Deep in Bayou Country, surrounded by the sprawling waters of the Atchafalaya Basin and wetlands on the Gulf of Mexico, Houma is a city that resembles few in the United States
A whole system of bayous and canals converges at Houma, creating a tangle of busy waterways in the center of the city.
Many thoroughfares are divided down the middle by canals trafficked by small vessels, with shrimp boats docked in front of their skippers’ homes.
Houma is a springboard for adventures in the swamps and fishing charters in one of the country’s richest inland fisheries.
Cajun culture is a big draw too, from its mouthwatering cuisine to Mardi Gras and a style of music that has endured for some 300 years.
1. Wetlands Cultural Byway
It’s impossible not to be fascinated by the epic region of wetlands buffering Louisiana from the Gulf of Mexico. In Houma you’ll have the privilege of exploring these wilds by road, which isn’t always possible elsewhere.
The Wetlands Cultural Byway is close to 290 miles long, connecting more than 20 communities on several state highways. You can arm yourself with a map from the Houma Area Visitor Center at 114 Tourist Drive in Gray.
This will guide you to remote towns and villages sustained for centuries by trapping, shrimping and small-scale farming.
This remoteness has allowed tight-knit families to keep hold of their cultural heritage to a degree rarely seen in America.
Among the many attractions and experiences awaiting you on this route are preserved downtowns, antebellum plantations, natural heritage areas, museums and cultural centers, world-class seafood restaurants, birding sites, Native American burial mounds, bayou overlooks and endless guided adventures, from fishing to swamp tours.
2. Cajun Cuisine
It’s no surprise that the unofficial capital of Bayou Country should have some of the best and most authentic Cajun cooking in the world.
We’re talking gumbo, charbroiled oysters, white beans, catfish, boudin sausage, crab cakes, red beans, po-boys, crawfish étouffée and a lot more.
Boiled seafood is a way of life in South Louisiana, and in the last few years the local tourism bureau has created the Bayou Country Crawfish Trail.
There are more than 30 stops within a short road trip of Houma, for gumbos, po-boys, boiled and even live crawfish.
Crawfish season peaks around February to mid-May, and this is prime “head” season for crawfish boils, with potatoes, corn and sausage.
Tail meat remains on menus for the rest of the year, and shows up in gumbos, crawfish pie, po-boys and étouffée.
3. Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge
A unit of the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex, this 4,619-acre protected space, just southwest of Houma, is made up of cypress-tupelo swamp and freshwater marsh.
Crisscrossed by levees and waterways, the refuge’s expansive freshwater marshes are a habitat for thousands of migratory waterfowl, while the wooded zones offer key habitat for neotropical migratory birds in spring and fall.
These environments are visitable by boat, but you can drive the one-mile Mandalay Nature Trail, just off Black Bayou Dr.
You stand a great chance of sighting wildlife along this misty swamp walk and there are interpretive boards here detailing the Terrebonne Basin and its native species.
4. Swamp Tours
Roads will only take you so far around Houma, and so the best way to encounter Bayou Country is on an airboat or similar vessel.
Fortunately there’s a catalog of local businesses waiting to provide this experience for you. Skimming across these swamplands, you’ll enter an environment that has captured the imaginations of visitors for centuries.
There’s no better way to get closer to the amazing diversity of wildlife inhabiting these cypress-dotted ponds, creeks and bayous, from American alligators to armadillos, turtles, snakes, otters, bobcats, deer, beavers and a kaleidoscope of birdlife.
The choice of experience can be intimidating, but you can plan your adventure with the help of the Houma Area Visitor Center..
5. Mardi Gras
Houma has one of the biggest Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana, with more than a dozen active Krewes.
Starting with the Krewe of Hercules two weeks before Fat Tuesday these groups make their way along Bayou Terrebonne towards downtown from Southland Mall, in a dazzling spectacle of glowing themed floats, marching bands and tons of throws for the assembled crowds.
The Krewes continue to roll until the Krewe of Kajuns close out the season on Fat Tuesday. Throughout this time there’s a series of family-friendly events, and lots of opportunities to indulge in delicious king cake, the traditional carnival dessert.
6. Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum
Set right on the bayou in the heart of Houma, this museum is a multifaceted look at life in Terrebonne Parish, where generations of people have forged a life on the water.
You’ll discover all of the different livelihoods supported by this unique environment, including fishing, shrimping, oystering, water-based hunting, alligator harvesting, mining, water transportation and tourism/recreation.
The museum gives you a walk-through experience with a lot of interactivity and endowed with memorable exhibits like The Wetlands Wall, a 46-foot-long curving mural documenting the natural history of the region.
7. Fishing Charters
The immense expanse of marshlands yawning out to the south of Houma is one of the greatest inland fisheries in the whole of the United States.
The bayous in this part of the state abound with speckled trout, redfish and black drum in the shallows, while bigger species like grouper, cobia and king mackerel lurk in the deeper zones.
Despite this abundance, this huge sweep of South Louisiana has only recently come to the attention of the fishing world, and many of the long list of fishing charter companies available in Houma have only been in business a couple of years.
There were more than 40 at the last count, so you’re sure to find the company and package that is right for you.
8. Pointe-aux-Chenes Wildlife Management Area
Towards the coast southwest of Houma, the Pointe-aux-Chenes Wildlife Management Area protects a piece of that vast region of wetlands, interwoven with canals, bayous and ponds.
