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'The Rough Guide To New Orleans' by Samantha Cook is out now (£13.99); see www.roughguides.com for more details.
Why go now?
After the terrible events of August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina left four-fifths of the city under water, New Orleans is back in business – together with its unique mix of African, European and Creole traditions, its astonishingly good and ever-present jazz music, and its many festivals and street parades.
BA ended its non-stop flights some years ago; the main links now are on Delta via New York or Atlanta, United/Continental via Newark, Washington, Chicago or Houston, and American/British Airways via Miami or Dallas-Fort Worth. You arrive at Louis Armstrong airport, 18 miles north-west of Downtown. The cheap way into town is on the Airport-Downtown Express (E-2) bus, which runs every half-hour or so to the corner of Loyola and Tulane (1); fare $2, exact change. Taxis $33 for up to two people, $14 each for three or more.
Get your bearings
Crammed between Lake Pontchartrain and a bend in the Mississippi, New Orleans's street plan can be puzzling. Instead of "east" or "west" locals refer to lakeside (toward the lake) and riverside (toward the river). Canal Street marks the dividing line between uptown (or upriver) and downtown (downriver). Downtown, the French Quarter, site of the original 18th-century French settlement, is the heart of New Orleans. Beyond Esplanade Avenue, the Faubourg Marigny spreads downriver toward the still-blighted Ninth Ward, while Rampart Street separates the Quarter from the Tremé neighbourhood. Across Canal Street, the Central Business District encompasses the Warehouse/Arts District. The RTA (001 504 248 3900; norta.com) runs buses and trolleys ($1.25 flat fare). Passes cost $5 for one day, $12 for three. At night, it's safest to use taxis. The Welcome Center (2) on Jackson Square in the French Quarter opens 9am-5pm daily (001 504 566 5031).
New Orleans's oldest hotel, the handsome Monteleone (3) at 214 Royal Street (001 504 523 3341; hotelmonteleone.com) has hosted countless literary lions since 1886, from Truman Capote to Tennessee Williams. Rooms are comfortable and elegant, and the delightfully louche revolving Carousel Bar is downstairs. Doubles from $160, without breakfast. For faded New Orleans character, try the Olivier House (4) at 828 Toulouse Street (001 504 525 8456; olivierhouse.com), a rambling 1830s Creole townhouse with funky antique furniture, tall shuttered windows and winding corridors. Doubles from $100, without breakfast. In the Faubourg Marigny, the Royal Street Inn (5) at 1431 Royal Street (001 504 948 7499; royalstreetinn.com), sits above the funky R-Bar. Five simple suites (all with bath, some with balconies) offer laidback New Orleans style, with wooden floors, bare brick walls and leather sofas; all have DVD players and iPod docks. It's great value, if you don't mind weekend noise. Doubles from $75, including one drink at the bar – but no breakfast.
Take a hike
The French Quarter, where New Orleans began in 1718, is perfect for a stroll. Its Creole architecture – filigree cast-iron balconies, hidden courtyards and battered old wooden shutters – is more reminiscent of a Caribbean port than an American city. Head down Royal Street to see the grandest balconies and intriguing small museums: the Historic New Orleans Collection (6) at No 533 has free exhibitions of local interest (9.30am-4.30pm daily except Mondays, Sundays from 10.30am; hnoc.org). Weave back along Chartres Street, with its quirky shops, to Jackson Square. There are two great museums here – the Cabildo (7) for history, and the Presbytère (8), which focuses on Mardi Gras; they share the phone number 001 504 568 6968 and open 10am-4.30pm daily except Mondays, admission $6.
Lunch on the run
The tiny Green Goddess (9) at 307 Exchange Alley (001 504 301 3347; greengoddessnola.com) offers astonishingly tasty Creole-Mediterranean-Southern fusion food on seasonally changing menus. It's also a splendid place for a glass of wine and an artisan cheese plate.
Take a view
For great views of the city, try a lazy Mississippi steamboat cruise. The Natchez leaves the wharf at the end of Toulouse Street (10) at 2.30pm and takes about two hours; the melancholy off-notes of its calliope can be heard floating through the French Quarter half an hour beforehand. ($24.50; 001 504 586 8777; steamboatnatchez.com).
