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Insider’s Guide to New Orleans French Quarter Festival

Tackle French Quarter Fest like a seasoned pro with this insider’s guide to music, food, stages, and more.

Add the swing dance lessons (with live hot jazz) daily in the French Market during French Quarter Fest to your "must see" list. And bring your dancing shoes and join in the fun! (Photo: Paul Broussard)

With a little planning, those heading to 34th Annual French Quarter Festival (April 6-9 with music from about 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.) can make the most of an incredible, only-in-New Orleans experience.

The Mississippi River provides a gorgeous backdrop along Woldenberg Riverfront Park and its several stages during French Quarter Fest.

Over the course of four days, more than 1,700 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 lifelong New Orleanians with years of festival-going behind us, we’ve put together this guide so that you, too, can experience French Quarter Fest like a seasoned pro.

New Orleans French Quarter Fest Insider’s Guide

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).

Jackson Square is one of 23 stages at French Quarter Fest, which features more than 1,700 musicians and 300 performances over four days, plus incredible food and art at every turn.

Getting around

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. We almost always start 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.

A mouth-watering Bourbon barbecue shrimp stuffed po-boy from Bourbon House.

Eat and drink

French Quarter Fest is as much a food festival as it is a music festival, so plan to indulge! There are going to be three more vendors and more than 20 new dishes. The new vendors include 14 Parishes Jamaican Restaurant, Bratz Y’all Bistro and Biergarten and Gattuso’s Neighborhood Bar and Restaurant. Check out the list of FQF vendors, 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. After a lot of beefing, Tujaque’s is bringing back its brisket this year.  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!

The quintessential New Orleans festival accessory: A Walker’s/Love At First Bite Cochon de Lait Po-boy! (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Stay cool

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!

Check out the Esplanade in the Shade or the Barracks Street Brass Band Jam Stages at the Old U.S. Mint a lot — it’s got the Rouse’s Boiled Crawfish set up among a lot of other delicious food vendors, and two of the funkiest, most fun stages of music in one (shady) spot.

Aaron Neville will make his French Quarter Fest debut this year and many of your favorites will be back, including Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis, the Dixie Cups, Jeremy Davenport and Big Sam’s Funky Nation. Guitarist Tony Green, who also painted the Festival’s official poster, will be performing with his gypsy jazz trio. There will be around twenty new acts as well, including Tonya Boyd-Cannon from “The Voice.” Check out the complete line up.

Here’s what else is new: The Jack Daniel’s Stage will move from Bourbon Street to the Jax Brewery area, and a new stage will also be built at 721 St. Phillip Street. Our 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. We generally move around after a few songs, as there’s always more food to be eaten and other music we want to hear. The journey (and sounds) while getting to the next place is all a part of the French Quarter Fest experience.

Add daily swing dance lessons (with live hot jazz) in the French Market to your must-see list during French Quarter Fest. And perhaps your must-do list, too!

Here’s what we never miss at French Quarter Fest: Exploring the smaller music stages. We love the traditional jazz at the Royal Street or Bourbon Street stages; the musicians from around the world who play the International Stage at Dutch Alley in the French Market; and we 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.

The Esplanade in the Shade stage at the Old U.S. Mint is the place to go for boiled crawfish.

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, the gorgeous courtyard 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 to take in like A Centennial Celebration of Ella, part of the Let Them Talk: Conversations on Louisiana Music series at the Old U.S. Mint. This year, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Ella Fitzgerald, whose 1950s duets with New Orleans’ own Louis Armstrong in the 1950s are some of the finest music ever recorded. There will also be a special Tribute to Pete Fountain who passed away in 2016. Come hear those close to him discuss this legendary musician. His personality and liquorice stick will be missed by all this year. And Irma Thomas will also be discussing her career. Find out what it’s like to be the Soul Queen of New Orleans.

The steamboat Natchez passes (and docks) in front of the Abita Beer Stage in Woldenberg Park.

You can also get a break from the heat at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré where they’ll be showing  nine films as part of the Whitney Film Festival. We especially want to catch Brother David, about Louisiana songwriter guru David Egan, who died in March of 2016.

French Quarter Fest is also a must for kids. Head for the Chevron “STEAM” Zone (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) where you can take in hermit crab racing, test robots, play with water engineering sets and more. There will also be special performances for kids and families on the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park Stage, as well as Children’s Museum activities at the Hermann-Grima House

The Pres Hall Brass Band plays the Jackson Square stage at French Quarter Fest

There’s no one way to do French Quarter Festival, but, whatever you do, don’t miss the Second-Line Kick-off Parade featuring the Mahogany Brass Band on Thursday morning starting on Iberville and Bourbon Street and ending in Jackson Square. It’s a great way to begin another year of this incredible free festival. If you can’t make it, it’s not too soon to put next year’s fest on your calendar. Block off April 12-15, 2018.

Photos by Paul Broussard