A regional hub for culture, education and commerce in Central Louisiana, Alexandria combines many of the things that people associate with southern parts of the state.
One of these is a thriving Mardi Gras culture, with upwards of 20 krewes parading through the city on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday.
The city sits across the Red River from its smaller neighbor, Pineville, and there’s a trail on the levee and plenty of opportunities for recreation in a wider landscape of bayous and lakes.
Alexandria has a vibrant arts district downtown, staging all kinds of events throughout the year. There’s also a contingent of high-quality museums, an acclaimed zoo and several large-scale venues for conventions, concerts and more.
1. Kent Plantation House
There’s a snapshot of pre-Civil War life in Central Louisiana, in all its complexity, at the preserved Kent Plantation House.
Raised around 1796 by people enslaved by Creole settler Pierre Baillio II, this is the oldest surviving building in the region.
An important example of French Colonial architecture, the house is on the original land grant from the King of Spain to its owner. The property had a number of uses down the years, until being restored and opened as a museum in the 1970s.
Artifacts help paint a picture of life on a working plantation for an affluent Creole family and the enslaved people who made this lifestyle possible.
On a tour you’ll notice how much of the construction is composed of local materials, from the clay in the supporting brick piers to the cypress in the beams and the deer and mud used for the walls. Outhouses include a milk house, blacksmith shop, kitchen and slave cabin.
2. Alexandria Museum of Art
Opposite City Hall downtown is Alexandria’s highly-rated art museum, established in 1977. The museum’s permanent collection puts an emphasis on modern and contemporary art by artists from Louisiana, the South and artists inspired by the South.
Head here for well-curated selections from that rich inventory, as well as traveling exhibitions from across the world and solo shows for regional contemporary artists.
The Alexandria Museum of Art connects with the community via rich programming, with camps, classes for all ages, a teen art club, free admission on the 2nd Saturday, big annual events and more than we can list here.
The location is the Renaissance Revival Rapides Bank and Trust Company Building (1898), backing onto the levee.
3. Alexandria Zoological Park
CENLA’s top zoo has been open in some form for more than a century, and is devoted to conservation as a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) as well as taking part in some 20 Species Survival Plans.
Alexandria Zoological Park has around 160 species in a beautiful wooded landscape of cypresses, oaks and bamboo.
Among the exhibits are the Louisiana Habitat, showing off the state’s native species, from American alligators to red wolves, the Latin American-themed Land of the Jaguar, the Australian Walkabout and the African Experience, with a spectacular lion habitat featuring a 17-foot waterfall.
There are regular keeper chats for a fresh insight on the park’s inhabitants, and kids will love the train, Bayou Le Zoo Choo Choo, departing throughout the day.
4. Louisiana History Museum
Alexandria has another fine museum downtown, casting an eye over the history of Louisiana, with a focus on Central Louisiana and Rapides Parish.
The location is the old Alexandria Library Building constructed in the Beaux Arts style in 1907 and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
The museum has one of the largest and most important historical collections in the state, evolving from a few display cases upstairs in the Alexandria Genealogical Library to more than 50 displays and exhibits on the ground floor.
Enriched with a wealth of artifacts, these deal with the history of Native Americans in Louisiana, Louisiana’s Spanish and French colonial past, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the WWI Camp Beauregard facility, important politicians from Central Louisiana, and a lot more besides.
5. Forts Randolph and Buhlow State Historic Site
There’s compelling Civil War history around Pierson Lake in Pineville, at the site of a pair of Confederate earthwork fortifications erected in October 1864.
Built by 1,500 soldiers and civilian workers, and a further 500 enslaved African Americans, Forts Randolph and Buhlow were constructed to repel another advance by Union General, Nathaniel P. Banks, following his expedition of summer 1864.
That attack never arrived and no fighting took place at this site. The state historic site preserves the vestiges of the earthworks, with a visitor center, interpretive trails, an overlook of the Red River and an elevated boardwalk.
You can also see the remains of Bailey’s Dam, a makeshift timber dam and famous example of wartime engineering built in a matter of days in April/May 1864.
This was planned by Union Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, raising the level of the Red River to allow Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron to pass through the rapids, and was then breached to let the boats in its reservoir to continue downstream.
6. Coughlin-Saunders Performing Arts Center
Another mainstay of the Cultural Arts District in downtown Alexandria is this proscenium arch theater operated by the Arts Council of Central Louisiana.
This modern venue opened to the public in 2004 and was built on the site of the former Wellan’s Department Store. The state-of-the-art theater can seat 615 people, without a bad seat in the house.
There’s rich and diverse programming, with performances by the Rapides Symphony Orchestra and touring classical ensembles, as well as plays, musicals, dance and much more.
7. Alexandria Levee Park
There’s a paved path along the entirety of downtown Alexandria’s riverfront, and it begins in the north with this park close to the Rapides Regional Medical Center.
This is a pleasant spot if you want to spend some time by the Red River, equipped with a shelter, grills, more than 20 picnic tables, a playground, three-lane boat launch, wharf and a scenic overlook to admire the river.
