Surrounded by the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico, and battered by Katrina, oil spills and floods, New Orleans has been brought down about as low as a city can get. But it is by no means down and out.

Amid the tall concrete buildings and urban sprawl indigenous to every American city, tourism and good times are thriving, thanks to areas like the French Quarter, Riverwalk, Moonwalk, the Garden District and the funky, exciting boutiques and antique shops on Magazine Street. And it was here where we recently spent our time.

Centered by the St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square, the French Quarter dates back to the early 1700s and encompasses a 13-block area. Don your walking shoes to amble through the wrought-ironed, balconied cobblestone streets. Renowned for the quantity and quality of its restaurants, chefs enjoy rock star status at places like Broussard’s, a winner for almost a century; Stella, one of the hottest spots in town; Coquette Bistro, with fresh local food that changes daily; GW Fins, for seafood at its peak; The Grill Room at Windsor Court, the only four-star/four-diamond restaurant in the city; Brennan’s, for nostalgia and Bananas Foster; Gautreau’s, an uptown jewel favored by the locals; Iris, for intimate dining; and Galatoires, the grand dame of old-line restaurants.

Marvelous, more casual spots such as Cajun Cabin and Café Beignet are not to be missed. Stop for a buffet lunch at the sun-dappled, expansive courtyard at the Court of Two Sisters and spend cocktail hour at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar. Built in 1772, the candlelit piano bar is one of the oldest in the U.S. that still plays great jazz. In fact, it was near here where it’s believed that jazz music got its name. ‘Jasmine’ was a popular perfume worn by the prostitutes of that era, and it was no secret that the early jazz musicians associated with these women. High society people started referring to this new kind of music as ‘Jasmine music,’ which soon became shortened to ‘jazz.’

Locals like to hang out on Frenchman Street, especially at Snug Harbor, where they have latenight jazz, Caribbean cuisine and cheaper drinks. Oak Street, another local favorite, is better for blues and rock and roll.

Just a short walk away from the clamor of the French Quarter is the elegant, azalea-filled Windsor Court Hotel, boasting oversized 800-square-foot suites on the upper floors. Suites include breakfast and complimentary cocktails, as well as extraordinary views from the 23rd floor terraces. I loved the Windsor’s quiet tradition and grace. But if you crave the excitement of the French Quarter, the boutique, historic Soniat House, charmingly furnished with period antiques, is for you.

But even if you are in New Orleans, you can’t eat and drink all the time, can you? So here are a few other places of interest to visit: St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, the world-renowned Audobon Zoo, Royal Street for southern galleries and antiques, and New Orleans Museum of Art. Also, hop on a streetcar along Canal Street to the Garden District, where southern charm and lore oozes from every pillared, double-galleried home. Remainders of Mardi Gras are everywhere in this gracious suburb… bright colored beads literally dripping like forgotten Christmas tree tinsel from towering oak trees, curly-cued black wrought iron fences, bicycles and overhead electric wires.

Locals fondly call their city this ‘wonderful/ horrible place,’ but it’s impossible to capture the essence of New Orleans in words. One must go to experience it. Louis Armstrong once said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” I’ll paraphrase the greatest and say, “If you have to ask what New Orleans is, you’ll never know.”