A Day in the French Quarter: Beignets, A Mint & Street Artists
After wandering the streets and taking in the colorful old buildings that make up the French Quarter of New Orleans, the next thing to do was of course eat.
There isn’t a book or a list of what to do in the area out there that doesn’t include Cafe du Monde and so that was one of the first places we headed bright and early in the morning.
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The cafe is open 24 hours a day, but if you go anytime between about 9AM and 5PM, expect a wait. The first day we meandered by the place around 11 and the tables were full with a line waiting. Here’s a helpful hint though that we learned from some locals: don’t wait in the line! Tourists make a line assuming someone will seat them when there is an open table, but there is no one to do that. You seat yourself as soon as you see a table available. If there’s a line and you notice that the people ahead of you are just gabbing and obviously unaware that they should seat themselves, well just walk around them and sit down. They might think it’s rude, but you’ll look like a local or at least someone that knows what they’re doing.
Cafe du Monde originally opened in 1862 in the French Market and has been serving beignets or square French donuts covered with a few big spoonfuls of powdered sugar since then and that is the extent of the food on the menu. We ate our beignets around 8 in the morning and I have to admit, they were far too sweet for me that early. The coffee offset them nicely, but I still needed some more savory dishes just an hour later to feel like I’d eaten breakfast. If you’re not a sweet eater in the morning, I’d say that Cafe du Monde might be better for dessert later in the day though they were very delicious and perfectly soft and chewy.
Just kitty-corner to Cafe du Monde is Jackson Square. That early in the morning nothing much was happening and the usual artists, palm readers and tarot card readers that squat in the vicinity of the park were just setting up for the day. Early New Orleans was centered around this park that was originally called Place d’Armes and changed to Jackson Square in 1815 after the victory of the US in the Battle of New Orleans. There is a statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback in the center of the square that was erected in 1856 to commemorate the victory of Jackson during the battle.
If you’re heading to New Orleans, check out Ace Hotel New Orleans for a rustic urban hotel in the heart of the French Quarter for a simple yet chic stay with all of the amenities. The Hotel Le Marais also offers very chic ambiance in a great location or if you want something with more old world charm and history, check out The Magnolia Mansion.
On the north side of the park sits the majestic St. Louis Cathedral and to its left, the Cabildo, or old city hall where the Louisiana Purchase was signed. Now the buildings surrounding the cathedral are museums that welcome visitors to learn more about the area and its history. If you visit the area a bit later than we did, you’ll find musicians, artists selling their works and artists doing caricatures as well as those that wish to tell you your future. This is a hot spot to just sit and enjoy the scenes that happen around you in the center of the gorgeous French Quarter. The architecture is stunning and the locals that set up shop are fun and interesting to talk with and learn from.
If you head back to Cafe du Monde and continue to walk east through the French Market at the end you’ll come to a former United States Mint. The current building that is standing there was erected in 1835 and was designed by architect William Strickland. From 1838 until 1861, the mint was used to by the US Federal government to mint coins, but in 1861 Louisiana seceded from the Union and the Confederate Army used the mint to make Confederate currency for a time. After the Civil War, the mint once again resumed minting US money until it was closed in 1909. The mint produced over 427 million gold and silver coins and if you spot one of the coins minted here, you should hold on to it! After that the building was used as a variety of things including a federal prison, a storage facility for the US Coast Guard and since 1981 it has been a museum.
It is the oldest structure that served as a US Mint that survives in the country and though the museum is rather small, it is worth a visit to not only learn about the old mint on the first floor, but it also houses an art and music museum on the upper floors for visitors. Most things in the French Quarter for tourists to enjoy are food or architecture related and this is one stop that is a bit different.
The title of this post is rather misleading because all three of these stops were seen in just a morning while we visited the area. If you’re like us and you travel somewhere while you have jetlag which makes you wake up around 5 in the morning, you can sure get a lot done. The history in the French Quarter and the food that one can enjoy is overwhelming.
Most people, when asked what we should see, told us what we should eat in response. There are only so many meals in a day, but there is more to the area that just restaurants so, if you visit, just keep your eyes peeled and don’t worry about walking into places there is plenty to see as well. A lot of the old houses and buildings are open to the public and there’s a lot to learn.
Cafe du Monde
800 Decatur Street
New Orleans 70116
Days/ Hours: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; closed on Christmas Day and on any hurricane that passes too close day
Website: Cafe du Monde
Location: The block between Decatur, St. Peter, St. Ann and Chartres St.
New Orleans Mint
400 Esplanade St.
New Orleans 70116
Admission: The website says that you should pay $5, but when we went admission was free.
Website: New Orleans Mint