In New Orleans, guided tours are about as common as crawfish étouffée. Pass on the schlocky ghost hunts and bogus buggy rides and sign up for one of the best: the ROOTS OF NEW ORLEANS HERITAGE CITY TOUR (504/596-6889; $28 per person; no credit cards).
"This city was built through the sweat and blood of Africans and African-Americans, yet no guides would ever talk about it," says Gwen Carter, a native New Orleanian who started her bus tour six years ago. "I thought it was much too important to leave out."
Carter takes you to places few visitors would ever get to see: the Amistad Research Center (the world's largest African-American archive) and St. Augustine's Church, in the neighborhood of Tremé, where the pews were configured to separate slaves from free people (and women from men). She also throws in some fun along the way. A stop at Loretta's Authentic Praline stall in the French Market means fresh nuts to munch on during the tour and a lecture from Loretta herself on how to pronounce praline (praw-leen). Later, Carter teaches you to knock three times, close your eyes, and make a wish on voodoo queen Marie Laveau's tomb for good luck.
Along St. Charles Avenue, Carter re-creates a Mardi Gras parade—playing rowdy brass-band music and throwing beads at you as she talks about the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the first black Mardi Gras organizations.
"Ignoring the black experience in New Orleans is like telling about your family and omitting one of your kids," Carter says. "You just can't do it."
Even before Jelly Roll Morton tickled his first ivories in a downtown brothel, New Orleans nightlife was swinging to live music. Here, the lowdown from some experts.
Charles Neville, the sax-playing, tie-dye-wearing member of the famous brother act, digs the clubs of the free-spirited Faubourg Marigny. Although he admits to being a mediocre salsa dancer, he loves Café Brasil (2100 Chartres St.; 504/949-0851) "when Los Babies del Merengue are playing their great Afro-Cuban rhythms. Everyone's dancing, and the crowd always ends up overflowing into the street."
Across the way is Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro (626 Frenchmen St.; 504/949-0696), where Neville jams with his daughter, Charmaine, and catches Ellis Marsalis—Wynton and Branford's dad. "Ellis is one of the greatest bebop players you'll ever see," says Neville.
"His stylings encompass every aspect of jazz, from classical to bluesy to funky." Irvin Mayfield, a 20-year-old trumpet genius in the Louis Armstrong-Wynton Marsalis tradition, prefers the atmosphere at the clubs on Rampart Street. "I love the Funky Butt" (714 N. Rampart St.; 504/558-0872). "It's named after the place where Satchmo first heard the trumpet," he says. "It's got that old-time vibe. And their fruit punch is rolling!"
Mayfield also frequents Donna's Bar & Grill (800 N. Rampart St.; 504/596-6914), a dark joint with a horseshoe-shaped bar and exuberant music. In between sets by the Algiers Brass Band, the Little Rascals, and the Rebirth Brass Band, Mayfield chows down on home-cooked ribs and burgers.
For half a century, the Lower Garden District (or L.G.D.) was the forlorn stepsister of the more polished Garden District. Saddled with a crumbling public housing project, abandoned shops, and a severe case of urban flight, the area had become the Neighborhood that Care Forgot. But an influx of entrepreneurs and buckets of federal and local cash is changing all that.
One strip in particular is recapturing its past. "In the nineteenth century people who owned ground-floor shops on lower Magazine Street generally lived upstairs," says Camille Strachan, a local preservationist. "That's what we're trying to re-create. We want activity twenty-four hours a day."
So far, it's working. Young architects and artists live in affordable flats, and barbecue on their street-front balconies after work. Shops are packed; theaters and restaurants assure late-night crowds.
The Zeitgeist Theater (2010 Magazine St.; 504/524-0064) woos hipsters with events such as the International Super-8 Film Festival and performances by the Gas Tank Orchestra, a five-piece ensemble whose string, percussion, and woodwind instruments are made from the rusted gas tanks of abandoned cars.
The denim-and-leather contingent flocks to the Half Moon Bar (1125 Saint Mary St.; 504/522-0599), with its shabby pool tables and honky-tonk vibe. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Café Roma (1901 Sophie Wright Place; 504/524-2419; dinner for two $20) entices families with football-size calzone and hand-tossed pizza.
You'll need at least a day to explore lower Magazine Street's shops. Sharon Stone, Sheryl Crow, and Susan Sarandon have all come away happy from Jim Smiley Vintage Clothing (2001 Magazine St.; 504/528-9449), where you can shop for 1940's Chanel and Dior, Victorian wedding gowns, and scads of little black dresses.
Several antiques shops specialize in home furnishings. Redecorate your office at Dodge-Fjeld (2033 Magazine St.; 504/581-6930), which has a large selection of clocks and desks. At Antebellum Antiques (2011 Magazine St.; 504/558-0208) pick up an 1800's rosewood Mallard bed with matching armoire for $100,000. If you'd prefer a modest nest, Bush Antiques and Beds au Beau Rêve (2109-11 Magazine St.; 504/581-3518) has more than 75 beds displayed in period tableaux.
Haven't had enough?The world-famous Jim Russell Records (1837 Magazine St.; 504/522-2602) stocks a half-million LP's, including such memorabilia as a recording of the 1976 Jazz Fest. Bep's Antiques (2051 Magazine St.; 504/525-7726) carries several rare, delicate bottles from the 1700's.