We've always wanted to get a better taste of the unique food and culture along the American southern Gulf Coast so we recently set off on a two week long Gulf Coast Road Trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and north Florida. The plan was to leisurely explore the coast and make our way east around the "Big Bend" and back home to southwest Florida. Starting in Lafayette, Louisiana, we flew one way, picked up a rental car, and were off. This was our first time to Lafayette and what we found not only surprised us, but grabbed us so hard, we may never be able to shake the Acadiana bug that bit us. As they say in the South... y'all, we could not be more serious! Here are our top 10 things to do in Lafayette, Louisiana (and we haven't even gotten started on the food)!
A Bit of History
Lafayette, Louisiana lies 2 hours west of New Orleans, but might as well be a world away. The distinct French Canadian culture here was brought by the Acadians who were expelled from parts of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and eastern Quebec in the mid-1700's during the British and French hostilities. Over the many years, the word Acadian morphed into Cajun (try slurring the two together and you begin to get the idea) and today the region is rich in jaw-dropping, swampy landscape, OMG tasty food, incredibly friendly locals, and of course their signature Cajun Zydeco music. We'll just say this -- Dang, these people know how to have a good time!
Fun Things to Do in Lafayette, Louisiana
1. Visit Avery Island
This is a must-visit, especially for hot sauce fans! Avery Island isn't actually an island -- it's a salt dome that extends 8 miles beneath the Earth's surface, so you may hear people say Avery Island is where salt and pepper meet. That's because the McIlhenny family - makers of the famous Tabasco hot pepper sauce - started their company here in 1868, and it's still going strong today. Visiting here is an easy day trip from Lafayette, about 20 miles south of the city. The company is still family-owned and operated to this day. You can take a self-guided tour of the museum and factory to see the processing of the pepper plants, the mash warehouse where it bubbles for 3 years, to the tasting room where you can taste the different varieties of Tabasco. The buildings are numbered and well-marked so you know where to go next and the intoxicating aroma of peppers being processed is everywhere.
Tabasco food tours and cooking classes are also offered at McIlhenny, a great way to immerse yourself in Tabasco for the afternoon. But one thing you should definitely count on doing is eating at the 1868 restaurant. The prices are very reasonable unlike many tourist attraction restaurants, and it's delicious...seriously some of the best boudin sausage and crawfish we had during our stay!
2. Don't Miss Jungle Gardens
This 170-acre botanical garden and bird sanctuary on Avery Island - which resulted from Edward McIlhenny's conservation effort of the snowy egret - is one of his crowning achievements and contributions to Lafayette. The grounds are bordered by Bayou Petite Anse and worth spending a day doing the self-guided drive. Stop in the Jungle Gardens Visitor Center and pick up an easy-to-follow map. One of the hallmarks of the garden are the huge and very old live oak trees draped with lots of Spanish moss moving gently in the breeze. We could have stayed here all day. We also saw several working boats returning from the Gulf and some other unexpected sites:
- The centuries old Buddha was a highlight and a surprise; in its own colorful pavilion, sitting atop a large lotus blossom, it was a spectacular setting.
- Bird City - hundreds of snowy egrets nesting on elevated wooden racks over the water in a huge pond mostly covered with bright green duck weed. There were lots of chicks and noise, with a few great egrets mixed in.
- One of the McIlhenny mansions but unfortunately closed to the public. The Asian-inspired architecture is magnificent.
3. Visit Delcambre & Buy Fresh Shrimp Straight Off The Boat
Delcambre (pronounced DEL-kum) is a shrimp port and working class town, not much going on when we arrived; a few boats in very poor condition tied to a dock, one was selling shrimp; I'm thinking the better boats are still out on the Gulf shrimping. There are pockets of old single wide house trailers, many seem to be falling apart and some worse; this part of town close to the docks is pretty rundown; hard to tell what the population is in places like this (reminds me of the old mill towns around Pittsburgh that have seen better days).
