The French Quarter, New Orleans' oldest neighborhood, feels like an old movie. This 7-by-15-block area has loads of character with narrow streets, and two- and three-story French- and Spanish-inspired architecture. It's known for its plethora of bars and jazz clubs, which come to life at night, but the neighborhood is equally fascinating by day. Highlights include shopping along Royal Street, visiting the historic St. Louis Cathedral and people-watching on Jackson Square, a hangout for artists displaying their work on the sidewalk. There's also a lovely riverfront park with a walking path.
Jazz lovers will feel right at home in New Orleans. The city boasts a musical legacy that includes pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton -- but you can opt for traditional venues or more contemporary ones. The city's best jazz spots are located in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood (at the west end of the French Quarter). Don't miss Snug Harbor and Spotted Cat. In the French Quarter, Preservation Hall, though not a bar, is a premier venue. Another fascinating stop is the Louisiana Music Factory for its huge collection of jazz recordings.
Organized tours are the best way to gain an insider's view of local history and lore, and to visit the city's unique cemeteries, with their rows of elaborate above-ground tombs (many local cemeteries are unsafe for independent visitors, so always go with a group). Among the best walking tours are the French Quarter, Garden District, Cemetery/Voodoo and other tours offered by the well-qualified guides of Historic New Orleans Tours, Inc. For bus tours, Gray Line offers a number of excursions, including the aforementioned Hurricane Katrina tour.
The growing museum district around Lee Circle will interest art lovers. The handsome Ogden Museum of Southern Art features artists from throughout the region. The Contemporary Arts Center across the road, a combination theater and gallery, is as interesting for its architecture as for its offerings. Or check out the excellent National World War II Museum, where the highlight is an elaborate reconstruction of the Allied Forces' landing on Normandy in June 1944. Art lovers may also want to head over to Julia Street, in the city's up-and-coming Warehouse District, where there are numerous edgy and avant garde galleries.
New Orleans has a serious tradition of voodoo -- and you can sample it. Check out the small New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, where blue candles burn continually in honor of Marie Laveau, who was the Queen of Voodoo in the 1800s. Her grave in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is cluttered with mementos left by her legion of latter-day followers. You can still visit a voodoo temple, and you'll see voodoo dolls for sale all over town. You can learn all about the practices of voodoo on a Cemetery/Voodoo walking tour with Historic New Orleans Tours, Inc. The tour takes visitors to see the fabled cemeteries of New Orleans -- virtual cities with avenues of stately tombs built above ground because the water table is too high for underground burial.
Take a canoe ride down the bayou via Bayou Barn. The company is based at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve -- 20 minutes from downtown -- where you can sail your own canoe down Bayou des Familles and spot alligators, egrets, turtles, blue herons, bald eagles and more. Guides are available with advance reservations and an additional fee. The park also has walking trails.