Louisiana is perhaps most well-known for the city of New Orleans, Mardi Gras, and its mix of Cajun and Creole culture. While these are all excellent parts of Louisiana’s heritage, the state is also home to beautiful natural landscapes, amazing museums, vibrant cities, charming small towns, and of course, outstanding cuisine.
Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the portion of the territory that is Louisiana today had already been part of Spain and France. Added to this background, the area has also been influenced by Saint Dominican, French Canadian, Native American, and West African cultures. Today, this multi-cultural heritage is still apparent throughout the state, making a visit here different from any other place you’ll find in the United states.
I’ve spent a good amount of time exploring Louisiana because I have family in the area and because I spent several years living in Mississippi just 15 minutes east of the Louisiana state line. Some of my favorite Saturdays were spent driving to New Orleans to get macarons on Magazine Street and visit my favorite French bookstore (which sadly closed in 2019). While I’m always discovering new things every time I visit the state, I can help guide you to some of the best things I’ve found to do in Louisiana so far.
If you’re planning a trip to Louisiana, and you’re wondering what to do there, then keep reading!
Paddle on the Bayou
Louisiana’s bayous are a fascinating place. These swampy areas are important to the area’s ecosystem and are full of interesting wildlife like shellfish, frogs, lizards, egrets, herons, snakes, and of course, alligators. One of the best ways to explore the bayous is by canoe or kayak.
Multiple companies across the state offer paddling tours of the local bayous. Make sure you choose a tour company that doesn’t feed the wildlife. Not only is that better for the animals, but not feeding wildlife also reduces your chance of a dangerous encounter with an alligator. The risk of meeting an angry alligator is small, but there’s no reason to be reckless.
There are also places where you can put in your own canoe or kayak if you don’t need to rent one. I prefer to take trips through the bayous with guides though because they are so knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna.
My favorite trip I’ve taken so far has been the Moonlight Paddle with Canoe & Trail Adventures. The Moonlight Paddles take place on the Saturday right before or on the full moon. A Louisiana Master Naturalist guides you on a paddle down Cane Bayou and you end up on Lake Pontchartrain just in time to watch the sunset. It’s such a unique and beautiful experience. Just make sure to use bug spray if you are on the water at dusk. Otherwise, the mosquitos will find you!
Visit the National WWII Museum
New Orleans is home to the award-winning National World War II Museum. While this museum is obviously a must-visit for history buffs, the museum is an incredible experience for any visitor. The museum contains the various physical artifacts you’d expect to find in a museum devoted to WWII, but the museum is much more interactive than most.
The museum captures more of the stories of the war from a variety of angles. The Road to Tokyo follows the progression of the American forces from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay, and the Road to Berlin traces America’s role in working toward defeating the Axis powers. These paths are brought to life with original newsreels, videos, kiosks, and digital media in addition to the standard artifacts you normally see.
While visiting the National World War II Museum, you get a sense of the enormous scale of the war, but you also see the way the war affected people on a personal level. You’ll learn the stories of everyday people in addition to world leaders. It takes several hours to properly visit the museum, but the time is well spent.
Cruise the Mississippi River on a Steamboat
Spend several hours or even an entire afternoon watching the sights along the Mississippi River roll by on a steamboat or paddle-wheeler cruise. While the river was once full of boats carrying people as a regular form of transportation, today’s riverboats are more about fun.
There are ports located in New Orleans as well as other riverside towns in Louisiana where you can book a sightseeing tour. Many of these cruises have an informational guided portion along with live music and food.
The Steamboat Natchez is one of the most popular vessels departing from New Orleans. You’ll get to learn about the history of New Orleans and enjoy a great lunch buffet. If you’re looking for a more romantic cruise, try out the Creole Queen’s Mississippi River Dinner Jazz Cruise. You can enjoy a classic cocktail and may spend some time on the dance floor as the sun sets.
