So you've found yourself with only one free night in New Orleans; how on earth should you spend it? Whether you're in town for business and spend most of your days in the Convention Center, you happen to be passing through on a road trip, or you're day-tripping in from a nearby city with limited time, if you've only got a single night in town, you're going to want to spend it well.
Some guides might suggest that you spend your single evening taking a whirlwind tour, perhaps hiring a taxi driver to zoom you through the French Quarter, the Garden District, Mid-City, and at least one cemetery, so you can see as much as possible.
For my money, though, I'd spend a single night in the city doing just a couple of things that really distilled the essence of the city. That is to say, a really fantastic meal and some really fantastic music.
How to Spend Your Time
It makes the most sense to stay in one neighborhood and not waste time traveling between neighborhoods that could better be spent absorbing the slow, breezy attitude of the city. And if you're going to stick with just one neighborhood, I'd say go ahead and make it the French Quarter, the city's oldest and most iconic neighborhood.
Start your evening with an early dinner at one of the many outstanding establishments in the Quarter. If you'd like to visit one of the city's old-line restaurants, many of which have been serving classic Creole cuisine for over 100 years, I'd suggest Antoine's (where Oysters Rockefeller was invented), or if it's a nice night, the gorgeous courtyard at Broussard's. They'll provide you with the taste and atmosphere of old New Orleans, an ambiance that isn't found anywhere else in the world.
If a more updated version of New Orleans cuisine is more appealing, try the excellent Louisiana Bistro for an understated but inspired meal, or get your celebrity chef fix at Emeril Lagasse's NOLA or Susan Spicer's Bayona.
If you just want simple, no-frills Cajun food served up the way it would be in homes across South Louisiana, try Coop's, a local favorite.
Now that you're nice and full, take a stroll through the Quarter to Preservation Hall, an all-ages alcohol-free jazz venue that hosts some of New Orleans' finest traditional jazz musicians for a raucous performance nearly every night of the year. Doors open at 8:00, the music starts at 8:15. Be ready for a life-changing experience: it really is that good.
When the show's over, take a stroll down lively Bourbon Street and take in the tawdry sights. If you'd like a drink, stop in at the wonderful Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, purportedly the oldest bar in the United States.
Remember, in New Orleans, the less alcoholic a drink tastes, the more alcohol it probably has in it. Proceed with caution when anything is neon-colored or tastes vaguely like a discount fruit drink.
Finish your night at the world-famous Cafe du Monde for a plate of crispy, sugar-coated beignets (little square fried donuts) and a cup of cafe au lait, coffee brewed with chicory and served with scalded milk. From your vantage point at the Cafe, you can gaze at the beautiful Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, and fantasize about how you'll spend your next, much longer visit to New Orleans.