Jackson Square (Chartres Street, bordered by St. Ann, St. Peter and Decatur Streets) is the French Quarter's heart, for it is here that much of the city's historic events took place -- perhaps most important, the signing of the Louisiana Purchase at the Cabildo (701 Chartres St.; 504-568-6968) in 1803, now an historical museum. It makes a logical place to start exploring the Quarter.
The square is presided over by the simple and elegant St. Louis Cathedral (the oldest cathedral in the United States, although the current structure is the third to occupy the site), from where the bell in the central spire still chimes out every quarter hour, as it has for the last 200 years. Take note of the giant shadow cast upon the cathedral at night by its resident Jesus statue: locals refer to it as "Touchdown Jesus."
Also on the square is the Cabildo's Spanish colonial twin, the Presbytere (751 Chartres St; 504-568-6968), which houses a fascinating exhibition on the history of Mardi Gras that includes information on the contributions from gay krewes. Around the corner at 632 St. Peter Street is where Tennessee Williams finished penning A Streetcar Named Desire.
There are a number of restored homes in the Quarter worth peeking into for their period antiques and furnishings. The Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden (1113 Chartres Street; 504-523-7257), built in 1826, is an example of the Greek Revival style, and was home to Civil War general Pierre G.T. Beauregard and, later, writer Frances Parkinson Keyes. Gallier House (1132 Royal Street; 504-525-5661) is so accurately restored to its Victorian finery that it's literally like stepping back a hundred years. Built in 1831, the Hermann-Grima House (820 St. Louis St.; 504-525-5661) is a Federal mansion with courtyard garden, horse stable and the only functioning outdoor kitchen in the Quarter. Napoleon House (500 Chartres Street; 504-524-9752) was originally built by the mayor of New Orleans for Napoleon I as part of an unlikely plot to rescue the emperor from exile. Rather than saving any of the Napoleons, the Napoleon House, now a caf?, serves them to dessert-hungry patrons.
Stroll down Royal Street to find those rows of stucco apartments with wrought-iron balconies you've always pictured when you think of the Big Easy. Between Bienville and St. Peter Streets are some of the city's best antique shops. Bourbon Street, with its perpetual aroma of stale beer, is a must-see (if only once) -- teeming with drunk rednecks, dense with gaudy signage, and lined with bars and strip shows blaring with noise.
The Historic Voodoo Museum (724 Dumaine St; 504-680-0128; call for hours/tours) contains paintings, ceremonial objects, potions, gris-gris -- little pouches filled with pungent herbs (remember Rosemary's Baby?) -- and magic talismans to ward off evil spirits.
The Warehouse/Arts District, a stretch of old industrial warehouses that have been renovated over the last 20-plus years into an artsy enclave, is home to the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp St; 504-528-3805). It's worth a look for its revolving exhibits of various media by local artists. Galleries are open Thursday through Sunday.
Art and antique lovers should check out Julia Street in the Warehouse/Arts District, home to many contemporary art galleries. Gay-owned, Arthur Roger Gallery (432 Julia St; 504-522-1999), in operation since 1978, represents regional and national artists, and with over 5,000 square feet of exhibition space, is one of largest galleries in New Orleans. Arthur Roger will gladly provide information on the Coordinated Gallery Openings, which take place the first Saturday of each month in the Warehouse/Arts District.
Other annual events on Julia Street include White Linen Night, the first Saturday in August, and Art for Art's Sake, the first Saturday in October.