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 (online 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 daytrip 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 paddlewheeler. 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 disinhibition 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 paddlewheelers 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.