I had never been to New Orleans before Katrina, so I had nothing to compare it to when I finally experienced the city. My first stop was Cafe Beignet on Royal Street for their famous beignets (french donuts), chicory coffee, and the French cafe experience. Everyone goes to the Cafe Du Monde, but I prefer the cozier and more charming Cafe Beignet. There are several locations in the city; the Royal Street location has a fabulous outdoor garden patio.
Staying in the French Quarter, I chose the Hotel Monteleone and it was a wise choice. Far enough away from Bourbon Street to be quiet and odorless (a concern especially in warmer months), the Hotel has a gorgeous rooftop pool, comfortable reception area and a popular low key bar. It is also in a safe area with great restaurants literally across the street, like Mr. B's Bistro (from the Brennan brothers), the famous ACME Oyster House one block away, and the fabulous Galatoire's for that special occasion meal (order the Cafe Brulot for a flaming finale to your meal).
Since I couldn't eat ALL day, I walked around down to the waterfront and back up on Royal Street, famous for antiques and art galleries. The most striking exhibit of all that I saw, was the art of Craig Tracy (a native of the city). Painted Alive must be seen, and then seen again, to see that the animal painting is really a painted HUMAN body. Craig Tracy exhibits in New Orleans and was showing his work on Royal Street last year, although this year he is exhibiting in Florida as well; check his website for details (and to see his gallery of work).
The other uniquely New Orleans shop I loved was Maskarade, just off Jackson Square. They have unique handmade masks made out of leather by Morgan Hersey, as well as ceramic, feather, and tribal masks. For a truly personal expression at Mardi Gras or for any special party or event, this is the place to live out your fantasy, whether it is a scary one or a sexy one.