Attend Jazz Fest in the Spring
Each year in the spring, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival brings together a lineup of some of the best international and local artists to Louisiana. While the headliners are different every year, a few of the past performers include The Who, Stevie Nicks, Jimmy Buffet, and Lionel Richie.
The first Jazz Fest took place in 1970 and was attended by 350 people. Today, the festival, which is now overseen by the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, is attended by hundreds of thousands of people.
The festival takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Course. New Orleans is definitely more crowded than usual during the festival, but the atmosphere is unparalleled. The festival takes place over two consecutive weekends. Depending on which artists you most want to see, you might decide to buy tickets to just one of the weekends. However, you can find plenty of things to do in New Orleans if you decide to stay in the city to attend both weekends.
Celebrate Mardi Gras
Naturally, we can’t talk about festivals in Louisiana without mentioning Mardi Gras. New Orleans gathers most of the press when it comes to Carnival season, which takes place from the Twelfth Night (always on January 6th) to Shrove Tuesday (the date differs depending on the calendar). For some parades, New Orleans is the giant drunken party you might picture it to be, but there are a number of family-friendly parades and events happening during the season as well.
New Orleans isn’t the only place celebrating Mardi Gras though. Each area has its own version of festivities. Shreveport in North Louisiana has its own unique take on Mardi Gras and some of its parades are unlike anything you’ll find in New Orleans. In Lafayette, you’ll find a tradition of celebrations dating back to 1897, and Baton Rouge has its own way of celebrating as well.
No matter where you go in Louisiana to enjoy Mardi Gras, you’ll find fancy parades with floats throwing out all kinds of items. You’ll also get to sample delicious King Cake. Supposedly the best King Cake is made by Manny Randazzo in Metairie, but everyone (including me) has their own opinion on where to find the best King Cake in Louisiana.
Enjoy Music and Food at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival
If you love music and crawfish, there’s no better place to be on the first weekend in May than at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. In 1959, the Louisiana Legislature named Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World, and the next year the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival was born.
Since its beginnings, the festival has been one of the best places to listen to dozens of Cajun and zydeco musicians perform over three days. The festival also serves to highlight the cuisine and culture of the area. Besides the performances and the cuisine, there are Cajun dance contests, music workshops, carnival rides and games, a crawfish eating contest, and an etouffee cook-off. One of the particularly unique events is a crawfish race where the celebrated crustaceans race around an 8-foot track.
In addition to showcasing Cajun culture, the festival helps to support the local community. The festival board has raised over $1 million for different civic organizations in the area. They also offer scholarships to local high school students. The Crawfish Festival is a great way to have fun while also learning more about the area’s heritage and helping ensure that the local culture continues to thrive.
Experience the magic of Christmas in Natchitoches
It’s no secret that Louisianians don’t do things halfway. So, when Natchitoches gets ready for Christmas, it turns into a full-out, lavish spectacle. Natchitoches already has a claim to fame as the oldest French settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, and during the Christmas season, those historic cobblestone streets are brimming with cheer.
Over 300,000 lights are set up, garlands abound, and fireworks add an extra magical touch to the celebration. The lights turn on during a kickoff event the weekend before Thanksgiving and continue to light up as the sun fades each day until Christmas. While taking it all in, you can enjoy eggnog daiquiris from Maggio’s Package Liquors. (It’s a drive-through beverage barn, but remember to keep the lid sealed until you’re done driving.)
An all-day festival takes place on the first Saturday in December full of live music, fun, and food. Of course, there’s a parade and fireworks, too. If you can’t make it for this weekend, there’s still plenty to enjoy in Natchitoches. The small town is a dream to explore all throughout the Christmas season.
