Jackson Square New Orleans
This post is a self-guided tour of things to see and do in Jackson Square in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. In this post, we address food, lodgings, entertainment and other activities available in the Square, as well as a short self-guided tour. Jackson Square is covered on our daily, pay-what-you-like tours of the French Quarter.
Just across Decatur Street from Jackson Square is the famous Cafe du Monde, where visitors flock daily for coffee and beignets. While the cafe is open 24 hours a day, most visitors go during breakfast hours, so the wait can be long in the morning, but seating and service are usually quick in the afternoon and later. Coffee and beignets are not only the signature items – they’re the majority of the menu. Beignets are the only food they offer, and you’ll find only a few other drinks besides coffee with chicory. If you’re a fan of espresso or if you’re the kind of coffee drinker who likes choices, Spitfire Coffee on St. Peter Street just outside the Square is the place for you.
If you prefer a heartier breakfast than what’s on offer at Cafe du Monde, Stanley is a good option to consider. Named for the character in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley serves local riffs on classic breakfast items all day, along with a bistro-style lunch menu.
For dinner, the main attractions in the Square are two upscale Creole restaurants – Tableau and Muriel’s. Creole cuisine is the classic food of Louisiana, based on French cuisine but infused with the local blend of ingredients and cultures. Both restaurants are rated between 4 and 4.5 stars on Google, Yelp, and Tripadvisor; both get praise for brunch and for special occasion dinners, and Tableau also gets shout-outs for its happy hour.
Beyond this elegant pair, you can find several more excellent restaurants within a block of the Square. Just along St. Peter Street going toward Bourbon is the Gumbo Shop, an icon of casual Cajun/Creole, with more different gumbo options on their menu than any other restaurant in the French Quarter and also one of the neighborhood’s most affordable choices. Gumbo Shop tends to have a line out the door during prime meal hours, but you’ve got La Divina Gelateria right across the street if you want to have dessert first while you wait in line. Just up Chartres Street from the Square are Sylvain and Doris Metropolitan, both classy casual options with eclectic menus; Doris Metropolitan, which specializes in dry-aged beef, has the most positive reviews among all the restaurants listed here, consistently scoring 4.5+ on Google, Yelp, and Tripadvisor.
Because of their prime location, reservations are a good idea at any of these restaurants besides Gumbo Shop, especially for dinner.
Bars per se aren’t much of a presence in Jackson Square, but Tableau, Sylvain, and Doris Metropolitan all have bar seating areas and the option of to-go drinks; for something less fancy, there’s Cafe Pontalba, right at the corner of Chartres and St. Peter.
St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest working Catholic cathedral in the United States, completed in 1850, and churches on this site have been the center of the city’s Catholic life since 1727.
While guided tours aren’t allowed inside the Cathedral, you can go inside anytime the doors are open (about 8:30am-4:00 pm daily), as long as there isn’t a mass or other ceremony already underway. Self-guided tour pamphlets are for sale for $1 in the vestibule gift shop and docents lead tours on an irregular schedule. Visitors are also welcome to attend mass, provided they arrive before the ceremony begins; they take place at 12:05 pm Monday-Friday, 5:00 pm Saturday, and 9:00 am and 11:00 am Sunday. The Cathedral periodically hosts concerts, especially in the month of December, including both religious and secular music. Signs posted by the front doors will announce any upcoming concerts. You can find a full schedule of events, including ceremonies, tours, closures, and performances on their website.
Weddings, baptisms, and other sacraments often take place in St. Louis Cathedral; if you’re interested in holding a Catholic wedding here, you can find the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ guidelines and relevant contact information here.
Speaking of weddings, they often take place in Jackson Square itself as well and come with their own bouquet of local traditions.
Artists, performers, and fortune tellers all play a huge part in Jackson Square’s personality, and each group operates under slightly different rules.
Artists selling in Jackson Square or behind St. Louis Cathedral hold a license from the city that requires them to sell their own work and to sell only originals. These requirements aren’t followed with perfect consistency, but it does mean that more often than not the artist who made the work is right there to speak to you about it and that anything you take home is unique.