In winter the reserve is a habitat for waterfowl of the Mississippi Flyway, and there are also nesting rookeries of egrets, herons and bald eagles.
The wildlife management area provides two birding decks if you want to observe these winged residents, while alligators, otters, wild horses and white-tailed deer are regularly spotted.
There’s a public boat launch along Pointe-aux-Chenes Rd, and a great way to experience this environment is on a paddling trip.
PAC Kayak Rental is based a bit further down the road at the Pointe-aux-Chenes Marina, providing fishing charters and accommodations, but also maintaining a big selection of kayaks for self-guided day trips.
9. Cajun Music
Thanks in part to its isolation out in the swamps, Houma’s traditional Cajun culture survived the advent of radio and homogenized popular culture in the 20th century.
This has now been safeguarded for future generations, and one of the great manifestations is Cajun music, which has an unmistakable sound going back deep into the 1700s.
Led by accordion and rubboard, Cajun music can be enjoyed at a host of venues around Houma, often accompanied with dishes like gumbo seasoned with filé and fried catfish and whitebeans.
For a condensed list you’ve got Friday nights at the The Jolly Inn Cajun Dancehall (1507 Barrow Street), Friday nights at A’Bears Cafe (809 Bayou Black Drive), Friday and Saturday nights at Bayou Delight Restaurant (4038 Bayou Black Drive) and Tuesday lunchtimes at Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum (7910 Park Avenue).
10. Downtown Houma
Give yourself a little time to see more of Houma’s old downtown area. This is mostly on Main Street, which bends with the course of Bayou Terrebonne.
The oldest commercial architecture tends to be between Lafayette St in the west and Barrow St in the east, in a little district dotted with restaurants, bars and a handful of local stores.
One eye-catching building is the Beaux Arts former city hall, repurposed as a performing arts stage at Le Petit Theatre.
To the rear, a stretch of Bayou Terrebonne has public walkways in the blocks opposite the Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum.
There’s a farmers’ market on the first Saturday morning of the month at the Downtown Houma Marina, as well as weekly makers’ market on Tuesdays (3pm to dark) in the south of town at the Terrebonne Parish Main Library Parking Lot.
11. Southdown Plantation & Museum
A little way west of downtown Houma, Southdown Plantation & Museum testifies to the sugarcane industry that drove the local economy until well after World War II.
These operations were set close to waterways for east of transport, and Southdown is no different, sitting next to the Little Black Bayou.
Once covering more than 1,000 acres, Southdown Plantation was founded in 1828, while the pink and green mansion on the property was first built in 1858 and then expanded later in the century.
You can head inside to see authentic period furnishings, exhibits covering the sugarcane industry, Native American artifacts and collections relating to Mardi Gras.
On the grounds you can see preserved quarters for enslaved people, as well as a plantation worker’s cabin dating to 1885. When we wrote this article the Southdown Plantation & Museum was temporarily closed to repair damage from Hurricane Ida.
12. Regional Military Museum
Terrebonne Parish has a long history of service in the nation’s armed forces, and found itself on the potential frontline in the event of a German U-Boat attack during WWII.
There was a giant blimp base in Houma to counter this threat, while German PoWs were put to work in this region, in the sugarcane and rice fields.
South of downtown Houma, the Regional Military Museum tells these stories, while displaying artifacts, memorabilia and accounts relating to every conflict from the American Revolution to the United States’ 21st-century operations.
There’s some historically important hardware to go with these displays, including a Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter that saw combat in Vietnam, a former Air Force F-4 Phantom, an XM474 Pershing Missile Carrier offering rides to the public, and one of President Eisenhower’s Air Force One Aero Commanders.
13. Greenwood Gator Farm
Just west of Houma you can visit a genuine alligator farm to discover another facet of life in the Louisiana swamps.
Greenwood Gator Farm offers tours, in which you’ll learn the life cycle, habits and commercial uses of this iconic reptile, and may even hold a live young alligator. There’s also a petting zoo, with small domestic animals like mini horses.
The farm puts on entertaining demonstrations, and there’s an educational element, presenting the history of alligator farming in Louisiana.
In recent years it’s also been possible to climb aboard an airboat here for an hour-long guided tour of the swamps, given by Tim “The Gator Man” Domangue.
14. Chauvin Sculpture Garden
One of the most unique attractions in the region is this sculpture garden about 15 miles south of Houma.
A labor of love by self-taught folk artist Kenny Hill, the Chauvin Sculpture Garden is scattered with scores of polychrome sculptures in concrete.
Hill was a mysterious and reclusive figure who began this project after moving to Chauvin in 1988, and one day simply walked away, never to be heard from again.
There’s a religious thread running through these works, entwined with self-portraits by Hill. A public park, the sculpture garden draws up to 10,000 visitors a year and was undergoing restoration work at the time of writing, following Hurricane Ida in 2021.
15. Ardoyne Plantation
Just northeast of Houma you can visit a working sugar cane plantation with a history going back to 1838.
Ardoyne Plantation has been in the same family for six generations, and the focal point is a romantic Gothic Revival mansion, built in 1888 and on the National Register of Historic Places.
Full of whimsical details, this house is thought to be the largest surviving residential building of its kind in Louisiana.
Touring the house you can peruse interesting and diverse family collections like plantation workers’ pay tokens, more than 300 antique travel spoons, 2,000+ books, Newcomb pottery, carved cypress knee dolls, and much more.
When we compiled this list Ardoyne Plantation was temporarily closed to the public but due to reopen in the very near future.