Take a Tour of Avery Island
While it has the word island in its name, Avery Island is actually a salt dome surrounded by wetlands rather than a true island. It’s still one of the most interesting places to visit in Louisiana though. Avery Island is owned by the McIhenny family and is the location where Tabasco Sauce is made. While visiting, you can take a tour to see how the famous hot sauce made it from the field to the bottle. There’s also a Tabasco Restaurant you can try out for lunch, which thankfully has a rating on the menu to let you know how spicy each dish is.
The Tabasco factory isn’t the only reason you should visit Avery Island. Thanks to its position among the coastal marshes, the surrounding scenery is lovely. Walking down the gravel pathways lined with oaks and Spanish moss feels almost unreal.
The island is also home to the Jungle Gardens, created by Edward McIhenny to highlight Louisiana’s unique plants and wildlife while also showcasing his own collection. The botanical garden and bird sanctuary is especially appealing to plant lovers. The collection contains over 600 camellia varieties and more azaleas than you can imagine. A visit when the azaleas are in bloom in the spring is especially magical.
Explore the Outdoors at Fontainebleu State Park
A couple of miles from Mandeville and just an hour from New Orleans, Fontainebleau is Louisiana’s most visited state park. One of the main draws at Fontainebleau is the access to Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou Cane, and Bayou Castine. The manmade sandy beach along the lake is the perfect place for sunbathing and watching sailboats move across the waters. Fishing is also a popular activity for visitors to the park.
If you’re not interested in spending time near the water, there’s still plenty to do. At the north end of the park, you can walk, bike, or horseback ride through Tammany Trace, a 27-mile pathway. This trail, and the other trails in the park, offer the chance to see the 400+ bird and wildlife species making their home in the park.
Fontainebleau’s cabins suffered damage during Hurricane Ida in 2021, but the park’s campsites are open once again. A new addition to the campsites are 12 glamping tents. If you can snag a reservation, the beachside glamping spots are particularly relaxing.
Explore the collections at R.W. Norton Art Gallery and Botanic Gardens
For art lovers, the R.W. Norton Art Gallery and Botanic Gardens are a must-visit. The unique gallery located in Shreveport has a huge collection of art spanning a period of over 400 years. The exceptional works in the gallery include art from many nations and eras. You’ll find art by Dutch masters like Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema as well as works by Mary Cassat and Auguste Rodin.
Besides artwork, the museum has a huge research library containing over 10,000 books. There’s also a Rare and Antiquarium Book Collection housing gens like one of John James Audubon’s double elephant folios of The Birds of America.
The grounds surrounding the museum contain a 40-acre botanical garden. Thousands of plants, including many azaleas, are set among the pines and oaks. The benches are the perfect place to rest and take in the beautiful scenery. Plan to spend several hours visiting the museum and admiring the gardens.
Have a Few Beignets
While in the state, you have to try at least a couple of Louisiana-style beignets. Unlike French beignets, the beignets you’ll find here are made from leavened dough as opposed to choux pastry and are topped with an excessive amount of powdered sugar.
You’ll find this popular dessert on the menu at many restaurants in Louisiana, and there are also a few places dedicated just to beignets. Cafe Du Monde is one of the most well-known places to get beignets in New Orleans. If you get the chance, stopping by for a cup of coffee and a beignet is a lot of fun.
Some people have the controversial opinion that the beignets at Cafe Beignet in New Orleans are even better than those at Cafe Du Monde. You can always sample them both and make up your mind for yourself if you need to. No matter where you get your beignets, they will be delicious.
Enjoy Afternoon Tea at Windsor Court Hotel
Beignets might be the most common afternoon treat in New Orleans, but if you’re looking for something a little different, head to the Windsor Court Hotel for afternoon tea. Each Saturday and Sunday, the hotel offers an afternoon tea in Le Salon.
The tea starts off with a cocktail or sparkling drink along. You can choose from one of 26 different varieties of tea. Then, you’ll get a course of savory bites, a course featuring the house-made scones, and a dessert course. A harpist or a pianist plays live during all of the teatimes, and there are different themed teas throughout the year.
