Often hailed as one of the best food towns in the country, Lafayette is a city in the center of Southwest Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole Country.
The city was founded more than 200 years ago beside Bayou Vermilion, a slow-moving tidal river just west of the Atchafalaya Basin, which is home to the largest swamp and wetland in the United States.
You can visit this environment at Lake Martin, which sums up most people’s idea of the southern Louisiana wilderness, with its alligators, rich birdlife and soaring bald cypresses draped with Spanish moss.
A city with a sizable LGBT community, Lafayette is a sociable kind of place, with more than 80 events and festivals downtown each year.
1. Vermilionville Historic Village
Lafayette’s first name, from 1821 to 1884, was Vermilionville, named after the bayou on which the city was founded. For an insight into those earliest days you can head to this outdoor attraction on 23 acres next to Bayou Vermilion.
Here you’ll get acquainted with the Native American, Acadian, Creole and African-descended cultures that inhabited this area between 1765 and 1890.
Awaiting you is a village of charming buildings in the Acadian or Creole styles, many of which are authentic and some that are accurate reproductions.
The village is full of life, and populated by costumed interpreters and artisans, showing off traditional crafts and customs.
There are scores of special events each year at Vermilionville Historic Village, including weekly dances on Sundays. If you book in advance you can also book a trip along the bayou aboard Cocodrie or Le Violoneux, both built using time-honored skills.
Since you’re in the heart of Cajun and Creole country, dining is a big part of the Lafayette experience. This place often tops polls of the best food towns in the United States, and if you’re wondering where to begin, you can always book a food tour.
One pick is the Cajun Food Tour, which works with more than 30 local eateries, with a selection that varies according to the season.
If you’re embarking on your own culinary adventure, some signatures are gumbo, boudin (spiced sausage), étouffée, fried seafood (especially oyster po’boys), crawfish boils (best January through June) and cracklin’ (fried pork fat), while King Cake is a Mardi Gras specialty with its own rich tradition.
In 2016, Lafayette named the Sweet Crude Rouler as its official cocktail, and this is made with local Sweet Crude Rum, sweet and sour, syrup, bitters and club soda.
3. Lake Martin
Right on Lafayette’s eastern flank is the Cypress Island Preserve, 9,500 acres of protected nature composed of cypress-and-tupelo swamp and bottomland hardwood forests. Many of the trees growing in the preserve date back half a millennium.
The main visitor attraction is Lake Martin, just ten minutes from downtown Lafayette. One of many species thriving at Lake Martin is the American alligator, and these can reach 14 feet.
This is also a haven for nesting waterbirds, including roseate spoonbills, white ibises, great egrets, great blue herons and snowy egrets.
From late January, these species make their nests in the rookery, and the views are stunning March through June. You can also walk a 2.5-mile levee trail from the fall to the spring.
If you’re fascinated by the alligators at Lake Martin, you’re sure to see plenty just by driving along Rookery Road, surrounding the lake.
To get even closer, Champagne Swamp Tours offers a range of experiences, from kayak rentals, to airboat rides to guided boat tours.
4. LARC’s Acadian Village
This cultural park in the southwest of Lafayette is a snapshot of Acadian life in the mid-19th century. All of the residences that you’ll see at LARC’s Acadian Village are authentic, having been restored on site and furnished with period items.
These homes are accompanied by a replica blacksmith shop, chapel and general store to paint a picture of a local community some 170 years ago.
LARC is a non-profit organization supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through education and employment opportunities, including the Mardi Gras Bead Store, located in the village.
The biggest annual fundraiser is the Noel Acadien au Village during December, with a Christmas light display, carnival rides, food, visits to Santa and nightly entertainment.
5. Festival International de Louisiane
The largest non-ticketed francophone festival in the United States takes place in downtown Lafayette in April/May.
First held in 1987, the Festival International de Louisiane is usually a five-day event, inviting musicians, artists and craftspeople from across the globe, as part of a celebration of cultural ties between Acadiana and the French-speaking world.
In its time, this extraordinary spectacle has been named among the best music festivals in the world, presenting artists from more than a dozen countries on seven stages throughout downtown Lafayette.
Just a few of the acclaimed past performers are Dr. John, The Wailers Band, Tinariwen and Skatalites.
There’s also a truly international array of craft vendors, a children’s zone and a food selection from jambalaya to gyros.
6. Mardi Gras
The second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana takes place in Lafayette, attracting as many as 250,000 people to the city.
There have been Mardi Gras celebrations in Lafayette since 1869, but the colorful parades (courirs) became an annual tradition here in 1934, with the foundation of the Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association.
These courirs hark back to a long-standing custom of masked men and women making their way through the countryside, joined by a band and performing for residents in return for the ingredients for a gumbo.
The courirs then return to the town to make that communal gumbo, which is enjoyed by all. The costumes are steeped in a kind of irreverence for authority, with capuchons (pointed hats) that once mocked the French royalty, and mortar boards to poke fun at the well-educated.
Usually starting ten days before Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), you get a slew of parades making their way through the city, with marching bands, doubloons and beads, and accompanied by other events like masked balls.
7. Downtown Lafayette
Cuisine isn’t the only thing going for downtown Lafayette. Mostly arcing along Jefferson St is a lively commercial district with museums, galleries, live music venues and interesting locally-owned stores for records, candles, clothing, books, shoes, groceries and bicycles.
We’ve seen that Lafayette has a social calendar that puts most towns to shame, and a big event is Downtown Alive!, with concerts on Friday evenings in the spring and fall.
