Hidden French Quarter: The Atlas Obscura Guide to the - Atlas Obscura

The Atlas Obscura Guide to the
Hidden French Quarter

It may be famous for Mardi Gras, but New Orleans has subtle, surprising wonders on tap all year long—even in the touristy French Quarter. Around every cobblestoned corner, you’ll find historic ephemera, bits of Creole culture, environmentalism, and no shortage of spooky stories, whenever you happen to visit.

The Hermann-Grima house has a long history—and it's still being unearthed. Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses
Memorable Mansion

1. Hermann-Grima House

If you fancy checking out one of the earliest examples of American architecture built in the French Quarter, stop by the Hermann-Grima House. This 6,000-square-foot Federal-style home—short and wide and perfectly symmetrical—looks almost just as it did when it was built in the 1830s and belonged to Creole families of European ancestry. Look closely, though, and you’ll find the contributions of free people of color hiding in plain sight.

Historians are pretty sure that some handsome artisan work, like the carved frieze above the dining room, was made by non-Europeans, and have confirmed that a free woman of color named Julie Bois owned and tended to this area before the Hermann family acquired it from her. To revise the principally white narrative about the history of the site, work is underway to resurface the stories of people of color who lived around the courtyard. Researchers recently conducted seven archaeological digs near the original hearth, beehive oven, and 19th-century cistern, and found a trove of pottery sherds.

820 St Louis St, New Orleans, LA 70112

Playing Dress Up

2. Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture

The annual Mardi Gras festivities are a hallmark of New Orleans life, infamous for vibrant floats and colorful costumes. Some of these, including a menagerie of feathered headpieces and heavily-sequined bodices, are on display at the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture. Visitors also learn about the history of famous Mardi Gras “krewes,” groups of people who travel together by float and are united by their costume choices. If you’re itching to get in on the action, pop into the museum’s “dressing room” to try on vintage costumes for your own personal Mardi Gras parade—any time of the year.

1010 Conti St, New Orleans, LA 70112

The park features musicians, both living and bronzed. Andriy Blokhin/Alamy
Sculptural Sax

3. Musical Legends Park

This tree-lined space tucked between the rowdy bars of Bourbon Street offers a nice respite from the surrounding debauchery. The park boasts life-size bronze statues of local jazz legends including Fats Domino and Pete Fountain, and a stage where live acts play under the stars. Next to the stage, look for the giant, brightly colored saxophone statue. It's a recent gift from Belgium, where the inventor and musician Adolphe Sax first fashioned the instrument in the 1840s.

311 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70130

Immigrant History

4. Irish Cultural Museum

Scores of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine docked in New Orleans in the mid-19th century, and this quaint museum, which sits in a classic French Quarter courtyard, tells their stories. Since Catholicism was already established in New Orleans, thanks to the Spanish and French rule, Irish Catholics were more welcomed here than in some predominantly Protestant parts of the country. This museum has loads of books on the history and traditions of Irish people in Louisiana, such as the annual ritual of throwing groceries from St. Patrick’s Day floats to feed the poor. As you wander the courtyard, be sure to look down: The streets are paved with ballast stones, which were historically used to balance the ships taking goods back and forth between America and Europe. When you’ve finished exploring, duck into the museum’s bar and coffeehouse, just across the courtyard, to refuel. (Unsurprisingly, they make a mean Irish coffee.)

933 Conti St, New Orleans, LA 70112

The wall is plastered with business cards and photographs. Sylvia Pitcher Photolibrary/Alamy
Outlawed Libations

5. Old Absinthe House

Absinthe once played an outsized role in French Quarter society. Pharmacists and physicians tried to use this anise-flavored spirit to prevent malaria and other maladies, and its high alcohol content (up to 75 percent alcohol by volume) made it a mainstay in bars, too. With this in mind, Cayetano Ferrer, a mixologist from Catalonia, opened up a bar called The Absinthe Room in this exact location in 1874, and began serving absinthe-based drinks in the classic Parisian style: placing a sugar cube atop a slotted spoon, and then pouring water on top until it drained into the absinthe-filled glass. 

