The Queen City of the Teche was founded by the Spanish as long ago as 1779. New Iberia was soon settled by Acadians who had made their way down from Nova Scotia after being expelled by British troops.
Cajun culture is alive and well in New Iberia, shining through in the delectable seafood-rich cuisine, and in traditions like Mardi Gras.
The city has an award-winning downtown with locations that may already be known by those who have read James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels.
The low-lying landscape of bayous, swamps and marshes around is punctuated by salt domes, massive accumulations of rocksalt, creating islands.
You can visit two of these islands at the historic home of the TABASCO hot sauce brand, and at the residence of 19th-century actor Joseph Jefferson.
1. TABASCO Experience
Rising from the low-lying landscape of bayous southwest of New Iberia is Avery Island, a salt dome covering 2,200 acres and measuring 2.5 miles across at its widest point.
This is the origin of Tabasco sauce, created in the late 1860s by Edmund McIlhenny (1815-1890) after growing his first commercial pepper crop in these unusual soils.
Although pepper cultivation now takes place abroad, Avery Island is still the headquarters of the TABASCO brand, and you can come for a factory tour and get the inside track on the brand and understand production, from seed to sauce.
There’s a restaurant on site, serving Cajun specialties, as well as a store for all manner of TABASCO items, including TABASCO ice cream.
2. Jungle Gardens
A visit to the TABASCO factory also includes this stunning botanical and bird sanctuary, created by the founder’s son, Edward Avery McIlhenny (1872-1949) and opened to the public in 1935.
Jungle Gardens are planted with a marvelous variety of native and exotic plants and flowers, including Japanese camellias, azaleas, wisteria, hydrangeas, papyrus sedges, Louisiana irises and palms, along with one of the oldest timber bamboo groves in the country.
McIlhenny was also responsible for Bird City, a sanctuary for snowy egrets established in the 1890s to protect this species from plume hunters. Bird City is now an immense rookery, with around 100,000 nesting birds in the summer months.
3. Downtown New Iberia
With dozens of buildings labeled with plaques, Downtown Iberia is home to two districts on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tax incentives and long-term preservation efforts have led to a captivating downtown area, full of history but also bubbling with life.
Behind historic facades dating between 1870 and the mid-20th century there’s a flurry of restaurants for Cajun and international dining, as well as locally-owned stores for antiques, flowers, handmade gifts and specialty foods.
A lot of the fun in Downtown New Iberia is taking to the streets and seeing what you can find. The city has published a downloadable self-guided walking tour, with 20 stops, all within a few blocks.
When the time comes to take a break you can rest up at Bouligny Plaza, setting for annual events, or wander across to New Iberia City Park.
Remarkably, there’s a former working sugarcane plantation with a Greek Revival house backing onto Bayou Teche downtown.
Shadows-on-the-Teche dates to 1834 and was founded by wealthy sugar planter David Weeks (1786-1834), remaining in the same family for four generations.
Visiting Shadows-on-the-Teche you’ll get a sense of life here for the Weeks, through family items such as furniture, decorative arts, portraits and correspondence.
Considerable attention is paid to the enslaved men, women and children who lived and labored at this place, putting the property’s splendor into perspective.
Shadows-on-the-Teche has been in the care of the National Trust for Historic Preservation since 1958 and has sumptuous grounds, shaded by moss-draped live oaks and adorned with box hedges, aspidistra walks, azaleas, camellias and bamboo.
If you’re in search of authentic Cajun and Creole flavors then you’ve come to the right place. There’s a big contingent of much-loved local restaurants with menus full of specialties like gumbos, bisques, étouffée and stuffed po-boys.
The Gulf of Mexico is a matter of miles away, and ultra-fresh seafood is part of the local diet, from crawfish (in season) to shrimp, crabs and oysters.
Some cherished local spots are Bon Creole Seafood (1409 E St Peter St), Victor’s Cafeteria (109 W Main St), Cafe Jefferson (5505 Rip Van Winkle Rd) and R & M’s Boiling Point (6308 U.S. 90, West).
Along with the TABASCO, culinary adventures abound in the area: The Teche Area Farmers’ Market takes place downtown on Saturdays and Tuesdays, while Delcambre next door has a shrimp festival in August.
6. Rip Van Winkle Gardens at Jefferson Island
In 1870 the famous stage actor, Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905) commissioned a fine Late Victorian residence on what was then Orange Island, another salt dome a few miles west of New Iberia.
Jefferson was renowned for portraying Rip Van Winkle on the stage, and this grand property, wreathed in 20 acres of semi-tropical gardens and a rookery, served as his hunting lodge and painting studio.
You can take a guided tour of the house, which is frozen in time in the post-Civil War period and is enriched with several of Jefferson’s paintings.
There’s an acclaimed restaurant here, Cafe Jefferson, and you can spend the night at the Cook’s Cottage or Servant’s Quarters.
To the west is the 1,125-acre Lake Peigneur, long famed for its natural beauty. The entire structure of the lake was altered by a disaster in 1980, when oil drilling caused a salt mine to fill with water, creating the deepest lake in the state, at 200 feet.
7. Bayou Teche Museum
The 125-mile waterway bending through New Iberia has huge cultural significance, and there’s a superb museum downtown showcasing the industry, customs, cuisine, art and lore that have sprung on the banks of Bayou Teche.
