With a little planning, those heading to French Quarter Festival (April 7-10, 2016) can make the most of an incredible, only-in-New Orleans experience.
Over the course of four days, thousands of musicians will perform on 23 separate stages across the French Quarter and the Mississippi Riverfront; more than 60 food vendors will also be on site serving some of the best, most mouth-watering New Orleans cuisine. Simply put, you’re not going to want to miss this free festival.
As a lifelong New Orleanian with years of festival-going behind me, I’ve put together this guide so that you, too, can experience French Quarter Fest like a seasoned pro.
What to Bring
It’s best to pack a light day bag with the essentials: sunscreen, a hat, and a handkerchief or towel are necessities – it’s almost always sunny and can get a little hot and humid. Be sure to wear loose, comfortable clothing, and bring your dancing shoes, or at least ones you don’t mind walking around in. FQF covers a lot of ground in the French Quarter, so you’ll be walking and standing for long stretches.
Optional gear to consider includes wet wipes and napkins, koozies, a small umbrella or poncho, and a fold-up festival chair. Also bring cash for festival food and drinks (there are ATMs throughout).
Getting Around the Fest
The best way to get around is on foot. The festival snarls traffic in the Quarter, so cabs and rideshare cars are pretty much out of the question. If you have the time, you could take a pedicab to crisscross from one end of the French Quarter to the other.
Consider your starting place and work logically from there so you can leisurely hop from one stage to the next without backtracking paths too often. I almost always start my festival day at Jackson Square, taking in some traditional New Orleans jazz and a po-boy (usually the Vaucresson crawfish sausage po-boy or the Bourbon House barbecue shrimp stuffed po-boy. Or both!).
The French Quarter and Woldenberg Park are the perfect backdrops to enjoy the best New Orleans has to offer, so don’t forget to saunter through lush, springtime scenery within the city’s most historic neighborhood.
Walking through the festival, you’ll be surrounded by music at nearly every corner. Jackson Square art vendors, street musicians and small boutiques and galleries create the fabric of the neighborhood, whether during the fest or any other time of year.
Eating and Drinking
French Quarter Fest is as much a food festival as it is a music festival, so plan to indulge! Check out the list of FQF vendors, made up of great New Orleans restaurants, and plan what to eat while you’re visiting a particular stage – send members of your group out to different food booths nearby to get something different, then reconvene and share.
Nosh on traditional New Orleans staples like fried seafood, cochon de lait po-boys, jambalaya, meat pies, and Plum Street Snoballs to keep you cool. If a restaurant has a specialty, “gotta have it” dish, chances are it’s at the festival.
Outside food and beverages are not allowed at festival venues, but there’s no shortage of vendors selling everything from soda and water to local beer, cocktails, wine, and daiquiris. Tips from festival beverage booths directly support the musicians who play the festival, so keep that in mind. It’s too big of a festival for each band to pass the hat!
Hydrate, folks! Be sure to drink plenty of water, not only to wash down all that delicious food, but also to keep your energy up for walking and impromptu dancing when the spirit (and the beat) moves you.
Best of the Fest
There’s almost too much to see at French Quarter Fest – don’t feel like you need to do it all, because you can’t!
My advice is, if you have a particular band you want to see, stop and enjoy their set. Or, stay in one spot and enjoy all the acts on one particular stage. For reference, I generally move around after a few songs, as there’s always more food to be eaten and other music I want to hear. The journey (and sounds) while getting to the next place is all a part of the French Quarter Fest experience.
Here’s what I never miss at French Quarter Fest: exploring the smaller music stages. I love the traditional jazz at the Royal Street or Bourbon Street stages on Saturday or Sunday; the musicians from around the world who play the International Stage at Dutch Alley in the French Market; and I never miss the swing dancing and hot jazz at the French Market Traditional Jazz Stage. The two stages at the Old U.S. Mint always have some of the most interesting, diverse music programming; the Mint is also where you go for boiled crawfish (and other tasty eats) during the festival.
Enjoy the people-watching at Jackson Square, two-step at the Chevron Cajun/Zydeco Showcase stage, and take in a magical New Orleans sunset from any of the stages in Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River. While getting to and from stages, you can experience hidden gems along the way: classical music programming at St. Mary’s Assumption Church in the Old Ursuline Convent, gorgeous courtyard jazz at the Historic New Orleans Collection, and music in the Voodoo Garden at the House of Blues are all worth exploring.
Beyond the outdoor music stages, there are indoor special events like the free film festival of Louisiana-centric music and cultural documentaries at Le Petit Theatre and fascinating interviews and panel discussions with musicians like Ellis Marsalis or Irma Thomas inside the Louisiana State Museum at the Old U.S. Mint. Kids’ programming, including crafts and a photo booth happen at the Hermann Grima Historic House on St. Louis Street, and a STEAM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Math) themed family area at the Natchez Wharf in Woldenberg Park. Both kids areas are open Friday to Sunday.
Additional special events this year include a juried art show in Pirate’s Alley on Saturday and Sunday, free swing dance lessons Friday through Sunday at the French Market, a Battle of the Bands with traditional jazz bands on Royal Street Saturday evening, dancing at dusk on Royal Street and a choir concert at St. Louis Cathedral on Sunday evening, or start your Fest off right with a second line on Thursday morning in Jackson Square to kick off another year of this incredible free festival.
Whatever your plan is for French Quarter Fest, stop and appreciate the abundance of talent and the springtime beauty around you. There’s no other festival quite like this one, and it could only happen here in New Orleans.
Photos by Paul Broussard