Two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans continues to rebound, its high spirits undamaged by hell or high water. The French Quarter, the 18th-century historic heart of the city founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718, beats with the joyous rhythms of jazz and stirs up the best food in America. In fact, locals proclaim with pride and delight that the cooking has never been better and that the city’s chefs and restaurants are single-handedly revitalizing New Orleans.

Cochon, opened in the Warehouse District a mere six months after Katrina, was recently named one of the 10 best new restaurants in America by the New York Times. Chef Donald Link, a native of Cajun Country, brought the traditional boucherie  –– a country celebration of slaughtering a pig and using every single part –– to create an innovative pork-heavy menu that has diners raving. Grand Isle, a recent acclaimed addition to up-and-coming Fulton Street, focuses on seafood, paying homage to its namesake island, which is known for some of the best oysters coming out of Louisiana waters. And recently the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah Chase, reopened Dooky Chase, where heavy hitters in the civil rights and political scenes have dined on her soulful gumbo and fried chicken since the 1940s.

Chef Miles Prescott at the Country Club restaurant in the Bywater area says that pre-Katrina it was difficult to make a decent living as a chef in New Orleans. “I was cooking on the line at Bayona, one of the best restaurants in the Quarter, and making $8 an hour,” he says. “I couldn’t make it and left for Chicago.” Prescott cooked in the Windy City, but his heart remained in the Big Easy, and now, post-storm, he says wages are better here than almost anywhere else in the country.

But the real reason he’s back is the creative energy in the kitchens of the city. Take his Oysters al Pastor –– oysters on the half shell chargrilled under a sauce made of chipotle peppers, pineapple and cilantro –– a south-of-the border/New Orleans fusion that hits it right on the money. Prescott is innovating as he goes, smothering wild boar and then giving it a Cantonese barbecue treatment or going for broke with a completely original dessert that combines bacon and chocolate in a warm lava cake. The setting for his cooking is just as unique, a restored mansion that is a European-style swim club by day and a laid-back restaurant by night.

Another icon back on track is the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, which travels from Canal Street, which borders the French Quarter, to Carrollton Avenue, an Uptown hub of restaurants and small shops. St. Charles is one of the most beautiful avenues in the world. From the classical revival architecture of the Central Business District, past the antebellum mansions of the Garden District, to the green oasis of Audubon Park and Zoo, the streetcar rumbles past ancient oaks, giving riders a panoramic view of the gracious life of the city.

Begin a day in the life of New Orleans with a jazz brunch on Canal Street at the Palace Café, one of the famous Brennan family’s restaurants. Fuel up on turtle soup, shrimp rémoulade and bananas Foster beignets before catching a ride on the swaying streetcar. Launched in 1835, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar is the longest running line in America.

The first stop is Julia Street in the city’s arts district. Once a rundown no man’s land of abandoned warehouses that had at one time housed goods shipped to town on the Mississippi River, the district came back to life when New Orleans hosted the 1984 Worlds Fair. Since then, the neighborhood has become one of the hottest spots in town for urban condos, art and food. Visit such galleries as Arthur Roger, where the best of contemporary Louisiana art is on display; Stella Jones Gallery, which specializes in African-American artists; or Jean Bragg, the spot to find Newcomb Pottery, a style influenced by the 1920s English Arts and Crafts movement. Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant is in the heart of the district, as are Tommy’s Cuisine and Wine Bar, a New Orleans classic Italian-seafood restaurant, and Argentine seafood star Rio Mar.

Stroll a few blocks to discover the city’s National World War II Museum. Dedicated as the National D-Day Museum in 2000, the immense compound highlights the American experience from the Normandy invasion to the sands of the Pacific with interactive shows and personal stories. The Contemporary Arts Center, just around the corner, showcases both the visual and performing arts. It is also the headquarters for Prospect.1, a citywide international arts biennale that kicks off in September 2008. Across the street, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art is the place to go for a modern vision of the South through the eyes of photographers, sculptors, painters and filmmakers.

Ready for a drink? Hipster hangout Circle Bar is a great place to catch Mardi Gras parades during Carnival or listen to music the rest of the year. With not much room to sit, it’s a place to drink a beer and chat with locals, many of whom consider it a second home. Lee Circle, with its landmark obelisk capped by a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, is the place to hop back on the streetcar.

