Southern Louisiana, that famously flat, marshy landscape, is united by more than beautiful bayous.
From the most populous city in the state, the beloved New Orleans, to capital Baton Rouge, the Cajun country in Lafayette and the charming Lake Charles, each of southern Louisiana’s major urban areas offers culture like you can’t find anywhere else. Art repositories, historical institutions, fine architecture and even a museum dedicated to what’s been called America’s first cocktail: This slice of the Pelican State has got it all.
And each city is easy to reach from Interstate 10, making the journey from NOLA to The Chuck perfect for motorcoach tours. Along the way passengers will get to cross the Mighty Mississippi and see the stunning Atchafalaya Basin, graced with cypress trees and birds including herons, cormorants, egrets and pelicans. The entire trip, without stops, is only three and a half hours, another big bonus for tour operators.
But little can compare with the culture in southern Louisiana cities, so let’s take a swing through the highlights.
Packed with a wide range of diverse cultural goodies, New Orleans is a dream excursion for group travelers. There’s so much to do that the most difficult part of planning a trip there might be choosing which attractions to visit. Thu Tran, senior account executive at New Orleans and Company, suggests beginning with a visit to the two Louisiana state museums on Jackson Square — the Cabildo and the Presbytère — both located in stunning Spanish Colonial buildings erected in the late 18th century. Crowd-pleasing permanent exhibitions include “From ‘Dirty Shirts’ to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture” at the Cabildo and “Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” at the Presbytère.
“I also recommend the educational galleries at the Historic New Orleans Collection,” said Than, who specializes in group assistance. “This space has interactive exhibits where one can engage with objects and discover stories that make up our city’s history. They do tours for groups — the Historic Collection has a network of historians and experts, and they really have the best guides that you can arrange in advance.”
Other must-see cultural stops include the New Orleans Museum of Art, with 5,000 years of art represented in 40,000 works and offering a justifiably renowned sculpture garden; and the always-popular Mardi Gras World, which dishes up special experiences for groups like a mask-making workshop and lunch with a view overlooking the Mississippi River.
As befitting a city bursting at the seams with artistic energy, several cultural attractions have opened in New Orleans in the past few years. The Sazerac House is a three-story museum dedicated to the cocktail first served in New Orleans in the mid-19th century. The gift shop is sure to delight all alcohol aficionados, and everything from complimentary tours to special tastings is available to groups. And Joy Art and Music NOLA, or JAMNOLA, which is far more fun than any traditional art gallery, features 12 colorful, show-stopping exhibits that celebrate New Orleans’ contributions to the creative world.
An 80-mile drive northwest on Interstate 10 takes travelers from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s vibrant capital. And just like New Orleans, it boasts a fascinating heritage thanks to the diversity of the people who settled it.
“Louisiana has a culture that’s just so different from anywhere else,” said Karron Alford, director of marketing and technology for Visit Baton Rouge. “And in Baton Rouge, you know we had the French influence, we had the Spanish influence, we had the German influence, the Native American, so I would say the city is definitely part of that unique cultural mix.”
According to Alford, the outdoor sculpture Red Stick is an artwork that “really defines” the city. Rising from Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus, close to the banks of the Mississippi, it was inspired by the tale of how the city got its name.
“Native Americans in the area would put their animal hides on sticks, and the blood would drip down it,” Alford said. “When French explorers landed, it was one of the first things they saw, so they named the city Baton Rouge, or Red Stick.”
After taking a gander at Red Stick, groups will want to head to the State Capitol. The tallest such structure in the nation at 460 feet, the Art Deco beauty was dedicated in 1932 and offers an observation deck and guided tours that are great for groups. Across the street from it, the Capitol Park Museum is a 69,000-square-foot, state-run attraction chock full of enlightening ephemera related to Louisiana and Baton Rouge, including a giant faux crawfish that group visitors will be sure to love.
Tour groups will also appreciate a visit to the Old State Capitol, which resembles a castle and features a grand spiral staircase that leads up to a soaring stained-glass ceiling. And soon, the Baton Rouge African American Museum will be moving into a new facility that will provide more room for exhibits such as a 1953 bus from the year of the city’s bus boycott.
Less than an hour from Baton Rouge on Interstate 10 but a world away from that city’s political hustle and bustle is Lafayette, the heart of Louisiana’s French-speaking Cajun Country. To get an understanding of the area’s traditions and customs, groups might first pay a visit to either the Acadian Village or Vermilionville. Acadian Village offers a re-creation of a Cajun settlement from the 1800s, complete with authentic restored homes; Vermilionville explores Acadian, Creole and Native American cultures in a similar setting.
“It’s a living-history museum, where there are artisans doing crafts,” Eugenie Mitchell, vice president of tourism sales at Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, said of Vermilionville. “On Sundays they host a dance, Bal du Dimanche, and on Saturdays, they do a Cajun jam, so local musicians come in and play music, which is great, too.” Groups can schedule a guided tour at Vermilionville; available enhancements include cooking classes, dance lessons and boat tours.
Tour leaders may wish to give groups time on their own in downtown Lafayette, which provides a wealth of cultural attractions within walking distance of one another. The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist features a museum of Catholic artifacts and relics, as well as gorgeous stained glass imported from Germany and the second-largest organ in the South. The Alexandre Mouton House, once home to the first Democratic governor of Louisiana, now houses the Lafayette Museum, dedicated to the city’s history. With a projected opening sometime in 2023, the Louisiana Music Museum, which will be located adjacent to the Acadiana Center for the Arts, promises to be another downtown Lafayette crowd-pleaser.
“It’s going to feature a dance hall, so you’ll have live music coming in through there,” said Mitchell. “It looks like it will be very well done. We’re really excited.”
With a population just north of 77,000, Lake Charles may be the smallest city on our list, but it is mighty in culture.
Named for the parish in which Lake Charles sits, the Imperial Calcasieu Museum features Mardi Gras memoribilia, fine art exhibits and antiques related to the area’s history. For a quirkier look at times past, groups should head to the Henning Cultural Center, tucked away in nearby Sulphur.
“They actually have one of my favorite displays that I’ve ever been to,” said Kaitlyn Gallegos, director of global sales at Visit Lake Charles. “It’s called ‘Chaos Theory,’ and in one section they re-create an entire 1990s bedroom, from the comforter set to the computer table with the old Macintosh computer. So it’s pop-culture centered, and it’s also interactive. It’s really fun.”
Like the Henning Cultural Center, admission is free to the 1911 Historic City Hall Arts and Cultural Center. The center features both the Black Heritage Gallery and the Gallery by the Lake. The former zeros in on the contributions African Americans have made to the region, while the latter hosts traveling exhibitions.
“They’ve had a Pablo Picasso show, Norman Rockwell, Ansel Adams and tons of other really well known artists in there,” Gallegos said.