The first thing you need to know about this city is that natives call it "Naarhlins," pronounced with the kind of carefree, risque drawl that exemplifies the town's spirit.

A journey to New Orleans is an elegant seduction, where Southern charm mixes with tropical humidity to bring forth a kind of rakish decadence. In its older sections especially it has the feel of a forgotten mansion, once lovely, declining gracfully amid the peeling paint and climbing ferns. Still, it remains a robust partying town and an esthetic one, where you can be light-headed or very stylish -- or both at the same time.

In other words, New Orleans is the perfect spot for the four-day weekend, because there is enough here to beckon you back once you've headed on.

Its most popular season, of course, is the Mardi Gras in late February and early March when the town jumps even more feverishly for a week. But if you don't like crowds, try mid-spring or mid-fall, when the rates are down and the temperatures still hover near 75, balmy enough for any down-trodden Northerner.

Pleasant weather is not the foremost attraction, however, since there are few swimming beaches. Come here instead for the sights, for the mix of Spanish, French and black cultures and by all means for the seafood: Oysters Rockefeller and Creole gumbo are both found in their most authentic forms here, as are barbecued shrimp, crayfish, redfish, scallops and other bounty of the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

I had never been attracted to a city for its food but it didn't prevent me from attacking native specialities with extraordinary zeal, and with exquisite results. And if the seafood doesn't excite your fancy (or your fancy appetite) there are still plenty of steak houses and French pastry shops to keep your spirits soaring.

If you can, stay in the French Quarter, the oldest part of downtown at least for a night or two. The 60-square block Vieux Carre (or Old Square) formed the original city founded by the Frenchman Bienville in 1718 for a trading company that hoped to find gold and silver treasure nearby. It still reflects the European character of its ancestors and is saved, thankfully, from ultra-tourist plastic packaging by the presence of many artist, musicians and young professionals who still maintain their homes in the Quarter.

We found a cozy, reasonably priced room ($45 a night for two) at the Cornstalk Hotel (915 Royal) which, despite the hayseed name, charges its guests by the number of anitques kept in each room. The Cornstalk, by the way, refers to the unique cast-iron fence, produced in Philadelphia in the 1830s, which shows stalks and ears of corn intertwined with morning glory vines and blossoms. Other hotels, like the Royal Sonesta or Royal Orleans, are bigger, flashier and a little more expensive, but still keep you close to the action in the French Quarter. And if you prefer small and cozy, the Maison de Ville (727 Toulouse) and the St. Ann (717 Conti) are other possibilities.

There are plenty of guides to the French Quarter -- many free -- which are easily obtained once you arrive; so the best first stop to make is at the Greater New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission (334 Royal, phone: 561-5031). Be sure to pick up the self-guided walking tour booklet; it makes traveling the Quarter easy.

A few places not to be missed include Jackson Square, with St. Louis Cathedral (America's oldest; be sure to go inside) and its adjacent buildings, the Presbytere and the Cabildo; the French Market, with its all-night coffee stand Cafe du Monde (be sure to have the geignets, the doughnut-like fritters); the antique stores of Royal Street and the jazz spots of Bourbon Street. (Highly recommended is Preservation Hall, if not for the music then for the reminder of how to grow old, very old, with grace. Those guys still blow up a storm.)

The Vieux Carre is a cinch for any tourist to figure out, so it's not to be dwelled on here. The point is to escape it, at least for a awhile, and discover the other highlights of the Crescent City.

First, to understand how the city grew, take the free Algiers Ferry from the base of Canal Street. (It runs every 15 minutes.) Unless you want to spend two hours or more on a riverboat, it's the best, cheapest way to sail the muddy Mississippi and see how the old Quarter, French-built, relates to the rest of modern New Orleans. Once on the West Bank, spend a few minutes walking down Delaronde Street in Old Algiers and you'll notice the beveled glass, iron fence work and other details of turn-of-the-century Southern houses.

After your return ferry you can take the business district shuttle bus from the International Trade Mart, where the ferry lets off, to the Superdome. Or you can complete the bus loop and get off back on Canal Street where you can easily walk from the center of the Quarter.

Another easy journey is to the Garden District, bounded by Jackson and Lousiana avenues, the American settler's answer to the French Quarter. Catch the St. Charles streetcar (a treat in itself) and get off about 1st Street. You'll find block after block of antebellum mansions, with elegant porticos and cast-iron fences.

If you're in the neighborhood, pause for lunch at Parasol's and then make sure you visit Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, at Washington and Coliseum, where you can see a bas-relief fire engine commemorating some fallen members of a long-ago fire squad. As in every other town with a high water table, you'll find ornate graves and mausoleums located above-ground.

And by the time you've visited and eaten your way through New Orleans, your spirits will probably hover somewhere above ground, too.