New Orleans and Baton Rouge get lots of attention, and for good reasons. But it’s Louisiana’s small towns that capture the state’s history, renowned culinary traditions, and distinctive character – without all the crowds, and at a bargain price. From the exemplary seafood in Grand Isle to bald eagle-watching in Morgan City to stories of the mythical Rougarou in Houma—these towns are chock full of charm. And for lagniappe (which means "a little something extra" in Cajun French), there’s a festival for every occasion.
The beating heart of Acadian culture can be found in New Iberia, a Cajun town that exudes bayou charm. Explore Louisiana’s history in the sugarcane industry with a visit to Shadows-on-the-Teche, a plantation built in 1834. Its beautiful manor house is perched on the banks of the bayou and can be seen with a guided tour. For an immersive experience, stay the night at Jefferson House and explore the surrounding Rip Van Winkle Gardens, where peacocks roam freely and some of the oak trees are nearly 350 years old. (It was once owned by an actor who played Rip Van Winkle on stage thousands of times.) Breakfast and a bottle of wine are included, and you’ll stay in cottage-style rooms. You can also visit for the day and enjoy lunch in the courtyard; be sure to try the crabmeat au gratin. Just outside of New Iberia on Avery Island, you can visit the birthplace of TABASCO® Sauce, a red pepper sauce that locals use to liberally douse everything from breakfast eggs to po’boys. Visitors can tour the factory and museum and take a self-guided garden and bird tour. Plus, there’s an on-site restaurant. Visit New Iberia in October—not only is the weather at its best, but you can attend the World Championship Gumbo Cookoff with more than 100 different varieties to sample.
Situated in the piney forest of Northwest Louisiana, Minden is so charming that it feels almost like a film set. In fact, it often is one. Located in Webster Parish, it’s home to the Northwest Louisiana Film Trail, which highlights more than 20 local filming sites. History buffs will appreciate the Dorcheat Historical Museum for its glimpse into the area’s local history, as well as the Germantown Colony Museum, where you can imagine what life was like among members of the German Utopian Movement who settled here in the early 19th century. More adventurous visitors should head straight to Muddy Bottoms ATV and Recreation Park. Home to the annual Bayou Mudfest, the park covers 5,000 acres of trails. (Yes, they have showers.) For those who appreciate both history and a bit of adventure, schedule your visit around the Scottish Tartan Festival which happens in April. Bring a lawn chair and don your kilt for a festival that celebrates the commemoration of Scottish Independence. Be sure to sample a coo burger, made from Scottish Highland beef, while you’re there.
Some of the best things happen unplanned. That’s the case with Marksville, a small town in Avoyelles Parish that’s named after Marco Eliche, a merchant trader who decided to establish a trading post after his wagon broke down. The broken wheel is a respected symbol in Marksville, and business like the Fresh Catch Bistreaux and Broken Wheel Brewery pay homage. Go here for fried alligator, crawfish étouffée, and a pint of craft brew. Also notable in the area is the Tunica-Biloxi tribe, which gained federal recognition for its reservation in 1981. It’s now one of four federally recognized Native American tribes in the state and has more than 1,200 members. A must-do drive in Marksville is the Northup Trail, a sobering series of sights portrayed in the book and film 12 Years a Slave. Visitors follow the path of author Solomon Northup that includes Edwin Epps’ home, the courthouse, and the plantation homes where Northup was enslaved.
Known as the Crawfish Capital of the Word, Breaux Bridge is a small city with a lot of personality. In fact, it was the first to start selling the beloved delicacy on menus and takes credit for the invention of Louisiana’s famed crawfish étouffée. This dish and more can be found at the city’s annual crawfish festival, held in May. If you can’t make that, there’s always the Shake Your Trail Feather Festival, a music festival held in October where you can paddle down the bayou and enter a contest for the best bird costume. Any time of year, you can take part in Champagne's Cajun Swamp Tours. These are just some of the things that make this charming French-Cajun town unique. Just ask the locals—all of whom can be found in The Breaux Bridge phone book. This unique directory, which started in 1949, lists residents by their nicknames, such as Corn Cobb Castle and T-boy LeBlanc.
