Nightlife -- There are two main streets hopping every night of the week, and you should familiarize yourself with the attractions and vibes of both. Bourbon Street is where every out-of-town visitor you host will want to immediately go. Stroll the raucous first nine blocks starting at Canal Street for strip clubs, super-strong cocktails like Hurricanes and Hand Grenades, street hustlers and tacky T-shirt shops -- but hidden gems include world-class restaurants and great piano bars. You can then head across Esplanade Avenue out of the Quarter downriver into the tres chic Faubourg Marigny, where you'll find Frenchmen Street, a hipper, more-locals-oriented stretch of restaurants, music clubs, straight-up watering holes and fabulous people-watching. On Halloween and Fat Tuesday, Frenchmen is a wild, everybody's-costumed-and-crazy street party like no other.
Festivals -- They are a huge part of life in Louisiana, with entire weekends spent celebrating music, strawberries, petroleum, shrimp and other local specialties. The big dawg on this porch, of course, is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, (www.nojazzfest.com), held annually the last weekend in April and first weekend in May, when the Fair Grounds delight all afternoon and the night shows go all night. The Voodoo Music Experience (www.voodoomusicfest.com) held in City Park's Marconi Meadows annually around Halloween has grown to attract big-name acts. This year, headliners include Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters and the Flaming Lips. The French Quarter Festival is a growing free-admission precursor to Jazz Fest in mid-April. Other favorites are the Louisiana Swamp Fest in the Audubon Zoo in October (www.auduboninstitute.org/swampfest), Essence Music Festival in July (www.essence.com/emf), and the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (www.tennesseewilliams.net) in March, to name a few.
Big Names -- Nationally touring music acts, comedians and the like come to New Orleans regularly, so check Gambit Weekly for the attractions at these local big-venue favorites: The New Orleans Arena (1501 Girod St., 587-3663; www.neworleansarena.com); Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena (6801 Franklin Ave., 288-7222; www.arena.uno.edu); the Orpheum Theater (129 University Place, 524-3285; www.orpheumneworleans.com), the Saenger Theatre (143 N. Rampart St., 524-2490; www.saengertheatre.com) and the State Palace Theater (1108 Canal St., 522-4435; www.statepalace.com).
Flicks -- For blockbusters and mainstream cinema (plus stadium seating and great sound) head into suburbia (see Gambit Weekly film listings for theater info). Independent, foreign and quirky releases find a home at Canal Place (333 Canal St., 581-5400). An old-school favorite from the days of neighborhood movie-houses is the Prytania Theatre (5339 Prytania St., 891-2787). There's also The Entergy IMAX Theater at the Aquarium of the Americas (1 Canal St., 581-4629). Visit www.bestofneworleans.com for what's showing, movie times, tickets, directions, reviews and more.
While the metro-area suburbs seem to extend for miles, you'll find pristine bayous and swamps, beaches, gambling and more just outside the city. Jean Lafitte National Park (www.nps.gov/jela) offers ranger-guided canoe tours through the swamps on full moons, miles of nature trails, amazing wildflowers in April and is just 30 minutes down Highway 45 (exit Barataria Boulevard off the West Bank Expressway). The Mississippi Gulf Coast (www.gulfcoast.org) offers chill, quaint towns such as Bay St. Louis, Ocean Springs and Pass Christian that feel like a galaxy far, far away from the Big Easy, plus shockingly vacant white-sand beaches and huge casinos in Gulfport and Biloxi. Drive three hours and you reach Florida, an easy road trip to some of the country's finest beaches. In Louisiana, the city of Lafayette (www.lafayettetravel.com) lies in the heart of Cajun country a 150-minute drive west, offering plenty of nightlife with the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, music festivals and great restaurants.
WHAT YOU'LL BE TESTED ON
Kickin' back. A tradition among local students is hanging out at The Fly, a nickname for an area of Audubon Park that offers a large recreation area along the Mississippi River Uptown. Most afternoons in better weather (fall and spring), you'll find guys throwing Frisbees, girls laying out, beer drinking, crawfish boils, picnics and more. Sunday is the day here, and a great place to hang out or chat up that special someone you've been eyeing in English class.
There is plenty of big-league sports action in New Orleans, with NBA stars playing for and against the Hornets (www.hornets.com), the Shell Shockers pro soccer team (www.noshellshockers.com) and the Zephyrs, the Washington Nationals-affiliated Class AAA baseball club (www.zephyrsbaseball.com). But, have no doubt -- this city bleeds black and gold for our beloved Saints (www.neworleanssaints.com). Is there any team better suited for its host city? The seemingly cursed, steady celebrating Saints are truly hometown heroes, and Sundays in the Louisiana Superdome are quite an experience, an emotional roller coaster shared with strange, though authentically New Orleans, bedfellows.