Sitting pretty at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans is one of America’s most astonishing cultural melting pots. It’s a little bit French, a little bit Spanish-Creole, a little bit Caribbean and a whole lot New Orleans – there’s nowhere quite like it, even in the American South.
Tucked between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans sprawls across low-lying swampland, with the floodwaters held at bay by enormous levees, which broke with devastating consequences in 2005 as Hurricane Katrina surged ashore.
The good news is that many neighbourhoods have burst back to life, and little evidence of the disaster remains in the areas most frequented by tourists - though deprivation and crime still blight live in some quarters of the city (most notably the Ninth Ward).
Known as the Crescent City for the curving shape of the Mississippi as it snakes through town, New Orleans is truly cosmopolitan. Settlers from as far afield as France, Spain, Africa and the Caribbean washed up here during New Orleans’ heyday as the principal port of the American South.
Each group lent something to the mixing pot. The French left their language, and the Spanish their flamboyant architecture. Africa donated the rhythms that morphed into jazz and the blues. The Caribbean left a love of celebration and a touch of voodoo magic, while Cajun Americans pulled all these influences together to create one of America’s most eclectic cuisines.
The attractions of New Orleans are the same as they have always been – riding rattling streetcars and the Algiers ferry, snapping your fingers to hot jazz in colonial cafes, seeking out occult relics in ancient cemeteries, or just admiring the stately architecture in the French Quarter, Bywater, Faubourg Marigny and Tremé.
Then of course there’s the greatest-show-on-earth that is Mardi Gras, held in late February or early March. If you miss it, don’t panic; there are few weeks in the year when there isn’t some festival or other filling the streets with crowds and music. As the locals say: “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” (“Let the good times roll!”).