A part of the South Central and Deep South regions is Louisiana, also known as the “Bayou State”. By far, this state is most famous for New Orleans, which is its largest city, home to a variety of cultures including Creole and Cajun, and host to Mardi Gras.
Although the vast majority of tourists head to New Orleans, the state has tons of other cities, towns, and attractions to offer. Outside of the often overcrowded tourist city, visitors should consider heading to smaller urban areas like Shreveport or Lafayette. Even tinier cities like Lake Charles give guests an opportunity to explore some of the lesser known Louisianian destinations.
Apart from the cities and towns, this southern state is filled with spectacular natural landscapes, which may come as a surprise. With swamps, a limited coast on the Gulf of Mexico, lakes, rivers and open plains, the diverse array of habitats is alluring for nature lovers. Scattered throughout beautiful views are historic sites that are also worth visiting.
History of the “Pelican State”
In 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez, the Spanish explorer, was the first European to lead an expedition through Louisiana. A subsequent expedition occurred in 1542, but Spain showed little interest in the land. It wasn’t until the last half of the 17th century that France showed an interest in claiming large regions of North America.
Louisiana was named in 1682 by Rover Cavelier de La Salle, a French explorer who gave the land its name to honor France’s king, Louis XIV. At the time, the territory was much larger and the first permanent settlement in the region was Fort Maurepas in 1699, which is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
One of the most famous times of the state’s history was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. After various countries fought for control of the land, France ultimately sold 530,000,000 acres to the United States for $15 million dollars. The purchase would double the size of the US and help settlers as they moved westward.
Louisiana would become the 18th US state in April 1812. During the American Civil War, it was a slave state. Just prior to the war during the 1860 census, it is estimated that about 47% of the population (331,726 people) were enslaved. In January 1861, the state would secede from the Union to join the Confederate States of America. Quickly and badly defeated, Louisiana was recaptured by the Union in 1862.
Since the emancipation of slaves, Louisiana has become a very diverse state with many different cultures gathering in big cities like New Orleans. During the 21st century, Louisiana would make headline news when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Even though it has been nearly two decades since the storm, parts of the city are still recovering.
Capital City of Baton Rouge
Sitting on the East Bank of the Mississippi River is Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana. Home to 227,470 people as of 2020, it’s the second largest city in the state, after New Orleans. Interestingly, the city actually sits atop the Istrouma Bluff, which is a natural bluff on the Mississippi River Delta. The slight elevation of the bluff keeps Baton Rouge safe from seasonal flooding, which allowed the city to develop a bustling downtown and business area.
Currently, the local economy relies heavily on technology, medical, research, motion pictures, industrial, and petrochemical businesses. However, it’s also becoming a major tourist destination in the state. Home to numerous universities including Louisiana State University, the city appeals to younger crowds, as well as millennials searching for jobs at major corporations like Amazon or ExxonMobil.
For those that are looking to tour the sights, Baton Rouge offers a diverse array of activities that relate to the local history, art, and adventure. One of the top attractions is the USS Kidd, which is open to the public as a part of the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial. Other fun activities include visiting the Old State Capitol, the LSU Rural Life Museum, Baton Rouge Zoo, the Old Governor’s Mansion, Capitol Park Museum, and the LSU Museum of Natural Science.
Just steps away from the city, there are also natural areas where visitors can explore wildlife and local scenery. A few of the best places to take it easy are the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center and the Riverside Stroll. For travelers who are visiting during the summer, the best place to cool off is the Blue Bayou Water Park.
New Orleans, “The Big Easy”
The largest and most famous city in Louisiana with 383,997 residents as of 2020 is New Orleans. Situated along the Mississippi River, this city is famous throughout the world for its culture, dialects, music, nightlife, and festivals. Often a “bucket list destination” for many travelers, the city is also renowned for its unique landscapes, dark history, and voodoo connections.
Within the city, the most famous destination is the French Quarter. An icon, this area is where most people go to see the architecture from wrought iron balconies to courtyards and tiled roofs. Additionally, dining and entertainment is plentiful throughout the Quarter.
Bourbon Street is perhaps the most famous in the area, which often gets very rowdy at night. Other places worth seeing include Royal Street, Frenchman Street, and Jackson Square.
Another gorgeous place is the New Orleans City Park. Covering over 1,300 acres, attractions within the park include the New Orleans Botanical Garden, New Orleans Museum of Art, Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, and an 18-hole golf course. Part of the beauty of the park is due to the numerous oak trees – some of which have been growing for nearly 800 years.
There are darker highlights of this city tied to disturbing legends and folklore that have existed for centuries. Ghost tours are common attractions, but other oddities include New Orleans Voodoo, the LaLaurie Mansion, and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. On a brighter note, the most famous celebration is Mardi Gras. A Carnival of sorts, thousands of people flock to New Orleans to party the holiday with beads, booze, and fun.