Ever heard of a Rougarou? It’s Louisiana’s version of Big Foot—a werewolf of sorts that has the head of a wolf and the body of a human. It’s a part of Cajun folklore that’s been passed down for generations and is now celebrated at Rougarou Fest. Each October in downtown Houma, there’s live music, costume contests, a ball, and a parade that honors the legendary creature. For more culture and history, the Regional Military Museum is chock full of fascinating artifacts from authentic uniforms to military jeeps. You can even ride on a fully operational Higgins boat, an amphibious vehicle used in World War II. The boats were built in Louisiana by Andrew Higgins, who President Eisenhower described as "the man who won the war for us." At the Southdown Plantation and Museum, visitors can take a tour and learn about Mardi Gras in Houma, the native tribes of Louisiana, the history of the sugarcane industry, and scope out the original family furnishings.
Music aficionados will appreciate Ferriday, the hometown of country musician Mickey Gilley and—most famously—his first cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, who is celebrated at the Jerry Lee Lewis Museum. In addition, the Delta Music Museum, situated in the historic downtown, is a treasure. Part of the Blues Trail that snakes through Mississippi and into Louisiana, it’s housed in Ferriday’s old post office and is filled with musical memorabilia. The museum’s Arcade Theater hosts live music most Saturday nights. Once you get your music fix, an ideal place to stay is at the Lakeview Lodge. Located on Lake Concordia, it’s a great place to stay if you like to fish. After all, Louisiana is known as the "Sportsman’s Paradise."
Located in Vernon Parish, Leesville is home to a charming, historic downtown with picturesque buildings. Here, you’ll find the Louisiana Championship Soap Box Derby. During Derby Daze, as it’s called, children ages 6-17 design and race their own cars down Third Street. If that’s not small town charm, what is? Maybe Mayfest, an annual two-day event that brings out locals (and visitors) who listen to live music from lawn chairs, browse creations from local woodworkers and ceramicists, and eat barbecue and funnel cake. Finally, stop by the quirky New Llano Cooperative Colony Museum, which charts the history of a socialist commune that broke away from its California roots and settled here 1917.
Known as being "right in the middle of everywhere," Morgan City is a central location and is certainly worth a stop—especially if you’re a birder. The St. Mary Loop Birding Trail is a gem, where you’ll find more than 300 bird species. Come February, it’s also where you’ll find the Eagle Expo, and a chance to view American bald eagles, a common visitor to Morgan City’s Cajun Coast. The annual celebration includes photography workshops, presentations, boat tours, and more. Morgan City is also home to the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, an event that honors men and women of the seafood and petroleum industries, the economic veins of the area. The Labor Day weekend celebration is loaded with fun for the whole family, from street parades to carnival rides to firework displays. When you’re passing through, remember that the first Tarzan of the Apes film, released in 1918, was filmed in Morgan City and was one of the first films gross more than $1 million.
Tallulah is as fun to say as it is to visit, especially during the annual Teddy’s Bearfest, held in October. This largely agricultural town (think cotton, soybeans, corn, and rice) is home to a festival that commemorates a successful bear hunting trip taken by President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt’s in Madison Parish. How do you celebrate a former President’s hunt? With educational exhibits, arts and crafts, great food, and live entertainment. Also in Tallulah is the impressive Southern Heritage Air Foundation, which is dedicated to the history of aviation and has a number of vintage aircraft on site.
Located on the state’s only inhabited barrier island, Grand Isle offers beaches, wildlife, world-class fishing, and (naturally) incredible seafood. With more than 280 species of fish and four seasons of fishing, there are many ways to reel in a catch. Deep-sea fishing offers an opportunity to head far out in the waters. There are more than 30 charters here, along with a handful of marinas (check out Bridge Side Marina) and places to rent kayaks. Come spring, Grand Isle puts on the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Celebration, honoring the hard-working birds who’ve flown across the Gulf of Mexico and migrated to the island. There’s also the Grand Isle Butterfly Dome, where you can see 129 species of butterflies, all native to Louisiana, and take a guided tour. For a bit more adventure, head to the island for the Grand Isle Ladies Rodeo, which is actually an annual women-only fishing competition that benefits breast cancer charities. Held in October at the foot of the Grand Isle bridge, which overlooks the Caminada Pass, the Rodeo gives prizes for the biggest redfish, trout, flounder, and drum. A decorated bra competition–the winning bra is auctioned off– was a new addition to the event in 2017.