With roads bending along the curves of the Mississippi River, a slew of one-way streets and difficult-to-pronounce thoroughfares like Tchoupitoulas Street, learning to navigate New Orleans requires an education all its own. But it's well worth the effort to explore the city's many unique and historic neighborhoods. Below is a primer on the city's neighborhoods and their main attractions.
Also known as the Vieux Carre, or "old square," the French Quarter is the original military-style grid the French colonists set up when the city was founded in 1718. Canal Street is its most notable border, and the district is bounded by North Rampart Street, Esplanade Avenue and the river. After three centuries of regime changes, wear and tear and a couple of catastrophic fires, the district features a blend of French and Spanish architecture and narrow streets lined by art and antique galleries, quaint shops, intimate cafes, dive bars, tourist attractions and colorful cottages and homes. The Quarter is best explored on foot, and one can walk from the historic center of Jackson Square and the landmark Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur St., 525-4544; www.cafedumonde.com) to the French Market and a more bohemian side of the district. At night, one can head to music clubs like the House of Blues (225 Decatur St., 310-4999; www.hob.com) and One Eyed Jacks (615 Toulouse St., 569-8361; www.oneeyedjacks.net) for a mix of touring acts and local bands, or wade into the raucous nightlife on Bourbon Street.
Neighboring the French Quarter is the Faubourg Marigny (or just Marigny), a predominantly residential neighborhood just downriver. Its main attraction is the busy stretch of music clubs and bars on Frenchmen Street. Often called the locals' alternative to Bourbon Street, it is home to bars and clubs featuring traditional and contemporary jazz, brass bands, New Orleans' funky rock and blues. Roots music and string bands are increasingly common. The cluster of restaurants includes the vegetarian friendly 13 (517 Frenchmen St., 942-1345; www.13monaghan.com), Creole soul-food hub The Praline Connection (542 Frenchmen St., 943-3943; www.pralineconnection.com) and more. Sprinkled throughout the neighborhood are popular bars like Mimi's in the Marigny (2601 Royal St., 872-9868) and the Lost Love Lounge (2529 Dauphine St., 949-2009; www.lostlovelounge.com) and breakfast spots like the New Orleans Cake Cafe and Bakery (2440 Chartres St., 943-0010; www.nolacakes.com) and La Peniche (1940 Dauphine St., 943-1460).
Continuing further downriver from the Marigny, one enters the Bywater, a more bohemian and artsy neighborhood sandwiched between St. Claude Avenue and the Mississippi River levee. One of the most popular destinations is Vaughan's Lounge (4229 Dauphine St., 947-5562) on Thursday nights when trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers host a jazz jam late into the night. The wine shop Bacchanal (600 Poland Ave., 948-9111; www.bacchanalwine.com) hosts live music in its backyard several nights a week, and there's food from either the house chef or a visiting chef. Dining options include Satsuma Cafe (3218 Dauphine St., 304-5962; www.satsumacafe.com), which highlights fresh produce, the Southern cooking at Elizabeth's (601 Gallier St.) and barbecue at The Joint (801 Poland Ave., 949-3232; www.alwayssmokin.com). The Country Club (634 Louisa St., 945-0742; www.thecountryclubneworleans.com) is a gay-friendly bar with a large pool, which is clothing-optional.
The HBO series Treme took its name from the neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter across North Rampart Street. It's the nation's oldest African-American neighborhood, and it's been home to many notable jazz musicians and extended musical families. Louis Armstrong Park is on the edge of the neighborhood, and it's home to the Mahalia Jackson Theater (1419 Basin St., 287-0351; www.mahaliajacksontheater.com), which hosts big-name concerts and traveling Broadway productions. The Candlelight Lounge (925 N. Robertson St., 571-1021) hosts brass bands on Wednesday nights, and Lil' Dizzy's Cafe (1500 Esplanade Ave., 569-8997) serves Creole cuisine. A few blocks over from Esplanade Avenue is St. Bernard Avenue, a lively home to Mardi Gras Indian and brass band-backed social aid and pleasure club parades, the backbones of the city's street-level music culture.
Mid-City is the sprawling neighborhood radiating out from the thoroughfares of Canal Street and Esplanade and Carrollton avenues. It's got all the charm of Uptown or Downtown, but with better parking, and it borders the tranquil expanses of New Orleans City Park and Bayou St. John. Some people like the neighborhood for its proximity to the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, held at the Fair Grounds Race Course (1751 Gentilly Blvd., 942-8328; www.fairgroundsracecourse.com). The neighborhood has a couple of prominent restaurant clusters, one on Esplanade Avenue that includes Santa Fe (3201 Esplanade Ave., 948-0077), Cafe Degas (3127 Esplanade Ave., 945-5635; www.cafedegas.com) and Lola's (3312 Esplanade Ave., 488-6946), and another near the intersection of Canal Street and Carrollton Avenue, with everything from pizza to Mexican and Italian cuisine and the long-time ice cream and sweet shop Angelo Brocato (214 N. Carrollton Ave., 486-1465; www.angelobrocatoicecream.com).
