The low-down on the best places to visit in New Orleans' rich gumbo of cultures, creed and cuisines, by Mark McCord
1. Commander's Palace: This hidden gem of a restaurant can be found in the beautiful Garden District, where southern ladies and gentlemen keep their mansions beneath trailing antebellum trees. Commander's has been serving haute cuisine Creole and Cajun dishes, the spicy local cuisine, to the city's gentry and dignitaries for more than 120 years. Its visitors have included Tennessee Williams and Winston Churchill, who felt at home in its sumptuous furnishings, being waited on by its silver-service staff. Prices are a little on the high side; gumbos, a local hot stew of African origins, will set you back about US$25 (HK$195). But it's well worth a visit if only to sample a slice of European-style luxury or sip a mint julep in its lush garden (1403 Washington Avenue. Tel: [1 504] 899 8221; www.commanderspalace.com).
2. Praline Connection: If Commander's Palace is a bit out of your price range and the deep-fried prawns of the Bourbon Street cafes are giving you indigestion, this is a less costly and tastier way to sample the local cuisine. Although the chain of three restaurants is relatively new, it sells local soul food such as fried chicken and brittle-toffee pralines cooked to age-old recipes. The best thing about these restaurants, however, is the accompanying entertainment: a full gospel choir that will keep you tapping your toes through the meal. One of the authentic treats of the Deep South and the historical basis of rock and blues, the spirituals sung here are uplifting, whatever your religion (Gospel & Blues Hall, 901-07 South Peters. Tel: [1 504] 523 3973; www.pralineconnection.com).
3. Marie Laveau's Tomb: For a city so steeped in the mysteries of voodoo, there's precious little trace of it left. Voodoo shops tend to be of the Disney variety and while the Voodoo Museum is one of the best little museums in the United States, it only demands an hour's perusal. To get to the bare bones of the cult, take a trip north of the French Quarter to the eerie St Louis Cemetery Number 1 (425 Basin Street. Tel:  482 5065) where the high priestess of the city's voodoo culture, Marie Laveau, is buried. Known as the 'Voodoo Queen' or 'Bosswoman', Laveau was feared and regaled by the populace of mid-19th-century New Orleans. In her black-magic rituals she could allegedly summon the evil spirits 'La Loup Garou' (the wolfman) or even 'Papa La Bas' (the devil). A powerful local character with 15 children, she was the matriarch of the city until 1869 when local followers turned their faith to her rival, Malvina Latour. Laveau died in 1881 and was buried in a traditional New Orleans tomb, a type that is built above ground to prevent corpses and remains being washed away by the regular floods that inundate the city.
4. Zam's Bayou Swamp Tour, Kraemer: If swamps and out-of-the-way villages in the steamy Bayou bring to mind the words 'squeal like a pig', this tiny shack-town is not for you. If discovering the mysteries of the gnarly mangrove swamps is your thing then Kraemer will be a hit. Situated on Lac des Allemands Bayou, Kraemer is worth a visit principally because of Zam's Bayou Swamp Tour, whose colourful namesake gives a tour your average Frommer's guide would frown at. Zam makes most of his money selling alligator skulls - apparently he sells 10,000 a year. If Zam can't be bothered to take you on a tour, his son 'Wild Bill' will, and as well as explain the area's history and nature, he'll boast about his drinking and womanising. This is not a tour for the squeamish (Zam's Bayou Swamp Tours, US Route 90 to Highway 307, then 16km north, across the drawbridge, and hang a quick right).
5. Mississippi walkway: One of the saddest truths about the birthplace of jazz is that there's a terrible paucity of it in the city. The cutting-edge clubs left Bourbon Street years ago to make way for tourist-trapping covers-band bars. Even Tipitinas, the spiritual home of New Orleans jazz, has become a parody of itself. For a real - and cheap - taste of the local talent, walk down to the muddy banks of the roiling Mississippi. There, on the paved waterside walkway, the city's struggling musicians and out-of-work jazzmen play for spare change to passers-by. True, most of the performers are poor or homeless locals, but they sure can play. The city has tried for years to move them along but with so much history at stake it has proven an almost impossible task. Try the walkway as it passes along the riverside of the French Quarter for the greatest concentration of horn, clarinet and trumpet blowers.
