From sleepy swamp fishing communities to funky trading posts on the old Cajun prairies, Louisiana is freckled with beautiful, fascinating small towns. Whether you're thinking about taking a standalone weekend getaway or a side trip from a New Orleans or Lafayette vacation, consider these five little gems.
01 of 05
Abita Springs isn't far from New Orleans -- it's located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, just under an hour's drive from the French Quarter. This village has been inhabited for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years and gets its name from the Choctaw word for the medicinal water that comes from its underground aquifers.
These waters are used to make award-winning Abita Beer, and curious beer-lovers can tour the brewery here and visit the excellent tasting room to see what's on tap.
The Abita Opry, a live-music show that is broadcast nationwide, is filmed here in Abita Springs, with seasons in the Spring and Fall. The bill is filled with local, regional, and national performers of folk and roots music, and with tickets costing less than $20, travelers with good timing can catch a real steal of a deal on intimate shows with world-class artists.
If museums are your thing, check out the Abita Mystery House, a one-of-a-kind museum that houses an eccentric... collector's hoard: bizarre memorabilia, old arcade machines, odd miniatures, borderline insane dioramas, and... well, you kind of have to see it for yourself. Entry's only $3, and yes, it's worth a trip.
02 of 05
Breaux Bridge (Pont Breaux in French) sits along the slow-moving, serpentine Bayou Teche, which rolls lazily past the historic downtown area. Visitors may find it hard to believe that this stretch of gourmet Cajun restaurants, antique stores, and brassy boutiques could have ever been anything but perfectly genteel, but in the 1920s, Breaux Bridge was a haven for speakeasies and gambling saloons.
Spend time strolling the shops and eating, eating, eating, but be sure to catch some live music in this culturally-rich community. Cajun music is on the stage every night at Pont Breaux's restaurant (which also serves up excellent traditional Cajun food), and every weekend at La Poussière, an old-school Cajun dancehall. And don't miss the legendary zydeco breakfast each Saturday at Café des Amis! (It's a lot like jazz brunch, but with more accordions.)
Also, Breaux Bridge makes a good base for swamp touring and other eco-tourism. Visit nearby Lake Martin to gator-watch from a kayak... (or the safety of your car, if you're not so brave). Or head on out to the Henderson levee to take a boat-led tour through the enormous Atchafalaya Basin, most recently made famous on the television show Swamp People.
If you time it right (hint: it makes a good side trip from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, timing-wise), you can catch the annual Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, a celebration of the region's favorite crustacean and a superlatively good time.
03 of 05
This small city sits at the edge of the Cajun prairie, a region known more for cattle ranching and trail rides than swamps and bayous, but with the same deep-rooted Acadian French and Black Creole heritage.
It's a cultural hub for Cajun music, which is presented every Saturday evening to an international audience at the Rendez-Vous des Cajuns, an old-style musical variety show. Held at the beautifully restored art deco Liberty Theatre, this show is broadcast almost entirely in Cajun French, so Francophones, in particular, should not miss it. (Anglophones, don't fret about a language barrier: though there are still people who speak French as their first language in the region, English is still spoken by nearly 100% of the population.)
Musically-inclined visitors should also visit Marc Savoy's music store, where Saturday morning jams often feature Cajun and Zydeco music royalty, kicking back and throwing down tunes with players of all levels. For nighttime entertainment, check... out Lakeview Park, a retro-fabulous RV park with an on-site dancehall.
Eunice is also home to the largest Courir de Mardi Gras, the traditional Cajun celebration of the last day before the Lenten fast. Should you be looking for a fascinating alternative to the big-city hustle of New Orleans Mardi Gras, read up on this tradition. Simultaneously old-world and only-in-America, it's really like nothing you've ever seen before.
04 of 05
Fans of the 1989 film Steel Magnolias will surely recognize dozens of filming locations among the stately mansions and elegant townhouses that overlook the majestic Cane River Lake. (It used to be part of the Red River, but it doesn't flow anymore. Long story.)
Natchitoches (easier than it looks: NACK-uh-dish) is actually the oldest French settlement in Louisiana, being founded in 1714, a full four years before its better-known cousin. Though English has long since taken over the daily conversation, there are still remnants of French heritage in the food and the architecture, and, much like in New Orleans, you'll see the famous fleur-de-lis decorating everything that sits still.
Spend a day strolling the quaint downtown area, shopping at the many boutiques on Front Street, and eating the famous local delicacy, Natchitoches meat pie -- a fried pastry half-moon filled with spicy ground meat.
History fans will also enjoy getting out of town and exploring some of the sites of the Cane... River historical region, particularly the Cane River Creole National Historic Park, a preserved series of plantation buildings which includes respectfully-presented slave cabins.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
05 of 05
The languid, Spanish moss-draped settlement of St. Francisville probably looks exactly how you've always pictured small Louisiana towns to look -- and for good reason; they've filmed dozens of movies and television shows in this perfectly picturesque place, about 2 hours northwest of New Orleans and 45 minutes north of Baton Rouge.
It's tiny (population 1500-ish) and the very opposite of busy, but it's an exceptionally beautiful place. Don't come here with adventure in mind; it's more of a place to sit on a porch in a wicker rocking chair and sip chilly drinks while reading a book or gossiping with fellow travelers.
There are a number of extraordinarily good antique shops in town, as well as several restored plantations and historic houses to tour, including Myrtles Plantation, known as the most haunted hotel in the United States. Golfers might want to visit The Bluffs, the only Arnold Palmer-designed course in Louisiana. Beyond that, though, a St. Francisville... trip is a time to relax in a beautiful setting and let care pass you by.