Shadows and light. Flowers and filigree. Verdure and voodoo. Gardens and gargoyles. The bawdy and the beatific.

No American city has inspired such a catalog of gothic cliches, pseudo-European puffery and Old South stereotypes. Yet where else in this country can you wander so easily from cafe to cabaret to beignet and, now, to Monet?It's about 7 a.m. on a Sunday. The Big Easy, never having properly gone to sleep the night before, is just beginning to wake.

Cafe du Monde, a stone's throw from the Mississippi River, is already twitching from the first of the caffeine and sugar rushes that will fuel it for another 24 hours. Locals, not eager to mingle with souvenir-mug collectors, are queuing up at the takeout window for cups of chicory-tinged cafe au lait, while tourists sit at tables and self-consciously negotiate their confectioners' sugar-dusted square doughnuts - beignets.

Looking across Decatur Street onto Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral - a public space that soon will be a collision of jesters, jazz musicians, Lucky Dog wiener-mobiles and carriages drawn by horses that look like Mr. Ed in drag - you see a kind of cloud hovering about the French Quarter.

That fog is what rises when all the clubs, bars and honky-tonks open their doors to let out the stench and smoke of a long night. And it's that particular odor - along with the coffee and beignets, the etouffee and the jambalaya, the jasmine and the tea olive - that gives this town its distinctive piquancy.

Downtown, where Royal Street exits the French Quarter and crosses Canal Street to become St. Charles Avenue, wizened grandmothers, clutching the hands of their young, huddle aboard the streetcar and head across town to church and family. As the car lurches forward, out-of-towners, flushed with the woozy abandon that seems to wash over newcomers, don't seem to notice, or care, where they are going. Yet before the end of the St. Charles Avenue line, these accidental tourists will have seen enough eye-popping architecture to startle even the haziest passenger.

From Lee Circle east to Audubon Park and beyond lies the fabulous strand of architectural jewels and oddities known as the Garden District. From the deathly-white shades of the Bultman Funeral Home (1852) to the perfect circle of the Unity Temple (a 1960 building designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) to the multilayer baroque splendor of Sacred Heart Academy (1899) to the hundreds of 19th-century mansions in between, St. Charles is a gorgeous journey.

Back in the French Quarter, it's difficult not to be seduced by the mood and the music that is the New Orleans experience. Passing by the Old Opera House on Bourbon Street, where the suave gold-toed Jose Francois is oozing sassy blues and a waitress named Venus is fetching drinks, a tired traveler may not be able to tell whether he has yet awakened - or whether he's landed in the happy dream world that's the Big Easy.

If you're going for Mardi Gras (Feb. 28) and you want to stay and see the town, or if you are looking for points of interest far from the crush of carnival, here are some options:

MONET MANIA: Just three weeks into its run, the New Orleans Museum of Art's exhibit of 22 paintings by the great French impressionist has already drawn nearly 75,000 visitors. No wonder it's a crowd pleaser: These genre-bending paintings of Monet's flower and water gardens at Giverny, France, on loan from the Musee Marmottan in Paris, are a fine study of the master's last hallucinatory glimpses of heaven and hell.

Dreamy, effervescing ponds of waterlilies, their flowers encased in discs of gold, purple and green, are juxtaposed with dark, exploding meditations on war and death. Through March 12. City Park. 1 Collins Diboll Circle. To avoid long lines, it's a good idea to buy tickets in advance. (800) 753-6391 or (504) 488- 2631.

PALETTE TO PALATE: "Thanks for the first memorable meal of our marriage," wrote the newlyweds from Charleston, S.C., on an engraved note to the owner of the Upperline restaurant. JoAnn Clevenger, who subscribes to the theory that dining can be a literary and painterly pursuit, has created settings from Giverny replete with Monet's bright blue Oriental china, massive vases of globelike antique roses and spikes of budding forsythia.

Embellishing and refining recipes from Monet's own food journals, Clevenger has concocted a feast of New Orleans-inflected variations on the originals (wild mushrooms with Louisiana pepper grits, pecan-crusted trout with sauteed greens and braised lamb with white beans and andouille, to name a few). Finally, Clevenger took a Monet quotation - "More than anything, I must have flowers. Always, always" - and asked local artists to follow their bliss. The results hang in her bright yellow cottage. 1413 Upperline St. (504) 891-9822.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN ART: "Mary, 7, seamstress, New Orleans, 1859." Hers is but one of the nearly 500 names on the wall that is the prologue to "Sankofa: African-American Traditions in Decorative Arts," on view at the Louisiana State Museum through March 19. Drawing largely from the collection of Atlantan Derrick Joshua Beard, this show consists of more than 300 objects, including furniture, pottery, baskets, carvings, textiles, paintings, photographs and other items. Arsenal-Cabildo complex on Jackson Square. (504) 568-6990.

CHURCH OF THE BLUES - Now that "Live from the House of Blues" is on television, and the chain is teasing Atlanta with plans to open a space there by '96, the House of Blues is suddenly red-hot. Half club, half restaurant, the New Orleans location is a veritable shrine to geniuses like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Al Green, whose bas-relief icons peer down from the pantheonlike coffered ceiling.

And the religious imagery doesn't stop there: The restaurant's look echoes the design of a chapel, with aisles leading up to the great altar, which is "dedicated to the memory of Jake Blues," a.k.a. John Belushi (Dan Aykroyd, by the way, is a House of Blues investor). Lending more soul to the place are the 278 pieces of Southeastern folk art from the collection of House of Blues mogul Isaac Tigrette. Among the artists are Georgians Howard Finster, R.A. Miller and Archie Byron and Alabamians Mose Tolliver, Lonnie Holley, LeRoy Allman and Jimmie Lee Suddeth. 225 Decatur St. (504) 529-2583.