01/30/2012 04:02 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

The Best Of The Big Easy

There's certain joie de vivre to New Orleans that is irresistible. Whether you're sipping a Sazerac to the peals of a brass band, downing a fried shrimp po-boy drowning in Swiss cheese and beef gravy, lobbing beads to raucous Mardi Gras revelers from a wrought iron balcony or taking your café au latte in the shade of a century-old oak, the city is simply intoxicating.

Drink in Jetsetter's guide to Mardi Gras and the Big Easy, and for a Mardi Gras stay at a cinq-étoiles stunner on the edge of the French Quarter click here.

Laissez les bons temps rouler, indeed.

Technically, New Orleans's 2012 Carnival season kicked off on January 6, and it culminates on Fat Tuesday ("Mardi Gras" in French), February 21. The 12 nights preceding Mardi Gras feature more than 60 parades and parties galore. Sticking to a plan in the Big Easy -- a city filled with bacchanalian, epicurean and musical delights around every corner -- is no easy task amid the revelry. Know what parades you want to see and where you want to feast, drink and jam, and then don your mask and go with the flow -- the city will take you where you want to go.

The city's thoroughfares turn into parade routes during the 12 days preceding Mardi Gras, filled with floats and bands as part of parades sponsored by nonprofit clubs called krewes.

The all-female Krewe of Muses is known for its Glitter Shoe floats and girly baubles, like compacts, mirrors and beaded purses; New Orleans native (and award-winning actress) Patricia Clarkson will lead the parade in a giant red pump on Thursday, February 16.

On Saturday night, February 18, the Krewe of Endymion gets the weekend rocking with Maroon 5 and Big & Rich gracing its extravagant floats; Anderson Cooper is rumored to be on board for the party too.

The 44th incarnation of the legendary Krewe of Bacchus parade celebrates Louisiana's bicentennial on Sunday, February 19; look for scads of hand-painted medallion beads to be thrown from the signature Bacchasaurus float and an appearance by newly crowned "King of Wine" Will Ferrell.

The next night, Monday, February 20, Krewe of Orpheus celebrates "Nonsense and Tomfoolery" with '80s stars Cindi Lauper and Bret Michaels, naturally; the parade terminates at the convention center, where the black-tie Orpheuscapade is a hot-spot party.

Whether you hit New Orleans for Mardi Gras or not, ambrosial cuisine is on call here 24-7.

For breakfast anytime, minimalists will want to go with the French Quarter classic: Café du Monde's steamy café au lait and beignets sprinkled with powdered sugar. For the perfect hangover cure, head uptown and sidle up to the Camellia Grill's breakfast bar for the hot pecan waffles served with a couple of sausage links glistening with grease.

Lunch has to be a po-boy, the city's iconic sandwich, which dates to 1929 when brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin served striking transit workers French bread sandwiches filled with leftover meat. The fried shrimp po-boy with Swiss cheese and beef gravy is worth the trip to Domilise's Po-Boys (5240 Annunciation St.), a shack by the river. If you don't want to leave the French Quarter, head to Johnny's Po-Boys, where the surf-and-turf -- roast beef topped with fried shrimp, all doused in mayo and gravy -- has held down this lunch counter since 1950.

A late reservation is the only way to do dinner in this city of epicurean enchantments, so dress in your best and don't overdo it at cocktail hour. If you're new to the bayou, you must sup at pork-centric Cochon; start with the fried boudin with pickled peppers and graduate to the house's eponymous special: suckling pig served with turnips, cabbage and cracklins (fried pork skins). Uptown, New Orleans-born chef Aaron Burgau is one of the city's best; at Patois he adds his own accent to such Southern classics as a rich gumbo of smoked rabbit, andouille and greens.

Nothing beats drinking in the Big Easy, where the cocktail was born and where every sip comes with a story

Napoleon House was built as part of a plot to save le petit caporal from exile (his bust still looks down at you from the bar), but this French Quarter spot is known for its delicious Pimm's Cup (Pimm's #1, fresh lemonade, a splash of 7-Up and a cucumber garnish), a decidedly British beverage.

The Vieux Carré (rye, cognac, dry vermouth, benedictine and two kinds of bitters, Angostura and the local Peychaud's) was invented at the Hotel Monteleone (a haunt of Tennessee Williams, among other authors) in 1938; a decade later the Monteleone installed a carousel for a bar, and today if you sip your drink at the Carousel Bar & Lounge for half an hour, you'll complete two full rotations.

A French immigrant named Guillaume Tujague established his eponymous bar in 1856, serving drinks to hurried workers morning, noon and night, and the place has been standing-room-only ever since. Today the second-oldest bar in town is the spot to down New Orleans's official drink, the Sazerac: rye with a bit of Peychaud's bitters, a dash of simple syrup and anise-flavored Herbsaint essence served neat with a lemon peel.

New Orleans's musical roots run as deep as the Mississippi River is long, and the sounds of jazz, blues and brass bands fill the city's streets year-round.

The best tune you hear during your stay may come from the buskers who perform for the masses waiting in line for admittance to the French Quarter's legendary Preservation Hall. It's worth the wait to get into this venue, which has focused solely on the city's jazz stylings since 1961; it opens at 8 p.m. and there are no advance tickets, no dance floor and no bar, though you can bring in your own drinks.

Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield has teamed up with the Royal Sonesta Hotel to create Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse, where he plays with the NOJO Jam every Wednesday night.

The aptly named Snug Harbor is an intimate Frenchman Street joint where you can catch members of the Marsalis clan (patriarch/pianist Ellis, drummer Jason, trombonist Delfeayo and sometimes even trumpeter Wynton) on Friday nights.

-- Alex Pasquariello, Associate Editor, Jetsetter