The largest city in Northeast Louisiana is on the west bank of the Ouachita River, facing off against its neighbor West Monroe.
Monroe is named after a paddle wheeler, the James Monroe, that made a trailblazing voyage up the Ouachita River from the Mississippi, landing here in 1819.
The city is a cultural mecca for this corner of the state, with excellent museums, a symphony orchestra and the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Monroe has been home to some fascinating personalities, like Joseph A. Biedenharn, credited with first bottling Coca-Cola, and Claire Lee Chennault, who led the Flying Tigers in World War II.
There are museums for both figures, at the stately Biedenharn Museum & Gardens and the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum by Monroe Regional Airport.
1. Masur Museum of Art
In 1963 the Masur Family of Monroe gifted their Tudor-style mansion and exceptional art collection to the city.
Now the Masur Museum of Art is the largest attraction of its kind in Northeast Louisiana, with a fantastic inventory of 19th-century and modern art.
This features works by prominent names like Thomas Hart Benton, Mary Cassatt, Miró, Picasso, Rodin, Dalí and Georges Rouault.
There’s also a contingency of artists with links to Louisiana, among them Clyde Connell, Lynda Benglis and Alexander John Drysdale among others.
As well as this permanent collection, the Masur Museum of Art stages up to eight exhibitions each year, including an annual national juried competition in the spring months.
The house was built in 1929 for Mabel Chauvin, wife of lumberman Clarence Edward Slagle and was sold to the Masur Family in the Great Depression.
The Indiana limestone and Pennsylvania blue slate used in construction were shipped down the Ouachita River especially for this project.
2. Biedenharn Museum & Gardens
One local figure who made a considerable impact on modern life is the entrepreneur Joseph A. Biedenharn (1864-1952).
He is known for being the first to bottle Coca-Cola, previously only a soda fountain beverage, in 1894, and moved the bottling business to Monroe in 1913.
While here he also helped develop the business that would become Delta Air Lines, moving it to Atlanta in 1941. You can visit Biedenharn’s home, which was built in 1913 and sits among genteel English gardens.
The home is open for tours, and presented as it was when Biedenharn’s daughter Emma Louise (Emy-Lou) lived here, up to 1984.
There’s also a Coca-Cola Museum, with two rooms loaded with historic Coke memorabilia, and a Bible Museum, founded on a collection assembled by Emma Louise. This includes an original 1611 King James Bible and a page from the 1454-55 Gutenberg Bible.
3. Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge
North of Monroe you can escape to this 4,200-acre wildlife refuge, composed of a patchwork of habitats including a lake, bottomland hardwoods, swamp and mixed pine and hardwood uplands.
Some of the wild species spotted at Black Bayou Lake are red-eared sliders, American alligators, green herons, bird-voiced tree frogs, orioles and white-tailed deer.
The Visitor Center is a great place to begin, filled with interactive exhibits about these habitats, and set in an 1880s Acadian planter’s house.
A Nature Trail boardwalk encircles the lake, and also lets you step out over the water on a pier, for sensational wildlife opportunities.
Black Bayou Lake is in fact a flooded forest, the remnants of which creates perches for waterbirds.
With the ghostly skeletons of long-dead bald cypresses and tupelos rising from the water, the lake is an otherworldly setting for a paddling trip and you can rent a kayak or canoe via the Friends of Black Bayou.
4. Chennault Aviation and Military Museum
A fascinating figure who spent much of his life in Monroe was military aviator Claire Lee Chennault (1893-1958), remembered for leading the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) aka the “Flying Tigers” and the Chinese Air Force in WWII.
There’s a museum in his honor at Monroe Regional Airport, in one of the last surviving buildings used by the Selman Field Army-Air Corps Navigation School (1942-1945).
You can pore over detailed exhibits about Chennault and the Flying Tigers, as well as other Monroe-specific aviation figures like astronaut Jim Halsell (b. 1956), and the history of Selman Field.
Also intriguing is the story of Delta Airlines, which was headquartered in Monroe from the mid-1920s, when it was still a crop-dusting service, until 1941.
Chennault Aviation and Military Museum has a large and growing collection of military hardware from all five branches, as well as a significant cache of artifacts from Nazi Germany.
5. Pecanland Mall
Opened in 1985, this mall in Monroe remains a shopping destination for much of northern Louisiana, and one of its anchors is a ten-screen Cinemark theater.
Pecanland Mall is in good shape, with more than 80 stores and services, including branches of JCPenney, H&M, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Foot Locker, Belk, Dillard’s, Old Navy, rue21, Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle and tons more favorites.
There’s a great food court by the Cinemark entrance, lit by a skylight and home to the likes of Chick-fil-A, Raising Cane’s, Sbarro, Auntie Anne’s and Yummy Japan.
6. Downtown RiverMarket
Next to the court on Monroe’s riverfront is a gorgeous stretch of boardwalk with traditional French-style market shelters.
This is Downtown RiverMarket, home to a variety of vendors on the first and third Saturday of the month, March through May and then October through early December.
Typically you can purchase fresh produce, prepared food, artisan crafts and all kinds of Louisiana-specific items.
Downtown RiverMarket is also an ideal place if you want to be next to the river and watch the sunset, and a great vantage point for July 4 and Christmas on the River fireworks.
