At first blush, New Orleans' French Market looks like an accumulation of kitschy souvenirs, Mardi Gras beads and T-shirts. But there’s a lot more going on at this popular shopping destination that's situated on the down river end of the French Quarter, close to Esplanade.
Open every day of the year – generally from around 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. – the market extends from Cafe du Monde through seven buildings to the colorful flea market across from the Old U.S. Mint building.
Originally a Choctaw trading post, the French Market dates back to 1791; it's the oldest documented farmers' market in America, in fact. and there's still a farmers’ market here on Wednesdays and Saturdays, along with stalls offering culinary souvenirs of New Orleans.
You might meet local artist Vinsanto DeFonte at the French Market — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
The French Market is organized like a giant swap meet. You can find inexpensive silver jewelry, $10 sunglasses, stuffed animals for the kids and all kinds of tasteless items made from alligator hide.
You can also sort through New Orleans-inspired foods such as Cajun spices, pralines and boxes of mix for local faves like dirty rice and beignets. (The latter never tastes like the real thing, so save your money.)
Feel free to try your hand at bargaining. Depending on the shop owner’s mood and how much you’re planning to buy, you might get a deal.
Rest assured: Not everything for sale at the French Market is made in China. On any given day, up to 50 local artists are plying their wares, artists like Naomi Celestine, who makes really interesting jewelry out of guitar strings.
Then there’s John Allison with his hilariously named business Chique of Arabi. (Arabi is a neighborhood past Bywater across the Industrial Canal in St. Bernard Parish.) Allison makes hand-crafted souvenirs from recycled wood from old houses here in New Orleans.
Think fleur-de-lis hooks, bottle openers, door knockers – lots of fun gifts for you and the gang back home. You’re also likely to see demonstrations of pottery making, painting and jewelry design in progress.
Since it’s probably been about 20 minutes since your last meal, why not have a muffuletta at Alberto’s Cheese and Wine Bistro (as good as Central Grocery’s, maybe better); a whole food or vegan pick-me-up at Meals from the Heart Café; or broiled oysters at J’s Seafood Dock. There are plenty of options.
Free live music is featured on a regular basis, usually around lunchtime, at the market’s New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park at 916 Decatur St. There’s always something going on – a cooking demonstration or jazz Pilates, maybe?
For a good overview on this historic market, free walking tours are offered Mondays at 10 a.m. and Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., rain or shine. You have to sign up in advance for some tours, so visit French Market's website in advance to check.