Shreveport, “Ratchet City”
Shreveport, home to 187,593 people in 2020, is the third largest city in Louisiana. Founded in 1836, the city is often overlooked in favor of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. However, this city is exciting with the perk of being less crowded. Travelers from all walks of life will love the character and charm of this southern city.
From thrilling adventures to laidback excursions, Shreveport has a little bit of everything. Some of the prime attractions are the Spring Street Historical Museum, Jubilee Zoo, Logan Mansion, Shreveport Farmers’ Market, American Rose Center, Shreveport Aquarium, Cross Lake, and the Sci-Port Discovery Center.
Visitors who are in the city at the end of October and into November should buy a ticket to the State Fair of Louisiana – the second largest event in the state apart from Mardi Gras.
Lafayette, “The Hub City”
Outside of New Orleans, Cajun culture is strong in Louisiana and another place where you can learn more about the history of immigrants in the state is Lafayette. Supporting 121,374 residents (as of 2020), the smaller size of this city means that visitors can enjoy many of the best attractions without feeling overcrowded.
The best attractions in Lafayette, besides the food, are the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum, the Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Lafayette Science Museum, Acadian Cultural Center, Lake Martin Rookery, Acadian Village, and Vermilionville.
Lake Charles, “The Lake Area”
With 84,872 residents, Lake Charles is a smaller city that is renowned for its gorgeous bodies of water. Surrounding the city are Lakes Charles, Prien Lake, and the Calcasieu River. The city was originally founded in 1861 and it has become an important center for industrial, cultural, and educational institutions.
One of the best destinations for families, many of the activities in Lake Charles are geared towards younger audiences. This includes parades for major celebrations like Mardi Gras. Families should also visit the Creole Nature Trail & Adventure Point, the Saltwater Marshes, Sam Houston Jones State Park, Charpentier Historic District, Prien Lake Park, and the Children’s Museum.
A part of the state’s history are plantations, which are agricultural farms that used slaves for labor. Dating back to the late 1700s, many of the plantations in Louisiana have been preserved and turned into museums. Filled with dark history, the plantations are important places to learn about the history of slavery in the United States.
The most famous plantation in Louisiana is Oak Alley, which has existed for more than 200 years. The Laura, Rosedown, Houmas House, and Whitney Plantations have also all been preserved for educational purposes. Daily tours of the plantations are available and in some, guests can stay the night. Determined to accurately depict the past, exhibits at the plantations are frequently updated.
A large portion of this southern state’s land is covered in swamp habitats. For anyone who has never visited a swamp, taking a tour is a great way to explore some of Louisiana’s most beautiful landscapes. The most common way to explore swamps is by boat either using a kayak, non-motorized boat, or an airboat.
There are dozens of swamps throughout the region, but some of the most beautiful are the Atchafalaya Swamp, Maurepas Swamp, Lake Martin, Barataria Preserve, Honey Island Swamp, and Big Branch.
Beaches in Louisiana
Although swamps are a dominant feature, visitors may be surprised to know that Louisiana isn’t all swamp and marshland. There are a few gorgeous beaches along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico where visitors can bask in the sun, lounge in the white sand, and swim in the clear water.
Known as the “”Cajun Riviera”, Holly Beach in Cameron Parish is one of the best sandy spots to visit in the state. Along the beach, visitors can stay in cabins, which were “built-to-be-rebuilt” because of the beach’s location and seasonal threats by hurricanes. Camping on the beach is also permitted, for those that don’t want to rent cabins. Beyond traditional beach activities, Holly Beach is well-known for fishing and crabbing.
Technically a barrier island, Grand Isle is the second best place to hit the beach. A small town, visitors should rent a kayak to explore the coast or take a hike through the Grand Isle State Park. A lesser known destination, visitors can indulge in world-class fishing and birdwatching.
Fontainebleau State Park
On the shore of Lake Pontchartrain is the Fontainebleau State Park, which was once a sugar plantation and brickyard. Now protected by the government, it has become a major recreational area for locals and tourists. Much more rustic, the state park is ideal for hiking, biking, boating, and lounging.
Staying overnight in the park is allowed and there are numerous glamping tents, premium, unimproved, and primitive campsites that can be reserved for individuals, as well as small or large groups.
In Louisiana, the biggest celebration is Mardi Gras. Meaning “Fat Tuesday” in French, the celebration is a time for people to eat all the fatty food before Lent. New Orleans hosts an epic Mardi Gras with its parades fashioned after those of Carnival in Brazil. Beads and masks are worn and thrown throughout the streets. One of the best traditions is indulging in king cake, which has a small figure of the Christ Child hidden inside.
Although celebrations in New Orleans are the most famous, cities and towns throughout the state host their own parades and festivities. Mardi Gras is held each year on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Rich in culture, history, landscapes and wildlife, Louisiana is one of the most diverse states to visit in the US. Each year, millions of people are drawn in by the colorful celebrations, southern charm, hearty food, and magical landscapes. Whether you’re going for grand festivities or traveling during the tourist off season, this southern state is a worthwhile destination.