To dodge the strictures of Prohibition, the barkeeps temporarily moved to incognito digs in a warehouse elsewhere on Bourbon Street. Because the old location flew under the radar, it was spared. As a result, the wood paneling from the bar counter is still in place, as are the two marble fountains that held water for cocktails. Other artifacts from the past abound at an exclusive upstairs space, too, where you’ll find a 19th-century ledger book, signed by each person who patronized the haunt—which is also one of a few sites that lay claim to the legend about being the place where Andrew Jackson and the pirate Jean Lafitte met to hash out a plan for defending the city during the War of 1812.

240 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70112

The collection is part museum, part research center. Historic New Orleans Collection
Amazing Archive

6. The Historic New Orleans Collection

In a past life, this well-maintained building, which dates to 1792, was a map shop. Today, it houses a collection that charts different eras of the city’s history, featuring everything from Louisiana’s first constitution, written in 1812, to an antique refectory table, the oldest piece of furniture known to have been made in the state. History buffs should also head across the road to the Williams Research Center, a related offshoot. Free and open to the public, the archive holds over 30,000 items, including documents detailing life along the Mississippi River and rare drawings and prints of the Gulf South.

533 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130

The museum is packed with tinctures and more. Traveling Newlyweds/New Orleans & Co.
Historic Apothecary

7. New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Before you enter the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, in the 1823 home and shop of Louis Dufilho Jr., said to America’s first licensed pharmacist, stop at the window. There, you’ll see hanging glass globes filled with colorful liquids. The hues once served as visual keys warning passersby about illnesses that plagued the city, such as yellow fever and cholera. Inside, you’ll travel back to an era when ailments were treated with everything from voodoo love potions to heroin-laced tinctures. Pore over old syringes, gold-coated pills (status symbols that proved to be medically worthless), and a stack of Dufilho’s handwritten prescriptions behind the vintage cash register. Upstairs, peek inside an old treatment room and learn how quinine was prescribed for everything from fainting spells to gonorrhea. Don’t miss the birthing chair in the midwifery and obstetrics collection, or the bottles heralding absinthe as a cure for anything that ails you, from tooth pain to insomnia.

514 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130

The corridors are full of wonders. M.S. Rau Antiques
Tucked-Away Treasures

8. Hidden Room at M.S. Rau Antiques

M.S. Rau Antiques, which has been peddling wares for 107 years, holds some truly enviable goods. There’s Pope Paul VI’s bejeweled ring, a billiards table with wood carvings illustrating the history of Australia, a coffee pot created by silversmith Paul Revere (yes, that Paul Revere) in 1775, and a German violano instrument—an ultra-rare hybrid of a violin and a piano. Behind that unusual mash-up, you’ll find a secret door, painted to look like a bookcase. This passageway, which can only be opened by an employee, is a portal to a whole other wing filled with fine art. There, you'll find original Norman Rockwell illustrations and Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s painting, The Alchemist, made around 1600. (It's a twist on an etching by his dad, Pieter Brueghel the Elder.) 

630 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130

The Cabildo is on the left—and your next stop, St. Louis Cathedral, is its neighbor. age fotostock / Alamy
Awesome Artifacts

9. Deathly Delights at the Cabildo

Continue along the same street, and you’ll find yourself at the Cabildo. The stately Spanish Colonial building sits among a row of museums bordered by old cobblestone streets. This one, in particular, warrants a stop because it considers both the past and present. The Louisiana Purchase was signed inside; now, it houses a host of artifacts that speak to the legacy of the French Quarter through fashion, music, architecture, and more. Don’t miss Napoleon’s death mask tucked away on the second floor. The Cabildo holds one of only a handful of genuine bronze masks of Napoleon in the world. Given Napoleon's involvement in the sale of Louisiana to the United States, it’s not surprising that one of his postmortem molds found a final resting place here.

