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NOLA History: Rue Bourbon Through the Years

Visitors and locals alike think of Rue Bourbon as the focal point of the good times New Orleans is so famous for, but Bourbon Street wasn’t always so rowdy in the past. When Lafcadio Hearn wrote about the city and its Creole population in the 1880s, he lived in a room in this building at 516 Rue Bourbon. Being four blocks up from the river, Bourbon was more residential in the late 1800s than it is today.

This sketch (below) from 1871 depicts a Rue Bourbon that is closer to Hearn’s than the modern conglomeration of restaurants, nightclubs, strip joints, t-shirt shops, and private homes that is “the street” today. Perhaps Lafcadio knew this women or her family, or the family she worked for.  Waud’s drawing gives us a peek into the hidden world of Rue Bourbon and the French Quarter, the courtyards behind the two- and three-story facades facing the street.  Even though we call the city’s first neighborhood the “French” Quarter, strictly speaking, most of it is Spanish.  In 1788, a huge fire burned down 80% of the buildings in the city.  Louisiana was owned by the Spanish at the time, given to them by the French to avoid the territory from falling under the control of the chaos of the French Revolution.  The Spanish re-built the city in their style.

The photo above shows a beautiful courtyard in a residence on Bourbon St. Note the gallery on the second floor of the residence.  From the street, these buildings look like ordinary apartment buildings.  These homes don’t reveal their true beauty to those gawking at the t-shirts or rocking to the live music blaring into the street.  A drink at Pat O’Brien’s, or dinner at one of many restaurants in the Quarter gives the visitor an opportunity to experience a Spanish courtyard such as this.

With traffic on Rue Royal running inbound to Canal Street one block down, traffic on Rue Bourbon ran outbound, down the river towards Esplanade Avenue. This Dorothy Violet Gulledge photo shows a streetcar on the Desire line heading down Bourbon, towards the line’s namesake street in the Ninth Ward. The Desire line primarily serviced the residential side of the Quarter. The streetcars were replaced by buses in 1948.  While the buses may not have been as romantic as the clanking of the Perley Thomas streetcars (the same model that now runs on the St. Charles line), they still provided an important service, transporting commuters from the Marigny, Bywater, and Lower Ninth to Canal Street and the Central Business District (CBD).

All traces of the streetcars immortalized by Tennessee Williams vanished by the time of this 1952 photo of Bourbon and Bienville Streets.  The residential character of Rue Bourbon had vanished long before the streetcars, as restaurants, nightclubs, and bars began moving onto the street.  When the “Storyville” district was disbanded in the 1920s, New Orleanians still craved for the Jazz that musicians played nightly in the living rooms of the famed district’s brothels.  Burlesque clubs began to pop up on Bourbon, continuing the merger of sex, music, and celebration that is New Orleans Jazz.

For all that Rue Bourbon was/is notorious for burlesque and jazz, a number of popular restaurants line the street, from Galatoire’s in the 200 block to Clover Grill in the 800 block. In the photo above, you can see “Brennan’s Vieux Carre Restaurant,” Owen Brennan’s first place in the Quarter. He subsequently re-located the restaurant one street over, at 417 Rue Royal, giving us the world-famous Brennan’s and its lovely courtyard.

“Madame Francines” club was located at 440 Rue Bourbon. You can see the posters of scantily-clad dancers used to lure in passers-by in this 1962 Franck Studios photo. The location is still a live music venue called Fat Catz Music Club. The lady waiting for the bus at the corner of Conti and Bourbon is oblivious to the “charm” of the establishment, clearly more interested in getting to her destination (and probably out of the springtime sun).

Rue Bourbon as we know it today began to take shape in the 1970s, when the City decided to convert Royal Street into a pedestrian mall by day and turn Bourbon Street into a pedestrian mall by night. After rush hour traffic subsides, Rue Royal becomes an open-air shopping mall, from 11am until late afternoon. Bourbon Street is blocked off at 7pm, after the outbound traffic has fled the CBD. Of course, food, drink, and music can be had throughout the day on Rue Bourbon; just like in the photo from the 1950s, however, pedestrians have to compete with delivery trucks and other vehicles to appreciate it.

Bourbon Street, along with most of the lower French Quarter is periodically closed to all vehicular traffic for big events such as Mardi Gras, the Bayou Classic, and New Year’s Eve.

When you walk down Rue Bourbon on a balmy summer evening, revel not only in the music and excitement of the moment, but stop and think about the greats of the past, Satchmo, Danny Barker, Sharky Bonano, and the great Al Hirt.  As Trombone Shorty tells Antoine Batiste on HBO’s TV series, “Treme,” “there’s pride on Bourbon Street!”

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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