7. Antique Alley
Just across the river in West Monroe there’s an inviting commercial district concentrated along Trenton St. Antique Alley falls within the CottonPort Historic District, which was officially designated in 2019.
Aptly named, Antique Alley is filled with small local businesses, among them a clutch of antique stores: Cotton Port Antique Mall, Country Lane Antiques, Trenton Street Antiques, to name a few.
These sit shoulder-to-shoulder with galleries, a comic & collectibles store, boutiques, restaurants and a branch of the regional craft brewery, Flying Heart.
There’s a lot going on in Antique Alley, and outdoor events take place at the new Alley Park, at the corner of Trenton and Natchitoches Street.
8. University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM)
Part of the University of Louisiana System, ULM was founded in 1931 and has plenty of things to pique the interest of visitors.
One is the new Bayou Pointe Event Center, dedicated in 2018 and housing a cutting-edge theatre for performances by the Monroe Symphony Orchestra among others.
Something else to keep in mind is the Museum of Natural History, with a particular focus on Louisiana and endowed with an immense collection including Native American artifacts, dinosaur bones, minerals and wildlife specimens.
Sports-wise ULM has 15 teams competing in the NCAA Division I as the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks.
The men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as the women’s volleyball team, play at the 7,085-seat Fant-Ewing Coliseum, also staging concerts and big university events.
9. Louisiana Purchase Gardens & Zoo
Monroe has had a zoo for more than a century, and this remains a full-fledged visitor attraction with over 400 animals from some 200 species.
Think lions, tigers, baboons, zebras, gibbons, bison and a multitude of exotic animals from across the globe. A newly added exhibit is Australia: The Land Down Under, home to creatures from Oceania like wallabies and umbrella cockatoos.
Also recent is the wonderful Children’s Zoo, where youngsters can get up close to friendly domestic animals like goats, miniature cows, sheep and a miniature horse.
10. Northeast Louisiana Delta African American Museum
Just east of Monroe Regional Airport off Millhaven Rd this museum documents African American life in Northeast Louisiana through the centuries.
This institution places an emphasis on art, and has the largest collection in the state for famed Expressionist artist and Northeast Louisiana native, Don Cincone (b. 1937). Also in the extensive collection are pieces by Agnes Hicks and Bernard Menyweather.
The archival section profiles some prominent African American figures, like social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass (1817 or 1818-1895), educator Mary Bethune (1875-1855) and the first African American millionaire, the cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919).
11. Forsythe Park
Adjacent to the Biedenharn Museum, Forsythe Park is a neighborhood park on more than 50 acres. Very pretty, the park is praised for its upkeep, but is also filled with things to do.
There’s a dedicated children’s park, putt-putt golf, a 9-hole golf course and facilities for softball, soccer and tennis. On top of that Forsythe Park is the trailhead for a network of six bike trails developed by the Monroe Advocates for Safe Streets.
Just over the levee there’s a boat launch, jogging path and beach volleyball courts beside the Ouachita River. For decades Forsythe Park also had an outdoor pool, although the future of this amenity was undecided at the time of writing this article.
12. Kiroli Park
Arguably the best park in the metro area is these 160 wooded acres on the northern fringe of West Monroe.
A few things combine to make Kiroli Park special, and one is the fantastic Civitan Smiles Park, an all-abilities playground filled with colorful, state-of-the-art equipment in beautiful landscaping.
The forest at Kiroli Park is laced with jogging and nature trails, and there’s also a fishing pond, covered picnic areas, charming gardens and a theatre stage hosting the Ballet Under the Stars in the spring months.
If you’re here with a four-legged companion you’ve got the Raising Cane’s Dog Park, with separate spaces for small and large dogs. Kiroli Park charges a nominal admission fee of $1 per person, with annual memberships available for $100.
13. Flying Tiger Brewery
Another local success story is this craft brewery founded in Monroe in 2016. Flying Tiger Brewery produces and cans its entire range in Monroe and has a welcoming taproom and beer garden at 506 N 2nd St.
The name is a nod to the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) (The Flying Tigers), whose leader, Gen. Chennault lived in Monroe.
The beers all share that AVG theming, and the flagships include Burma Blonde, Man at Arms (Amber Ale), Heroic Hops (IPA), while some seasonal brews are Milk Stout and Warhawk (Pilsner).
The taproom is a stone’s throw from the many restaurants in downtown Monroe and has a wonderful spacious patio.
14. Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum
Right on the Ouachita River in downtown Monroe, this museum encourages children’s development through experience and discovery at interactive exhibits.
Everything at Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum is designed to be fun, while smartly mimicking grownup environments.
In this spirit, the Kids Cafe teaches children about employment and nutrition, while kids can roleplay healthcare jobs at the Discovery Hospital, take care of babies at a mini NICU and even crawl inside a giant heart to hear it beating.
The White House introduces young minds to government and the role of the President, while The Baby Bayou is a colorful and hands-on playscape for children aged three and under.
15. Christmas on the River
Monroe-West Monroe goes above and beyond during the holiday season, with a series of family-friendly festivities along the Ouachita River, mostly involving attractions covered in this list.
For a short summary there’s beautiful Christmas lights, not one but two parades, a fireworks show and all kinds of cultural performances.
Kids can visit Santa’s village at the Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum, all kinds of festive events at the Biedenharn and Christmas-themed fun at Antique Alley and the Monroe RiverMarket.