At the heart of the French Quarter is Jackson Square, flanked by the Pontalba Apartments and capped off with an imposing trio of buildings: the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral, and the Louisiana Museum. Jackson Square is the symbolic heart of the French Quarter. The earliest settlements sprung up around this area, so from the beginning this was the center of New Orleans.

Bordering the fourth side of Jackson Square is Decatur Street. If you leave Jackson Square and cross Decatur Street, you’ll be faced with Washington Artillery Park. Pass the street performers (they’re quite good, really), and climb the stairs up to the small park and marvel Civil War canon replica. Look up, and look beyond that. It’s just a parking lot, but if you walk across it and up the low climb of the levee to the Moon Walk (the quirky little name for New Orleans’s riverside board walk), you come face to face with New Orleans’s raison d’etre: the Mississippi River. This river is the reason New Orleans was founded. The river is the reason New Orleans is still here today. If you take a seat on its banks, you can still see why.

A cruise ship heading to the Gulf of Mexico from the Port of New Orleans

If you sit on one of the many benches along the Moon Walk and in Woldenberg Park you can gaze upon several reminders of New Orleans’s long and colorful past and you can also see why it’s all still important today. Let’s start with Woldenberg Park itself. This area used to be a bustling port center with boats, warehouses, and wharves. In the late 1980s this area was revamped and turned into a true visitor destination. A good bit of New Orleans’s famed French Quarter Fest takes in Woldenberg Park along with various other events throughout the year. From this park you can see so much of what makes New Orleans special. Let’s explore the important things that shift into focus as one sits along the river and simply observes.

A busy day on the Mississippi River in New Orleans

New Orleans is the first port heading upstream along the Mississippi River and conversely, the last port when one is headed out toward the Gulf of Mexico. This means that anything headed out to the Gulf (and beyond) from anywhere upstream of New Orleans must pass through New Orleans. We are the first and last stops, port-wise. Consequently, it only takes a few minutes of sitting along the river to spot a massive container ship or some other ocean-going transport vessel (cruise ships, too!). Most of these ships stop south of Baton Rouge (the bridge there was built intentionally low by Huey Long to force ocean going vessels to offload in Louisiana). The ships that do not stop downstream of New Orleans slide past the city in a highly orchestrated dance. The bends in the river are quite tight as one moves past New Orleans. Riverboat pilots navigate many twists and turns along the river, and few are as pronounced as the turns of the Crescent City.

A container ship in the Mississippi River in New Orleans

Slipping amongst the bulk of the ocean-going traffic are smaller, more local vessels. We have a healthy barge-based economy here. Grain flows up and down the river through an intricate comingling of barges and tugboats. It’s a wonder sometimes how those small tugboats maneuver such large and wide loads of barges through the current. These barges and ships service the wharves that line the river in both directions, the most visible part of one of the world’s largest port systems. New Orleans has been a port since its founding, and a look at the river shows this is still true.

A bend in the Mississippi River in New Orleans

What we see fewer of these days on the river are the riverboats that once lined this city’s shores. The proliferation of the steam-powered engine in the early 1800s meant that traffic could now navigate the river both with and against the current, at the whim of commerce and no longer only by the mercy of nature. The two remaining riverboats on the banks of the Mississippi in New Orleans are purely just for fun. The Creole Queen and the Steamboat Natchez ferry people down river for some dinner, dancing, music, and an “authentic” old New Orleans experience.

The Natchez, a steamboat in the Mississippi River in New Orleans

When looking upstream, what’s easiest to observe from this river’s edge is the long, double-span bridge that crosses the river connecting the east and west banks the river. Aptly named the Crescent City Connection, this bridge is the main connective artery for the two sides of the river that New Orleans and a significant portion of Jefferson parish, our closest neighbor. If you’re not into bridges, you can always take the ferry across the river. It’s great for pedestrians looking to get a wider view of the Crescent City. Also, what’s truly fascinating though is that the west bank of the Mississippi River is actually southeast of the city. Yes, really. With the way the river bends at New Orleans’s heart, it places itself northwest of the west bank of the river. This map will likely clarify things for you:

MS River New Orleans map

If I didn’t close by talking about the sheer size of the river, I’d be remiss. The river is quite wide in New Orleans at about a third of a mile across. The river also marks its deepest point in Louisiana 191 feet at the Governor Nicholls Street Wharf. Talk about a major shipping channel! Taking in the wide expansive view of the river from its banks is one of my favorite ways to spend time in New Orleans. The river truly is the lifeblood of the city and spending time on its banks is a great way to pass an afternoon. Watching river life drift, float, or maneuver by is a relaxing and eye-opening experience.