With A hodgepodge of cultures — French, Spanish, Caribbean, African and more — New Orleans can rightfully claim to be unlike any other North American city. At the height of its glory days, just before the Civil War, New Orleans rivaled New York for status as America’s wealthiest city. At the same time, the “Big Easy” welcomed nearly as many immigrants as the “Big Apple,” adding to its rich cultural diversity. Though the Civil War devastated New Orleans’ economy, the city was revitalized during the beginning of the 20th century through art, literature, cuisine and, of course, jazz.

“Nouvelle-Orleans” dates back to 1718, when the French, realizing they needed to protect their interests from Spanish and British competition in the New World, chose a small patch of swampland within their vast Louisiana Territory to be the site of a small fort. The French thought the spot held great potential for transportation because of the valuable bayou connecting the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

The venture was unsuccessful. For years, France tried to entice its own citizens, as well as Germans to move to Louisiana. Although more than 7,000 settlers came to the new colony, many died of disease or starvation and the colonial government was unprepared to aid its settlers with food and shelter.

By 1762, the unprofitable colony had become a disappointment and financial burden to France, who was now immersed in the French and Indian War. To persuade Spanish leaders to help France fight the British, French King Louis XV secretly handed Louisiana over to his cousin, King Charles III of Spain. Little changed in New Orleans under Spanish control, and despite efforts to attract Spanish colonists, most of the new settlers continued to be French or French-speakers. (Visitors today can still see the one significant Spanish contribution to the city’s architecture. Massive fires in 1788 and 1794 devastated the Vieux Carré — or “Old Square” — and the Spaniards rebuilt most of the city to what is known today, ironically, as the French Quarter, with its wrought-iron balconies and shaded courtyards.)

In 1800, Spain transferred the Louisiana Territory back to France, who controlled it again for three years before selling the land to the United States for $15 million. The Cabildo, 701 Chartres St., is where representatives from both countries formally agreed to the Louisiana Purchase.

American settlers quickly sought fortune in the growing city of New Orleans. The English-speakers, unwelcome in the French Quarter, created their own American Quarter (now the Central Business and Garden districts). Canal Street divided the two and became known as “neutral ground.” Resentment was so strong that, for a short period of time, the two sections of town were actually governed separately. Even today, street names change as they cross Canal Street from the French Quarter into the Central Business District.

Changing economy
The Americans didn’t need to wait long for an economic boom. The first steamboat to arrive in the city, appropriately named the New Orleans, docked in 1812. The invention allowed boats to travel upstream, instead of being restricted to the direction of the current. New Orleans quickly became a prosperous center of trade and commerce; between 1814 and 1834, steamboat arrivals increased from 20 to 1,200 per year. Despite difficult living conditions and yellow fever epidemics that killed thousands, New Orleans’ expanding population hit 170,000 by 1860.

The steam engine that aided New Orleans’ economic growth, eventually led to its decline. Improved railroad technology significantly altered the country’s economic situation. Midwestern and Southern states could move goods to the East by rail much more quickly and cheaply than by boat. No longer a shipping hub, New Orleans turned to agriculture, producing cotton and sugarcane, and as a result, wealthy plantation owners grew to rely on slave labor for profit. As a result, on January 26, 1861, Louisiana became the sixth state to secede from the Union.

New Orleans’ golden age was clearly over by the end of the Civil War. Louisiana’s economy suffered major losses and the farming business never again equaled what it had been before the War. The French Quarter, once the most prosperous area of the city, was now a seedy and run-down slum. By the 1920s, however, the city began preservation efforts on many of the historically significant buildings. New Orleans’ cultural life recovered as jazz began to dominate the nightlife, with natives Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong making their mark on the music scene. Artists and writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, moved to the French Quarter for creative inspiration. Williams’ home at 632 St. Peter St., where he lived while writing “A Streetcar Named Desire,” is still there.

Today, tourism is the largest source of revenue in the city, as visitors come to explore the “Crescent City’s” rich historical past and varied culture. Tourists line the streets every year for the famous Mardi Gras celebrations and come in droves for the annual Jazz Festival. But year-round, there is much to explore in America’s own European city. New Orleans offers much for art lovers, nature enthusiasts and history buffs alike.

New Orleans residents have been burying their dead above ground in elaborate tombs for centuries. Because the city sits below sea level, any coffins buried underground resurfaced during floods. The safest and most encouraged way to visit these cemeteries is with the Save Our Cemeteries guided tours of the two most significant “cities of the dead.” Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is a favorite with vampire novelist Anne Rice fans and made an appearance in the film “Interview with a Vampire.” St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the final home of many of old New Orleans’ most important citizens, as well as the supposed Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. For more information, call (888) 721-7493 or go online.

