NEW ORLEANS — The French Quarter is like a living museum, in which every lacy-balconied building and secluded garden courtyard seems to harbor a tale of romance or adventure.
When a stroll through its narrow streets whets your appetite to learn more about New Orleans' rich cultural heritage, you won't want to miss visiting some of the special-interest museums scattered in and about the French Quarter.
The Old U.S. Mint houses the Louisiana State Museum's "New Orleans Jazz" and "Carnival in New Orleans" collections. Erected in 1835 on the site once occupied by a Spanish fort, the mint has been designated a National Historic Landmark. In it, coins were minted both for the United States and, briefly, during the Civil War, for the Confederacy. In 1932 the building was converted into a federal prison.
An architectural blend of Classical Revival and Victorian styles, the Old U.S. Mint occupies a full city block at 400 Esplanade Ave. just pass the French Market on the edge of the Vieux Carre. The "Streetcar Named Desire" now rests in the quiet, tree-shaded grounds at the rear of the building.
The New Orleans Jazz Club donated its entire collection to the museum in 1977. Photographs of jazz greats, their instruments and informative plaques trace the development of jazz through 200 years of New Orleans music history.
One case displays the cornet and bugle that Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong learned to play in 1913 when, at the age of 13, he was sent to a boys' home for firing a pistol in the streets to celebrate the New Year. Also on display are an Edison phonograph, circa 1905, and the first jazz phonograph record, a 78-r.p.m. recording by the original Dixieland Jazz Band, dating from 1917.
Cross the hall for a glimpse of the magical, mystical world of Mardi Gras, New Orleans style. The museum showcases ornate costumes and glittering crowns and jewels once worn by kings and queens of the Krewe of Rex. Photographs and displays depict carnival celebrations through the years, and a tableau featuring a full-size parade float re-creates the revelry that reigns during Mardi Gras. Orleanians celebrate carnival with about 60 parades and at least that many private balls.
The Old U.S. Mint is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission to both the jazz and carnival exhibits is $2.
An even more extensive display of Mardi Gras regalia can be viewed for no charge at Arnaud's restaurant, 813 Bienville St. Ask at the hostess desk and you'll be directed to the second floor, where glass cases display a dazzling collection of court costumes and accessories.
The collection was amassed by Germaine Cazenave Wells, daughter of restaurateur "Count" Arnaud Cazenave. Many of the elaborate gowns were worn by Wells, who reigned over more than 20 carnival balls for various Mardi Gras krewes.
The Germaine Wells collection can be viewed during opening hours at Arnaud's, about 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Although you can walk from the French Quarter to the Confederate Museum at 929 Camp St., it's more fun to make an excursion out of it by taking the St. Charles Avenue streetcar (60 cents one way, exact fare required). Catch the car at Canal Street and enjoy the ride through the lovely residential area of the Garden District, getting off wherever you would like to stroll around, seeing the stately antebellum mansions set amid tree-shaded lawns.
On the return trip, leave the streetcar at Lee Circle. Appropriately, the Confederate Museum lies just a block from that traffic circle. Its centerpiece is a column topped by a statue of Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee.
The museum's prize exhibits include flags and banners carried into battle, uniforms worn by P. G. T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg, weapons produced in New Orleans, and an inscribed silver service used by Lee during the war. There's also an array of personal mementos and household items once belonging to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family.
Like "Gone With the Wind," exhibits here personalize the horrors of the Civil War, and it becomes easy to visualize the young soldier who carried into battle his mess kit, canteen and "housewife," a sewing kit assembled by his family.
Other displays feature medical instruments, a manual of military surgery open to a page illustrating proper amputation procedures, and a one-armed uniform jacket belonging to a major who lost his right arm fighting for the South.
Admission to the Confederate Museum is $2. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
New Orleans pays tribute to its nautical heritage at the Louisiana Maritime Museum. The museum is at 130 Carondelet St. just past Canal Street, where Bourbon Street changes names and becomes Carondelet.