48 Hours In: New Orleans

This soulful, southern Louisiana city is gearing up to host the Mardi Gras festivities, writes Nick Boulos

Travel essentials

Why go now?

There's a rhythm to this most soulful of southern cities. Not just from its world-class music clubs and talented buskers, but from the unique blend of European and Creole influences. And the beat is set to get even louder as Mardi Gras rolls into town next month with exuberant and elaborate parades and wild street parties on 4 March marking the end of a six-week carnival.

Those who miss the festivities can still get a taste of the fun at Mardi Gras World (1) at 1380 Port of New Orleans Place (001 504 229 3366; mardigrasworld.com; 9.30am-5.30pm; $20/£12.50), but pack your dancing shoes because New Orleans knows how to party any time of year.

Touch down

There are no direct flights from the UK. I travelled from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virginatlantic.com) and its partner airline Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) via New York. Other options include American Airlines/US Airways (0844 499 7300; aa.com) via Charlotte, Dallas or Miami, or United (0845 607 6760; united.com) via Washington DC.

Flights arrive at Louis Armstrong airport, 10 miles west of the centre. The E2 bus, from outside the airport's upper level, takes 35 minutes to get downtown, at the corner of Loyola and Tulane avenues (2). A one-way ticket, bought on board with exact change, costs $2 (£1.25).

A taxi to the Central Business District (CBD) costs a flat fare of $33 (£21) and takes around 20 minutes.

Get your bearings

The city was built upon swamps on a strategic trading point on the Mississippi River. Its heart is the French Quarter: an atmospheric district, 12 blocks by six, where the city was founded in 1718. These days it has a largely Spanish feel with cast-iron balconies and old carriageways leading to secret courtyards – the result of a shift in power in Louisiana in 1762 and a fire 26 years later that destroyed the original settlement.

New Orleans suffered more destruction in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swept in. The city has since picked itself back up, but a third of the 485,000 evacuees have yet to return and may never do so.

South-west of the French Quarter is the arty Warehouse District with museums and galleries. To the north-east are the up-and-coming Faubourg Marigny and Bywater areas. The main tourist centre (3) is at 501 Basin Street (001 504 293 2600; neworleanscvb.com; 9am-5pm).

Check-in

The 117-room International House (4) at 221 Camp Street (001 504 553 9550; ihhotel.com) is a short stroll from the French Quarter. It's a decadent property with red velvet chairs, oversized candelabras and a bar plated with gold from Calcutta. Doubles from $159 (£99), room only.

In the heart of the French Quarter, the Cornstalk Hotel (5) at 915 Royal Street (001 504 523 1515; cornstalkhotel.com) has 14 individually designed rooms in a grand, early Victorian mansion with cherubs painted on high ceilings. Doubles from $110 (£69), room only.

The Whitney Wyndham Hotel (6) at 610 Poydras Street (001 504 581 4222; wyndham.com) is a former bank and a historic landmark with 93 small rooms. Doubles from $75 (£47), room only.

Day One

Take a hike

Start on Canal Street and stroll east along Royal Street, the French Quarter's finest avenue. Pop into the galleries and antique stores and pause to enjoy the busking banjo players. On the corner of Conti is the grand Louisiana State Bank (7) which is opposite the Supreme Court and dates back to 1910.

Turn left on Dumaine Street and visit the two-room Voodoo Museum (8) at No 724 (001 504 680 0128; voodoomuseum.com; 10am-6pm; $5/£3.10). Voodoo first came to New Orleans with slaves from Congo in 1719 and still has a strong presence.

Turn left on Bourbon Street, famed for its raucous bars, and after three blocks turn left on St Peter Street. Continue until you reach leafy Jackson Square (9), named after major Andrew Jackson in 1815, after he defended the city against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. A bronze equestrian statue of Jackson, who went on to become the seventh US President, stands at the centre. This is also where flag ceremonies took place to mark the transfer from Spanish back to French rule in 1803 and, shortly after, Louisiana's entry into the American Union.

Take a view

Thanks largely to its boggy base, New Orleans is not much of a high-rise city . There are a handful of skyscrapers in the CBD, the tallest of which, is the 695ft One Shell Square tower (10).

Enjoy a nice perspective of the city at the Woldenberg Riverfront (11) (6am-10pm) which has views over Jackson Square and the black spires of St Louis Cathedral (12), the oldest in North America.

