New Orleans, LA
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, at Café Du Monde
For our stay in New Orleans we decided not to stay in the French Quarter. This decision was based partially on cost and partially on we weren’t sure what to expect out of the French Quarter after dark (there are things I’m not ready to explain to my seven-year-old). We stayed at the Holiday Inn Downtown which is a few blocks from the Superdome. The hotel was very nice. It had an attached parking garage (additional parking fee per day), a restaurant/lounge in the lobby, a fitness center and a “roof top” pool. The pool was outside on a patio on the 8th floor several floors of the hotel rise above the pool which meant the pool stayed shaded for a good part of the day. We ate breakfast both days at the restaurant which was reasonably priced ($7-$10 per adult entrée and kids eat free with purchase of adult entrée), the food was very good and the staff was great. There were plenty of other restaurants within an easy walk of the hotel.
The French Quarter was about twenty blocks away from our hotel. The hotel staff suggested against walking that distance especially with four kids in tow. They suggested using the RTA Streetcars. The Streetcars are run by the New Orleans Transit Authority. You can buy single ride passes or Jazzy Passes (multiple ride passes, we bought 1-day passes for $3.00/person ages 3 and up). Passes can be purchased from the driver, at RTA Ticket Vending Machines or online (http://www.norta.com/Fares-Passes/Overview). If you plan on buying from the driver, you must have EXACT change. Even if you are not used to using public transit the streetcars are fairly easy to figure out. There are five lines. Each line follows the same path. When it reached the end that streetcar turns and around and does the same path in reverse. We were able to catch the Canal Street trolley about three blocks from the hotel. When that line ended at Harrah’s casino, we switched to the River Front line which takes you right to the French Quarter. Super easy. Trolleys run about every 20-30 minutes (closer together during busier times of the year). Drivers were super helpful and willing to give instructions to anyone that needed help. Most the time the trolleys weren’t too crowded. We only had to stand for two rides and even then the kids had seats. We had a reservation for at 10:30 carriage ride so we made sure to give ourselves plenty of time to get to the French Quarter. It took about 30 minutes between walking, waiting on trolley’s and riding to destinations to reach our final destination. We might have been able to drive down faster but we didn’t have to hassle with finding (and paying) for parking.
We pre-booked a carriage tour with Royal Carriage Tours. The carriages meet in front of Jackson Square so it’s super easy to find. We arrived to the park about 20 minutes early so we spent a little bit of time exploring the park (there are drinking fountains in the park, they aren’t the coldest but it is free water if you are in need or want to refill bottles). We also took a few minutes to look around St Louis Cathedral. The Cathedral is an active church so you have to pay attention to the signs to make sure there isn’t service or another event going on. They have brochures for self-guided tours and a small gift shop in the back of the church. They request that you keep a quiet volume as you tour the church to be respectful of those that might be using the church. The artwork on the ceiling and on the walls is amazing. It was worth the brief visit (it was brief because toddlers only sort of get the idea of respectful noise level). If your trip has older children or only adults, plan about thirty minutes to an hour to complete the full self-guided tour.
By the time we got done looking around the cathedral it was time to meet our carriage. You can pre-book a carriage ride through the company’s website (https://www.neworleanscarriages.com/) or they were allowing people to book as they walked up. Walk-up is based on availability so if you are going during a busy season or want to do the more restricted tours like the Ghost Tours I’d suggest pre-ordering tickets. The company offers both 30 minute and 1 hour-long tours. We opted for a 1-hour tour that included touring St Louis Cemetery No 1. Our carriage was covered which was nice because even at 10 AM it was already hot. Just a heads up the carriages share the road with cars. The cars don’t always share the road nicely. It can be a little nerve-racking but the tour guide was really good at keeping the mule moving at the pace she wanted and allowing traffic to go by as often as possible.
Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the city. During the tour she ran almost constant commentary pointing out historic buildings and various architectural features of the homes and businesses. She also made some great suggestions for dinner and other activities for after we completed the tours. She also gave us the tour St Louis Cemetery No 1 as well. If you aren’t aware of it, the cemeteries in the old part of the city are mostly above ground and consists of lots of mausoleums some of which are very intricate. There is almost no shade inside the cemetery (except for what the taller graves offer) either bring water or buy a bottle from the guy selling it out front. Whatever the temperate on the street was it felt easily 10 degrees hotter in the cemetery. There is no breeze, no shade and you are surrounded by concrete. Our tour guide also did a great job of taking us to the more famous tombs in the cemetery as well as explaining the culture of how people were (and still are) buried in the cemetery as well as how families care for the tombs. Although it may seem macabre, the cemetery tour was very cool and I would highly recommend it. After our tour ended and we returned to Jackson Square, the tour guide allowed each of our kids to thank our mule and feed her a small treat.