Subdivided from several plantations in 1825, the renowned architecture of the Garden District was the answer of the American settlers who arrived after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to the French and Spanish Colonial style of the French Quarter and Esplanade Avenue. Wealthy businessmen trading in cotton, sugar and shipping shunned the Creole building style, commissioning mansions built in a fusion of classic styles with influences of Italianate and English, as well as Greek Revival. The best way to see this gorgeous neighborhood bounded by Jackson and Louisiana avenues is on foot or bicycle.

Renowned landmarks include the cast-iron cornstalk fence surrounding the Short-Favrot home, just off Prytania Street. One famous resident, actor Nicolas Cage, took a haunted history tour of the Garden District to find out why his house was reputedly haunted. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and former Saints quarterback Archie Manning call the Garden District home. Author Anne Rice penned her vampire series here and set many scenes in her own houses when she lived in the neighborhood.

All this walking deserves a rest, and the very best place to sip a mint julep and watch the world go by is the front porch at the Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. The Victorian mansion has been refurbished as a campy hotel, and its dark-paneled bar is home to monthly literary events.

Hop back on the streetcar for the next leg of the ride, a trip to Audubon Park and Zoo, the site of the 1889 World Cotton Centennial Exhibition and World’s Fair. Named for naturalist and painter John James Audubon, who lived in New Orleans in the 1820s, the park is the center of outdoor life Uptown. Joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers and kids cool off under the branches of huge live oak trees. The 18-hole golf course is the only public course open in the city. The main attraction is the world class Audubon Zoo. Exotic white alligators and white tigers are two of the calling cards, as well a sea lion exhibit and the Louisiana swamp walk.

Dinner is calling, and a hub of casual restaurants await at Riverbend, a short ride from the park. The city’s most famous burger joint, Camellia Grill has been dishing out pecan waffles and mocha freezes to generations of post-prom teens still in their tuxes, looking for breakfast the morning after. For more upscale fare, try the shrimp and grits at Dante’s Kitchen; chargrilled oysters or crab cakes at One; or the pork roast with sweet potato dirty rice at Brigtsen’s.

Catch the streetcar once again, and let its swaying rhythms of an earlier age take you back downtown. It’s the only way to get home again in this city that refuses to relinquish its contact with the past.

Top Destinations

French Quarter
Visiting New Orleans’ French Quarter is like stepping into an 18th-century European city –– because that’s exactly what it is. The area was claimed as a French territory and named for King Louis XV of France by les sieurs Bienville and Iberville on Feb. 3 in 1699. New Orleans, named in honor of the French regent, the Duc d’Orléans, was founded in 1718. The Great Fire of 1788 burned much of the French Colonial architecture. What visitors see today, the colorful painted stucco walls and lace-like ironwork balconies, was actually built under Spanish rule, after France ceded its North American territories west of the Mississippi to Spain following the French and Indian War in 1763.

The heart of the quarter is Jackson Square, originally designed as the Place d’Arms, a parade ground for the colony’s troops. The Colonial government building, the Cabildo, and the Presbytere, which housed church authorities, are now museums flanking St. Louis Cathedral. The first apartment buildings constructed in the U.S., the Pontalba buildings, form the north and south sides of the square. After the War of 1812, the Place d’Arms was renamed for the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson. A statue of the general on his stallion sits at the center of the square.

There’s so much to do in the Quarter that many people never leave to visit other parts of the city. Don’t miss the newly renovated French Market, which has come full circle, once again featuring the best local produce and food items the city has to offer. No one leaves New Orleans without a trip to Café du Monde, the city’s preeminent stop for a taste of trademark coffee and chicory and beignets. Stop for a drink at the Napoleon House, New Orleans’ attempt to offer asylum to the deposed emperor. Dixieland jazz in its purest form can be found at Preservation Hall, while Galatoire’s Restaurant, the grande dame of haute Creole cooking, is as popular with locals as it has been since 1905. For a thorough grasp of the history of the city, stop in at the Historic New Orleans Collection. And for a whiff of the past, local scents such as vetivert and tea olive have been distilled at Hové Parfumeur since 1931.