Lunch on the runTry a po-boy, the local sandwich the size of doorstops. Many agree that the best are found at Johnny's (13) at 511 St Louis Street (001 504 524 8129; johnnyspoboy.com; 8am-4.30pm). This no-frills restaurant, with wobbly tables and red-and-white checked cloths, has been at it since 1950. Try the grilled shrimp with salad and mayo ($11/£6.90).

Cultural afternoon

The Louisiana State Museum (001 504 568 6968; crt.state.la.us) has several worthwhile locations across the city. Start at the Cabildo (14) at 701 Chartres Street (10am-4.30pm, shut Mondays; $6/£3.75) for a look at two centuries of local history including the Battle of New Orleans (1812) and the Louisiana Purchase (1803) in which the US bought the state from Napoleon for $15m (£9.4m).

A few doors down at No 751, The Presbytere (15) focuses on more recent events such as Mardi Gras and the impact of Katrina (10am-4.30pm, shut Mondays; $6/£3.75).

An aperitif

Many claim cocktails were invented in New Orleans and there's no finer place to order one than Antoine's (16) at 713 St Louis Street (001 504 581 4422; antoines.com; closed Sundays). Since opening in 1840, it has served Judy Garland and Pope John Paul II in its 14 dining rooms. Elvis always had the circular table in the corner of the Annex room. Grab a seat at the oak Hermes bar (Brad and Angelina are regulars) and sip a strong Sazerac ($8/£5), a classic tipple of rye whiskey, bitters, sugar and lemon peel with absinthe.

Dining with the locals

Mother's (17) at 401 Poydras Street (001 504 523 9656; mothersrestaurant.net) is famous for old-fashioned southern fare such as seafood gumbo ($6/£3.75), a hearty stew served with rice.

For more of a fine-dining experience, head to Broussard's (18) at 819 Conti Street (001 504 581 3866; broussards.com; evenings only). Head chef Guy Reinbolt has crafted a French menu with local flair. Highlights include olive-crusted halibut from the Gulf of Mexico with Creole tomato confit and jasmine risotto ($35/£22).

French fancy: St Louis Cathedral French fancy: St Louis Cathedral (Getty) Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

St Louis Cathedral (12), the oldest Catholic church in the US still standing, at 614 Pere Antoine Alley (001 504 525 9585; stlouiscathedral.org; 7am-4pm daily) was built in 1851. A huge mural of King Louis IX, by Erasme Humbrecht, hangs over the altar. Sunday mass is at 9am and 11am.

Out to brunch

A live jazz trio makes the buffet brunch (9am-3pm; $29/£17) at the Court of Two Sisters (19) on 613 Royal Street (001 504 522 7261; courtoftwosisters.com), more than just a tasty meal. Among 80 dishes on offer is a chicken and andouille sausage gumbo. Ask a bow-tied waiter for a table in the large, wisteria-covered courtyard.

Take a ride

The St Charles Streetcar (norta.com) has rattled through the Garden District, past pastel-painted mansions, since 1835. Departures from Canal Street (20) are every 10 minutes. It's $1.20 (70p) one-way, but a $3 (£1.80) day pass allows travel on all streetcars. Alight at Napoleon Avenue (21) and walk south towards Magazine Street (22).

Window shopping

Six miles of retail therapy, both vintage and contemporary, await on Magazine Street (22). Sleek shops include menswear boutique, Vegas (001 504 410 9992) at No 2042, and interiors outlet, Source (001 504 561 7558; sourcenola.com) at No 2103. In the French Quarter, rummage through eclectic antiques at Le Garage (23) at 1234 Decauter Street (001 504 522 6639).

A walk in the park

City Park (24), a former sugar-cane plantation at 1 Palm Drive (001 504 482 4888; neworleanscitypark.com) was once the scene of bloody gun battles. President Roosevelt invested $12m during the Great Depression to transform it into an oasis of tall oaks and palms. Visit the Sculpture Garden (10am-5pm daily; free) to see art by Renoir and Henry Moore.

Next door is the New Orleans Museum of Art (25) (001 504 658 4100; noma.org; 11am-5pm weekends; 10am-6pm Tuesday-Thursday, to 9pm Friday; $10/£6.25), currently exhibiting photos of the American Civil War (to 4 May). Catch the 48 streetcar from Canal Street (20).

Icing on the cake

Enjoy a night of jazz and blues at Frenchmen Street (26). Start at the Spotted Cat at No 623 (spottedcatmusicclub.com) then on to D.B.A at No 618 (001 504 942 3731; dbanew orleans.com), which has hosted musical greats such as Stevie Wonder. A cover charge of $5-15 (£3-9) comes in at 10pm.

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