48 hours in New Orleans

The birthplace of jazz is a cultural melting pot rich in unforgettable flavours, sights and especially sounds. Cathy Packe lends an ear

Why go?

New Orleans is unlike anywhere else in the US. When the Americans bought the city from the French in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, they bought a foreign country; certainly it is a place with a style and character all its own. As a destination, it is always lively - and goes into hyperdrive during Mardi Gras. The celebrations start officially on Twelfth Night, although the main frenzy of parades and colourful balls is in the four days before Mardi Gras itself, which this year falls on 8 February.

Get your bearings

From Armstrong International Airport, 12 miles west of the city, you can pay $13 (£7.25) to share a SuperShuttle to any downtown hotel. The journey takes around half an hour. A taxi costs $28 (£15.50) for two people.

Visitors usually spend most of their time in the French Quarter, the historic heart of New Orleans also known as the Vieux Carré. The most accessible of the city's tourist offices is the central one at 529 St Ann (001 504 568 5661; www.neworleanscvb.com).

Check in

To spend a night or two at the Soniat House at 1133 Chartres Street (001 504 522 0570; www.soniathouse.com) is to experience New Orleans as it must have been for its wealthy French citizens in the 19th century. Elegance doesn't come cheap though: rooms here start at $272 (£150) excluding breakfast.

International House at 221 Camp Street (001 504 553 9550; www.ihhotel.com) is a lively boutique hotel in an excellent location a couple of blocks outside the French quarter, close to Canal Street. Rooms here start from $139 (£77), without breakfast; at busy times rates can increase steeply.

A budget option is the Chateau Hotel at 1001 Chartres Street (001 504 524 9636; www.chateauhotel.com) for $78 (£44) per double, which includes continental breakfast and use of the swimming pool.

Take a view

Marvel at the way the Mississippi snakes its way around the city from the 360 Degree bar on the 33rd floor of the World Trade Center at 2 Canal Street (001 504 595 8900). Officially, since this is a bar, there is a minimum charge of one drink ($3/£1.60 for something non-alcoholic, although happy hour is 4pm-8pm every day except Sunday).

Take a hike

Start in Jackson Square, a pleasant park that was once a military parade ground. It is flanked on two sides by the Pontalba Buildings, elegant 19th-century apartments designed in the Parisian style. Visit the 1850 House at 523 St Ann Street to see an interior furnished in period style (open daily except Monday, 9am-5pm, $3/£1.60).

The Cabildo (001 504 568 6968), whose council chamber is on the first floor, is where New Orleans was officially handed over to America. It is on Chartres Street, which runs along the north side of the square, as is the Presbytere or Court House, which now houses a colourful Mardi Gras exhibition. Both are open 9am-5pm daily except Monday; admission to each is $5 (£2.75), but there is a discount if you buy tickets to more than one of the buildings. Between the Cabildo and the Presbytere is St Louis Cathedral, open 9am-5pm daily. From here, wander along Chartres Street to Iberville Street, and then back along Royal Street, admiring the elegant houses with their balconies and galleries. While some are privately owned, several are open to visitors. Particularly interesting is the Gallier House at 1132 Royal Street (001 504 525 5661; www.gnofn.org/~hggh). Guided tours take place 10am-3.30pm daily except Sunday and cost $6 (£3.40).

Lunch on the run

The Central Grocery Company at 923 Decatur (001 504 523 1620) claims to have invented the muffuletta (a hefty sandwich in chunky Italian bread). Alternatively, try something more substantial in the shape of gumbo (a thick seafood or chicken soup) or jambalaya (rice with vegetables, chicken and shrimp) at the Gumbo Shop at 630 St Peter Street (001 504 525 1486; www.gumboshop.com).

Take a ride

The St Charles Avenue streetcar is the oldest continuously operating tram in the world. Hop on at its terminus at the bottom of Canal Street. One-way tickets cost $1.25 (70p), while a day pass costs $5 (£2.75), allows you to hop on and off, and use other streetcar lines and buses (001 504 248 3900; www.norta.com). The line takes you through the Garden District and ends in the suburb of Carrollton. On the way you will pass the Episcopal Cathedral, Audubon Park, and the universities of Loyola and Tulane.

Window shopping

Canal Place Mall at 333 Canal Street (001 504 522 9200; www.theshopsatcanalplace.com) has department stores such as Saks, and smaller bespoke shops such as the New Orleans jeweller, Mignon Faget. The mall opens 10am-7pm from Monday to Saturday, and noon-6pm on Sundays. Magazine Street has plenty of arty boutiques and antique shops. The French Market, a combination of produce and flea market, is a good place to browse.

An aperitif

Sip a beer or a mint julep in Napoleon House at 500 Chartres Street (001 504 524 9752; www.napoleonhouse.com). For some modern jazz with your drink, aim for Snug Harbor at 626 Frenchman Street (001 504 949 0696; www.snugjazz.com). Food is served daily from 5pm, with performances at 9pm and 11pm.

Dining with the locals

For Creole food - which could best be described as a spicy blend of French, Spanish and Caribbean flavours - try Arnaud's, a smart but lively French Quarter location at 813 Bienville (001 504 523 5433; www.arnauds.com). Elsewhere, book well ahead for a table at Emeril's Delmonico, run by the celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse at 1300 St Charles Avenue (001 504 525 4937; www.emerils.com) and serving Louisiana cuisine with a modern twist.

Sunday morning: go to church

The oldest surviving church in the city is the old mortuary chapel, Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was built in the mid-19th century just outside the French Quarter at 411 North Rampart Street.

Out to brunch

Brennan's at 417 Royal Street (001 504 525 9711; www.brennansneworleans.com) serves the finest brunch in town, 8am-2.30pm daily. The three-course menu costs $36 (£20). For a lighter, speedier alternative, join the crowds at the Cafe du Monde (001 504 525 4544; www.cafedumonde.com) at 800 Decatur Street, which serves coffee and an order of beignets (square doughnuts served hot and sugary) for $3 (£1.65). The café never closes.

Cultural afternoon

New Orleans Museum of Art (001 504 488 2631; www.noma.org) contains an impressive collection of American and French paintings. It is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am-5pm, Thursday until 8.30pm, and entrance costs $8 (£4.50).

A walk in the park

The City Park (001 504 482 4888; www.neworleanscitypark.com), in which the Museum of Art is located, is twice the size of New York's Central Park. Other attractions include the Botanical Gardens and an attractive new sculpture garden.

Write a postcard...

...from the Mississippi. Cruise the river aboard the paddle steamer Natchez (001 504 586 8777; www.neworleanssteamboat.com), while a jazz band plays. Two-hour trips depart from the Toulouse Street Wharf, in front of Jax Brewery, at 11.30am and 2.30pm daily, price $18.50 (£10).

The icing on the cake

Visit the Jazz Museum, housed in the Old US Mint building at 400 Esplanade Avenue (001 504 568 6968). New Orleans's most important cultural export is celebrated here. Exhibits include the bugle played by Louis Armstrong in 1913. The shop has a good selection of CDs. The museum opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission $5 (£2.75).

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