Famous for the live music and intense flavors of its cities, and the expansive bayous and marshland that lie beyond, Louisiana is among the US’s most diverse states in more ways than one. Its cultural heart is New Orleans, full of grimy cafes and pulsing nightlife, while its political heart resides in the art deco State Capitol of Baton Rouge, site of a turbulent political past. Elsewhere, small towns evoke Louisiana and Mississippi’s past, while state parks and the Mississippi Delta host a wide array of birdlife and some of the best fishing to be found anywhere in the United States.
In 1913, Joseph A. Biedenharn moved to Monroe and opened the first factory to produce a drink that has come to symbolize US enterprise: Coca Cola. This remarkable legacy is explored at the Biedenharn Home and Gardens, the estate where Joseph lived; there’s a museum with an antique one-nickel vending machine, along with extravagantly landscaped gardens. A second giant of American business also got its start in Monroe, Delta Airlines; the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum of Louisiana covers their history, along with the fascinating story of a local WW2 flight school. And just beyond the town lies the 1800-acre Black Bayou Lake National Refuge, whose marshy landscape is dotted with cypress trees and inhabited by a diversity of wildlife.
Perched on the east bank of the Mississippi, Baton Rouge is a lively hub of politics, shipping, shopping and education, hosting the top university in Louisiana and the striking State Capitol. The latter, an extravagant art deco monument, throbs with political history: it was built in the early years of the Great Depression by controversial left-wing Governor Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in the building shortly after. But the town isn’t all Machiavellian intrigue - there are several excellent small museums, on topics from rural life to World War II, some superb Cajun eateries, and a thriving cultural scene of theaters and galleries.
Bathed in Louisiana’s subtropical sun, Breaux Bridge is a laid-back, contented city with a quaint downtown of French colonial architecture. Known as the crawfish capital of the world, it has a simple yet sublime culinary scene, mixing seafood with a fiery tradition of Cajun cooking. Prettily situated around the Bayou Teche, and dotted with a handful of intimate B&Bs, it’s an ideal getaway destination for those looking to slip the shackles of the modern world and allow time to slide pass unheeded for a string of stress-free days.
Louisiana’s third biggest city, Shreveport extends along the bank of the Red River near the state’s borders with Texas and Arkansas. Once the site of an affluent oil industry as well as an important 19th century highway leading east into Texas and Mexico, the town has an eventful history of trade and adventure which is embodied in the grand Jazz Age mansions lining its main street. The stuffing was knocked out of the city by the Depression, and it never fully regained its swagger, but this makes it a pleasant place to visit, friendly and unassuming, hosting a beautiful rose garden, a vast science center, a high-quality art gallery, and a hinterland of lakes and waterways perfect for boating and fishing.
Jefferson parish, stretching from the sandy shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain to the beaches lining the Gulf of Mexico, is one of Louisiana’s top family holiday destinations. Easily navigable, it offers heaps of child friendly hotels and great family restaurants, along with a host of attractions to keep lively kids entertained. Fix their eyes on the wonders of the heavens at the Kenner Planetarium, or on the magic of Hollywood at the MegaDome cinema in Rivertown; drop them into the wave pool at the Bayou Segnette State Park, or simply build sandcastles on some of Louisiana’s best beaches. Adults, meanwhile, can slink away to walk the coastal trails or fish the teeming waters of the Gulf.
Like its sister city Nacogdoches over the border in Texas, Natchitoches makes a strong claim to be the oldest permanent settlement in its state. It has a turbulent past, founded as a French trading outpost before being seized by the Spanish, then growing into a significant town before burnt to the ground by retreating Union soldiers at the height of the Civil War. But in recent decades it has evolved into a peacefully popular tourist destination with a selection of cozy B&Bs, its French and Spanish roots visible in its grand architecture and thriving cafe culture.
Grand Isle is a town located on a barrier island just off the south Louisiana shoreline, connected to the mainland by a single bridge. It is best known for three things. Firstly, it is a popular beach holiday destination, with Grand Isle State Park encompassing a gorgeous stretch of sand sloping into the Gulf of Mexico. Secondly, it hosts the three-day Grand Isle Migratory Bird Festival, when expert guides lead a variety of tours introducing visitors to the area’s birdlife, and the techniques used to spot and identify different species. And thirdly it is a premier fishing destination and host of the annual Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, among the most popular saltwater fishing rodeos in the United States.
Bayous, marshy bodies of water strung along the body of the Mississippi, are a quintessential part of the Louisiana landscape. At 106 miles, Bayou Lafourche is one of the longest, threading together towns and settlements into what is colloquially known as the longest Main Street in the world. Lining the metaphorical thoroughfare are a host of attractions, natural and historic, and a great way to experience them is on a leisurely boat tour on the bayou itself. National Park rangers run the tours, and provide insightful commentary on the area’s wildlife and formerly chaotic history, when the Bayou served as a traffic clogged highway through the marshlands of south Louisiana.
Photo by finchlake2000/Flickr.
Set among the birdsong and broad horizons of the Mississippi Delta, Plaquemines Parish perches on Louisiana’s southernmost point, where the Mississippi pours in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s long been a point of pilgrimage for the nation’s anglers, holding prestigious competitions as well as drawing casual fisherfolk to its pretty marinas. It supplies much of North America’s seafood, which can be bought at its freshest from the colorful markets strung across many of the region’s small towns. And the region is great for nature lovers more generally, hosting several national parks teeming with birdlife, particularly during winter when thousands of species migrate to the mild climate of the delta.
Photo by w4nd3rl0st (InspiredinDesMoines)/Flickr.
New Orleans is one of the oldest and most diverse cities in the southern US, blending sizeable French, Creole, African-American, Caribbean, Irish, Haitian and Vietnamese populations. There’s a wonderfully varied food scene, from fine French dining to fiery and informal Creole cafes. Mixing with the food is a copious amount of alcohol, which fuels the city’s many festivities, including world-famous jamborees like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Needless to say, there are plenty of great places to drink and dance whenever you arrive - tune into local station WWOZ 90.7 F.M. to hear what’s going down while you’re in town. But the Big Easy isn’t just fun for adults - there are plenty of attractions for children, too, such as Audubon Zoo and the Louisiana Children’s Museum.