The French Quarter abounds in interesting little shops. Faulkner House Books (11) at 624 Pirate's Alley (001 504 524 2940; faulknerhouse.net; daily 10am-6pm) is in the house where William Faulkner, the Southern novelist, rented rooms in 1925. Emphasising Southern authors and local-interest titles, and cramming its cabinets with first editions, it's the literary hub of the Quarter. For retro clothes, lingerie and accessories, head for Trashy -Diva (12) at 829 Chartres Street (001 504 581 4555; trashydiva.com; daily noon-6pm).
Exuding faded New Orleans elegance, the 200-year-old Napoleon House (13) at 500 Chartres Street (001 504 524 9752; napoleonhouse.com) is one of the time-stained old places that make the Quarter so alluring. Locals linger for hours in the romantic, shadowy interior. The trade-mark tipple is a Pimm's Cup (with lemonade and a slice of cucumber; $5.50), but they do a mean Sazerac, too – New Orleans's official drink, combining whiskey, bitters, lemon and ice in a glass rinsed out with Herbsaint (an absinthe-like liqueur; $6,25).
Dine with the locals
New Orleans is one of the world's great foodie cities. Cochon (14) at 930 Tchoupitoulas Street (001 504 588 2123; cochonrestaurant.com) dishes up outstanding Cajun food in classy surroundings. Main courses (served till 10pm daily except Sunday) start at $19. For a budget feast, Coop's (15) at 1109 Decatur Street (001 504 525 9053; coopsplace.net; open daily until late) is a dive bar serving local food at absurd prices – the "Taste of Coop's" gets you a seafood gumbo (a herby stew), shrimp Creole (in a spicy sauce), spicy jambalaya (a version of paella), fried chicken and red beans and rice for just $13.
Sunday morning: go to church
St Augustine's Church (16) at 1210 Governor Nicholls Street, in the historic African-American neighbourhood of Tremé, is the oldest mixed-race church in the US. It was built by whites and free blacks in 1842. Masses (Sunday at 10am) are lively affairs; during festivals a local guest singer or musician may join the choir for an inspirational jazz mass.
Out to brunch
With picture windows overlooking Jackson Square, Stanley (17) at 547 St Ann Street (001 504 587 0093; stanleyrestaurant.com; 7am-7pm daily) is good for people-watching. All is simple and stylish, from the fresh flowers and pared-down decor to the menu. Try Eggs Stanley, a Benedict made with cornmeal-crusted oysters ($12.50), washed down with an ice-cream soda or a Bloody Mary.
A walk in the park
From Jackson Square, it's a hop across Decatur Street and the railway tracks to the mighty Mississippi. Pause on a bench to watch tiny barges and hulking tankers struggle to negotiate the river's hairpin bend, then stroll along the wooden boardwalk to grassy Woldenberg Riverfront Park. It's home to the impressive Aquarium of the Americas (18) ( auduboninstitute.org; 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; $18.50).
Take a ride
The St Charles streetcar, which dates from 1835, clanks its way from its terminus (19) where Carondelet Street meets Canal Street, along swanky St Charles Avenue in the leafy Garden District all the way uptown. It's a lovely way to see the city beyond the French Quarter.
The Warehouse District has a cluster of big-hitting museums. The modern Ogden Museum of Southern Art (20) at 925 Camp Street (10am-5pm from Wednesday to Sunday; $10) displays everything from 18th-century watercolours to folk art and photography in a sleek modern building, while next door, the hushed Civil War Museum (21) is a relic from the old Deep South, looking back to the "Lost Cause" of the Southern Confederates (10am-4pm daily except Sunday; $7). The colossal National World War II Museum (22) at 945 Magazine Street (daily 9am-5pm; $16) has a mind-boggling array of interactive exhibits on the various shoreline assaults that led to the downfall of Nazi Germany and Japan.
The icing on the cake
New Orleans, birthplace of jazz, is one of the best places on earth to hear live music. In the French Quarter fabulous musicians play on every corner; head for Jackson Square and along Royal Street. The tumbledown Preservation Hall (23) at 726 St Peter Street (001 504 522 2841; preservationhall.com) features top-notch trad-jazz musicians in a no-frills old room (8-11pm daily; $10).
Keep an ear out, too, for Second Lines, the city's unique street parades. Led by a jubilant brass band, they gather a dancing line of passers-by as they go. Predominantly found in Tremé, they are the heart and soul of New Orleans.