Our next stop was the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park. This is a small park run by the National Parks Service right in the middle of the French Quarter. The park is dedicated to educating people about Jazz music. It was about three blocks away from Jackson Square right on Decatur St. The building is set back off the street behind a small courtyard but there was easy to follow signage on the main street. We arrived just as the ranger was beginning a talk on the history of Jazz music. The ranger was very informative (especially to someone like myself that doesn’t know much about music), did a great job keeping his audience participating in the discussion, and was a talented player as he played a selection of songs to help showcase what he was discussing. It was also a great way to get to spend an hour sitting down in air conditioning. After his presentation the ranger sat to answer any additional questions. He also checked our daughter’s Jr Ranger books and did a very funny oath (on top of the normal serve and protect, he had them swear to eat veggies and clean their rooms without complaint). There was also a small gift shop/bookstore that was part of the park.
After learning about Jazz we did some window shopping, actual shopping and then stopped for a lite lunch at Café Beignet. The sandwiches were fairly large for the price and breakfast was served all day. Service was fast and friendly and the food was served quickly. It was an open air restaurant so be prepared for the birds. After lunch the dads took the toddlers back to the hotel in hopes of getting the two of them to take naps (the toddlers not the dads).
My sister, myself and our two daughters decided to walk down to the French Market to do some souvenir shopping. Of all the things we did on this trip, the French Market was the only real let down for me. The French Market is a large open aired market (it does have a roof so you get out of the sun). I was expecting a lot of local artists selling unique finds. While there were some of those, 75% of the stalls were the same cheap foreign-made trinkets that every other gift shop had. Most the stalls weren’t even selling items cheaper than the gift shops and at least gift shops had air conditioning. I know that the vendors rotate in the market so maybe you get more local artists on a weekend. We did find a stall that was selling Mardi Gras mask at a fairly good deal so each daughter bought themselves a mask to take home. The girls also got a snow-cone that was fairly large for the price. I will admit that the food court at the market looked amazing and I wish we would have walked down here for lunch. After our shopping we decided to return to the hotel as well to swim and take a little rest before coming back for dinner later in the day.
After getting some pool time and much-needed showers for everyone, we returned to the French Quarter around 5 in the evening for dinner. Our tour guide from the carriage rides in the morning had suggested Crescent City Brewhouse as a good stop for dinner with kids that would have a live Jazz band. Unfortunately, the band plays at the front of the house which is the bar, so we couldn’t see them while we ate but we could hear them. We had a nice dinner featuring lots of creole favorites and we tried some local drinks in the Pimm’s Cup and a Hurricane. Food was very good (we all split meals to save room for beignets for dessert later) and the staff was friendly. We stopped and watched the band for a few minutes as we were leaving. We did a little more souvenir shopping. The weather had cooled down quite a bit as the sun was going down.
For an after dinner treat we stopped by the famous Café Du Monde for beignets. Every time we had walked by the café during the day, the café had been full. The restaurant is open aired so I can imagine it’s not the greatest experience trying to eat piping hot beignets in 95-degree weather with 90% humidity while packed in with 150 other people. By 7 in the evening there were only a handful of other diners and we were able to get two tables (small café tables that seat 3-4 guests) next to each other. We ordered two orders of beignets to split and some waters (I know you are supposed to get coffee with them but it was still easily 85 degrees out and I wouldn’t have slept if I had drunk coffee that late in the evening). There are three beignets per order and unless you are really hungry I would suggest splitting an order. Each beignet was about the size of my palm, they were made fresh and topped with a mound of powdered sugar. Service was very quick and I’d highly suggest stopping to get an order as a snack (they taste similar to a funnel cake). Café Du Monde also had a few smashed penny machines so the girls were able to add to their collection.
We decided to call it a night after our snack. We had about 15 minutes till the next trolley was due at the station, so we crossed the tracks and stood on the Moonwalk next to the Mississippi and watched the boats. We were very lucky to hear the Steamboat Natchez’s Calliope play before it set sail for its evening dinner cruise.
Overall impression: We loved the French Quarter. It’s a little bit of everything all rolled into one. There is a modern urban side and the historic side of the city all right together. It is a large tourist destination and while I never once felt unsafe, use your brain and be alert. There are a lot of street performers as well. While watching them is technically free they do expect a tip if you stop to watch. For the most part all the performers were very nice. Just remember to be aware of your surroundings and belongings. We were out of the French Quarter before nightfall (with 4 kids in tow, nightlife wasn’t big on our agenda). Overall I would say that New Orleans is a great family destination.