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French Quarter, Mardi Gras rank as New Orleans' top attractions

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FILE - In this March 8, 2011 file photo, Rex, the King of Carnival rides in the Krewe of Rex as he arrives at Canal St. on Mardi Gras day in New Orleans. (AP)

New Orleans contains a potent blend of European, African and Caribbean cultures, creating an atmosphere that is both relaxed and raucous. The city’s charm lies not just within its colonial architecture and rich cultural history, but in its vivacious spirit and charming people. Days can be happily spent soaking up the culture, and sampling local music and cuisine, but there are additional attractions that showcase the fascinating history and deep-rooted traditions of the Big Easy. Here are three must-see attractions:

French Quarter

The first item on any New Orleans itinerary should be a trip to the city’s historic French Quarter. This famous district acts as the perfect introduction to the city, showcasing its beguiling European-influenced culture. Take a tour through Jackson Square and bustling Bourbon Street to experience the vibrant atmosphere in this history-laden district. While there, enjoy an impressive array of restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment, or simply take a break and watch the artists, street performers and horse-drawn carriages pass by.Of all the historic attractions located in the French Quarter, the Cabildo is among the most interesting. Located on Jackson Square, this magnificent building was constructed in the late 18th century as the Spanish government seat in New Orleans and was the site of the Louisiana Purchase transfer. Today it houses an excellent exhibition that documents the history of the city.The best time to visit the French Quarter is during the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in late April and early May. For this seven-day event, visitors and natives alike join together to celebrate the city’s unique brand of music, food, culture and crafts.

Mardi Gras

Widely known as the largest free party in the world, New Orleans’ annual Mardi Gras festival has become almost as famous as the city itself. Each year the downtown streets fill with colorful parade floats and droves of revelers dressed in flamboyant costumes. The spectacular displays and vibrant atmosphere make Mardi Gras an unforgettable, if somewhat hectic experience.The preliminary parades that occur on the two weekends prior to the main event are generally less boisterous and more family-friendly, allowing party-goers to experience the festivities without the chaos.If your visit doesn’t coincide with the Carnival season, you can still sample some of the Mardi Gras magic at two of New Orleans' best museums. The magnificent Presbytere building -- once a Spanish courthouse -- contains a superb museum detailing the history and traditions behind the infamous festival. Similarly, Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World offers visitors a fascinating glimpse at the design and construction of many of the upcoming Mardi Gras parade floats.

New Orleans’ cities of the dead

The famed above-ground vaults in many of New Orleans’ oldest cemeteries stand as vestiges of the city’s colonial history. Flooding displaced coffins from the city’s earliest graveyards, so the inhabitants began building new cemeteries containing raised tombs. Today, guided tours show visitors around some of the city’s most remarkable cemeteries, including the original above-ground vaults in St. Louis Cemetery No.1 and the unusual chapel in St. Roch’s Cemetery. On November 1 each year, New Orleans residents gather together in these graveyards to commemorate the dead as part of the major All-Saints Day celebration.