From sleepy swamp fishing communities to funky trading posts on the old Cajun prairies, Louisiana is dotted with fascinating small towns. You'll find the real Louisiana as you explore small towns with ancient trees dripping with Spanish moss and listen to zydeco music.
Whether you're thinking about getting away for a weekend or taking a side trip from a New Orleans or Lafayette vacation, consider these five little gems.
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 visit the tasting room to see what's on tap.
The Abita Springs Opry, a live-music show that is broadcast nationwide, is filmed in Abita Springs. The Opry performs during spring and fall seasons. 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 (UCM Museum), 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. It's worth a trip.
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 Cajun Restaurant (which also serves up excellent traditional Cajun food), and every weekend at La Poussière, an old-school Cajun dancehall.
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 tour through the enormous Atchafalaya Basin, made famous on the television show Swamp People.
If you time it right you can catch the annual Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, a celebration of the region's favorite crustacean and a fun time. The festival takes place each May.
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 percent 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.
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 which used to be part of the Red River.
Natchitoches (easier to pronounce 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.
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.
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 picturesque place, about 2 hours northwest of New Orleans and 45 minutes north of Baton Rouge.
It's tiny (population around 1500), laid-back, and 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 chilled 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 an opportunity to relax in a beautiful setting and let your cares pass you by.