Why go now?
From the graceful French Quarter to the elegant Garden District, Louisiana’s biggest city is unique in the USA. On a cool winter’s day, New Orleans might seem as languid as the mighty Mississippi, but after dark it’s the place America goes to let its hair down and turn the volume up. Visit in the next five weeks to find the city unusually quiet and intimate; Mardi Gras parades begin on 19 January, augmented by the 47th Super Bowl football game on 3 February.
Other cities name airports after politicians –but New Orleans commorates the jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Connecting services from the UK include British Airways/American Airlines via Chicago, Dallas or Miami; Delta via Atlanta; United via Washington DC or Newark; and US Airways via Charlotte or Philadelphia.
The 20-minute cab ride to the French Quarter is a fixed $33 (£21) for one or two people. The Airport-Downtown Express bus (E-2, 35 minutes) costs $2 (£1.30).
Get your bearings
The best way to survey New Orleans is to take the free Canal Street Ferry, which shuttles across the Mississippi from the jetty (1) to Algiers (2). From the deck, you can see the way the high-rises of the modern Central Business District subside at Canal Street, with the historic French Quarter (or Vieux Carré) punctuated by the spire of St Louis Cathedral (3). It stands on Jackson Square, which is also the venue for the Welcome Center (4) (001 504 566 5011; neworleanscvb.com).
Built in 1830, Soniat House (5) at 1133 Chartres Street (001 504 522 0570; soniathouse.com) comprises three town houses turned into a boutique hotel – about a quarter of a century before that term had even been invented. Rates for a chic, déshabillé doubles start at $250 (£156) including tax but not breakfast; in the antique annexe across the road, you can experience life as a sugar baron or cotton magnate might have.
Just a block away, a former macaroni factory – Le Richelieu (6) at 1234 Chartres Street (001 504 529 2492; lerichelieuhotel.com) – is a long-standing budget alternative. In the Seventies, Paul McCartney stayed here. The current rate for a double room is $136 (£85), excluding breakfast but including use of the large pool.
Take a hike
Begin your French Quarter walk where New Orleans began: Jackson Square, originally the Place d’Armes – and modelled on the Place des Vosges in Paris. St Louis Cathedral (3) is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the USA. Alongside, the Cabildo (7), built in 1795, was the original City Hall. Today, it’s part of the Louisiana State Museum, open 10am to 4.30pm daily except Monday, $6 (£3.80).
The oldest structure in the Mississippi valley is north-east, along Chartres Street. The Ursuline Convent (8) was built for a dozen nuns who came to spread Christianity through the new French colony; open 10am to 4pm daily except Sunday.
Zig and zag around the French Quarter’s backstreets, to see the brick creole townhouses with their elaborate balconies, and the smaller Creole cottages whose steep, raked roofs reveal French Canadian origins. At 901 Bourbon Street, Café Lafitte in Exile (9) (001 504 522 8397; lafittes.com) says it’s the oldest continuously operating gay bar in North America.
Along Dauphine and Burgundy Streets you find colourful homes away from the tourism melée. Cut south from here, past the Supreme Court Building, to St Louis Street – and lunch.
Lunch on the run
Try Johnny’s Po Boys (10) at number 511 and a half (001 504 5248129 johnnyspoboy.com). It’s been selling the Po Boy –> a baguette filled with anything from shrimp to bacon and eggs – since 1950. Their slogan: “Even my failures are edible.”
For dessert, track down Café du Monde (11) at 800 Decatur Street (001 504 525 4544; cafedumonde.com) for a café au lait and a beignet (pronounced ben-yay) – a doughnut in icing sugar.
Take the free bus (12) from the stop close to the Canal Street ferry on a 10-minute ride to Mardi Gras World (001 504 361 7821; mardigrasworld.com; 9.30am to 4.30pm daily, $19.95/£12). Forty days before Easter is “Fat Tuesday”, the last day before the austerity of Lent. In the frantic Lent build-up, there are dozens of parades with hundreds of lavishly decorated floats – many created in this massive warehouse on the Mississippi, from papier-mâché, paint and ingenuity.
Sip a Vieux Carré cocktail – rye, whisky, brandy, vermouth, Benedictine and bitters – and go into orbit at the city’s only revolving bar, the Carousel at the Hotel Monteleone (13) at 214 Royal Street.
Dining with the locals
The Acme Oyster House (14) at 724 Iberville Street has served bivalves by the half dozen ($8.75/£5.50) for more than a century. For the main course, go around the corner to the sumptuous Palace Café (15), a former musical-instrument store at 605 Canal Street. Order seafood gumbo (£8/£5), with shrimp. okra and, yes, oysters.
Round all that off at the Bourbon House (16) at 144 Bourbon Street: try the chocolate pecan crunch ($8/£5), and one of 75 American whiskeys on the menu.
Sunday morning: go to church
Tucked inside a courtyard at 828 North Rampart Street, the Voodoo Spiritual Temple (17) (001 504 522 9627; voodoospiritualtemple.org) celebrates the intoxicating essence of Africa mixed with French and Spanish influences, which combine to enhance life, death and everything in between.
Out to brunch
Galatoire’s (18) at 209 Bourbon Street (001 504 525 2021) has been flourishing for a century or more. The trout almandine – deep fried with roast almonds in a meunière sauce – is delicious, but oysters are also available. Antoine’s (19) at 513 St Louis Street (001 504 525 8045; antoines.com), offers its signature oysters Rockefeller ($7.50/£4.50) during the Sunday Jazz Brunch (11am to 2pm).
At Maskarade (20), 630 Saint Ann Street (001 504 568 1018; frenchquartermaskstore.com) you can experiment with different identities. Close to the river, the French Market (21) is a cheerfully touristy collection of stalls.
Take a ride
They used to have a streetcar named Desire (a city suburb), now there are three: along the river starting from a stop near the French Market (21); along Canal Street; and the main mobile attraction, the St Charles streetcar. Catch it from the stop on Canal Street (22) and trundle towards the Garden District .
Walk in the park
The 19th-century bourgeoisie built their grand mansions in a separate city, Lafayette, a few miles south-west of the French Quarter – now known as the Garden District. For an expert eye on the most desirable residences, take a walk with New Orleans Historic Tours (001 504 947 2120; tourneworleans.com; 11am and 1.45pm daily from 2727 Prytania Street. The $20 (£12.50) tour includes the strange tombs of Lafayette Cemetery No 1.
Icing on the cake
The Natchez, which is said to be “The last authentic steamboat on the river,” sails from the quay (23) every evening at 7pm on a Jazz Cruise ($41/£26) down Old Man River.