4. Explore Downtown and Eat Lafayette
Lafayette is a relatively small city and spread out, with several new areas with interesting shops, retail chains and restaurants. But head to Downtown Lafayette near the crossroads of Pinhook Road & Evangeline (Route 90) for some of the more unique shops and eateries in town. The area around Jefferson Street, University Avenue (East and West) and Main Street is walkable and engaging with historic shops and great photo ops like the giant letters that spell out Lafayette in Sans Souci Park (just add yourself as the "Y" in the middle). Check out local places that have been here forever like Poupart Bakery, the oldest authentically French bakery in town, and the last Borden's Ice Cream shoppe in the country for a banana split or malted shake. Downtown is a great place to meet locals who love to chat and give you great recommendations.
5. Visit Vermilionville and Acadian Village
Lafayette has two villages you can explore to get a real sense of Lafayette’s history. Vermilionville is a Cajun and Creole living history museum with a dozen or so period buildings, including 7 original structures that were moved here and restored about 20 years ago. Tours are self-guided and historians throughout the buildings are a wealth of information about the homes, the original families who lived there, local crafts and 19th century Acadiana life. Kids will love the local flora/fauna exhibits, and some cool demonstrations of the weather in south Louisiana. Acadian Village is similar to Vermilionville with less of a living history element, and guided tours instead. There are eleven structures here along with a General Store. Download the "Vermilionville Living History Museum" app in the iPhone App Store to take their audio-visual tour (available in both English and French).
6. Dance to Live Music at an Acadiana Dancehall
Any local culture with enough venues and "dancehalls" to keep your dance card filled for months you just know is gonna be a good time. Whether you're up for local zydeco dancing or a good honky tonk, this is where you'll find the spirit of Lafayette... any night of the week, in any part of town you'll find locals dancing to a Cajun beat. But don't let that stop you from joining in.....the simple steps are easy to learn and the locals are more than welcoming and willing to lead you around the floor!
We had some of the most fun of our entire stay the night we danced to Terry and the Zydeco Bad Boys at Artmosphere, a funky and friendly bistro and night spot that serves good food and drinks til 2am. We danced as best we could to the fast temp Zydeco beat and the joint was jumpin' (literally, the drinks on our bar table were spilling over!). The locals who all seemed to know one another danced til the wee hours doing what looked like a Zydeco Cajun jitterbug.
Many restaurants offer live music and dancing like Randol's Restaurant and Cajun Dancehall, or Prejeans who has live music nightly. You'll also find nightly jam sessions all around town - there's a good Cajun jam every Wednesday at the Blue Moon Saloon. Great music, good food, nice people, and a very fun night. When you're in Lafayette, Go!
7. Eat Crawfish in Lafayette...and Cajun Gumbo, and Boudin, and...
We were pleasantly surprised at the food scene in Lafayette. Not that we didn't expect great food -- we just didn't expect so many great variations on the Cajun theme, nor the new and modern twists that local Chefs are creating. Before our visit, my only knowledge of local food in Lafayette was crawfish and gumbo. But after eating so many variations on the theme, I can tell you there's no one thing called gumbo, or étouffée (Aay-too-FAY), or Lafayette's famous pork and rice sausage known as boudin (pronounced boo-DAN). Sure, there are several integral ingredients that go into a traditional Acadiana gumbo like the "trinity" (sautéed onions, celery, and green bell pepper) and filé (pronounced (FEE-lay, which is ground sassafras leaves). Everyone here will also tell you that the flavor is all about how you cook the roux. But there are as many variations as there are parents and grandparents who made it before, especially with boudin. Everyone adds their own special touch, ingredient, or technique. And it's all good. So take your time and try as many as you can.
What we especially loved about Lafayette is their simple plate lunches. Haven't heard that term before (or in the last 50 years)? It's actually a throwback to a time when working-class Americans needed a cheap and filling meal. But the plate lunch thankfully never left Lafayette, and today you can find good ones all around town, along with a story or two from the local sitting on the stool next to you.
