— Lafayette, Louisiana — is a specific blend of cultures that combined to form a unique sense of place. To understand the origins of the unofficial “Capital of Creole and Cajun Country,” you have to go back in time to 18th century Acadie, now known as Nova Scotia. In 1713 English Governor Charles Lawrence gained control of the land previously ruled by France. In 1755, he expelled the Acadians (French-speaking Catholics) who refused to pledge allegiance to the Crown and Anglican Church. Families were cruelly separated and sent to sea to find a new place to live.
The Acadians landed in south Louisiana and connected with other exiles in New Orleans but were snubbed by the French aristocracy. Looking for a safe haven, they headed west into unsettled territory, sharing the land with indigenous tribes, including the Atakapa-Isahak, Choctaw, Chitimacha, and Opelousa, who established a trading outpost along the Vermilion River.
Various land grants and treaties added other cultures, including Spanish, American, and enslaved Africans. The French would say, “Les Acadiens” or “le ‘Cadiens.” Americans had a hard time saying Cadiens, and the word became Cajun.
The hardworking descendants of Acadians made a life and living from the terrain surrounding Lafayette. The bayous, rivers, swamps, and land gave them the cuisine that originated here. The traditions from their mixed heritage are celebrated and enjoyed in festivals throughout the year.
The people have a zest for life; their motto is work hard, play hard. You can see it in their smiles, smell it in their gardens, taste it in their food, hear it in their music, and touch it in their art.
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Laissez les bons temps rouler – Let the good times roll!
You will need all your senses to experience Lafayette because this city has a ton of flavor. Following are ten of the best things to do, in no particular order, but try them all. You won’t want to miss a single thing on this list.
1. Dance the Night Away
Music is everywhere in Lafayette; you just need to pick a place and enjoy it. If you like to dance to authentic Zydeco, Cajun, or Swamp Pop, you have to visit the Blue Moon Saloon.
The Blue Moon is many things, a bar, a guest house, a dance hall, and a meeting place where Grammy-winning musicians play with seasoned locals or relative newcomers. In 2014, it was named one of the “Top 100 Bars in the South by Southern Living Magazine.” The premier music venue is where everyone goes to hear authentic roots music from around the world. There are more stages to listen to the music scene in Lafayette. It’s all good here.
2. See North American Alligators Up Close
Tour through an ecological marvel, the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp with McGee Swamp Tours. You’ll explore America’s largest swamp with experienced, native Cajun guides who’ll explain and educate about the ecosystem and get you up close to the wildlife who live there. Only twenty minutes east of Lafayette, McGee’s provides swamp or airboat tours or the option to create a unique adventure with a canoe or photography excursion. Whatever type you select, you will enjoy an educational and entertaining experience. Visit in the spring or mid-fall to December for the best wildlife views.
3. Munch on Po’boys
Po’boys are so beloved in Lafayette, there’s an entire festival dedicated to them. Local’s believe the story started in New Orleans over 88-years ago during a streetcar worker’s strike. Restaurant owners and brothers Benny and Clovis Martin (former streetcar workers) served the poor boys (strikers) this humble sandwich.
Though the story is disputed, the Po’boy is not. It’s so popular it’s as famous as the lobster roll in New England. This iconic sandwich is everywhere in Lafayette, and while you can’t get a bad one, Olde Tyme Grocery has one of the best. Since 1982 this simple shop offers takeout and a small patio where you can gobble this delicious creation as soon as your order’s ready.
The sandwich comes in whole or half portions with deli meat or seafood (shrimp, oyster, and catfish). They also have a snowball stand right behind Olde Tyme Grocery from April to September. Snowballs are another favorite among locals. It’s crushed ice with sweet colorful syrup on top, and it’s a great way to beat the heat.
4. Sip a Cold One at a Drive-Thru Daiquiri Stand
Another unique feature found in Lafayette is their drive-thru daiquiri stands. Yes, it’s true; Lafayette was the first to start the frozen rum-spiked daiquiri business back in the 1980s.
After much negotiating, the idea spread to New Orleans and other cities in the state. How is that even possible? There are rules. You must keep the lid on and straw out until you get home to drink it. They come in various colors and flavors with favorites like piña colada and (depending on the season) egg nog.
