There are infinite opportunities to get to know Louisiana, a state known for some of the nation’s (if not the world’s) friendliest folks, plus the kind of cuisine, music, and culture that are found nowhere else.
Here are a few of my favorites but by no means is this list complete—there’s simply too much to see and do! Add these to your Louisiana must-experience list.
1. Creole Nature Trail All-American Road
Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called America’s Outback, the Creole Nature Trail takes visitors through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads.
You’ll pass through small fishing villages, National Wildlife Refuges to reach the little-visited, remote Holly and Cameron beaches. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass. Throughout the trip, expect to see exotic birds; this area is part of the migratory Mississippi Flyway.
2. Louisiana Swamp Tours
Louisiana serves up a lot more memorable experiences than just bowls of its famed gumbo.
To experience an indelible part of the state’s past, present, and future visit the mysterious and exquisite swamps throughout south Louisiana, home to one of the planet’s richest and most diverse ecosystems. Perceived as beautiful and menacing, south Louisiana’s ancient swamps have long captivated writers, historians, and travelers.
Just the name Louisiana brings to mind images of moss-draped oak trees, bald cypresses with massive, bottle-like trunks, and flat-bottom boats effortlessly gliding through waters populated with alligators. On a south Louisiana swamp tour, you’re likely to see all of those plus some unexpected surprises.
There are many outfitters who can get you deep into the waters of the Honey Island Swamp (on Louisiana’s Northshore) the Manchac Swamp (between Baton Rouge and New Orleans), Barataria Bay (south of New Orleans), and the massive Atchafalaya Basin between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. All swamps have their own stories to tell and with the help of expert local guides you’re guaranteed to have the kind of adventure you’ll only find in Louisiana.
3. Bayou Teche
The definition of a bayou is “a slow-moving body of water” and South Louisiana is full of them. But my favorite is Bayou Teche which meanders for 125 miles through charming towns like New Iberia, Breaux Bridge, and St. Martinville offering lovely vistas all along the way.
Bayou Teche was the Mississippi River’s main course when it developed a delta about 2,800 to 4,500 years ago. From its southernmost point in Morgan City to its northern end in Arnaudville, the byway crosses beautiful marshes and fields of sugar cane connecting lovely towns that have well-preserved historic districts.
Sample Acadian culture in cafés and dance halls serve up Cajun and zydeco music along with boiled crawfish and étouffée. Stately mansions along with the bayou exhibit the lifestyles of sugar barons from the past. The cuisine, customs, and architecture reflect the influences of Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, the Caribbean, and other peoples who settled the area.
4. Conrad Rice Mill/KONRIKO Company Store
New Iberia’s Conrad Rice Mill is the oldest rice mill in America and is also one of the leading tourist attractions in the Bayou Teche area. At this National Register of Historic Places site, you can watch an introductory video about the history of rice farming in Louisiana, tour the mill itself, and shop at the KONRIKO Company Store for some truly unique local souvenirs.
P.A. Conrad founded the Conrad Rice Mill and Planting Company in 1912. He would cut the rice by hand and let it sun-dry on the levees before putting the rice in the threshers. The rice was poured into 100-pound bags and taken to the mill. At that time, the mill operated only three to four months out of the year. Conrad would sell his rice from inventory waiting for the next crop to harvest.
Tours are Monday to Saturday at 10 am, 11 am, 1 pm, 2 pm and 3 pm. The admission fee for the tour is $5/adult with a discounted rate for seniors and children. The tour consists of a slide presentation about the area and a guided walk tour of the mill.
5. Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is just one of many reasons Louisiana has gained a reputation for being the nation’s most festive state. Mardi Gras isn’t just a day (also known as Fat Tuesday)—it’s also a season running from Twelfth Night (also known as Epiphany) to Ash Wednesday.
Visitors can also get a feel for the festivities anytime of the year. Check out the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu in Lake Charles, home to a stellar collection of Carnival costumes and artifacts from past decades. Or see the Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana exhibit at Louisiana State Museum’s The Presbytère in New Orleans to learn about the state’s rich Mardi Gras history. You can see Mardi Gras being built year-round at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans where some of the biggest and best parade floats are being constructed.
6. Cajun and Creole Cuisine
Louisiana’s food is steeped with historical influences including Cajun and Creole cuisines which are relatively similar to each other. Cajun and Creole are two distinct cultures that over the years have continued to blend.
