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They don’t call New Orleans the Big Easy for nothing. It’s an easy place to have drink and eat excessively, and, like a breath of fresh air —just be yourself. The freedom is contagious. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting caught up in the revelry, and dancing in the streets to a band on a corner blowing like there’s no tomorrow. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s Mardi Gras or not. The town is feverish and festive—always.

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The French Quarter, especially Bourbon Street, gets all the attention. No doubt, it is the center of the New Orleans universe, but if you’re in town and don’t venture beyond it to the Faubourg, the outlying neighborhoods, you’ll cheat yourself big time.

Saint Louis Cemetery

To get the lay of the land, hop on a bike. The Creole & Crescent Tour with Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours starts in the French Quarter and rolls into the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods where you’ll check out New Orleans’ first suburb boasting the largest collection of 19th-century homes in the nation and cool, bohemian hangouts including the mansions and centuries old oak trees lining Esplanade Avenue. There’s a stop at Saint Louis Cemetery, one the city’s most famous, then onward to Bayou St. John and City Park, home to the largest grove of mature Oak trees in the world.

Take a break at City Park for French beignets and other goodies at the Morning Call Café. The three-hour tour wouldn’t be complete without hitting Treme, the birthplace of jazz and where the Storyville red light district once was. Along the way, you’ll pass through Frenchmen Street, Armstrong Park, Congo Square and other must-see spots. You’ll ride 8-10 miles, but it’s flat terrain, so quite doable, even for the novice. Tour guide and New Orleans native Laura is a hoot, and knows the town’s history like a pro. You’ll learn and laugh. “There’s no place like New Orleans,” she says. “Not in Louisiana, not in the U.S., not anywhere in the world.”

Shrimp and grits | Flickr CC: vxla

One thing is for sure, New Orleans cuisine is like none other. While there is no shortage of restaurants that are considered New Orleans classics, like Antoine’s and Arnaud’s, creativity continues to cook in N’awlins. Late last year celeb chef Emeril Lagasse introduced his fourth restaurant in New Orleans, Meril, named after his daughter. Contemporary American cuisine is artfully served in this Warehouse District restaurant that has favorites like candied pork ribs, jerk chicken thighs, upside-down cornbread with pineapple, and house made bacon marmalade and a variety of flat breads. In the last couple of years, places like Carrollton Market in the Riverbend District have also popped up. To call it exquisite food, doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s casual, yet sophisticated, and worth the trek even if you’re coming from the French Quarter. If you try just one thing on the menu, make it Oysters Goodenough—flash fried oysters, Benton’s Bacon from Tennessee, creamed leaks and béarnaise sauce.

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Preservation Hall | Flickr CC: Infrogmation of New Orleans

If you’re a music lover, especially jazz, you’ll have a hard time leaving town. The musicians are serious. Visit rustic Preservation Hall for that brand of New Orleans jazz like no other. Venture beyond the French Quarter to Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. Every club on the strip—The Spotted Cat, The Blue Nile, Maison—features genres like live jazz, rock and reggae—and each one raises the roof. Better still, most charge no cover, and the drinks are cheap. How about a $5 gin and tonic, not watered down?

When you recover from your long night/morning, further clear your head with a Garden District Walking Tour to check out antebellum mansions and the homes of author Anne Rice, Nicholas Cage, John Goodman and others. Or stroll the six-mile stretch of Magazine Street with its homegrown boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants. Locals love the Funky Monkey thrift store, Fun Rockin, Fleurty Girl and Simon’s Art and Antiques.

History buffs will be in awe of the National WWII Museum which is highly interactive and personal and told through a soldier’s journey. This, plus the poignant artifacts, and 4D cinematic experience will give you a history lesson you won’t forget.

Photo courtesy of The Troubadour Hotel

New Orleans isn’t a place you go to sleep, but you will need to at some point. Consider the elegant Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the heart of the French Quarter, or check out the just opened stylish The Troubadour in the Central Business District. Just like everything in New Orleans, there are many choices. Choose wisely.

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Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl is a writer and editor, specializing in travel, personal finance, business and career topics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Money, DailyFinance.com, Forbes.com, ABCNews.com, Upscale Magazine, Essence, Black Enterprise and others.

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