Come August, a spot of shade is a precious commodity in New Orleans. During a sunny summer day in the French Quarter, visitors and locals alike gravitate towards the relief of New Orleans courtyards. In the French Quarter, the size of these spaces varies widely, from the expanse of Hurricane central, Pat O’Briens, to the sliver of pavers at delectable pastry shop Le Croissant D’Or Patisserie.
And while courtyards have long been rightly associated with New Orleans architecture, these interior spaces rarely fully present themselves from the street. As a result we can never know what jewel may be cached behind the sober walls of a townhouse, and it is this half-hidden quality that adds to the allure of courtyards. A quick flash of green glimpsed through a narrow iron gate or the brief sound of a trickling fountain, courtyards are the architectural equivalent of whispers, or even lingerie.
However, Bill Coble, historian and guide for Le Monde Créole’s Courtyard Walking Tour, notes that the popular perception of French Quarter courtyards as lush, verdant leisure zones is an entirely modern incarnation. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Vieux Carré was dominated by French and Spanish Creoles, courtyards functioned as utilitarian spaces. Beyond their value as cooling zones, courtyards were used for loading and unloading carriages, keeping wealthy feet from having to touch muddy streets, as well as a general workplace for any sort of manual labor, like spillover kitchen prep. What plants existed, if they existed at all in these areas, would have been medicinal.
“The Creoles were an extremely pragmatic people,” Coble notes. And what about our current New Orleans culture involving gathering a few friends for drinks on the patio? Out of the question, Coble explains. It wouldn’t have even crossed their mind. All entertaining would have taken place inside.
Obviously some French Quarter courtyards, especially those in private residences, remain off-limits. But a large number are attached to places open to the public; and in these spaces, visitors can not only find a bit of shade but also a look into New Orleans history. Here’s the scoop on some of the French Quarter’s best courtyards, according to Creole historian and tour guide extraordinaire Bill Coble.
Must-See New Orleans French Quarter Courtyards
1. Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal Street
2. The Court of Two Sisters Restaurant, 613 Royal Street
3. Pat O’Brien’s, 718 St. Peter Street
4. Hermann Grima Historic House, 820 St. Louis Street
5. Beauregard-Keyes House Museum, 1113 Chartres Street
Coble also notes the following notable French Quarter courtyards for the hungry and thirsty traveler:
6. Cafe Amelie, 912 Royal Street
7. Royal Blend Coffee and Tea House, 612 Royal Street
8. Sylvain, 625 Chartres Street
If you are interested in an easy, breezy guided tour, Le Monde Creole Tours will take you around the French Quarter to the most beautiful courtyards, giving insight into this staple of New Orleans architecture.
All photos by Allison Alsup.
- Allison Alsup is the co-author of The French Quarter Drinking Companion, a guide to one hundred bars in America’s most eclectic neighborhood, now available from Pelican Press.