Performers, by contrast, aren’t currently regulated by the city except on a few essentials like volume. The community of musicians, magicians, dancers and acrobats who make their living in Jackson Square all work together to share the space, and typically this means you’ll see a constant rotation of acts in the course of the day. Mostly, you’ll find bands in front of the Cabildo and the Presbytere, while non-musical acts mostly happen in front of the Cathedral; occasionally there will be a large acrobatics show or a traveling choir or band in the amphitheater across Decatur Street from Jackson Square as well. Because performers aren’t regulated or compensated by the city, they make their living on what their audiences decide to leave for them.
Local regulation on fortune tellers of any kind does not allow them to charge for their services. The exception is readings that make up part of a religion like voodoo. So voodoo-affiliated establishments like Voodoo Authentica or the Historic Voodoo Museum can offer these services at a fee, while the tarot and palm readers in Jackson Square operate on a pay-what-you-will basis.
Start at the intersection of Chartres and St. Peter Streets, by the Cabildo.
1. Jackson Square
From here, you can see much of the Square – both the stone-paved area outside the fence and the park inside it. At the corner of the park, you can see a cannon. Jackson Square, when New Orleans was founded in 1718, was the Place d’Armes – the military parade grounds and a public square for the city. We’ll see the inside of the park further along.
2. St. Peter Street
Now, look at the corner to see Tableau, a fairly new restaurant just across the street from the Cabildo. Further along St. Peter Street, beyond Tableau, is Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, or the Little Theater of the French Quarter. This theater opened in 1917 inside Jackson Square, then soon relocated to its present site. Le Petit represents the French Quarter’s most Bohemian era, when the neighborhood, after decades of architectural neglect following the Civil War, became a hub for artists and eventually for travelers and preservationists. Until recently, Le Petit had two stages; after Hurricane Katrina, in order to finance necessary repairs to the building, they sold their smaller stage to the Brennan family of restaurateurs who renovated the space and launched Tableau. Shortly beyond Le Petit, on the top floor of 632 St. Peter Street, is one of the several former residences of Tennessee Williams, where the playwright lived when he wrote A Streetcar Named Desire
3. The Cabildo
Opposite Tableau, inside the Square, is the Cabildo. A cabildo is a Spanish city council; this building, standing on the site of city government from founding until 1853, earned the name of the governing body that sat within it. Today, it’s the home of the Louisiana State Museum’s most extensive collection of artifacts on the history of New Orleans.
4. Pirates Alley
From in front of the Cabildo, look just to the right of the building, at the corridor that retreats between the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral. This is Pirates Alley. Formerly, Cabildo Alley, the narrow pedestrian walk was renamed in 1964 to reflect local legends, which make the alley the site of an early 19th-century black market run by the Lafitte pirates.
The Lafittes were two charming brothers whose booming piracy business brought both goods and people for sale to New Orleans. While the Lafittes sold many of the necessities of life, they also prospered on the illegal sale of enslaved Africans. Whether or not the alley was home to one of their markets, the Lafittes certainly kept company with a privileged clientele – such as those who would have worked in the Cabildo and Cathedral – and Jean Lafitte also certainly served a brief sentence in the prison once located along this alley, on the back of the Cabildo. Today, there’s no question that pirates walk the alley, thanks to the pirate-themed bar located halfway along its length – the Pirates Alley Café, a destination for absinthe. Just beyond the café is Faulkner House Books, located in one of the two locations where the novelist William Faulkner lived during his brief one-and-a-half-year stay in New Orleans, during which he wrote his first two novels. Today, you can find an excellent selection of the works of southern writers, new and old, in the bookstore, plus a case of historic local books; the staff are well-read and can help you pick your best introduction to Southern Gothic.
5. St. Anthony’s Garden
Continue until the end of Pirates Alley, then turn right onto Royal Street. Halfway down Pirates Alley on the right, the Cathedral comes to an end, giving way to St. Anthony’s Garden. While the park is not open to the public today, the fence along Pirates Alley, continuing around the corner onto Royal Street, is one of the two places where artists are permitted to display original works, brightening the alley with the intense color palette common in the local art. At night, visitors gather around the back fence of St. Anthony’s Garden to take pictures of the giant shadow cast by a low lamp that shines on the statue of Jesus – a striking figure referred by those familiar with it as “Touchdown Jesus.”
