By and large, much of what people have posted here is good, though I would not agree with the advice that you avoid the Quarter. It's simply a matter of what you're interested in. But everybody who's replied so far is from somewhere else. I'm from New Orleans. I was born and raised there and lived there for thirty years. Though I live elsewhere now, I get back on a regular basis.
Mardi Gras can be a lot of fun. It can also be very tiring. And Mardi Gras varies dramatically according to where you are and when you're there (meaning day or night). In the Quarter, it's crowded, wild and raucous — and there aren't any parades. Elsewhere, it's parades and such, less crowded (except on Canal Street) more family-oriented.
Mardi Gras can also be hazardous. I have never had a problem and can't say I know anyone who has. But lots of people do. Many of the people who have problems are visitors who are unfamiliar with the terrain. It's very easy to wander into a sketchy area unknowingly. Other people who have problems are those who get drunk and belligerent, or who believe New Orleans is their playground and that anything goes. It's loose, but there are limitations. Whatever you do, do not antagonize a police officer. That would prove to be an unfortunate choice.
Whether you want to be in the Quarter on Mardi Gras day or elsewhere, get started at about 6:00 a.m. Lots of people will be out and about by then and it just gets busier and busier afterwards. And wear a costume, one you thought up and designed yourself. Something clever and topical is always great. You'll get your photograph taken a lot, so get ready to pose.
If you're interested in the rest of what you mentioned (history, food, music, entertainment etc.), go to New Orleans some time other than Mardi Gras. I would highly recommend the third week of April. Everything is in bloom, the weather is fabulous (clear skies, not hot, low humidity) and the crowds are smaller. The French Quarter Festival is the weekend preceding the first weekend of the JazzFest, but it's not too busy. Alternatively, mid-October to late November works, too.
The JazzFest is a two-weekend affair that's always the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. If you're interested in the JazzFest, treat it like Mardi Gras. That is, go for that and nothing else. It's a huge event that will occupy all of your attention. There are concerts and shows everywhere at night, in addition.
From late May to mid-September, New Orleans is very hot and humid. And, of course, from mi-August to early September, there's always the possibility of a hurricane. That's an interesting event that's best avoided.
Favorite thing: Southern hospitality is prominent in New Orleans and so is uniqueness. The great mix of people is what gives this city it's spicy flavor. You really have to explore every nook and cranny to get the full taste. Walk around in empty corners and open your eyes to what surrounds you.....you will always find something special!
Favorite thing: The tourist guides all tell you to avoid the shoe shine people. And yeah, I guess that some of them could be trying to pick your pocket or something, but that can happen in a shopping mall for cripe's sake. So for about $5 you can have your tired, old shoes looking brand-spanking new. These guys do a GOOD job. They really earn the money they make. Everyone wins. I mean how often does that happen?
New Orleans is just different from all the other american cities. It is more lifely, but also more strange....
In a shop window we found this soap.
It is called: Wash Away Your Sins.
Where else would you find things like this??
Favorite thing: Truthfully, NOLA is not one of the more beautiful places in the world. The street are VERY dirty and riddled with pot-holes. There is an ever-present stench that can only be described as New Orleans, and most of the accomodations are old run-down places that are really expensive because they are billed as "historical" or "antique." With that said, though, it is without a doubt one of the best party towns on earth and you will leave wanting to come back.
New Orleans was to be the highlight of our trip. Other than our first night away, it was the only place we actually made hotel reservations. With 'Isidore' about to hit the coast, we did our best to keep to our schedule and arrive the night we planned. Unfortunately that was not to be due to flood waters in New Orleans and the highway. The next day we tried again and finally got there.
Fondest memory: It was gray and overcast the afternoon we arrived but the next day, other than a few places still closed or boarded up, you would never have known the French Quarter had been under water. The weather was gorgeous. Unfortunately though, we lost a day and although we crammed a lot in, we missed seeing the Garden District and other areas.
Favorite thing: I guess my favorite thing about New Orleans is no matter what day of the week or time of day it is, you will always see something that will shock you. People seem to lose their inabitions down here in the Big Easy making a "free show" for all who walk down Bourbon Street. Night time, though, is more pleasing to the eye.
Enjoy the food, walk around bourbon steet and the surrounding streets, and enjoy the nightlife, which never really dies down.
Fondest memory: The pure joy that most tourists have while they are in New Orleans. Combined with the friendly attitude of the locals, this city really makes it simple for everyone to have a great time.
Let yourself go! Just experience everything you possibley can! Eat the food, drink the beer, be a part of that crazy crowd!
Fondest memory: Every memory! It was a worry-free fun time with great friends, in a fun-filled place!
Fondest memory: I work night shifts usually, and I had a hard time flipping myself back to days on my first 24hrs in New Orleans, so on my first nite there, I woke up at 2 in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep. I ended up sitting in the courtyard outside our room(formerly slave quarters) and read by moonlight on a wrought iron bench. The weather was still warm and humid, and I could still hear the sounds of Bourbon Street. It was a moment of peace shared only with the house cat in a city known for partying 24-7!!
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