If you’re versed on Louisiana history and culture then all you really need to know is that Creole cuisine uses tomatoes and proper Cajun food does not. That’s how you tell a Cajun vs. Creole gumbo or jambalaya. Other popular dishes include étouffée (a seafood stew) and beignets (fried doughnuts).
A vastly simplified way to describe the two cuisines is to deem Creole cuisine as city food while Cajun cuisine is often referred to as country food. Cajun is a style of cooking that has its roots in the French-Canadian settlers who arrived in the area in the 18th century. Cajun dishes are typically very spicy and full of flavor and they often include seafood, rice, and beans.
Be sure to try some of the delicious Cajun and Creole food on offer. You can find it in restaurants all over the state but for a truly authentic experience head to the bayous of southwest Louisiana.
7. Avery Island
The McIlhenny family introduced Tabasco pepper sauce in 1868. Experience the history and production of the world-famous hot sauce during your visit to Avery Island. The Avery Island Fan Experience includes a self-guided tour of the TABASCO Museum, Pepper Greenhouse, Barrel Warehouse, Avery Island Conservation, Salt Mine diorama, TABASCO Country Store, TABASCO Restaurant 1868! and the 170-acre natural beauty of Jungle Gardens. Admission is $15.50/adult, $12.50/child, and $15.95/senior and veteran.
E.A. McIlhenny created the 170-acre Jungle Garden in 1935 and opened it to the public to enjoy his collection of camellias, azaleas, and other imported plants. You may see wildlife such as alligators, bears, bobcats, deer, and other wildlife as you walk or drive along man-made lagoons that trail Bayou Petit Anse. The over 900-year-old Buddha sits in the Temple he created. And visit Bird City, home to thousands of egrets, herons, and other birds!
8. Crawfish Season
If the pelican wasn’t on Louisiana’s state flag, the crawfish might as well be. It’s just that important to the state’s identity, economy, and cuisine. The little red crustacean is found in Cajun and Creole food throughout Louisiana cooked every which way imaginable.
Crawfish are part of Louisiana’s history. The Houma Indian tribe has used the crawfish as its emblem for centuries. Today, Louisiana leads the nation in crawfish production.
What makes crawfish even more of a precious resource is the fact that it’s so seasonal. February to mid-May is the prime time to find fresh, live crawfish.
Jeff Davis Parish offers crawfish farm tours which give visitors an inside glimpse of crawfish ecology and the business of farming them. The tours operate from March to May (the crawfish harvest season) on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. Spectators will experience the habitat, harvest, calculation, distribution, and consumption of Louisiana’s #1 crustacean.
The Louisiana Legislature named Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World in 1959 and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival was born in 1960. Replete with music, food, and fun this festival personifies the Cajun culture like no other.
Trying boudin is a must when visiting Louisiana. Though the recipe is uncomplicated—pork, rice, seasonings, and spice stuffed into an edible casing—each and every boudin is unique in texture and taste. Vendors are known for their distinct links. Boudin is a roughly half-pound, half-foot length of sausage available for purchase in most every local meat market, grocery store, and gas station. A perfect way to explore the region is to try one boudin after another, link after steaming hot link, to form a chain that connects, or literally links, the Cajun prairie towns to the Creole bayou communities.
Whether it’s smoked, fried as a boudin ball, or made from seafood rather than pork, there are many worthy variations. The best versions are found at gas stations and markets, like Best Stop or Billy’s, both in the town of Scott. Specialty meat markets like Don’s in Carencro offer a heart-stopping range of other meaty treats. And of course you’ll find high-end versions in restaurants like Cochon in New Orleans but do yourself a favor and check out the real deal at some of the old-school joints throughout Cajun Country.
10. Atchafalaya National Heritage Area
The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area known as America’s Foreign Country is full of opportunities to take advantage of the great outdoors. Whether it’s paddling on the sparkling waters, hiking through the lush greenery, biking on winding paths, or keeping an eye out for that elusive bird you’ve been looking for—the Atchafalaya National Heritage area has everything to offer.
An American-Indian word, Atchafalaya (think of a sneeze: uh-CHA-fuh-lie-uh) means long river. Established in 2006, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area stretches across 14 parishes in south-central Louisiana. It is among the most culturally rich and ecologically varied regions in the United States, home to the Cajun culture as well as a diverse population of European, African, Caribbean, and Native-American descent.
Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, well have good fun on the bayou.
—Lyrics and recording by Hank Williams, Sr., 1954