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FRENCH QUARTER FESTIVAL IN NEW ORLEANS

Story and photos by

Mid-April is a special time in New Orleans. It's a time to enjoy great music, delicious food, cultural events and wacky competitions.

Jazz band entertains people on French Quarter street.
Jazz band entertains people on French Quarter street.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

As the largest free music festival in Louisiana and the southern USA, New Orleans French Quarter Festival is an excuse to "let the good times roll" in the historic heart of the city.

Street party

The French Quarter Festival began as an attempt to lure locals back to their beloved Vieux Carré. Back in 1984, people stopped going to the Quarter when street repairs and construction for the World's Fair made it difficult to get into shops and restaurants.

Mayor Morial took action. He asked musicians, street performers and food vendors to put up their shingles, and invited New Orleans residents to a giant street party. The event was so successful that it has been repeated every year.

French Quarter Festival T-shirt
French Quarter Festival T-shirt
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Free event

French Quarter Festivals, Inc. (FQFI) is a non-profit organization, which produces the French Quarter Festival, assisted by local business and community sponsors and 2,000 volunteers. It also produces two other free New Orleans festivals every year: Satchmo SummerFest in August and Christmas New Orleans Style in December.

Funds collected from off-site special events, raffles, food, beverage and souvenir sales support the event and help maintain Jackson Square and other French Quarter attractions.

French Quarter Festival dates

New Orleans celebrates the French Quarter Festival on the second full weekend in April. When Easter falls on the second weekend, the festival is on the third weekend.

Upcoming dates for the French Quarter Festival are April 12-15, 2018, April 11-14, 2019 and April 16-19, 2020. It's advisable to book hotels in New Orleans early, because accommodations fill up quickly for the event.

Free Easy Rider Shuttle buses offer transportation between the Convention Center parking lot and the French Quarter drop-off and pick-up stop, the Sheraton Hotel (address: 500 Canal Street). You can also take UBER to the festival or use the valet bike parking.

Musician plays trumpet.
Musician plays trumpet.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Parade route

The French Quarter Festival opens on Thursday, with the Second-Line Kickoff Parade, opera at the French Market and the Antoine's Restaurant Gala. Bands and musicians perform on stages in the afternoon and early evening.

On Friday, the French Quarter Festival Parade starts at 10 am, with marching bands, horse-drawn carriages and antique firetrucks.

The parade route begins at the 100 block of Bourbon Street (at Iberville) and ends at Jackson Square about 11 am.

Musical performances

Three days of free musical performances by New Orleans and Louisiana musicians and bands follow the parade, with a few jazz renditions by international groups. You can download a French Quarter Festival iPhone app from the App Store or a free Android app from the Android Market to obtain menus, performance times, dates and locations, as well as a maps.

Music includes traditional and contemporary jazz, Cajun Zydeco, R & B, gospel singing, New Orleans funk, classical, folk, Latin, international, opera and even children's music.

How long are the performances? The length of the musical shows vary, but they average one-to-two hours long.

Stage locations in French Quarter

You will find more than 1,700 musicians on 23 stages in New Orleans' French Quarter. Woldenberg Park is the location for the Abita Beer Stage, Tropical Isle Hand Grenade Stage, GE Digital Big River Stage and New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park Centennial Stage for kids.

Chevron Cajun-Zydeco Showcase is located next to the Bienville Statue (address: 400 North Peters). Louisiana State Museum's Old US Mint is the location for the WWL-TV Esplanade in the Shade Stage and Popeye's Brass Band Jam Stage. Jackson Square is the location for the Smokefree NOLA Stage.

House of Blues Stage (address: 225 Decatur Street) is located in the Voodoo Garden, while the New Orleans Magazine Cabaret Stage is at the Palm Court Jazz Café (address: 1204 Decatur). You can find more French Quarter Festival stages on Bourbon St. and Royal Street and St. Mary's Ursuline Convent (address: 1116 Chartres Street).

Free music performance on open-air stage
Free music performance on open-air stage
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Strolling along Bourbon Street, we stopped to listen to jazz bands performing on open-air stages. On Royal Street, strains of an orchestra playing classical music alternated with toe-tapping Zydeco music. By the time we reached Jackson Square, we'd heard World music, brass bands and string quartets.

It's enough to make you want to get up and dance. Many people do just that, tapping their feet and swinging umbrellas in the air to the captivating rhythms. Dancing on Royal Street begins at dusk on Sunday evening.

You can take free jitterbugs, second-line, foxtrot, swing, Zydeco and Charleston dance lessons on Saturday and Sunday at the French Market Traditional Jazz Stage, the Cajun Zydeco Riverfront Stage and the Children's Stage at Natchez Wharf.