701 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130

The shell-shaped soundboard once helped sermons travel through the church. Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images
Dreamy Details

10. Scallop Shell Soundboard at the St. Louis Cathedral

Your next stop is directly next door. Though the exterior of America’s oldest continuously-operating cathedral is impressively tall, its facade is not particularly striking—the building blends into the cream-colored facades of the two state museums flanking it. It hasn't always been this way. When the church went up in 1718, it was a shaky wooden structure; in 1727, it was outfitted with brick and timber for greater support. When the Great New Orleans Fire destroyed this iteration in 1788, a new version was built yet again—this time, with new additions including a clock tower and bell. The cathedral we see today is a modernized and enlarged version of this last major rebuilding effort. Still, a curious 18th-century architectural element is preserved inside.

The wooden, shell-shaped soundboard above the pulpit was originally built with acoustics in mind: Its curved shape helped carry the minister’s voice all the way to the back pews. Today, microphones do most of the work, and the pulpit is a pretty relic that evokes the scallop shell's importance to Christian pilgrims. Meanwhile, the decorative stained glass windows and murals that surround it—with original French inscriptions—are just as beautiful.

615 Pere Antoine Alley, New Orleans, LA 70116

The Presbytère contains Mardi Gras exhibits in addition to relics from the devastating storms. dbimages/Alamy
Environmental Education

11. Personal Histories at the Presbytère

Just a few steps away, you’ll find this unassuming building with a storied past. Formerly a home for monks, then a courthouse, these days it’s a museum largely dedicated to the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina and the long process of picking up the pieces. Unique exhibits depict residents’ personal, profound pain. Don’t miss the relocated walls from the B.W. Cooper public housing complex in the 2nd Ward, on which New Orleans local Tommie Elton Mabry scribbled his thoughts and worries in black Sharpie as the storm bore down on the city. He continued to track the impact for weeks afterwards, and before the development was torn down in 2008, the Louisiana State Museum carefully removed the paint from those walls, and affixed Mabry’s musings on new ones in the permanent Katrina exhibit. Here, Louisiana’s complicated and paradoxical relationship with water—great for ports, but sometimes dangerous for residents—is palpable.

The Cabildo and Presbytère, along with two other nearby museums, are all connected under the Louisiana State Museum system. You can get a discount if you tell the clerk that you plan on visiting more than one.

751 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70116

The room is sumptuous and more than a little spooky. Mario Tama/Getty Images
Ghostly Greetings

12. The Séance Room at Muriel's Jackson Square

At the top of this French Quarter restaurant’s dark and winding staircase, you’ll find a hidden “séance room.” Shrouded in lush, blood-red fabrics and often rented out for spooky private parties, this nook is a departure from the bustling streets and eatery below. The séance room is rumored to host the ghost of the property’s former owner, Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who died by suicide in 1814 on the home’s second floor—where the séance lounge is today—after losing big in a poker game. His spirit is said to visit in the form of flashes of light. Muriel’s makes a show out of ushering brave visitors up to this sort-of-secret lair. Dine here to feast on duck breast jambalaya and shrimp Creole—with a side of purported paranormal activity.

801 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70116

The museum is full of artifacts used in rituals. dbimages/Alamy
Amazing Altars

13. New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

This small, mystical museum was founded in 1972 by Charles Massicot Gandolfo, a local artist with a passion for all things voodoo. Within, you’ll find several altars flooded with pictures, money, and other personal items visitors have left behind as offerings, as well as African and Caribbean masks used during rituals. Some visitors use the museum as a space to seek counsel, as well. No New Orleans voodoo museum could avoid paying homage to the French Quarter’s definitive, departed Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, whose tomb is nearby. (Her daughter, Marie Laveau II, carried on the family priestess tradition, too.) 

724 Dumaine St, New Orleans, LA 70116

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Jim Dickerman's sculptures are magical and a little brain-scrambling.

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The Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue has a past full of stories and struggles.

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Flat ground, big skies, huge cows.

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An architectural pilgrimage.

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On the Run: NYC

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The Blythe Intaglios are as mysterious as they are massive.

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One of Houston's four giant concrete Beatles.

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Honestly, the tallest building in the state is still a little dinky, compared to skyscrapers elsewhere.

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Forbidden Caverns, ready for its closeup.