6. Pere Antoine Alley
On Royal Street, take a right into Pere Antoine Alley, the alley flanking St. Anthony’s Garden on the opposite side from Pirates Alley.
Except during the busiest times of the year, Pere Antoine Alley is far quieter than Pirates Alley, home to offices of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The namesake of the alley was a Spanish priest, Fray Antonio de Sedella, sent to New Orleans during the Spanish Inquisition, but viewed fondly by French-speaking parishioners and thus nicknamed Pere Antoine. The alley sees more activity at night when ghost tours pass through telling a number of stories, including the claim that Pere Antoine can sometimes be seen helping to lead mass in the Cathedral today.
7. St. Louis Cathedral
Continue through Pere Antoine Alley back to Jackson Square and take a look at St. Louis Cathedral from the front. As you see it today, the Cathedral dates to 1850. The oldest still-functioning Catholic cathedral in the United States, St. Louis Cathedral is a minor basilica. Above the central doors of the Cathedral, in the left stained glass window, you can see the shape of Don Andres Almonaster y Roxas – the man responsible for rebuilding the Cathedral, Cabildo, and Presbytere after the great fire of 1788. Beginning from a candle on a home altar, the fire spread through 80% of the small, mostly wooden city, destroying about 800 buildings. Don Almonaster paid for and organized the reconstruction of these three buildings, reviving much of the social and political core of the city. Later additions were made to transform these buildings into what we see today; to get a sense of how things looked in Don Almonaster’s time, turn around and look for a plaque on the fence surrounding the park, just to the left of the gate nearest to the Cathedral. (More information will be provided shortly about the changes that led to the current appearance of the Cathedral and its neighbors.)
The Cathedral itself is open to visitors from mid-morning to early evening, as long as there is no ceremony in progress; mass is also held at least once daily and is open for visitors to attend, provided you arrive before the ceremony begins (see the section on the Cathedral in the article above for details).
From here, continue to the Presbytere – the Cathedral’s neighbor to the right, opposite and nearly identical to the Cabildo. The French name presbytère implies a parsonage, and this building was constructed with a priest’s residence in mind; in practice, though, it housed a variety of church and state functions, including a courthouse. Today, the Presbytere, like the Cabildo, is part of the state museum system, housing two long-standing exhibits. The ground floor is focused on Hurricane Katrina, with artifacts, media, and interviews that help to drive home the impact, both immediate and ongoing, of this disaster. The outdoor displays relate to this theme. Inside the ground-level gallery, on the left, you can see a sign paying tribute to the US Coast Guard, whose rescue efforts in 2005 saved 3689 lives along the Gulf Coast. On the right is a small boat of the sort often owned by casual or professional fishermen in south Louisiana, many of which were used in immediate, less organized rescue efforts conducted by neighbors before troops were deployed, and who were also responsible for saving hundreds of lives. The upstairs of the museum covers past and present traditions related to Carnival, the annual season of celebration that culminates in Mardi Gras.
Beyond the Presbytere, across St. Ann Street, is Muriel’s, a Creole restaurant. If you continue a short way along Chartres St. past the door to Muriel’s, you’ll soon see a gate on the left leading into an old carriage corridor. At the end is a single table which the staff daily sets for two as an accommodation to the ghost believed to occupy the building; this corridor, along with the séance lounge in the upstairs of the restaurant, make Muriel’s a particularly popular stop on ghost tours.
