A city steeped in Creole heritage, Opelousas is known as the “Zydeco capital of the world”, with an annual music festival celebrating this traditional music style, led by accordion and rubboard.
As the third-oldest city in the state, Opelousas can trace its history back far into the 18th century, and celebrated its tricentennial in 2020.
There’s more than 250 years of architecture to be savored on a self-guided walking tour around the city brick-paved sidewalks, starting at the Courthouse Square, which is framed by historic live oaks.
Opelousas has a special position in the food world for its ties to renowned brands like Tony Chachere’s Creole Foods, LouAna Cooking Oil and Savoie’s Foods.
1. Le Vieux Village de Poste des Opelousas
At the western entrance to Opelousas on Ronald Reagan Hwy is a heritage park and museum, with an ensemble of historic buildings from around St. Landry Parish.
In this endearing collection is the Venus House, named for the free Creole woman of color, Marie Francois Venus, and thought to have been built around 1801.
This makes it one of the oldest structures of its kind in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Among the other buildings are a doctor’s office from the early 1800s, a general store from the late 19th century, a two-room schoolhouse from 1911 and an historic railroad depot.
The latter contains a museum about the Orphan Train Riders, which we’ll talk about later, while the village also has intriguing exhibits for Zydeco music and Jim Bowie (1796-1836), who settled in Opelousas in 1812 and later died at the Battle of the Alamo.
2. Downtown Historic Walking Tour
Such is the quantity of historic architecture around Opelousas that the city drew up a detailed self-guided walking tour to mark the tricentennial in 2020.
Starting at the oak-guarded Courthouse square, this has more than 70 stops, leading you on a little odyssey down the city’s time-honored streets.
Featuring downtown landmarks like the Old Federal Building (c.1890), turn-of-the-century commercial buildings, churches, a cemetery, the 350-year-old Jim Bowie Oak and a mass of splendid residences, each stop is accompanied by detailed descriptions.
The oldest building in the city and the wider St. Landry Parish is the Michel Prudhomme House (1152 Prudhomme Circle), constructed in the French Colonial style around 1770.
Opelousas is the self-proclaimed “spice capital of the world”, which has a lot to do with some long-standing companies based in the city.
One is Tony Chachere’s Creole Foods, known throughout the United States for its seasonings, but you’ve also got LouAna cooking oils, another nationwide brand, in business since 1894.
Yet another veteran is Savoie’s Foods, founded by Ms. Eula Savoie of Opelousas in 1955, with a grocery at 1742 LA-742 for spiced sausage, tasso and a range of other Cajun specialties.
Aside from these established brands, Opelousas is packed with locally-run full-service or counter-serve spots making delights like boudin, cracklin, fried catfish, crawfish étouffée, po-boys, red beans and rice, hog’s head cheese.
A few local stars are Billy’s Boudin & Cracklin (904 Short Vine St), Crawfish House & Grill (1214 S Union St), Mama’s Fried Chicken (508 E Landry St) and Frank’s Poboys (603 E Landry St).
4. Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival
Now into its fifth decade, the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival was born in 1982, as a way of preserving this distinctive and historic cultural expression.
What was then feared to be a dying artform and culture, is now recognized worldwide. The festival takes place on Labor Day weekend in the west of Opelousas at the Yambilee Festival Grounds.
This has grown from a gathering of a few hundred people in a bean field to a big event drawing thousands, with non-stop dancing and plenty of vendors.
5. Louisiana Orphan Train Museum
After the railroad arrived in Opelousas in the 1880s, the town participated in a scheme in which thousands of orphans were sent by New York City social services agencies to start new lives in rural areas across the US.
At least three Orphan Trains arrived in Opelousas before 1929, and you can discover this story at a museum in the restored Union Pacific depot at the Le Vieux Village Historical Park.
This attraction was founded by descendants of those children, and has an engaging display of photographs, personal effects and personal accounts.
To one side is the Mary Jane Steam Engine Train (1904), in service until 1959 and restored and relocated to this site in 1990.
6. Zydeco Music Exhibit
For more background on Zydeco music, there’s an enlightening exhibit in the Jarrell House at the Le Vieux Village de Poste des Opelousas.
Installed in 2015, this series of seven panels outlines the creation, evolution and preservation of this Louisiana-specific style of music and dance.
