It's the birthplace of jazz... the home of Zydeco... the muse of many a musical master. It's New Orleans, Louisiana, where more than three centuries of music history make it a mecca for aficionados from around the globe. From the inspirational historic sites that pay homage to the legends of yesteryear, to the countless live-musicvenues that showcase the sounds of the now, New Orleans croons sweet melodies for visitors 24 hours a day.
Day 1: The Beat is On
Morning:Your Crescent City song best begins with beignets (New Orleans-style doughnuts) and café au lait (half chicory-infused coffee, half steamed milk) on the open-air patio at Café Du Monde, where funky street performers clue you in to the city's rhythm. Then it's time for a formal introduction: Visit New Orleans' 16 historic neighborhoods on a city tour, such as John McCusker's Cradle of Jazz Tour (Saturdays only), a two-and-a-half-hour outing for true music lovers. You'll see the former homes and hangouts of musicians like Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and King Oliver, all set to a soundtrack form McCrusker's extensive collection of vintage recordings.
Afternoon: Lunch on Jambalaya at a French Quarter eatery, then walk toward St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. There you'll catch a horse-and-carriage ride, led by an eccentric New Orleans character who'll show you the heart and soul of the city. If you prefer to establish your own tempo, follow the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau's self-guided walking tour or set out on your own and let the treasures of the Quarter unfold unplanned.
Evening: Tonight it's traditional Creole fare for dinner with live Zydeco music on the side for an evening that's distinctly Louisiana. When dinner's done, you know where you'll be headed: straight for Preservation Hall, the city's premier jazz music venue. It's everything you hoped it would be.
Day 2: Razzama-Jazz
Morning: The ambiance is relaxed elegance at an all-you-can-eat jazz brunch featuring everything from mimosas to duck l'orange to bread pudding; get a table on the patio to dine near the band. Then head off to the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. A downloadable audio walking tour (available at nps.gov/jazz) takes you from the park to 11 other significant musical heritage sites-including Congo Square, where Creole music took its shape.
Afternoon: After the tour, a Muffaleta sandwich from Central Grocery will fuel you up for a visit to Tremé, an historic African-American neighborhood where much of New Orleans' music has roots. Tremé's Backstreet Cultural Museum details such traditions as jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians and second line parades; special exhibits on Louis Armstrong, Jellyroll Morton, Fats Domino and other local legends will inspire greatness in you.
Evening: The tone is set for dinner at Palm Court Jazz Café, where jazz den surrounds attract impromptu performances from local stars. Afterwards, hop a cab to Snug Harbor in the Faubourg Marigny, and you might just see Charmaine Neville or Ellis Marsalis take to the stage. To get to more top music clubs, consider taking the Magic Music Bus for just a few bucks; with luck, you'll ride with a local who shares insider tips.
Day 3: New Orleans Rocks
Morning: Re-energize with a cup ‘o joe and muffin from a nearby coffee shop, then head over to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World you'll immerse yourself in sequins and sparkle at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World. There you'll immerse yourself in sequins and sparkle with a warehouse tour featuring carnival's outrageous costumes and parade floats.
Afternoon: Board the St. Charles Streetcar for a relaxing ride Uptown through the picturesque Garden District, or head straight to Magazine Street, one of the funkiest strips of antique shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars and cafes in the country. Lunch at a neighborhood Po Boy Shop is gumbo and "dressed" Po Boy sandwiches, then it's time to pound the pavement in search of souvenirs-you'll likely spend hours rummaging the racks of Jim Russell Records for hard-to-find jazz recordings.
Evening: Get in tune with Uptown tonight, starting at Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘N Bowl, an unlikely-but amazing-music venue where the sounds of Kermit Ruffins and other Big Easy stars will accompany your strikes and spares. Have an order of Red Beans ‘N Rice, then head out to see who's playing at the Maple Leaf Bar, Le Bon Temps Roule or Tipitina's.
Day 4: Music Appreciation
Morning: Sleep in a bit this morning-then treat yourself to an indulgent gospel brunch (Sundays only). When you've had your fill of live gospel music, grits and crawdads, head to WWOZ's headquarters for a behind-the-scenes tour. The listener-supported radio station airs a superlative playlist of blues, jazz, Zydeco, Cajun, gospel and more.