10. The Pontalba Buildings and Baroness Pontalba
Turn back and reenter the Square; in front of the Presbytere, look to your left at the long building that runs the full length of the Square. This is the Lower Pontalba, one of the two Pontalba Buildings – its twin on the opposite side of the Square is the Upper Pontalba. They bear the name of their builder, Baroness Pontalba, the New Orleans-born daughter of Don Andres Almonaster y Roxas, the aforementioned builder of the Cabildo, Cathedral, and Presbytere. Born in New Orleans as Micaela Almonaster during her father’s construction project, she married a cousin, moved to France, survived a murder attempt by her father-in-law, and became a baroness before returning home and expanding her father’s buildings to the form you see today. Her Mansard-style additions on the upper floors reflect the fashions of Paris in the 1840s and stand in contrast to her father’s Greek Revival designs in the lower floors. The condition of the Cathedral required that it be almost completely rebuilt – so only part of the front wall remains from her father’s era. Her renovation also transformed the rest of the Square, as she redesigned the park, added the Pontalba Buildings to replace tenements, and commissioned the statue of Andrew Jackson you’ll see later, giving Jackson Square its current name. The cast iron railings on the Pontalba Buildings were the first ever seen in New Orleans, establishing a tradition that remains strong today; a look into the center of the ironwork design will reveal intertwined cursive letters A and P, which stand for Almonaster and Pontalba, her birth surname and her title.
11. 1850 House
The Pontalba Buildings were designed as townhouses, each with a ground-level business space to be operated by the occupant or rented, plus two floors of residence above it, an attic, a courtyard, and a three-story outbuilding behind. Today, they have been split into single-story apartments; however, 1850 House maintains one of the original townhouses as it would have looked around 1850. The Baroness herself lived in a middle unit on the opposite side of the park from 1850 House.
12. Café du Monde and the French Market
Continue in the same direction toward Decatur Street. Across the street, you’ll see the green and white striped awning of Cafe du Monde. The coffee with chicory served at Cafe du Monde and so many other local cafes is a relic of the American Civil War, when New Orleans was cut off from imports and used chicory, the root of the endive plant, to extend the limited supply of coffee. Cafe du Monde has stood at this location since 1862 and has several other locations in Louisiana, but the majority of Cafe du Monde locations are in Japan. Japanese investors opened fourteen locations after taking a shine to the French Quarter original during the 1984 World’s Fair.
Cafe du Monde also represents the beginning of the French Market, which extends down Decatur Street to your left and continues nearly to the end of the French Quarter. In the 18th and 19th centuries and early in the 20th, the French Market provided for all the daily needs of French Quarter residents, but well before that, going back as much as 1000 years, the various Native American groups of the region used the site as a meeting point and trading post. The site was ideal for transport, combining river frontage and high elevation with easy access to a natural land bridge leading out through the wetlands toward Lake Pontchartrain. Contact with the Choctaw Native Americans shaped the early French colony of New Orleans, and the French Quarter’s location is the clearest of these influences today.
From here, turn right along Decatur Street.
13.Washington Artillery Park
Across Decatur Street on your left is Washington Artillery Park. Besides providing a great view of both Jackson Square and the Mississippi River, the park also commemorates the Washington Artillery, a long-standing organization that has been variously a militia, a benevolent society, and a division of the Louisiana National Guard and participated substantially in the American Civil War and in World War I.
Beyond Washington Artillery Park is the Mississippi riverfront – one of the few portions open to pedestrians, as most of the riverfront in the city remains an active commercial port today. The park bordering the French Quarter is called the Moonwalk after Mayor Moon Landrieu, under whom it was constructed.
Across the street from Washington Artillery Park, bordering the fence of Jackson Square is where you’ll most reliably find mule-drawn carriages offering tours of the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods.
14. Jackson Square
When you reach the gate halfway along the fence on your right, enter the park. This is the portion of Jackson Square where it’s easiest to envision the Place d’Armes, the early city’s stark military parade grounds, which also provided a place for public assemblies and executions. Here you can also find a view of the statue of Andrew Jackson.
