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Everything You Need to Know About the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans

By Anne Roderique-Jones

02.21.20

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As its name would suggest, the French Quarter Festival takes place in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the city’s oldest neighborhood (formally known as the Vieux Carre) founded in 1718. 

Photo by Zack Smith Photography

As its name would suggest, the French Quarter Festival takes place in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the city’s oldest neighborhood (formally known as the Vieux Carre) founded in 1718. 

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.

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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. Even better, it’s completely free to attend.

Before you plan a trip to New Orleans for the 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 the French Quarter Festival?

First and foremost, the French Quarter Festival is a local favorite—but it’s certainly catching on for visitors. It 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, the fest was immediately embraced by the community. In 2019, the four-day festival attracted an estimated 825,000 attendees.

A performer at the French Quarter Festival in 2018

When is the French Quarter Festival in 2020?

This year’s event will take place from April 16 to 19, 2020, with over 60 local restaurants serving food and beverages and more than 300 musical acts across 25 stages. The festival—now in its 37th year—runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day.

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

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The best place to stay during the French Quarter Fest is in New Orleans’s historic French Quarter, which is where the festival takes place (as the name would suggest). 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 the French Quarter Festival, and one of the stages is located right outside its front door; the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans is also pretty fabulous. The festival’s 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. The city’s streetcar and RTA buses stop near the festival. Alternatively, 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 case of rain, a small festival chair if that’s your jam, plus comfortable shoes for walking—and most importantly—for dancing.

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This festival is free and open to the public, but VIP Fest Family tickets can be purchased for $129 per day or $399 for a four-day weekend pass. The perks include elevated stands near the stages, a hospitality lounge, private bars with included beverages, food, and phone stations, and air-conditioned bathrooms.

The French Quarter Festival is ushered in with a second-line kickoff parade on April 16, 2020, and this only-in-New-Orleans kind of experience is worth arriving for on opening day.

What are the music acts to look for in 2020?

Don’t expect global names like Jazz Fest headliner Katy Perry to play at this festival. Here, it’s all about local Louisiana talent. Veterans like blues master Little Freddie King and soul legend Irma Thomas will be back, as will other stars, including Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Flow Tribe, and Treme Brass Band—and that’s just a fraction of the lineup. The full 2020 French Quarter Fest schedule and music lineup is set to be revealed in late March.

Be sure to catch shows at the Pan-American Life Insurance Group Stage, which debuted last year on the 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
Head to the smaller stages like the French Market Traditional Jazz Stage to catch hot jazz (a blend of ragtime, blues, and brass), as well as the French Quarter Traditional Jazz Stage, where you can learn how to swing dance for free, or the Chevron Stage, where Cajun/zydeco dance lessons are offered.

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). Festivalgoers can expect dishes from historic Creole restaurants like Tujague’s to chi-chi seafood spots such as GW Fins. Chef Voleo of Voleo’s Seafood Restaurant also serves 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.

This article originally appeared online in February 2019; it was updated on February 21, 2020, to include current information.

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