Building an itinerary across Louisiana is an exercise in deciding what to leave out. It’s a virtual guarantee that the destinations and activities you choose will be hits with your group, and the travel times between overnight stays are entirely manageable if you don’t keep stopping to see something else.
This itinerary starts in New Orleans, scoots up to Baton Rouge and then heads west to Lafayette and Lake Charles before returning to New Orleans. Louisiana’s catch-phrase of “laissez le bon temps rouler,” or let the good times roll, can be a shout-out at every stop along the way.
Your group will go home with tales of silliness and seriousness; distinctive foods — crawfish etouffee, anyone? — wild animals no one expected, much more than alligators; and insights into multiple cultures. This takes a minimum of five days and easily could be seven.
Mardi Gras World and St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans
Faith is integral to two of the most famous aspects of New Orleans: St. Louis Cathedral and Mardi Gras. Neither would exist without organized religion. The cathedral, formally the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France, is the heart of New Orleans. A church has been on this spot since 1727, and today it is one of the city’s most photographed locations.
Mass is celebrated daily, docents lead impromptu tours, and formal tours are available by reservation. It is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the U.S.
The story of Mardi Gras, the multifaceted, frivolous celebration leading to Ash Wednesday, is told well at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, the production company that makes a huge percentage of the floats in more than 80 parades that dot the calendar. Mardi Gras season begins in January, so it’s quite possible to time a tour to see one. The tour includes an informative video, watching artists at work and even a taste of king cake.
While you’re there: The Mississippi River helps define New Orleans, so get on the water with an excursion aboard the Steamboat Natchez or the Creole Queen. A no-cost alternative is taking the ferry to Algiers Point and then enjoying a walking tour there.
Cajun Culture in Lafayette
Lafayette is where you can earn a Ph.D. in Louisiana food and Cajun culture, and you probably should plan on two nights there. Real people bring a Cajun heritage attraction called Vermilionville to life. It’s a representation of a village from 1765 to 1890 that features 19 restored and reproduced buildings. Meet a woodcarver, a spinner, an accordion player, a fiddler and others who will explain how exiles from Canada became Cajuns. Then take a ride on Bayou Vermilonville aboard a traditionally built bateau.
Although you can eat well at Mama’s Kitchen at Vermilionville, consider getting a step-on guide from Cajun Food Tours, where owner Marie Ducot-Comeaux advises you to “wear your stretchy pants.” Your tour hits five restaurants and will introduce you to boudin, the ultimate Cajun snack food;, alligator; gumbo; cracklins; fried seafood; and perhaps, Cajun bread pudding. A narrative about Cajun history and culture rounds out the tour.
While you’re there: You’re so close to Avery Island that it’s practically a culinary crime not to visit the home of Tabasco sauce. The company marked its 150th birthday in 2018 and, recently, substantially upgraded and expanded its group tour program. Its companion attraction, Jungle Gardens and Bird City, is worthwhile, too.
A Sequined Surprise in Lake Charles
You learned about Mardi Gras floats at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans at the start of the tour, and here’s where you’ll learn about elaborate, extravagant Mardi Gras gowns. The location is the Mardi Gras Museum of the Imperial Calcasieu, a five-parish region in this corner of Louisiana. The museum owns almost 600 gowns; each costs up to $6,000 to make, and most are worn only once. The museum goes beyond gowns, of course, and clearly demonstrates why only New Orleans has a bigger Mardi Gras celebration than Lake Charles in Louisiana.
Lake Charles also is the place to take in nature’s grandeur by exploring a wilderness area known as Louisiana’s Outback. The key is the 180-mile-long Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. Enlist support from the Lake Charles CVB and outfitters such as Grosse Savanne Eco Tours to learn more about this region of saltwater marshes, cypress swamps, coastal prairies and even some cultivated land. The birdlife alone is amazing.
While you’re there: Check out the 1911 Historic City Hall Arts and Cultural Center. This fine building and its three floors of gallery space are ever-changing. Previous visitors have chanced upon solo exhibitions of works by Pablo Picasso, Ansel Adams, Norman Rockwell, Tasha Tudor and others.
A Tricultural Museum in Baton Rouge
Make a day of getting to Baton Rouge, only 100 miles away. Start with the longest bridge over a body of water, the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. At Folsom, visit the Global Wildlife Center, home to more than 4,000 of the world’s exotic, endangered and threatened animals, roaming 900 acres. Among them are rare Bactrian camels, zebras, giraffes and all manner of antelopes.
In Baton Rouge, get a snapshot of the entire state at three museums in one stop. The Capitol Park Museum highlights Louisiana’s cultural tapestry: American Indians; colonists from France, Spain and Great Britain; Canadian exiles who became known as Cajuns; and enslaved Africans. The museum doesn’t shy away from difficult topics and enlightens visitors about the harshness of slavery and the challenges of the civil rights struggle.
Combine that with the nearby state Capitol, America’s tallest, and the Old Arsenal Museum. When done, you begin understanding the state that’s Baptist up north, Catholic down south and fun all over.
While you’re there: Complement the indoor museum experience in Baton Rouge with the open-air experience of the LSU Rural Life Museum. A big component is a collection of backroad buildings that includes a country church, a pioneer cabin, a shotgun house, a dogtrot house and a Cajun house.
Sobering Stories in Plantation Country
The Great Mississippi River Road stretches about 70 miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and is a worthy destination as you return to New Orleans from Lake Charles. It is on both sides of the river and features some of Louisiana’s most famous and photographed plantation houses.
The most provocative is Whitney Plantation, Louisiana’s only plantation museum devoted to the lives of enslaved Africans. This plantation was established in 1752, and a 90-minute walking tour unflinchingly tells the story of the 350 slaves held in bondage there for more than a century to produce rice, indigo and sugar. Memorials honor the more than 100,000 people enslaved in Louisiana. Slave cabins, outbuildings and the owner’s plantation house are open, and a collection of haunting statues complements the tour guides’ narrative.
Assuming your ultimate goal is a return to New Orleans, the towns of Gonzalez, Sorrento and Donaldsonville offer groups an array of lodging and dining for their last night on the road.
While you’re there: The River Road African American Museum focuses on the history and culture of African Americans in rural communities along the Mississippi River. It is a member of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.