The statue was erected in 1856, well after Jackson himself placed a cornerstone in 1840. (His name was given to the Square in 1851, six years after his death, during Baroness Pontalba’s renovations.) The choice of General Jackson related not to his presidency, but to his local claim to fame – his leadership as Major General in the Battle of New Orleans, the final battle in the War of 1812. The United States had acquired New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory at great expense just twelve years before and it was a prime target for a British invasion. The city was poorly defended, having only an inexperienced militia and a handful of combat-ready ships, and William C. C. Claiborne, the much-resented first American governor of Louisiana, was hard-pressed to bridge differences and muster a strong defense. General Jackson was credited with unifying Creole, and American locals, militiamen from other parts of the United States, the nation’s first battalion of free people of color, local Native Americans, and even the Lafitte brothers, the famous and influential pirates, into an effective patchwork fighting force. Besides this, tactical missteps on the part of the British, who were unfamiliar with the marshy terrain and the best ways to navigate it, assured a surprising and lopsided victory, with British casualties around 2000 and American casualties under 100. News later came that the peace treaty had already been signed, placing the Battle of New Orleans outside the boundaries of the war, but the battle nonetheless assured General Jackson’s reputation as a war hero and helped secure his later presidency.
The position of the horse – rearing up on two legs – does not indicate, as it is said to in other statues, that General Jackson died in battle. Its sculptor, Clark Mills, was praised for keeping 20,000 pounds of bronze balanced on the two small hooves – the first time this was accomplished. This is one of four copies; you can see the original on the White House grounds in Washington, DC.
The caption on the pedestal – “The Union must and shall be preserved” – paraphrases Jackson’s words spoken in 1830 in response to South Carolina threatening to secede from the Union. It was added in 1861 when New Orleans was occupied during the American Civil War.
The large trees that shade the edges of the park are Southern Live Oaks.
Both St. Louis Cathedral and the park in Jackson Square are popular sites for local and destination weddings, and there’s always a chance you might run across a wedding (or a wedding photo shoot, or maybe a proposal!) while strolling through the Square, especially in the spring or fall. Local weddings are hard to miss – they tend to end in a second line, a police-escorted, brass-band-led foot parade where the celebrants wave handkerchiefs and decorated umbrellas as they dance their way to the reception site.
While the Cathedral hosts religious ceremonies managed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Jackson Square is city property and sees weddings led by both ministers and city officials. City policy keeps the park open to the public during wedding ceremonies, which limits the size of events held here. To hold a wedding in the Square, you can find rates, guidelines, and contact information here: https://www.nola.gov/parks-and-parkways/event-rules-regulations/weddings-in-jackson-square/
In addition to all of the fun activities you can enjoy at any time of the year, Jackson Square also plays host to several notable events during holidays and celebrations. Some of these activities are entirely free, but others will require a ticket for admission. We recommend arriving early for each activity in order to get a good spot.
Horse-Drawn Carriage Parade
This activity is part of the Spring Fiesta Festival. After the “Night in Old New Orleans” parade, the Spring Fiesta Queen and her court hold a presentation in Jackson Square. If you want to take part in the celebration, head to the square when they hold this event in March. Check out our full post on things to do in March.
French Quarter Festival
This popular celebration of the French Quarter takes place in April, showcasing music from New Orleans and around the world. Although there are a lot of different musical acts on display during this festival, one of the main music stages can be found at Jackson Square! This is the largest free music event in the United States, and it’s an excellent opportunity to hear some wonderful live performances.
What began in 2001 as a one-time celebration of Louis Armstrong has become a popular yearly music festival. In addition to various seminars and exhibits, you’ll also have the opportunity to hear a lot of wonderful Jazz music. The Satchmo Summerfest is usually held during either the last weekend of July or the first weekend of August. Although this event is not free, tickets are only $5 per day.
Caroling in Jackson Square
Who doesn’t love singing Christmas carols? If you’re feeling the holiday spirit, you can join in with a large group of festive carolers in Jackson Square approximately one week before Christmas. This event is entirely free, and you can learn more by visiting our post about things to do in December in New Orleans.
Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve
Although the bulk of this show takes place in New York City, they have since expanded the show to New Orleans. The main event takes place at Jackson Square, where Ryan Seacrest and other celebrities celebrate the new year by counting down to midnight. Admission is free and you’re welcome to take part in the festivities. Check out our post on things to do in December in New Orleans for more information.
The Cats of Jackson Square
Although this isn’t specifically a seasonal activity, it’s certainly fun and free to visit Jackson Square after dark and see all of the cats that gather here. If you’re looking for something fun to do during the Halloween season, you could try and find a black cat wandering around the square and spend some time with them. For more information, check out our post about things to do at night in New Orleans.