This is another opportunity to catch some Cajun and Zydeco music. Something else to mark in your diary is the 2nd Saturday ArtWalk, a culture-rich experience mixing art, crafts, theatrical performances and yet more live music.
8. Acadian Cultural Center
A stone’s throw from Vermilionville at Bayou Vermilion there’s a unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, which is dispersed across several sites in South Louisiana.
Here, the Acadian Cultural Center explores the history and contemporary culture of the Acadians (Cajuns).
Smartly presented multimedia displays look into the origins of this group, along with migration, settlement and their rich contribution to modern life in Lafayette and South Louisiana.
You can also uncover the secrets of Atchafalaya Basin, America’s largest wetland and swamp, and arrange a ranger-led boat trip on Bayou Vermilion. The center has a wealth of programs, from traditional music performances, to dance, storytelling and food.
9. The Lafayette Museum
Downtown at 1122 Lafayette Street stands the Alexandre Mouton House (c. 1800), built by Jean Mouton, who was an early settler in Attakapas country.
He was the father of Alexandre Mouton (1804-1885), the 11th Governor of Louisiana and a United States Senator. Alexandre lived here until 1836, and after marrying Zelia Rousseau in 1836 enlarged the residence significantly.
Further additions were made after being purchased by one Dr. W. G. Mills in 1849, when the house gained its current appearance.
Complete with mid-19th century furnishings, the interior has been restored to the splendor of this period, and is open to the public as a house museum.
You can also browse local history exhibits, displays of Mardi Gras memorabilia, art collections, and tour the beautiful grounds.
10. University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Not many university campuses can claim to have a swamp with alligators right next to its student union. This is exactly what you’ll find at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, within walking distance of downtown.
This school is well known for its Ragin’ Cajuns, with 16 varsity teams in NCAA Division I. Home court for the men’s and women’s basketball teams is the 13,000-seat Cajundome, which also hosts regular WWE events.
The football team plays at Cajun Field, nicknamed “The Swamp” as the the surface is two feet below sea level, using pumps and a drainage system to keep the field in playable condition.
For some culture, do not pass on a visit to the Hilliard Art Museum, which has impressive collections covering Japanese woodblock printing, ancient Egyptian art, European painting, fine art from Louisiana, folk art and more than 150 works by American Modernist Henry Botkin (1896-1983).
11. Lafayette Science Museum
In the very center of downtown Lafayette is a modern and interactive attraction dedicated to STEM subjects.
Filled to the brim with playful, hands-on exhibits, the Lafayette Science Museum introduces young minds to nanotechnology, meteorites, biology, aviation, energy, paleontology and much more.
There’s also an all-digital planetarium on the second floor, for exciting live and recorded presentations.
The museum’s building has some history, dating back to 1925 and constructed by prominent local businessman Maurice Heymann (1885-1967) as Lafayette’s first department store.
The city’s first supermarket, another Heymann venture, opened across the street in 1937 and now houses the Children’s Museum of Acadiana.
12. Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist
One of the most striking landmarks in the city is the cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette. Dedicated in 1916, this historic building is the third on the site, in a succession going back to the 1820s.
The cathedral is in the Dutch Romanesque Revival style and composed of red brick. Some of the many enthralling details to take in on a tour are the stained glass windows produced in Munich, an organ by Quebec’s Casavant Frères company and oil paintings depicting Jesus and the Apostles.
Jean Mouton donated the land for the church, and you can find his grave in the cemetery, along with his son Alexandre and grandson Alfred, a general in the Civil War.
13. Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival
Downtown Lafayette is 15 minutes from the official Crawfish Capital of the World. Breaux Bridge, with its quaint and low-key downtown, is worth a visit at any time of year.
But this town becomes a major destination on the first weekend in May for the world-famous Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, attracting upwards of 30,000 people each year.
This food and music extravaganza was launched in 1960, the year after Breaux Bridge received its official designation.
You’ll get a chance to sample crawfish every which way, be it boiled, in jambalaya, étouffée, bisque, fried, boudin, pie or as crawdogs, together with a smorgasbord of other Cajun and Creole classics.
The festival has long been a showcase for music, with more than 30 artists performing each year, bringing a blend of Cajun, Zydeco, swamp pop and much more.
If you’re in town a little earlier in the year, crawfish season normally peaks in March and April, and the festival is one of many boils and crawfish events in Breaux Bridge in spring and early summer.
14. TABASCO Brand Factory and Museum
A day trip to keep in mind in Lafayette is Avery Island, about a half hour drive to the south. The island is in fact a gigantic dome of rock salt, three miles long and adrift in salt marshes, swampland and bayous.
The unusual soils here allowed tabasco peppers to flourish, and it was on Avery Island in 1868 that the businessman Edmund McIlhenny (1815-1890) was able to mass-produce Tabasco sauce for the first time.
A combined ticket gives you access to the TABASCO Museum, barrel warehouse, pepper greenhouse, salt mine diorama, TABASCO Country Store and TABASCO Restaurant 1868.
15. Jungle Gardens
Also included in the Avery Island Fan Experience is Jungle Gardens, an incredible 170-acre botanical garden and bird sanctuary established by Edmund’s second son, Edward Avery McIlhenny (1872-1949).
The gardens are teeming with wildlife, from Louisiana black bears to American alligators, as well as a massive flock of snowy egrets nurtured by McIlhenny and returning to the magnificent Bird City area every spring to nest, before departing on their migration in fall.
You can also savor McIlhenny’s exceptional collections of azaleas, camellias and other exotic plants, as well as a 12th-century Chinese buddha gifted to him in 1936.