Afternoon: A praline is a tasty snack to pack for your tour of New Orleans' Cities of the Dead, ornate above-ground cemeteries where some of the Big Easy's greatest music legends-Louis Prima, Buddy Bolden, Jessie Hill and Al Hirt-lie. When the tour lets you off back in the Quarter, make a bee-line to the French Market to look for used CDs and music memorabilia among the vendors' wares.
Evening: You need not go far for dinner tonight: Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville Café, for cheeseburgers (and more) is just steps from the market. You'll want to stick around to hear the featured local bands of the night, but finish off the evening with a bang: at the bars and live music venues of Bourbon Street.
Day 5: A Standing Ovation
Morning: Stroll into a French Quarter café for breakfast, then visit one of city's other great attractions: the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park, WWII Museum, Louisiana State Museum, Pharmacy Museum, Audobon Aquarium of the Americas or Audobon Zoo, to name a few.
Afternoon: Dress to impress for lunch today-you can't leave the city without dining at Emeril's, Brennan's, K-Paul's or Commander's Palace (where the Turtle Soup is a must-have.) Then enjoy the afternoon at your leisure: Revisit some stores in the Quarter or check out a few funky voodoo shops.
Evening: As the sun sets, board the Steamboat Natchez or Creole Queen for a jazz dinner and cruise of the Mississippi River. Soak in the views during the two-hour ride, and after disembarking head to the House of Blues. You'll enjoy a cocktail and (schedule permitting) catch a concert by the likes of Eric Clapton or Better Than Ezra. Don't leave early: The rockin' late-night dance parties start at midnight and feature everything from swing to salsa to Cajun-but you'll be singing the blues when it's time to leave.
New Orleans Lagniappe
Beautiful... mysterious... festive... and just plain fun, New Orleans is a city of many faces. Southern Hospitality is just the beginning. There is a depth of history in the Crescent City that lends richness to every tour, every museum, every jazz club and every neighborhood, and visitors cannot wait to experience the next New Orleans treasure. This 5-day itinerary offers some of the city's best highlights and is punctuated with insider information that will make every visitor feel like they created their own private experience of NOLA.
Day 1: Neighborhood Know-How
New Orleans boasts 17 unique neighborhoods, accessible by foot, bicycle, carriage ride, trolley, bus or even kayak. Before heading out, get your hands on a few good maps. The New Orleans CVB's Self-Guided French Quarter Walking Tour is a must have, while the Preservation Resource Center's Historic Neighborhoods of New Orleans (on-line at http://www.prcno.org/) provides concise info about each of the city's 17 national historic districts.
Morning: First things first: Beignets. Crispy, warm and sweet, these Creole doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar are technically a "square" meal, especially when combined with a café au lait (equal parts coffee, chicory and milk). Café Du Monde, open 24/7, is ready for breakfast when you are and offers the quintessential New Orleans wake up. After breakfast, a guided tour of the city allows visitors to get their bearings in several of New Orleans' most active neighborhoods: the French Quarter, Garden District, Central Business District (CBD), the Warehouse/Arts District and Uptown.
Afternoon: After the tour, visitors can tuck into a New Orleans café to fill up on local flavor. A Po-Boy, whether filled with roast beef and gravy or BBQ-style fried oysters (or anything in between) is classic lunchtime fare. Offered everywhere from high-end dining rooms to value-conscious lunch counters, Po-Boys are hard to miss in the French Quarter-and who would want to? Alternately, food lovers can check out one of New Orleans' culinary schools for a lesson in Creole and/or Cajun cuisine. Then, dine on the specialty prepared by the chef. After lunch, break out that CVB Self Guided French Quarter Walking Tour, and bask in the glory of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, wrought iron balconies and copious bougainvilleas (when in season!). Tired of walking? Hop on the trolley for just $1.25 and let the good times roll.
Evening: The good times are always rolling on Bourbon Street. Named for French royalty-not for the libation-this pedestrian thoroughfare is nevertheless a bastion of great bars and clubs. Of course, there's live entertainment on every corner as well.
Day 2: Plantations & Paddlewheelers
Morning: If you're up for a drive, several historic plantation homes are within 75 miles of the city and can be considered for a day-trip or even an overnight visit-some are now bed and breakfast inns and provide the ultimate in Antebellum romance. Alternately, there are also plantation homes just a few miles from New Orleans along scenic River Road and can be accessed by bicycle trail atop the levee. Within the city limits, visitors can look back at plantation life, too, with a visit to the home which was used in the filming of Ann Rice's Interview with a Vampire.