For another escape outdoors, the 1,500-acre City Park offers four golf courses, a botanical garden and a small amusement park for young children. It is also home to the New Orleans Art Museum. The park, which is larger than New York City’s Central Park, is known for its centuries-old live Oak trees. And don’t forget to take a spin on the turn-of-the-century carousel.

A popular shopping destination, Riverwalk Marketplace runs half a mile along the Mississippi between the Morial Convention Center and the Aquarium of the Americas. Visit more than 140 retail and local artisan stores, plus a giant food court featuring New Orleans favorites. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.-7 p.m. For more information, call (504) 522-1555 or visit their website.

For a unique view of New Orleans, see the city by streetcar, as residents began doing more than 150 years ago. The St. Charles Streetcar operates 24 hours a day and runs along St. Charles Avenue from Claiborne Avenue to Canal Street. The 13.13-mile journey in cars built during the 1920s costs $1.25. For a shorter trip, hop on the Riverfront Streetcar near the Morial Convention Center. For $1.50, take the 1.9-mile scenic ride along the Mississippi in the modern cars.

To see spectacular views of the cityscape from the Mississippi River, take a ride on New Orleans’ other historic mode of transportation, the riverboat. Two popular passenger boats are the Creole Queen Paddlewheeler, 27 Poydras St. Wharf, (800) 445-4109, www.neworleanspaddlewheels.com, and the Steamboat Natchez, Toulouse St. Wharf, behind Jackson Brewery, (504) 586-8777, www.steamboatnatchez.com. Check schedules for cruise options — there are jazz cruises, dinner or lunch cruises, daytime cruises and other excursions available.

Located on the Mississippi riverfront at #1 Canal Street, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas gives visitors a look at more than 500 aquatic species. Walk through the 30-foot-long clear tunnel surrounded by water and Caribbean fish, pet a baby shark or catch a glimpse of the rare white alligator (Cajun folklore says spotting one will bring good luck). Check out the aquarium’s special exhibit “Frogs!” and clear up any misconceptions you may have about these critters. Or relax at one of the latest IMAX movies. The aquarium is open daily, 9:30 a.m.- 7 p.m. and admission is $8 for children, $11 for seniors and $15 for adults (ask about special package deals for admission to the Audubon Zoo and IMAX movies). Click for more information, or call (800) 774-7394.

For a wide range of art options, try the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park, One Collins Diboll Circle. The 40,000-piece collection includes three Imperial Easter eggs and other works by Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, as well as an extensive collection of American and French art, most notably a number of paintings by French impressionist Edgar Degas, who visited New Orleans during the 1870s. A visit to the Degas House, 2306 Esplanade Ave., is also a possibility.

Opening November 13 at the art museum is the special exhibit, “Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan,” which features works the self-taught New Orleans artist created during the 1960s and 1970s. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Thursdays 12:30-8:30 p.m. and admission is $4 for children, $7 for seniors and students, and $8 for adults. Click for more information, or call (504) 488-2631.

The art museum’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden is free to the public. The 5-acre garden opened last year and is home to 50 modern and contemporary sculptures. Hours are the same as the museum.

Modern art fans may enjoy the Contemporary Art Center, 900 Camp St., a converted warehouse that offers rotating visual arts exhibits, as well as music, dance and dramatic performances. November exhibits are “Robin Levy: Confronting our Bodies” and “Arnold Mesches: The FBI Files.” The Center’s Cyber Bar and Café offers free Internet access for visitors. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and admission is $3 for students and seniors, and $5 for adults; children 15 and under are free. Use link for more information, or call (504) 539-9602.

For the world’s largest collection of American Southern art, check out the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St. The collection includes works from 15 states and Washington D.C., ranging from the 18th century to the present. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and open Thursdays until 8:30 p.m. Admission is $5 for children, $8 for students and seniors, and $10 for adults; children 5 and under are free. Click link for more information, or call (504) 539-9602.

Louisiana’s oldest operating museum, the Memorial Hall Confederate Civil War Museum, 929 Camp St., houses the nation’s second largest collection of Confederate memorabilia. View photographs, uniforms, weapons and flags. See the stage where more than 60,000 people viewed Jefferson Davis’ body, which laid in state for 1-1/2 days. It is now a memorial to the former Confederate President. Memorial Hall is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and admission in $2 for children, $4 for students and seniors, and $5 for adults. For more information, use link or call (504) 523-4522.

Built in 1835 under President Andrew Jackson as a means of financing westward expansion, the Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., is the only building in the country that coined both U.S. and Confederate currency. In operation from 1838-1909, the Mint opened in 1981 as a branch of the Louisiana State Museum. Today, the museum chronicles the history of minting and offers a range of exhibits including a gallery devoted to the history of New Orleans jazz. Hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m-5 p.m., and admission is $4 for students, seniors and active military, and $5 for adults; children 12 and under are free. For more information, call (504) 568-6968 or go to the site.