CBD /Warehouse District
Downtown New Orleans has a narrow strip of skyscrapers in the Central Business District punctuated by the Louisiana Superdome (1500 Sugar Bowl Drive, 587-3663; www.superdome.com). The strip edges the Warehouse District, defined by century-old warehouses converted into museums, art galleries, law offices, urbane restaurants and music clubs. It's a business district by day, but nightlife blossoms after 5 p.m. The neighborhood is as clubby as New Orleans gets, and Republic New Orleans (828 S. Peters St., 528-8282; www.republicnola.com) even sets up a velvet rope. A music hall with more casual ambience is The Howlin' Wolf (907 S. Peters St., 529-5844; www.thehowlinwolf.com). Museums include the National World War II Museum (945 Magazine St., 528-1944; www.nationalww2museum.org), the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp St., 528-3805; www.cacno.org), which features visual and performing arts, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp St., 539-9600; www.ogdenmuseum.org), which hosts a Thursday evening music series called Ogden After Hours.
Lower Garden District
Heading Uptown and up river from the Warehouse District, one enters the Lower Garden District, best known for funky antique and clothing shops, cheap eats and a handful of bars and watering holes. The Saint (961 St. Mary St., 523-0050; www.thesaintneworleans.com) is a windowless vault, home to an eclectic mix of doom rockers, tiki-themed karaoke nights and late-night antics. Juan's Flying Burrito (2018 Magazine St., 569-000; www.juansflyingburrito.com) adds some local twists to inexpensive California-Mexican food. Surrey's Cafe and Juice Bar (1418 Magazine St., 524-3828; www.surreyscafeandjuicebar.com) serves fresh squeezed juices.
In the middle of Uptown, the Garden District — bounded by Magazine Street and St. Charles, Louisiana and Jackson avenues — is a block of historic homes and mansions. Get your parents to splurge on dinner at Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Ave., 899-8221; www.commanderspalace.com) or pay your own way at The Rum House (3128 Magazine St., 941-7560; www.rumhousenola.com), which offers $2 tacos on Tuesdays. The Bulldog (3236 Magazine St., 891-1516; www.draftfreak.com) offers a wide array of domestic and imported beers on tap, and the Wednesday special lets you take your pint glass home. The Magazine Street border of the Garden District is also home to coffee shops, vintage and new clothing stores, home decor shops, galleries, a couple of gelato and sweets shops and more.
Tulane and Loyola universities are flanked by a couple of thoroughfares with student-friendly cheap eats and bars. Heading downtown, Freret Street is blossoming with relatively new places like Dat Dog (5031 Freret St., 899-6883; www.datdognola.com), which serves a variety of hot dogs and sausages, and Freret Street Po-Boys and Donuts (4701 Freret St., 872-9676), which offers a menu of New Orleans staples. On the other side, Maple Street features coffee shops, a bookstore, fashion shops, restaurants and taverns.
The very tip of Uptown is marked by the end of St. Charles Avenue, where the Riverbend neighborhood begins and South Carrollton Avenue gives rise to the area known as Carrollton. Sports-watching and beer emporium Cooter Brown's Tavern (509 S. Carrollton Ave., 866-9104; www.cooterbrowns.com) and the Camellia Grill (626 S. Carrollton Ave., 309-2679; www.camelliagrill.net) are at the beginning of the strip. The Riverbend cluster includes upscale restaurants like Dante's Kitchen (736 Dante St., 861-3121; www.danteskitchen.com) and Brigtsen's (723 Dante St., 861-7610; www.brigtsens.com) as well as Oak Street's popular Jacques-Imo's (8324 Oak St., 861-0886; www.jacquesimoscafe.com). The area is home to the music venues The Maple Leaf Bar (8316 Oak St., 866-9359; www.mapleleafbar.com) and Carrollton Station (8140 Willow St., 865-9190; www.carrolltonstation.com).
Lakefront/ West End
Along the Lakefront, University of New Orleans students can head to Lakeview and the wealth of restaurants along Harrison Avenue or literally on the lakefront at West End, near the municipal harbor. The Lakefront is a popular stretch for biking and Rollerblading. Harrison Avenue is booming with new restaurants including the kitschy Tex-Mex cantina The Velvet Cactus (6300 Argonne Blvd., 301-2083; www.thevelvetcactus.com) and a new edition of the creative Mexican kitchen, El Gato Negro (300 Harrison Ave., 488-0107; www.elgatonegronola.com).
After crossing the parish into Jefferson Parish (Louisiana doesn't have counties), you'll find Harahan, Metairie and Kenner, suburbs with plenty of big-box shopping outlets. Elmwood has the 20-screen AMC Palace (1200 Elmwood Park Blvd., 888-262-4386; www.amcentertainment.com) as well as electronics, clothing stores, office supplies and more. Veterans Memorial Boulevard is a main artery through Metairie and Kenner, along which you'll find major retailers like Target (4500 Veterans Memorial Blvd., 888-2184; www.target.com) and department stores including Macy's, Dillard's, JC Penney (Lakeside Shopping Center, 3301 Veterans Memorial Blvd., 835-8000; www.lakesideshopping.com) and Sears (4400 Veterans Memorial Blvd., 889-8200; www.sears.com).
You can find anything you need or want in the New Orleans area's neighborhoods, often presented as only this city can.