If you fall in love with Boudin (and foodies generally do!), travel the self-guided Cajun Boudin Trail, with nearly 50 local producers and directions to each!
8. Hit Up a Daiquiri Shack
Talk about local flavor...Drive-thru Daiquiris were a complete surprise! Apparently daiquiris are popular in this part of the south -- think of all those alcoholic slushy machines in New Orleans like Fat Tuesday. But in this part of Louisiana you can get them at a Drive-Thru! You heard me right. And you might be thinking what we were thinking....what the? But the Louisiana Legislature has decided that if your daiquiri is unopened in your car and the straw is kept outside the container, then it's OK with them if you enjoy one of the area's most fun and local treats!
We hit up Frankie's Daiquiri near downtown and Frankie was a hoot. He's well-known in Lafayette as "Frankie Burger" after years as a burger and fries restaurant owner in town. He's got many flavors, but his most popular is the "Frankie Says Relax". And we say, listen to Frankie. :-)
9. Visit Jefferson Island and Rip Van Winkle Garden
A great way to spend an afternoon is to drive a half an hour south of Lafayette to Jefferson Island. Built in the Southern Plantation style in 1870, the Jefferson Mansion is the centerpiece of the Rip Van Winkle Garden. The beautiful exotic plants of the 15 acre garden are surrounded by cypress and 350 year old oak trees. The beautifully manicured Garden includes fountains, statues, and even peacocks. The nicest surprise we had was seeing carved Balinese works of art meant to give people an awareness that there are other points of view in the world.
10. Take a Swamp Tour
In Lafayette, you're never far from the bayou, and taking a boat tour to get into this unique ecosystem is a fun way to spend the day. There are several local swamp tour companies who do airboat swamp tours, paddling excursions, sunset tours, birding and wildlife tours, and even photography trips. Cajun Country Swamp Tours leaves from nearby Breaux Bridge, and popular McGee's tours the Atchafalaya Swamp about 30 minutes from Lafayette.
There are so many things to like about Lafayette and southern Louisiana. If your visit is just a few days, you'll only be scratching the surface, so be sure and hit these highlights. We were happy to have gotten a little taste of the local flavor, but there's still so much more!
Where to Stay in Lafayette
Home2 Suites by Hilton
While a chain hotel may not offer as much as a local B&B in the way of local flavor, the centrally-located Home2 Suites is a super comfortable stay in the Parc Lafayette, and walking distance to dining and shopping. We loved our stay here. This new hotel is modern, stylish, and wired for working away from home. There are full kitchen and work spaces in all suites, an outdoor pool, and free wireless printing. There's also excellent Wi-Fi and free breakfast every morning. Home2Suites by Hilton, 1909 Kaliste Saloom Rd, Lafayette, LA
T'Frere's House Bed & Breakfast
A century-old home located in the Acadiana area of town, this comfortable B&B was once a grand home with grounds to roam. Today, the rooms are not typically what you'd expect to find in a historic bed and breakfast, but are cozy and nicely decorated. Guests are free to roam or settle in around the entire home including a guest fridge in the large farmhouse kitchen, are treated to a full sit-down breakfast every morning in their sunny morning room, and also receive free entry into Feed & Seed, a live music venue in downtown. T'Frere's House B&B, 1905 Verot School Rd, Lafayette, LA
Mouton Plantation Bed & Breakfast
Built in 1820, this former Plantation features bedrooms in the historic main house, and individual cottage rooms with modern amenities and solid Wi-Fi. The home itself and period furnishings are fun to explore and we loved the air of history that surrounds your every move. It's truly a special place to stay. The complementary (and delicious) Cajun gourmet breakfast and Manager's cocktail hour were two more great reasons to stay here. If you're lucky, they'll be serving their Southern Tea Julip - it's the best! Mouton Plantation, 338 N Sterling St, Lafayette, LA
Many thanks to LafayetteTravel for hosting our overnight accommodations during our stay. As always, all opinions are our own based on our firsthand experience.