You’ll need to make reservations in advance. Going to tea at Windsor Court Hotel is so much fun to do with a group of friends for a bachelorette party, a bridal shower, or a baby shower. I’ve also seen small parties of just 2 or 3 people there celebrating a birthday or other special event. It’s definitely a memorable afternoon and a great excuse to dress up a little bit.
Discover Louisiana’s History at the Old State Capitol Building
Louisiana’s Old State Capitol is unlike any other in the United States. The building, constructed between 1847 and 1852 most closely resembles a medieval fortress on the exterior. Inside, the building is lavishly decorated with marble and wood paneling. The most outstanding features are the stained glass windows, particularly in the main gallery and in the overhead skylight. The skylight consists of 2054 individual glass panes.
The building has had multiple restorations. During the Civil War, the building suffered fire damage, and it was abandoned after a new capitol building was constructed in the 1930s. Today though, the building is accessible as a museum highlighting Louisiana’s history.
The museum is free, and it’s worth spending a good amount of time looking at the building’s architectural features and going through the exhibits. The one paid feature, is an award-winning theatrical production called “The Ghost of the Castle.” Even if you wouldn’t normally be interested in visiting a state capitol building, this one is pretty cool.
Have a Romantic Stay at Maison D’Memoire
Located just 15 minutes outside of Lafayette, Maison D’Memoire is the perfect place for a relaxing getaway. It’s a charming bed and breakfast with four beautiful country cottages. Each cottage is over 100 years old and has been updated to include all the modern amenities you need. All of the cottages have full kitchens and an outdoor fire pit, and all except for one have large jetted tubs.
The bed and breakfast is located on 30 acres with a private lake. The scenery is beautiful, and you can easily spend an afternoon walking near the lake and watching the wildlife. It’s the perfect place to go for a romantic weekend away to celebrate an anniversary or special occasion.
Go on a Steel Magnolias Film Tour
When it comes to iconic Southern movies, Steel Magnolias is arguably one of the top films. Many of the scenes from this beloved movie starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley McLaine and Dolly Parton were filmed in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Some of the locations are private houses, but you can still drive by those sites. One of the homes filmed in the movie, the Eatenton home, has been turned into a Bed & Breakfast. If you want to stay at the Steel Magnolia Bed & Breakfast, you’ll need to book early. The rooms fill up quickly.
Seventeen different film sites are noted on the Natchitoches’ visitor website, and there’s a map available to help you navigate your way around. The small town is lovely any time of year, and there’s plenty to do in Natchitoches once you finish looking at the different filming locations. This is the perfect place to plan a girls’ getaway with friends.
Drive the Creole Nature Trail
This 180-mile trail takes you through what is sometimes called “Louisiana’s Outback.” The National Scenic Byway passes by fertile land full of wildlife habitats and estuaries. As you drive you’ll see everything from numerous bird species to the alligators living in the marshlands.
The trail begins at the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point. Here you can walk through the interactive exhibits to learn about the wildlife along the trail. Adventure Point also highlights some cultural information about the area. Once you hit the road, the surrounding lands go from industrial areas to marshlands.
Along the way, the Creole Natural Trail has scenic overlooks and recreation areas where you can stop for a closer look. The trail goes through areas like the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge where you can take a break to hike and explore the freshwater marsh. You’ll also go along Louisiana’s beaches including Holly Beach and Rutherford Beach.
While you could drive the trail in just a few hours, if you take the time to stop at the different points along the way and explore a few of the small towns as well, the trip could take up to a day or two. It’s a great way to visit parts of Louisiana you might miss out on if you just stick to the state’s largest cities.
Try French-inspired Cuisine in New Orleans
Louisiana’s history with France is evidence throughout the state. In New Orleans, the French heritage is especially obvious. If you want to sample delicious French-inspired food with a Louisiana flair, this is one of the best places to be. Restaurants that are anything less than excellent don’t stay in business very long in this city.