City Park
One of the largest public parks in the country, City Park is in the process of renovation following flooding from Hurricane Katrina. The famed New Orleans Museum of Art, with its unique sculpture garden, is open for business. Bayou St. John is part of the old American Indian portage that connected the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Some of the oldest structures in the city are located along the bayou, including the 1784 Old Spanish Custom House and 1799 Pitot House museum. The new Canal Street streetcar is the way to get there, or you can spend the day riding bikes down historic Esplanade Avenue to the park, then up the curving bayou route all the way to the lake. Liuzza’s by the Track is a favorite local spot for poor boys and frosty mugs of beer.

Algiers Point
Just across the river from the French Quarter, the neighborhood of Algiers Point was established two years after the French Quarter was laid out. The best way to get to this historic neighborhood is on the Algiers Ferry, a car and pedestrian ferry at the foot of Canal Street, which offers terrific views of the Mississippi River. The architecture is mostly Victorian in the historic 10-block area, and an added treat is Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, where visitors can get up close and personal with many of the most fabulous Mardi Gras floats. Locals jam at the Old Point Bar, which has live music five nights a week.

There are many reasons to visit the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain: the art galleries of Covington; the charming harbor and annual Wooden Boat Show in Madisonville; the Abita Brewery in Abita Springs; or the Tammany Trace, a 31-mile rails-to-trails bike route through gently rolling hills and piney woods. Don’t miss La Provence. Established by the late chef Chris Kerageorgiou in 1972, the restaurant has been a dining destination since its inception. Star chef John Besh continues Kerageorgiou’s traditions of Southern French cooking using the freshest local ingredients, many of which, such as herbs, eggs and pork, come from the restaurant’s farm, which is right next door.

Ninth Ward
Every visitor to New Orleans should make a pilgrimage to the city’s Ninth Ward. The upper section, called Bywater, wasn’t severely affected by Hurricane Katrina. The 19th-century neighborhood is filled with Creole cottages, corner restaurants and bars and art studios. The “Lower Nine,” as the part of the ward east of the Industrial Canal is known locally, was a primarily  black community. Nearly totally destroyed by flooding from a breach in the levee, it is a testament to the neglect of the federal government and the determination of residents and philanthropists to rebuild the community. New Orleans resident and actor Brad Pitt is leading a project called Make It Right to help property owners rebuild their homes.

Magazine Street
Curving along the river, Magazine Street stayed high and dry when nearly every other commercial thoroughfare got a soaking from Hurricane Katrina. Long known as a funky strip of secondhand shops and neighborhood restaurants, Magazine flourished after the storm as local businesses chose to open new venues in the “sliver along the river.” Martin’s Wine Cellar joined more established places such as Le Petit Grocery and old standbys such as Casamento’s famous oyster shop to supply returning residents with convenient shopping. Art galleries, clothing boutiques, poor boy joints, antiques, shoe repairs and ice cream parlors sit cheek by jowl, making window-shopping a fascinating show.

Off-beat local faves
If you’re looking for some places off the beaten track, here are a few local favorites scattered across the city:

Everyone wants bragging rights to claim they have eaten in the truck at Jacques-Imo’s. The eclectic Creole and Cajun cooking is draw enough for this Uptown favorite, but the primo dining experience is sitting at the table in the bed a of a pickup truck permanently parked right out front.

The best snowball in town is a called a Hot Rod, and it’s found at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz in the Uptown area. Cool off in the summer with nectar-syrup-soaked ice layered with vanilla ice cream and topped with gooey marshmallow syrup and a cherry.

Dazzling oysters –– on the half shell and charbroiled –– star at the Yugoslavian seafood restaurant Drago’s in Metairie.

Dance all night to a Cajun band at Rock ‘n’ Bowl, the bowling alley and nightclub in Mid-City.

The best bet for bacon is the pecan-encrusted belly meat that comes as a side dish with brunch at Elizabeth’s in Bywater.

Partial to bars with live music? One Eyed Jacks, The Spotted Cat and the Hi-Ho Lounge are all local hangouts.

Don’t forget the hottest tickets in town: the New Orleans Saints and, in basketball season, the town’s latest hoop dream, the Hornets.