The French Quarter Festival, in front of the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, New Orleans

The free festival, held annually in April, is one of the finest ways to experience NOLA musical history—and makes for a glorious long-weekend trip.

There may be no greater season in New Orleans than festival season. Many of the festivals are clustered between Mardi Gras and the fall, but there are so many that the season sometimes feels like it’s year-round. There’s one for just about everything, from Creole tomatoes (June) and fried chicken (September) to jazz (April and May) and Cajun-Zydeco (June).

But one of the most special festivals is the world’s largest showcase of Louisiana music, food, and culture: the French Quarter Festival. It’s an excellent way to experience New Orleans’s musical history in one gloriously long weekend.

Before you plan a trip to New Orleans for the 36th annual French Quarter Festival, here’s what you need to know—from where to stay to the top music acts to the food and beverage vendors to look for.

What is French Quarter Festival?

First and foremost, French Quarter Fest is a local favorite—but it’s certainly catching on for visitors. The festival began in 1984 as a small event to welcome locals back to the Quarter after World’s Fair street construction. Meant to be a one-time thing, it was immediately embraced by the community. The four-day festival attracted 708,000 people in 2017 and 561,000 attendees in 2018—and that lower number was due to Saturday’s weather cancellation that year.

A performer at the French Quarter Festival in 2018

When is the French Quarter Festival in 2019?

Now in its 36th year, this year’s event takes place from April 11 to 14, and the numbers are impressive: 60 local restaurants and 1,700-plus Louisiana musicians on 23 stages. Even better, it’s completely free to attend. On Thursday and Sunday, the festival runs 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, the music plays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Where are the best places to stay during French Quarter Fest?

The festival takes place throughout the historic French Quarter. Formally known as the Vieux Carre, it’s the oldest neighborhood in the city, founded in 1718. Music stages are located at Jackson Square, Woldenberg Riverfront Park, Royal Street, Bienville Triangle, Bourbon Street, Preservation Hall, the French Market, and the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

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If you’ve booked a hotel in the Quarter, take a taxi or ride share from MSY Airport and plan to take in the fest on foot. The Omni Royal Orleans is the official hotel of French Quarter Festival, and one of the stages is located right outside its front door; the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans is also pretty fabulous. Alternatively, the city’s streetcar and RTA buses stop near the festival. Blue Bikes, the city’s bike share, offers multiple locations across the city.  

How to plan a trip

April in New Orleans offers some of the city’s finest weather—often warm enough for sundresses and shorts, but not yet miserably hot. And it’s NOLA, so you’ll see everything from fringe to feathers and lots of glitter and sequins. But even in your finest festival wear, you’ll want to bring sunscreen, a koozie, a packable poncho in the case of rain, a small festival chair if that’s your jam, plus comfortable shoes for walking—and most importantly—for dancing.

This festival is free and open to the public, but VIP Fest Family tickets can be purchased for $99 per day or $375 for a four-day weekend pass. The perks include two elevated stands near the stages, a hospitality lounge, private bars with included beverages, food, chair massages, phone stations, and air-conditioned bathrooms.

The French Quarter Festival is ushered in with a second-line kickoff parade on April 11, and this only-in-New-Orleans kind of experience is worth arriving for on opening day.

What are the music acts to look out for in 2019?

Don’t expect global names like Jazz Fest headliner Katy Perry to play at this festival. Here, it’s all about local Louisiana talent.

Debuting this year will be funky and jam-y Galactic, up-and-coming indie rockers Royal Teeth, and the popular R&B singer Wynton (aka Kevin Stylez). Veterans like blues guy Little Freddie King, and soul legend Irma Thomas will be back. More superstars: Flow Tribe, Helen Gillet & Wazozo, Treme Brass Band, rock-blues great Walter “Wolfman” Washington, and trumpet ace Jeremy Davenport—and that’s just a fraction of the lineup. The full schedule is available on the French Quarter Festival’s website. 

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The Chevron Evening Concert Series will showcase some of the city’s most dynamic and well-known artists like bass-funk legend George Porter, Jr. The Pan-American Life Insurance Group Stage debuts this year on the newly renovated Moonwalk—named after former mayor Moon Landrieu. The stage is directly on the Mississippi River—literally built on steps leading down to the water—and there’s a large plaza that’s perfect for dancing.

A musical act at the French Quarter Festival in 2016
Don’t miss the smaller stages, where you can catch hot jazz (a blend of ragtime, blues, and brass) at the French Market Traditional Jazz Stage. And you can learn how to swing dance for free at the French Quarter Traditional Jazz Stage or take Cajun/zydeco dance lessons at the Chevron Stage.   

 

What should you eat and drink?

Because  it’s New Orleans—a city where locals talk about what’s for dinner while they’re eating lunch—festival food is its own event.

A vendor serves fried chicken at the French Quarter Festival.
French Quarter Festival is full of fest staples like cochon de lait po’boys (roasted pig, served with gravy on French bread), fried seafood (think Cajun seafood eggrolls and deep-fried seafood-stuffed bell peppers), and snowballs (made with finely shaved ice and topped with cane sugar syrup and often condensed milk). Festival-goers can expect dishes from historic Creole restaurants like Tujague’s to chi-chi seafood spots such as GW Fins. This year, chef Voleo of Voleo’s Seafood Restaurant is debuting his fried softshell shrimp with remoulade.

Abita Beer is a major sponsor of the festival, and there’s nothing quite like sipping a Strawberry Lager with spicy crawfish—look for them at the former U.S. Mint, now known as the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

>> Next: Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to New Orleans