Select a town or small city in America for a road trip and you’ll likely get a lot of the same. Perhaps a cute main drag, a church or two, an old-school diner. Don’t get me wrong, small-town America can be great—but there’s no place quite like Lafayette, Louisiana.
Called the happiest city in America year after year plus the tastiest Southern town and music mecca, this New Orleans-alternative and geographic heart of the Bayou State is oozing with joie de vivre. That’s mostly thanks to the resident Creoles (French speakers born outside of France) and Cajuns (descendants of the Acadians expelled from the Canadian Maritimes in the 18th Century) who get what it means to have a good time.
Sure, there are Mardi Gras traditions unique to Creole and Cajun country like chicken chases but Lafayette which is also known as Hub City because of the many towns that surround it has so much more to offer. You’ll find arguably more festivals than any other US city of its size, parties every night at dancehall honky tonks, and some of the best cuisine in the country. Think New Orleans’ best cuisine and here is where most of those dishes originated.
And Lafayette is only getting better. Over the last few years, creative locals have revitalized downtown Lafayette with shops and restaurants you won’t see anywhere else.
So if you find yourself, like Paul Simon, “standing on the corner of Lafayette, state of Louisiana, wondering where a city boy could go to get a little conversation, drink a little red wine, catch a little bit of those Cajun girls dancing to zydeco,” here’s your guide.
Lafayette knows how to party
Mardi Gras is done very differently here and absolutely needs to go on your bucket list even if you’ve experienced carnival season in New Orleans. On Fat Tuesday in Lafayette, locals dress up in colorful masks with big noses (like a more colorful big bird), get wasted, and eat thousands of crawfish.
But Lafayette doesn’t stop all year ‘round. In March, there’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles for Cajun fiddle and washboard zydeco music. In April you’ve got Festival International (April 26-39, 2023) which attracts hundreds of thousands to the city every year and a festival for boudin.
Boudin is deeply ingrained in Cajun culture and the nearby community of Scott celebrates and shares it. You can find all kinds of mouth-watering boudin at the 9th annual Scott Boudin Festival, April 14-16, 2023. This regional authentic Cajun food is a favorite for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Boudin is a delicious combination of rice, ground pork, and flavorful seasonings stuffed into sausage casings. Boudin remains one of the most unique American sausages and regional specialties of Louisiana’s Cajun culture.
The rest of the year, there are festivals for everything from po’ boy sandwiches to frogs (Rayne Frog Festival) to sweet dough pie. In September, the Acadiana Po-boy & Plate Lunch Festival combines two of Lafayette’s favorite culinary gems, the po’boy and the plate lunch.
Sweet Dough Pie Festival celebrates the history of Grand Coteau (15 miles north of Lafayette off I-49) and a traditional Louisiana treat called a sweet dough pie. Every year on the fourth Saturday of October this charming town draws thousands of hungry visitors in search of their favorite traditional filling―sweet potato, fig, blackberry, or lemon!
Any time of the year, party while you eat during the world-famous zydeco breakfasts at Buck & Johnny’s (Saturdays, 8-11 am) or Cajun jams (Saturdays and Sundays, 11 am-1 pm) at Tante Marie in Breaux Bridge. Essentially, they’re exactly what they sound like: you eat a decadent brunch while listening to traditional music and everyone is encouraged to get up and boogie. Just know that you’ll never master the slick moves of the octagenarians (one who is between the ages of 80 and 89) you’re bound to see cutting up the dance floor.
Last but certainly not least, go dancing at Blue Moon Saloon Saloon & Guest House and Artmosphere. These two dancehalls encapsulate Lafayette’s love of life more than any place else.
Get that Cajun and Creole grub
Cajun and Creole food are celebrated the world over and Lafayette is where it all began. There are literally 50 places to eat boudin (Cajun Boudin Trail) so many crawfish boils during the season, gumbo (a meat stew made with dark roux in Acadiana as opposed to tomato-based roux in New Orleans), and shrimp étoufée (seafood stew over rice).
You really can’t go wrong with food in Lafayette but if you want a guide to give you a sampling of the most traditional dishes, you can do a Cajun Food Tour which offers history tours and culinary tours all rolled into one. Their tours take you into the heart of Cajun Country, off the eaten path.
After you’ve tried the classics, downtown Lafayette has some exciting new restaurants that are definitely worth checking out. The finest is Vestal (555 Jefferson Street) where Chef Ryan Trahan—a.k.a. The King of Louisiana Seafood—is doing something special with live fire cooking techniques. Otherwise, try Pop’s Poboys (740 Jefferson Street) or Pamplona Tapas Bar & Restaurant (631 Jefferson Street).
Drink bookstore wine or drive-thru daiquiris
Beausoleil Books & Whisper Room (302A Jefferson Street) is the kind of place that proves Lafayette is on the up and up. The bookstore is the only place that has a collection of French books for sale in Lafayette these days and it duals as a bar and event space—yes, you can even take your drink with you as you peruse.
Wild Child Wines (210 E. Vermilion Street) has the city’s best selection of natural and traditional wine which can be sipped in-shop. If craft beer’s what you’re after, Bayou Teche Brewing in Arnaudville is worth the 20-mile drive for its big selection of intriguing flavors (king cake beer during carnival season!) and does a mean pizza. If you’re daring, try their Boudin Bomb (a cajun stout with bourbon and “Gatorbite” coffee liquor).
Just make sure you don’t leave Lafayette without getting a drive-thru daiquiri at a place like Frankie’s because where else in the world can you say you did that?
Gander at the ‘gators and get (hot) sauced
Humans and alligators have a complicated relationship. They scare us but they’re nothing to be afraid of. Well, as long as you’re not a tiny, bite-sized human or swimming right next to them. From a lovely, floating, safe boat, they’re pretty neat to watch. The best way to do that is with McGee’s Swamp and Airboat tours which are also a good way to gain an appreciation for Louisiana wetlands.
Another fun thing to do is to drive down to Avery Island, the home of the Tabasco hot sauce factory. You can also sample every sauce flavor available here along with super delicious Tabasco Ice Cream. More than a worthwhile museum experience, Avery Island has jungle gardens with exotic wildlife including hundreds of egrets that nest on the island each spring on specially built, pier-like structures in a pond nicknamed “Bird City.”
Where to stay in Lafayette
Campgrounds and RV Parks in the Lafayette area include:
- Cajun Palms RV Resort, 15 miles west in Henderson (I-10, Exit 115)
- Lafayette KOA Holiday, 8 miles east in Scott (1-10, Exit 97)
- Frog City RV Park, 12 miles east in Duson (I-10, Exit 92)
- Poche’s RV Park and Fish-N-Camp, 12 northwest in Breaux Bridge (1-10; Exit 104; check directions locally)
Well, I’m standing on the corner of Lafayette
State of Louisiana
Wondering where a city boy could go
To get a little conversation
Drink a little red wine
Catch a little bit of those Cajun girls
Dancing to Zydeco.
―Paul Simon, “That Was Your Mother”, Track 10 on Graceland (1986)