The National D-Day Museum, 945 Magazine St., traces the United States’ role in World War II and is the only museum in the country dedicated to the events surrounding the Normandy invasion in Europe, as well as campaigns in the Pacific. The museum is housed in the old Andrew Higgins factory that built ships during WWII, including the landing craft used on D-Day. The museum is open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and admission is $6 for children and active and retired military and spouse, $8 for students and seniors, and $14 for adults; children under 5 and military in uniform are free. For more information, call (504) 527-6012 or go to the site.

No visit to New Orleans is complete without a trip to one of its world-famous jazz clubs. Only a few of many are listed here; explore the French Quarter to find your own musical treasures.

Housed in an 18th century building, Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peters St., was created to protect traditional New Orleans jazz. Families are welcome. Open 8 p.m.-midnight, sets begin at 8:15 p.m. Admission is $5, and no reservations are accepted. Call (504) 522-2841 for more information or go online.

If your taste is more modern, grab dinner or drinks at Snug Harbor, 626 Frenchmen St., where up-and-coming artists are making their mark on the contemporary jazz scene. Doors open at 8:15 p.m., sets begin at 9 p.m and 11 p.m. For reservations, call (504) 949-0696.

A favorite with the locals, Sweet Lorraine’s, 1931 St. Claude Ave., is a bit farther afield, and you may need to take a cab, but it’s worth the trip. Call (504) 410-9654 for tickets, $30 or $40 for VIP seating (limit 2).

The Blue Nile, 532 Frenchmen St., offers a little bit of everything with jazz, blues, Latin, rock and funk performances all under one roof. The nightclub offers free salsa lessons every Friday, 9:30 p.m.- 10:30 p.m. Jazz piano happy hour is Monday-Thursday, 7 p.m.-9 p.m. For information and schedules, use link or call (504) 948-BLUE.

It’s not a jazz club, but Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, once used by New Orleans’ most well-known pirate, Jean Lafitte, in his illegal trade business, takes patrons back to the 18th century. One of the few buildings that survived the French Quarter fires during the 1700s, the bar, on the corner of Bourbon and St. Phillip Streets, is supposedly the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. It may look run-down, but this cozy joint, lit by candlelight, is a favorite stop for both tourists and locals for a late-night beer. Call (504) 523-0066.

New Orleans is also home to a variety of theater options, for any taste. End an evening in the “Big Easy” with a play, a musical or even an opera.

An 87-year-old theater group, Le Petit Theatre Du Vieux Carre, 616 Saint Peter St., is credited with helping to revive the French Quarter during the 1920s. “Tru,” the one-man show about Truman Capote, the New Orleans author who wrote “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” opens November 18. For more information, call (504) 522-2081.

Located on the third floor of the Shops at Canal Place, Southern Repertory Theatre, 365 Canal St., will present “Intimate Apparel,” which tells the story of a young, African-American woman living in New York City at the turn of the century. The show runs November 17-December 12. For more information, call (504) 522-6545.

At first glance, New Orleans may not seem like the place for opera, but the New Orleans Opera Association is the oldest in North America. “The Tales of Hoffman” by Jacques Offenbach will play at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts, 801 N. Rampart St., November 18 and 20. For more information, call (800) 881-4459.

The Saenger Theatre, 143 North Rampart St., was built in 1927 and is one of many historical landmarks in the city. The interior resembles an Italian baroque courtyard. The theater will present the musical “Oliver!” November 16-21. For more information, call (504) 524-2490.

Dining Guide
With more than 3,000 restaurants in the city, dining in New Orleans is an adventure in itself. Residents pride themselves on unique and exciting cuisine, and the Cajun and Creole fare is unbeatable.

Near the Morial Center
Emeril’s New Orleans, 800 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 528-9393. It’s tough to get a table here, and the prices are steep, but it may be worth it to sample the famous Emeril Lagasse’s experimental cooking. Try the butterflied shrimp with rosemary-flecked biscuits in a wine and Worcestershire sauce or the grilled, double-cut pork chop covered with a Mexican chili-based green mole sauce. Price: Very expensive; reservations highly recommended.

Restaurant Cuvee, 322 Magazine St., (504) 587-9001. Besides some great wine, this restaurant offers a mix of Creole, French and Spanish cooking. Sample some Louisiana crawfish or local oysters with Parmigiano-Reggiano and white truffle oil. Price: Expensive; reservations recommended.

Eleven 79, 1179 Annunciation St., (504) 299-1179. Once an old merchant’s cottage, this unique restaurant combines the flavors of Italian and Creole cooking. Try the grilled calamari or the Veal Eleven 79, served with a lemon sauce, roasted red peppers, asparagus and buffalo mozzarella. Price: Moderate; reservations recommended.