6. 1891 Castle Inn: With the eerie nuances of voodoo swirling throughout the city, it's no surprise that New Orleans should have more than its fair share of ghosts. At least two of them reportedly wander the rooms and corridors of the 1891 Castle Inn, considered one of the city's most haunted residences. As its name suggests, this grand old mansion was built at the end of the 19th century in the beautiful Garden District. Its staff and guests regularly report flying objects, cold zones and other supernatural phenomena. The owners believe the ghostly work to be that of the spirits of a young girl who drowned in a nearby pond and a former servant who was burned alive in his room in the house. Both died more than 100 years ago (1539 4th Street. Tel: [1 504] 897 0540; www.castleinnofneworleans.com).
7. Mamou: In the Grand Louis Bayou, about 250km west of New Orleans, is Mamou, a town that prides itself on being the heart of Cajun country. In the lands settled by the displaced French Canadian Acadians of Newfoundland, patois that is part-English, part-French, is spoken, although the Cajun way of life is slowly disappearing as the younger members of the community abandon the traditional lifestyle for a modern existence in the city. In Mamou, however, Cajun life prospers. A fun-loving people who - true to their French roots - enjoy the good things in life, the Cajuns live for their two cultural identifiers: their spicy food and their rousing accordion-based zydeco music. For the best of both, try Fred's Lounge, a Cajun bar that's something of a legend in these parts (420 6th Street, Mamou. Tel: [1 337] 468 5411; www.fredsociety.com/mamou.html).
8. Shim Sham Club: Bourbon Street's famous strip of bars and clubs is no longer at the cutting edge of any cultural scene, save for the prurient beer-soaked universe of the wet T-shirt and frat-house football partygoer. Instead, the hip kids go to places like the Shim Sham Club, set in a dingy little bar a couple of blocks from the French Quarter's riverfront. It's popular with the young rock and punk crowd and its weekly Wednesday punk and heavy metal karaoke gives a shot of credibility to the tired and passe sing-along format. Visiting and local alternative bands prefer to play here than the city's main gig venue, the local franchise of the horribly antiseptic House of Blues restaurant chain (615 Toulouse Street. Tel: [1 504] 299 0666; www.shimshamclub.com).
9. Algiers: The nation's largest river is the economic and symbolic lifeblood of New Orleans. Its industry used to rely heavily on the business executed along its banks. Today, that industry is largely gone and the grand paddle-steamers that once filled the river are a relic of a bygone age. Those that remain contain miserable casinos. The river can still be travelled, cheaply and easily from the city's piers on the Algiers Ferry. Algiers is a southern suburb across the river from the French Quarter and Downtown. Once a shabby, crime-ridden slum, it has since been gentrified and cleaned up. On Algiers Pointe, preservationists have tidied up 19th-century wharf buildings and homes in a tastefully reconstructed historic quarter. The ferry is free and leaves from Canal Street on the cityside for Algiers every 15 minutes from 5.45am until 11.45pm daily.
10. The Garden District: With no subway system and a patchy bus network, the best way to commute around the city is by streetcar. Fortunately, the most picturesque part of town, the Garden District, is just a 10-minute ride from Downtown and the French Quarter, or the Vieux Carre as it is properly known. So named because its rich, loamy soil is ideally suited to the wild gardens of the area's wealthy residents, this antebellum-strewn neighbourhood is rich in local history and architectural delights. Its ornate - and often gaudy mock-European - houses were the homes of the South's landowning aristocracy, the nouveaux riches who supplanted the city's French Creole custodians following the Louisiana Purchase of 1888. It remains blessedly untainted by modernity and interpretive boards outside various houses tell visitors a little about many of the homes' history. With the disruptions caused by the construction of a new Downtown streetcar line, routes to and from the neighbourhood change regularly. Call the Regional Transit Authority on [1 504] 827 7802 for up-to-date details on reaching the Garden District. (Incidentally, the 82 Streetcar named 'Desire' runs in the opposite direction.)