In the Garden District, La Crepe Nanou is a cute cozy cafe serving crepes along with more traditional dinner entrees. They’re also one of the best places to go for steamed mussels. For a more upscale vibe, make a reservation at Couvant where you can enjoy classic French dishes with an updated twist. One of the best restaurants in New Orleans is Antoine’s. This French/Creole restaurant has been run by the same family for over 180 years, and the wine cellar here is one of the best in the United States.
There are too many amazing French restaurants in New Orleans to be able to visit them all. If you’re committed, you can try to fit in stops to a few French bakeries and patisseries to your visit as well. Celitca French Bakery, La Boulangeries, and Croissant D’Or Patisserie are just a few of the great places to pick up a little treat between lunch and dinner.
Watch a Game in Tiger Stadium
Louisiana is passionate when it comes to football, and that passion is on full display every Saturday gameday in Baton Rouge. Get tickets to Tiger Stadium during college football season to be part of the mania and excitement that takes place during LSU football games.
Show up to the Parade Grounds before the game starts to join in the pre-game tailgating. The football team and marching band make their way down Victory Hill about an hour and a half before the game, and the pregame show takes place in the stadium right before game time.
Even if you aren’t a huge football fan, it’s a lot of fun to get swept up in the excitement at Tiger Stadium. Grab a purple and gold outfit, learn the chorus to Callin’ Baton Rouge, and you’ll be ready to blend in with LSU’s fans on gameday.
Cool Down with a Sno-ball
The summer is long and hot in south Louisiana, and there’s nothing better than getting a sno-ball to help survive the heat during the day. If you’ve had a snowcone or shaved ice somewhere else, then you’ll probably discover that the sno-balls in Louisiana tend to have fluffier ice and more mix-ins than you’re used to seeing. In my opinion, the sno-balls with condensed milk drizzled on top are the best followed closely in second by the sno-balls stuffed with ice cream.
Snowballs are usually sold at seasonal stands open in the spring and summer, but some stands stay open all year, especially in the southernmost cities that rarely see freezing temperatures. In Metairie, try out Casey’s Snowballs for all the classic options or head to Sno-La Snowballs for cheesecake-stuffed sno-balls. In Uptown New Orleans, Plum Street Sno-Balls sells all kinds of options packed in Chinese food takeout boxes. Another good option is Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, which won a James Beard award in 2014.
Of course, when the heat hits, the best sno-ball stand is whichever one happens to be closest to you. I have yet to have a sno-ball that wasn’t delicious on a hot summer day.
Go Antique Shopping
If you’re interested in scoring one-of-a-kind pieces, you’ll find plenty of antique shops and flea markets all across the state. Somehow the sellers here seem to gather objects you just can’t get anywhere else.
In New Orleans, you’ll find dozens of antique stores on Magazine Street and Royal Street. Two particularly impressive shops are Royal Antiques and M.S. Rau Antiques, but when it comes to antiques naming the best stores really depends on what kind of items you’re looking for.
The antiques aren’t limited to New Orleans. In Baton Rouge, you can wander through Circa 1857, a market with over 50 vendors housed in a renovated pharmacy building. In Lafayette, Brocante Vintage Market is one of the coolest places to look at antiques, vintage items, and home decor. In the small town of Washington, you can search through the Washington Old Schoolhouse Antique Mall. The building itself is listed on the National Registry of Historical Places. In Breaux Bridge, you can visit Lagniappe Antiques Etc, for a wide range of items including French antiques and more recent items made in Louisiana.
Enjoy Your Time in Louisiana
You won’t find anywhere in the world quite like Louisiana thanks to the mix of cultures, cuisines, and geographical features that make this state unique. Laissez les bons temps rouler might be New Orlean’s catchphrase, but the good times are definitely rolling throughout the rest of the state as well. No matter what you decide to do while you visit Louisiana, chances are you’re going to have a great trip.