Mulate’s, 201 Julia St., (504) 522-1492. This is a great spot for some real New Orleans flavor, with live Cajun music and dancing to boot. For a sampling of the Cajun cuisine, go with the Catfish Mulate’s, a plate of etouffée, jambalaya and corn macque choux. The more adventurous can try alligator: fried, grilled or blackened. Price: Moderate.

Mother Clucker’s, 132 Carondelet St., (504) 528-0099. For something quick, cheap and a bit different, Mother Clucker’s is the place to go. Not only does this place serve up Southern-style chicken dishes, but the brightly painted walls are covered with chickens taking part in traditional New Orleans activities. Price: Inexpensive.

Ugly Dog Saloon & BBQ, 401 Andrew Higgins Dr., (504) 569-8459. An old warehouse, the Ugly Dog is a fun stop for a quick drink or some cheap Southern eats: barbecue brisket sandwiches, spare-ribs or pulled pork. Price: Inexpensive.

French Quarter
Rib Room, Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, 621 St. Louis St., (504) 529-7046. A comfortable barbecue spot, this upscale joint is often considered one of the best steakhouses in the city. Price: Expensive.

Antoine’s Restaurant, 713 St. Louis St., (504) 581-4422. This 160-year-old restaurant is the place to go for great French-Creole food. Even the menu is in French. Antoine’s is the birthplace of oysters Rockefeller (oysters topped with spinach and absinthe-flavored liqueur.) Price: Expensive.

Galatoire’s, 209 Bourbon St., (504) 525-2021. Galatoire’s offers classic Creole dining, plus it serves as a great people-watching spot (local politicians like to stop by). Try their well-known Trout Marguery, a rolled filet of poached trout with shrimp, mushrooms and hollandaise sauce. Price: Moderate to expensive; jacket required.

Bayona, 430 Dauphine St., (504) 525-4455. Bayona features interesting versions of Mediterranean classics, served in a brightly-colored and appealing dining room. Price: Moderate.

Stella!, 1032 Chartres St., (504) 587-0091. Stella! is a bit off the beaten path, but its Creole and American dishes are worth the search. Price: Moderate.

Napoleon House Café, 500 Chartres St., (504) 524-9752. Don’t miss this unique and casual spot. Intended as a home for Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile, the former French emperor died before he could make it to New Orleans. Today, the cozy dining room serves a popular muffaletta with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, Swiss and provolone cheese and olive salad. Price: Inexpensive.

Café du Monde, 1039 Decatur St., (800) 772-2927 or at the Riverwalk Marketplace, 1 Poydras St., (504) 587-0841. A mostly open-air café that’s open 24/7, this spot is famous for its beignets and café au lait. Price: Inexpensive.

The Garden District and Uptown
Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Ave., (504) 899-8221. Probably one of the most well-known restaurants in the city, this is the place for elegant dining. Don’t miss the restaurant’s signature turtle soup au sherry or bread pudding soufflé. Commander’s Palace, which opened in 1880, also offers a popular jazz brunch on Saturdays from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and Sundays from 10:30 a.m.- 1:30 p.m. Price: Very expensive, reservations necessary.

Brigtsen’s, 723 Dante St., (504) 861-7610. For fish lovers, Brigtsen’s offers its famous seafood platter. The sampling changes regularly, but often includes grilled drum fish with shrimp & corn macque choux sauce, crabmeat thermidor, baked oyster rockefeller and deviled crab. Meat lovers can try the braised rabbit. For dessert, try a peanut butter mousse sandwich. Price: Expensive.

Upperline, 1413 Upperline St., (504) 891-9822. If you can’t get enough of that Cajun and Creole fare, try Upperline’s seven-part Taste of New Orleans dinner: duck etouffée with corn cakes and Louisiana pepper jelly, oyster stew with watercress and andouille gumbo, fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade, spicy shrimp with jalapeño cornbread, roast duck with ginger peach sauce, and bread pudding with toffee sauce. Price: Expensive.

Sugar Magnolia, 1910 Magazine St., (504) 529-1110. This bistro gives customers a relaxed dining experience, while maintaining a classy atmosphere. Locals like to come here for the martinis. The restaurant, which opened in 2001, is actually made up of two 19th century buildings joined together. Price: Moderate.

Sara’s, 724 Dublin St., (504) 861-0565. This cozy spot is housed in a small cottage, but the cuisine is far from quaint. Sara’s gives diners a mix of Indian, Mediterranean, Thai, French and Creole dishes. (The chef is actually a molecular biologist by training.) And for drinks, try the mango daiquiri. Price: Moderate.