Dancing with umbrellas in front of St. Louis Cathedral.
Dancing with umbrellas in front of St. Louis Cathedral
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Free fireworks

The date and time for the French Quarter Festival fireworks over the Mississippi River is April 10 at 9 pm.

At Woldenberg Riverfront Park, children skipped along the sidewalk to calliope tunes pouring from the Steamboat Natchez, docked at the Toulouse canopied wharf on the Mississippi River. Crowds clapped their hands to a rousing version of When the Saints Come Marching In.

Food stands

Music, of course, is just one ingredient that goes into the French Quarter Festival's tasty gumbo. NOLA.com's Eat, Drink Café is on the Riverfront.

Close to 70 of the best restaurants in New Orleans set up food and drink stands. Menu items include shrimp remoulade, seafood crepes, jambalaya, alligator sausages, crawfish pies, Cajun meat pies, cheesecake with praline sauce and dozens of other delicious dishes.

French Quarter Festival food prices range from $3 to $13 a serving. Gluten-free, vegetarian and sugar-free dishes are available. Drinks include beer, wine, daiquiris, margaritas, Southern Comfort and the always-popular Bloody Mary and Hurricane from Pat O'Brien's Bar.

You can buy food and drinks with cash or tickets, purchased by credit card. French Quarter Festival Information and Ticket Booths sell tickets in multiples of $1.

New Orleans cooking

"We sell 400 pounds of crawfish tails and 120 gallons of crawfish étouffé," said a chef at one food stand. "I grill more than 2,000 pieces of barbecued chicken," added another cook. "The crowds eat up more than 5,000 of my crawfish pies," claimed a third vendor.

Crawfish
Crawfish
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Want to learn how to make New Orleans food specialties? The festival offers ample opportunities. We watched a cook pile ham, salami, provolone cheese and olive salad on split loaves of round Italian bread to make traditional muffulettas.

At other food stands, chefs made po-boy sandwiches of all varieties: Cajun roast beef, spicy andouille, blackened soft shell crab, barbeque shrimp, Creole hot sausage and Creole crawfish sausage. Yum!

Muffuletta
Muffuletta
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A passerby looked at the delicious po-boys and rubbed his stomach. "Too full?" asked the cook. "That's okay. Go rest your stomach and come back later!"

People bring folding chairs and blankets and sit on lawns next to the General Jackson statue or the Mississippi, from where they can watch the riverboats as they eat and listen to music. Others prefer to stroll, as they munch their way through the French Quarter.

Special events

Outside Jackson Square, artists, tarot card readers and street performers do a roaring business. A Scottish mime, decked out in tartans, attracted a large crowd by flipping up his kilt whenever someone dropped a coin into his cup.

On a more cultural note, you can tour historic New Orleans houses, like Hermann Grima House (address: 820 St. Louis) and Gallier House (address: 1132 Royal). St. Louis Cathedral Concert Choir performs an annual spring concert. Free opera takes place at dusk in the Cabildo courtyard.

At the Pirates Alley Juried Art Show, more than 100 artists display original works on Pirates Alley, Pere Antoine Alley, Cabildo Alley and Royal Street. Artists sign French Quarter Festival posters, destined to become collectors' items.

Couple enjoy wine on wrought iron balcony.
Couple enjoy wine on wrought iron balcony.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On Saturday evening, traditional jazz bands compete in the Battle of the Bands on Royal Street (location: 400 block). On Sunday evening, the French Quarter Festival features Dancing at Dusk on Royal Street, between St. Louis and Conti.

A free Whitney Bank Film Festival is located at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. Movies include award-winning documentaries and short films. Also free are the Let Them Talk presentations at the Louisiana State Museum's Old US Mint.

You can download a French Quarter Festival map from the event's website, with locations of ticket booths, music stages, food stands, bike parking, ATMs, social media lounge, restrooms and shuttle stops.

Kids' activities

Of course, not all of the fun is for adults. Natchez Wharf (Toulouse Street at the River) is the location for Chevron's Children's Headquarters. Children will find interactive technology and science games at the STEAM Zone.

Filled with clowns, balloons, puppet shows and pony rides, the children's headquarters has all kinds of hands-on activities for kids and family fun, from face painting to karate. Children paint wall murals, build sand castles, dress up in historical costumes and play with robots, drums, marimbas and kazoos.

More kids activities, including circus arts, take place in the Hermann-Grima House courtyard.

Kids and adults, alike, experience a twinge of sadness when the gala street party ends. But they cheer up quickly, knowing that the good times will roll again at next year's French Quarter Festival.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

French Quarter Festival: www.fqfi.org/frenchquarterfest

New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.neworleanscvb.com

More things to see and do in New Orleans:

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