There's no better time to celebrate the spirit and support the rebuilding efforts of post-Katrina New Orleans than now -- and not just for Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras. Historic Spanish-style architecture, famous drinking establishments with storied pasts, colorful casts of characters, and narrow brick-lined streets make for one of the country's most dynamic cities. For budget-minded travelers, it's an easy destination for soaking up true Southern hospitality without spending a fortune.
Best taste of Creole Country
For a slice of pork paradise with a down-home vibe, head to Cochon in the Warehouse District. Southwestern Louisiana native chef/owner Donald Link marries minimalist, but warm environs, with feel-good food including fried boudin with pickled peppers, crawfish pie and roast suckling pig. Red-meat-phobes, don't fear: half of the menu is seafood, fished locally.
A strong sense of history radiates from the centrally located, literary landmark Hotel Monteleone. From the moment you valet your car with Earl, to when Raul handles your bags and Ms. Kathy serves breakfast the following morning in Le Café, you and your beau will be spoiled with heartfelt Southern hospitality. The Eudora Welty suite is a honeymooner's favorite.
Booze with a bang
Locals cite Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop (941 Bourbon Street, (504) 522-9377) as the oldest watering hole in the country. Named for legendary pirate Jean Lafitte, the candle-lit bar lacks most modern amenities, but serves up a convivial atmosphere, surprisingly strong cocktails and a charming off-key piano bar singer. Get woozy on the "Voodoo Daiquiri," a powerful purple slushy concoction.
Live music on the cheap
New Orleans is a bargain for live music and well-known for its brass bands -- top-notch groups often play at Donna's Bar and Grill on North Rampart Street. (The Times-Picayune Lagniappe comes out on Friday and lists everything in the way of local entertainment.) Chef Charlie (Mr. Donna) serves up free barbecue chicken and red beans during the break on Monday nights.
Best happy hour
For a spirited perspective of the city, Gray Line Tours offers New Orleans' Original Cocktail Tour. (A more sobering trip is the Hurricane Katrina -- America's Greatest Catastrophe Tour.) Walk the educational (and inebriating) 2 1/2-hour cocktail chronology tour of the French Quarter at 4 p.m. daily -- just in time to kick off happy hour(s).
Late night with the locals
For a relatively tourist-free night on the town, hit up Rock 'n' Bowl at Mid City Lanes. Arrive early to put your name on the waiting list to bowl at one of the highly coveted eighteen retro lanes, circa 1940s. Or boogie to the live local music that graces the nearby stage -- Zydeco night is especially popular. A cheap cover and ice-cold beer, coupled with top-notch people-watching makes for an evening out that is every bit as entertaining as Bourbon Street.
Magazine Street runs from Canal Street to Audubon Park, and is 6 miles of power-shoppers' bliss. Pick up an all-day bus pass, stop as often as you like along the route, then relax and recap your retail scores on the sprawling green lawns of Audubon Park.
Mardi Gras World is a great attraction for grown-ups and kids alike. Jam-packed with bits and pieces of parade floats and sculpted characters, it's like a giant toy box of fun. Take the ferry from downtown New Orleans right across the river and enjoy the tour -- it includes a movie, free king cake and an opportunity for kids to dress up in authentic Mardi Gras costumes.
Walk around Jackson Square, the heart of the French Quarter, during the day and you'll see a variety of street performers who entertain here on a daily basis, including musicians, break dancers, tap dancers, jugglers, acrobats, tarot-card readers, mimes and clowns.