birthing chair in the midwifery and obstetrics collection, or the bottles heralding absinthe as a cure for anything that ails you, from tooth pain to insomnia.

514 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130

The corridors are full of wonders. M.S. RAU ANTIQUES

TUCKED-AWAY TREASURES

8. Hidden Room at M.S. Rau Antiques

M.S. Rau Antiques, which has been peddling wares for 107 years, holds some truly enviable goods. There’s Pope VI’s bejeweled ring, a billiards table with wood carvings illustrating the history of Australia, a coffee pot created by silversmith Paul Revere (yes, that Paul Revere) in 1775, and a German violano instrument—an ultra-rare hybrid of a violin and a piano. Behind that unusual mash-up, you’ll find a secret door, painted to look like a bookcase. This passageway, which can only be opened by an employee, is a portal to a whole other wing filled with fine art. There, you'll find original Norman Rockwell illustrations and Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s painting, The Alchemistmade around 1600. (It's a twist on an etching by his dad, Pieter Brueghel the Elder.)

630 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130

The Cabildo is on the left—and your next stop, St. Louis Cathedral, is its neighbor. AGE FOTOSTOCK / ALAMY

AWESOME ARTIFACTS

9. Deathly Delights at the Cabildo

Continue along the same street, and you’ll find yourself at the Cabildo. The stately Spanish Colonial building sits among a row of museums bordered by old cobblestone streets. This one, in particular, warrants a stop because it considers both the past and present. The Louisiana Purchase was signed inside; now, it houses a host of artifacts that speak to the legacy of the French Quarter through fashion, music, architecture, and more. Don’t miss Napoleon’s death mask tucked away on the second floor. The Cabildo holds one of only a handful of genuine bronze masks of Napoleon in the world. Given Napoleon's involvement in the sale of Louisiana to the United States, it’s not surprising that one of his postmortem molds found a final resting place here.

701 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130

The shell-shaped soundboard once helped sermons travel through the church. BRUCE YUANYUE BI/GETTY IMAGES

DREAMY DETAILS

10. Scallop Shell Soundboard at the St. Louis Cathedral

Your next stop is directly next door. Though the exterior of America’s oldest continuously-operating cathedral is impressively tall, its facade is not particularly striking—the building blends into the cream-colored facades of the two state museums flanking it. It hasn't always been this way. When the church went up in 1718, it was a shaky wooden structure; in 1727, it was outfitted with brick and timber for greater support. When the Great New Orleans Fire destroyed this iteration in 1788, a new version was built yet again—this time, with new additions including a clock tower and bell. The cathedral we see today is a modernized and enlarged version of this last major rebuilding effort. Still, a curious 18th-century architectural element is preserved inside.

The wooden, shell-shaped soundboard above the pulpit was originally built with acoustics in mind: Its curved shape helped carry the minister’s voice all the way to the back pews. Today, microphones do most of the work, and the pulpit is a pretty relic that evokes the scallop shell's importance to Christian pilgrims. Meanwhile, the decorative stained glass windows and murals that surround it—with original French inscriptions—are just as beautiful.

615 Pere Antoine Alley, New Orleans, LA 70116

The Presbytère contains Mardi Gras exhibits in addition to relics from the devastating storms. DBIMAGES/ALAMY

ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION

11. Personal Histories at the Presbytère

Just a few steps away, you’ll find this unassuming building with a storied past. Formerly a home for monks, then a courthouse, these days it’s a museum largely dedicated to the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina and the long process of picking up the pieces. Unique exhibits depict residents’ personal, profound pain. Don’t miss the relocated walls from the B.W. Cooper public housing complex in the 2nd Ward, on which New Orleans local Tommie Elton Mabry scribbled his thoughts and worries in black Sharpie as the storm bore down on the city. He continued to track the impact for weeks afterwards, and before the development was torn down in 2008, the Louisiana State Museum carefully removed the paint from those walls, and affixed Mabry’s musings on new ones in the permanent Katrina exhibit. Here, Louisiana’s complicated and paradoxical relationship with water—great for ports, but sometimes dangerous for residents—is palpable.

The Cabildo and Presbytère, along with two other nearby museums, are all connected under the Louisiana State Museum system. You can get a discount if you tell the clerk that you plan on visiting more than one.

751 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70116

The room is sumptuous and more than a little spooky. MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES

GHOSTLY GREETINGS

12. The Séance Room at Muriel's Jackson Square

At the top of this French Quarter restaurant’s dark and winding staircase, you’ll find a hidden “séance room.” Shrouded in lush, blood-red fabrics and often rented out for spooky private parties, this nook is a departure from the bustling streets and eatery below. The séance room is rumored to host the ghost of the property’s former owner, Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who died by suicide in 1814 on the home’s second floor—where the séance lounge is today—after losing big in a poker game. His spirit is said to visit in the form of flashes of light. Muriel’s makes a show out of ushering brave visitors up to this sort-of-secret lair. Dine here to feast on duck breast jambalaya and shrimp Creole—with a side of purported paranormal activity.

801 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70116

The museum is full of artifacts used in rituals. DBIMAGES/ALAMY

AMAZING ALTARS

13. New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

This small, mystical museum was founded in 1972 by Charles Massicot Gandolfo, a local artist with a passion for all things voodoo. Within, you’ll find several altars flooded with pictures, money, and other personal items visitors have left behind as offerings, as well as African and Caribbean masks used during rituals. Some visitors use the museum as a space to seek counsel, as well. No New Orleans voodoo museum could avoid paying homage to the French Quarter’s definitive, departed Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, whose tomb is nearby. (Her daughter, Marie Laveau II, carried on the family priestess tradition, too.)

724 Dumaine St, New Orleans, LA 70116

FROM THE SAME AUTHOR

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