Home to the Alexandria Riverfront Amphitheater, the levee is the setting for many outdoor events, particularly fireworks shows.
The trail heads south from here passing along the grassy wooded riverbank, under the Gillis William Long Bridge before cutting inland at the Pineville under U.S. Route 167.
8. Lake Buhlow
North of the state historic site is a manmade lake, constructed in 1956 and more than 280 acres in size. Lake Buhlow was partly built on former pasture that once served the Central Louisiana State Hospital dairy.
If you’re here just to enjoy the scenery, sunsets are very pretty from the east and south shores by the public boat ramp. Lake Buhlow is a fishing hotspot, from the banks and by boat, with good numbers of largemouth bass, white crappie, and black crappie.
This is also a watersports hotspot, with a history of outboard speed records earning it the nickname of “Fastest Lake in the USA”.
But possibly the biggest event of the year arrives in early May, with the Louisiana Dragon Boat Races, a fundraiser for the Alexandria Museum of Art, with teams from across the state competing.
9. Randolph Riverfront Center
Posted on the levee by the Gillis William Long Bridge is Central Louisiana’s top convention and meeting facility, and an important asset for Alexandria.
The Main Exhibit Hall at the Randolph Riverfront Center has a capacity for 2,600 people, and is the venue for a long list of events taking place in the region.
These might be trade shows, conventions, dog shows, markets, sports events, concerts, festivals, traveling exhibitions or graduation ceremonies. Despite being in the middle of downtown Alexandria, there’s easy access to free parking.
10. Rapides Parish Coliseum
Built in 1965, this 10,000 capacity arena on Louisiana Highway 28 in the west of Alexandria was given a complete renovation in 2017.
This work breathed new life into a facility that was starting to show its age, adding a spectacular new lobby, expanding the seating capacity and updating every aspect of the Coliseum’s amenities.
The Rapides Parish Coliseum is capped with an impressive dome, and is the premier regional venue for arena events, from WWE to circus shows to concerts by famous recording artists.
The list of distinguished personalities and performers to set foot in the arena is impressive, and includes President Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson.
11. River Oaks Square Arts Center
Reinforcing downtown Alexandria’s position as a focal point for the arts is this center creating a platform for artistic talent from CENLA.
The main modern building on 3rd St houses three galleries for exhibitions in a range of media, along with an arts academy and 25 studios including a full-size ceramics studio with four kilns.
To the rear, on 2nd Street, is the James Wade Bolton House, dating to 1899. With Ionic capitals on its porch, this historic residence contains yet more studios, along with the center’s excellent gift shop.
12. T.R.E.E. House Children’s Museum
The Rapides Exploratory Education House (T.R.E.E.) Museum is for children up to the age of 12, providing a fun environment designed to encourage a lifelong love of learning.
Here kids will encounter subjects like science, social studies, math and the humanities via interactive exhibits engaging all of the senses.
Children under the age of two can visit for free, and there’s a Toddler Corner to ensure an awarding visit for the littlest visitors.
Other exhibits include the Kid TV Studio, the Junior League Mini Mart, the Listening Center, Illumination Station and Construction Tables (among others), along with wildlife displays relating to turtles and bald eagles.
13. Alex River Fête
We’ve seen that Alexandria packs a real cultural punch, and this also applies to events that bring thousands of visitors downtown.
The big annual festival is the three-day Alex River Fête, normally in late April or early May. With a main stage next to City Hall, Alex River Fête features live music, local food vendors, a classic car show and the ArtFête, organized by Central Louisiana Arts Council.
The Alexandria Museum of Art also has a procession on the Friday night, which is part of the build up to the Louisiana Dragon Boat Races.
Earlier in the spring you can catch the Downtown Rocks concert series, taking place on Friday evenings for several weeks.
14. Mardi Gras
Alexandria is just north of Cajun country, but Mardi Gras is still an important local tradition and is recognized as an official holiday, attracting up to 150,000 people.
The city has more than 20 krewes, many of which have been around for decades. These groups take to streets on the Sunday before Mardi Gras for the Krewe Parade, with New Orleans-style floats, marching bands and appearances by local celebrities, often as a Grand Marshal.
In 2022 the Krewe Parade’s Grand Marshal was NFL defensive tackle Ed Oliver. There’s a children’s parade on the Saturday, preceded by the College Cheerleaders & Classic Cars Parade on the Friday.
Every December Alexandria puts on a free four-day festival that has earned statewide recognition, with the kind of winter activities you can’t find anywhere else in Louisiana.
A big part of this is a giant outdoor skating rink open throughout the four days. The event kicks off with the traditional tree-lighting ceremony and Santa’s arrival at Santa’s Village at the Alexander Fulton Mini Park 3rd St.
This raises the curtain on a schedule filled with fun events and activities, with food vendors, a parade, caroling karaoke, face painting, a movie night, live music, cookoffs, a 5k fun run and much more, all brought to a close with fireworks on the levee.