Afternoon: If you have not set out for a full-day plantation trip, set your sights on the water for a lunchtime cruise on a Mississippi River paddle-wheeler. Several operators run two-hour excursions around the harbor or along the river and offer a buffet spread along the way. Afterwards, check out the shopping opportunities along the Riverwalk or meander to the charming riverfront arcade in the French Quarter for excellent local products and tons of jewelry, voodoo dolls, carnival masks and more.
Evening: Leave an hour to freshen up at your hotel because tonight is the night for a uniquely New Orleans repast. Among the Grandes Dames of Creole are several French Quarter restaurants, where locals and visitors revel in NOLA decadence.
Day 3: Culture & Crescendos
Morning: A light breakfast will likely hit the spot and provide a quick start to a day exploring New Orleans' unique and often mysterious culture. Head for the Garden District via the streetcar at St. Charles Avenue and Common and disembark at Louisiana Avenue. Get the lowdown on voodoo burial traditions at the Lafayette Cemetery. Ogle the neighborhood's majestic homes with Greek Revival, Victorian and occasional Creole architectural facades. The wedding cake house at 5800 Charles Avenue is a must-see.
Afternoon: Stay in the Garden District for lunch, where retro diners, eclectic bistros and fine dining establishments line Magazine Street. Or, hop on the Magazine Street bus and journey downtown through an odyssey of funky, hip shops and art galleries into the Central Business and Arts District for a bite to eat before checking out the galleries. Standouts here are numerous museums, some of which offer free glassblowing and printmaking demonstrations.
Evening: It's always jazz night in New Orleans, so there's no chance of getting away from great tunes while in town. There are certain experiences, however, that are not to be missed. Visitors with any interest in jazz must take a shot at seeing Ellis Marsalis or Charmaine Neville perform at Snug Harbor (Frenchman St., Faubourg/Marigny) most Fridays and Mondays, respectively. For a much less formal affair, get back down to St. Peter's St. in the French Quarter for an inspired session at Preservation Hall. The latter is even appropriate for kids.
Day 4: Born on the Bayou
Morning: It's no secret that much of New Orleans is reclaimed swampland, and with that comes estuaries, egrets and alligators... all of which offer great sightseeing opportunities. Visitors should head back to the water for a boat tour of Louisiana's teeming estuaries and/or a land tour of the Jean Lafitte National Park Wetlands Preserve.
Afternoon: If you skipped the plantations earlier, at least stop for lunch at one of these magnificent structures-several of which now offer restaurants. Alternately, get back into town but keep it casual by grabbing a muffuletta at Central Grocery on Decatur St. and picnic by the river or in Jackson Square. Or, try the Gumbo Shop, a 53-year-old institution in New Orleans. Revisit the markets in the French Quarter-now that you're feeling sentimental toward the Crescent City-and pick up the souvenirs that you passed over the first time. Continue to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas to complete your tour of Louisiana wildlife.
Evening: Get your Cajun on at one of New Orleans' dinner and dance venues. Dance instructors teach visitors the "Cajun Waltz" while they dine on Cajun specialties and listen to live Cajun and Zydeco music. Late-night opportunities can be Cajun, bluesy or funky, thanks to a few New Orleans' originals: Rock-N-Bowl offers Cajun, Zydeco, swing and rhythm & blues alongside late-night bowling; in the Quarter, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop is an 18th-century candlelit cavern with live piano music.
Day 5: In the Spirit of New Orleans
Morning: If it's Sunday, visitors should soak up the spirit of the New Orleans with a "Gospel" or "Jazz" Brunch. With high-end cuisine or down-home soul food, the essence of New Orleans is captured in food, friendship and just the kind of joyous dis-inhibition that makes the most distant visitors a part of the grand mosaic of the city.
Afternoon: Linger over that last café au lait before wandering down the street that seemed intriguing three days ago but you never explored; sit for a while and have your portrait sketched by an artist in Jackson Square. Gaze on the Mighty Mississippi, listen to the trills of the paddle-wheelers and hear the clickety-clack of carriage horses as they make their way through charming avenues. As the city continues on its easy pace, visitors will understand the lull and the pull that make New Orleans America's Most Unique Destination-and they inevitably think about when and how they will come back.