The interactive Bayou Teche Museum opened downtown, next to the Sliman Theatre in 2010.
Exhibits examine the waterway from many angles, from the complex history of the Civil War to Tabasco, sugar, education, 18th-century Spanish heritage, the colorful political landscape, author James Lee Burke, Mardi Gras traditions, salt mining and a lot more besides.
8. New Iberia City Park
On the other bank of Bayou Teche from the historic downtown is the kind of park that would be an asset to any city. The first thing to mention about New Iberia City Park is its beauty, with a crowd of tall, mature trees offering blissful shade in the summer.
There’s workout equipment along the path, as well as a boat launch along Bayou Teche. Slightly in from the bayou is Devil’s Pond always flocked by ducks and geese.
City Park is furnished with a ton of facilities, among them an exceptional playground, a splash pad, an outdoor pool, a meditation garden, a dog park, seven tennis courts, two softball fields, a senior citizens center and a rec center.
9. Lake Fausse Pointe State Park
The Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland and swamp in the United States, is on New Iberia’s east flank.
One of the easiest ways to encounter this unique ecosystem from New Iberia is at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, a convenient drive away and bound to the west by the natural levee of Bayou Teche.
The park encompasses 6,000 acres of the basin and is one of the rare places where you encounter the swamplands on foot.
This can be done on three walking trails, ranging from 0.75 to 3.3 miles, and all with stretches of boardwalk to cross the watery environment to see 1,000-year-old bald cypresses and glimpse some of the swampland’s diverse wildlife.
Numerous primitive campsites can be reached along walking trails or by canoe along a labyrinth of waterways. Canoes and kayaks are available for rental from the park’s visitor center.
10. Cypremort Point State Park
For another excursion you can make the half-hour drive south to Vermilion Bay to one of the few locations near the Gulf of Mexico that can actually be reached by road.
Cypremort Point State Park protects 185 acres of coastline, with a half-mile man-made beach, backed by a sweep of coastal marsh.
This is a great spot for picnics, beachcombing, swimming, lounging on the sand and casting a line for saltwater fish.
The combination of steady breezes and low surf also makes Cypremort Point State Park a hotspot for sailing and windsurfing.
Inland the marshes abound with a diversity of bird species, as well as alligators, nutria, deer foxes, black bears and opossums, for some excellent nature spotting.
11. Conrad Rice Mill
Still using turn-of-the-century belt mechanism, the oldest independently owned rice mill in America still in operation can be found in New Iberia.
The Conrad Rice Mill was established in 1912, and two of the buildings on this site are on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you’ve ever wondered how rice is processed you can pay a visit, for a short but very enlightening tour. This includes a 20 minute film that goes into detail about the area and its Avadian culture.
The store attached to the mill sells KONRIKO brand (from Conrad Rice Company) products, as well as a range of other local food products and arts and crafts.
12. Mardi Gras
There’s a festive spirit in New Iberia that endures for weeks from Epiphany until Fat Tuesday.
Throughout this time you can pick up delicious King Cake, or King Cake-inspired treats, at a number of bakeries in town, including Village Deaux (724 Admiral Doyle Dr), Cane River Pecan Company (254 W. Main St), Caribbean Ice Company (2905 Loreauville Rd) and Meche’s Donuts (403 E Saint Peter St).
Beginning weeks before Mardi Gras, parades make their way through downtown in a purple, gold and green-tinted blur of floats, throws, bands and dance groups.
On Fat Tuesday you’ve got the Grand Marais Parade, a family-oriented spectacle with all the usual pageantry, as well as Mardi Gras royalty and a Grand Marshal with contests for original and ugly costumes.
13. Louisiana Sugarcane Festival
Another long-standing celebration in New Iberia is the Louisiana Sugarcane Festival, which is into its 9th decade.
Centered on Bouligny Plaza, this event takes place in September to mark the beginning of the sugarcane harvest, known in the area as the “grinding”. Two big annual traditions are the Coronation of Queen Sugar and the Blessing of the Crop.
Some other events and activities on the agenda during these three days are four different parades, a carnival, live Cajun and Zydeco music performances, sugar cookery contests and demonstrations, an art fair, a car show, a livestock show and a 5k run.
14. World Championship Gumbo Cookoff
On the second weekend in October, downtown New Iberia is swept up in a giant, family-friendly food festival.
Also known as the “Superbowl of Gumbo”, the cookoff involves 100+ teams converging on Bouligny Plaza to compete for trophies in a wide range of categories, from Amateur Mélange to Professional Seafood, with awards for quirkier categories like Most Humorous and Best Decorated Booth.
The World Championship Gumbo Cookoff has been going for more than three decades and features a host of side events, like the 5k Roux Run.
15. Books Along the Teche Literary Festival
One long-term resident of New Iberia is Pulitzer Prize-winning author, James Lee Burke, known for his Dave Robicheaux detective novels, which are set in the city.
This was the inspiration for a multifaceted celebration on the first weekend in April in historic downtown New Iberia. Crammed into three days, the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival has a hopping schedule.
A few of the highlights are a book fair, guided Dave Robicheaux bus tours, roundtable discussions, local cuisine, Cajun cooking demonstrations, live music, film screenings, bourré card games, a 5k run and a variety of children’s activities and workshops.