These “adult” snowballs are a great way to keep cool and are more portable than their predecessors. Back in the ’80s, they were served in tall glasses with ice. Here is a list of local drive-thrus.
5. Admire Street Art
Public art is free and available to anyone who wants to admire it. Lafayette has a series of murals that adorn the walls along Jefferson Street downtown that tell the area’s story from its early days to the modern era. Internationally renowned artist Robert Dafford, who resides in Lafayette, painted many of the murals. Others were painted by emerging artists. Art is everywhere in Lafayette. While you are downtown, check out Sans Souci Fine Crafts Gallery, featuring art from some of the South’s finest artisans in media, such as pottery, jewelry, glass, textiles, metal, and wood.
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6. Tour Avery Island
Have you ever wondered how the famous hot sauce TABASCO is made or where it comes from? You can learn all about it by visiting Avery Island, home of the famous pepper condiment.
There you’ll tour a history museum where you can learn how avid gardener Edmund McIlhenny first discovered the incredible flavor of Capsicum frutescens. He planted the seeds he received as a gift from Mexico and Central America, which grew beautifully on Avery Island. When he picked his first crop, he loved the spicy flavor. The TABASCO brand was born.
The first commercial crop grew in 1868, and the following year he sold 658 bottles for a dollar each. He named his secret sauce Tabasco and secured a patent in 1870. The rest is history. The McIlhenny family, now a fifth-generation business, still operates on the same land making the original recipe.
They expanded their offerings to include – a more extensive product line, a Jungle Garden tour highlighting conservation efforts on the island, a factory tour, Restaurant 1868, and a retail store. Check the website for times and attraction openings.
7. Walk in Girard Park
Sometimes a walk in the park is a lovely way to spend the day. Girard Park is a 33-acre green space in the heart of Lafayette, next door to the University of Louisiana. It’s a terrific place to take a picnic lunch, feed the ducks, or get some exercise. There’s a 1.5-mile jogging trail with fitness equipment, tennis, racquetball, basketball courts, and disc golf. If there is a festival when you visit, chances are, it’s in Girard Park. The park is dog-friendly if your pet is on a leash. Moncus Park is set to fully open soon but currently hosts a Farmer’s Market on the weekends to showcase locally grown and prepared food, crafts, and music.
8. Taste Boudin
When the Acadians came to the area, they used every resource they had to eat. If they had a pig, they used every part. Boudin is a sausage made from pork that comes directly from those early Acadian days.
There is a trail around Lafayette where you can try all types of Boudin, which usually starts with rice, green onions, and seasonings. Boudin is served either smoked or grilled and put into Po’boys or baked in a king cake (another Louisiana specialty).
If you visit a town called Scott, off the interstate I-10, you will be in the Boudin Capital of the World. You’ll see folks lined up to get their supply, ready to eat or take away to make at home. There are many terrific places to get this specialty item, but Billy’s Boudin and Don’s Specialty Meats have some great “links.” Both establishments ship their prized sausages. If you visit in September, there is a festival to honor this local delicacy.
9. Take a Coffee Break
All that touring might leave you in need of a pick-me-up. Coffee is a serious business in Lafayette, and that’s why you should stop by Black Café. This neighborhood shop partners with another local company, Rêve Coffee Roasters, to roast beans specifically crafted for Black Café.
They are also known for their food. For breakfast, they serve various styles of Scotch eggs, sweet potato biscuits, and fresh beignets. There are also delicious lunch items on the menu if you stop by at that hour and want more than just a fantastic pour-over.
10. Learn About Lafayette’s Early Beginnings
The culture and traditions began with the Acadian migration to southern Louisiana. The best place to understand what happened once they settled is to visit the LARC’s Acadian Village, a folklife museum offering a 19th-century look at Acadian life.
Self or guided tours of restored and furnished period homes, educational programs, and artisan demonstrations are offered. There is also a visitors center/general store on the premises. All funds support LARC, an organization dedicated to serving the needs of people with developmental disabilities. Check the Lafayette Visitor Center website for other historical sites around this vibrant city.
There is a reason that Lafayette ranks as the number one happiest city in the nation. The people are friendly, the food is fantastic, the festivals are fun, and there are always new ones popping up every year. With art, culture, music, and history, it’s a place with a never-ending list of things to see and do.
- Opening photo © Pexels