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Watch out for any chimp-gator hybrids lurking in the tea-colored water of Honey Island Swamp.

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Diego Rivera's mural sprawls across a light-flooded room in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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Who doesn't love an old tree?

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At Glacier Gardens, the tree canopies are flowers in bloom.

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Workers assess the exterior of the Washington Monument after an earthquake in 2011.

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2 Perfect Days in Pensacola

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Taste of Tucson

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North Iceland’s Untamed Coast

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Look closely and wander widely: Parliament Square is full of charm.

Hidden Edinburgh

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Hidden Haight-Ashbury

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The Many Flavors of NYC’s Five Boroughs

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The RV/MH Hall of Fame.

Motown to Music City Road Trip

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The East Texas Bayou.

Gulf Coast Road Trip

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Coachella Valley Preserve.

Hidden Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley and its environs boom in the spring, when tens of thousands of music lovers flock to catch their favorite artists perform in front of a dramatic, mountainous backdrop. But this region stays wonderfully weird all year long. If the festival drew you to the area and you only have a day to explore, choose a direction: Either head north, toward Joshua Tree and Landers, or southeast to the Salton Sea and nearby oases for a blissful respite. If you can spare a couple of days, lucky you—go forth and see it all.

A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

Highland Park

Los Angeles’ Highland Park is a diverse, eclectic neighborhood that Native Americans and Latinx communities have inhabited for centuries. Celebrated for its history, art scene, ethnic diversity, and cuisine, Highland Park is filled with surprising delights that more and more people are discovering every day. Exploring the neighborhood's nooks and crannies is one of the most rewarding ways to spend a day in L.A.

The heart of Venice.


Once referred to as “The Coney Island of the Pacific,” L.A.’s beachfront neighborhood of Venice has long been a popular tourist destination. Its colorful characters, quirky architecture, and carnivalesque atmosphere are well-known the world over. But take a moment to look past the kitsch, and you’ll discover a place where artistic ingenuity thrives more than a century after Abbot Kinney endeavored to bring a grandiose version of Venice to America. The bohemian beehive has always attracted artists and performers, and everyone is welcome to enjoy the show.

Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

L.A.’s Downtown Arts District

The 1970s brought a wave of artists into this former industrial area in Downtown Los Angeles. They sparked a fuse of creative imagination that burned for years. Up-and-coming creators took advantage of the then-low rents and built a foundation for the creative mecca that exists here today. In its infancy, L.A.’s Downtown Arts District came to life behind-the-scenes, with artists mostly working in closed studios. Today, the art has spilled onto the streets in the form of colorful murals, attractive gallery spaces, and stylish storefronts. But the curious explorer can still find literal and figurative traces of the ‘70s. In addition to the more historic spots that remain, a creative, entrepreneurial spirit abounds.

The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

Few cities on Earth are as well-trodden as New York–but as any intrepid traveler knows, the more you explore a place, the more wonders you find. You may not be able to discover all of these spots in a single trip, but that could be a good thing. No matter how many times you return, the city that never sleeps never ceases to surprise. Visit NYCGo to uncover more of the city’s secret spots.

Plenty of sweet treats are on offer at Pastelería Ideal

Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

A subway entrance in Times Square.

Hidden Times Square

There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

Upper Hoh Road, Olympic National Park, Oregon.

Summer Radio Road-Trip

Follow along on our 2,200-mile adventure with NPR's 'All Things Considered.'



Forge your own path in this tourist magnet, toward places that are less crowded but no less wondrous.


Buenos Aires

Find faded grandeur and vibrant street life in Argentina's largest city.



Just when you thought you knew the Windy City, it finds new ways to surprise you.



Find secret vistas, labyrinthine bookstores, and eclectic public art.

The dome of Estrela Basilica in Lisbon.


In the homeland of explorers, your best bet is to keep looking.



Go beyond the beaches in the continental United States’ only truly tropical city.



New York City's most diverse borough is also its most rewarding.


San Diego

Southern California's second city holds plenty of sparkling secrets.



Find surprises around every corner in a U.S. city that embraces history like no other.