You’ll get to know some of the stars of the Zydeco scene and learn about the places, people and events that have helped keep Zydeco music and culture alive and kicking in Southwest Louisiana.
7. Opelousas Museum & Interpretive Center
For a sense of place, there’s a local history museum on Main St, a couple of blocks north of downtown.
The Opelousas Museum & Interpretive Center presents an all-encompassing timeline of the city and St. Landry Parish, from prehistory to the present, with special attention to the Civil War, which has an entire room devoted to it.
Most remarkable of all is the Geraldine Smith Welch Doll Collection, featuring some 400 pieces, many dating back to the 19th century and crafted from moss and cotton.
The building also holds the archives for the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival, and the Louisiana Video Collection Library.
8. South City Park
This public park is a peaceful oasis about a mile south of downtown Opelousas. If you’re planning a birthday party or family reunion, South City Park has a large pavilion and bar-b-que areas.
There’s also an RV campground, with 61 sites, including electricity, sewer and a dump station. For casual visitors, the park has a fantastic all-abilities playground for kids and a walking trail that winds through grassy and wooded areas.
Sports-wise there are facilities for baseball and tennis, along with the Donald Gardner Stadium for high school football games.
9. St. Landry Catholic Church
A prominent landmark in the north of Opelousas is this brick-built church, combining Gothic and Romanesque Revival elements.
There has been a Catholic place of worship at this location since 1798, although the St. Landry Church in Opelousas is thought to have been built around 1765.
The current building was completed in 1909 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, along with its attached cemetery.
If you’re interested in the history of this building you can arrange a guided tour, finding out more about Lieutenant Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur’s time as a POW in WWII.
On the second and third weekends in October, there are cemetery tours with costumed reenactors.
10. Rural African American Museum
A little further up Main Street from St. Landry Catholic Church is a free museum charting the history of African Americans in the parish.
Opened in 2018, the Rural African American Museum explores local life from a variety of perspectives, including commerce, religion and politics.
The exhibit is enriched with interesting objects such as kitchen utensils, historic period furniture and farming implements.
The museum is deeply involved in the community, celebrating the work of important African Americans in the parish.
On a somber note, a summer camp was also provided to children in 2019 following the burning of three Black Baptist churches that spring.
11. Creole Heritage Folklife Center
Louisiana’s Creole food, culture and music are all widely celebrated, but in Opelousas you get a taste of real living history, at the preserved Creole Victorian home.
Maintained by folklorist Rebecca Henry, the house at the Creole Heritage Folklife Center is preserved as it was in the early 20th century, and is rich with century-old furnishings, manual utensils, photographs and art.
The building recalls a time when Creoles were mostly subsistence farmers speaking a distinctive language.
Reflecting that humble lifestyle, this building is equipped with a wood stove and a vintage ice box, without electricity. Tours are available on afternoons, Tuesday through Saturday, and by appointment on Sundays.
12. Evangeline Downs Racetrack & Casino
Off I-49 on the east side of Opelousas is a racino with a one-mile track that has been around in some form since 1966. The track was originally in Carencro, near Lafayette, but relocated to Opelousas in 2005, combining the track with a casino.
If you want to catch some live racing, the thoroughbred season at Evangeline Downs is April through October, and a highlight is the Louisiana Legends Mademoiselle Stakes in June.
At the casino you can choose from hundreds of the latest slots, as well as the Fanduel Sportsbook, with live betting for all U.S. sports, from collegiate football to soccer.
There are a couple of spots for dining, while the adjacent Event Center has a calendar of concerts, festivals and comedy shows.
13. St. Landry Parish Visitor Center
Conveniently located next to I-49’s Ville Platte exit in the north east of the city is the sensational home of the parish’s tourist commission, opened in 2011.
Ensconced in a swampy landscape of bald cypresses and Louisiana irises, this visitor center is a modern, sustainable construction, using locally salvaged longleaf pine for flooring.
This is an apt place to come for detailed information about the area, from wildlife encounters to dining to unique cultural trails. Be sure to come for the Zydeco jam sessions on the second Saturday of the month.
14. Opelousas Farmers’ Market
Another of the many community events in Opelousas is a farmers’ market, running throughout the year and held on Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
This takes place at the purpose-built brick pavilion next to Le Vieux Village de Poste des Opelousas.
Depending on the season there’s a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables at the market, as well as preserves, jellies, baked goods and tempting prepared foods.
In recent years this gathering of vendors has been accompanied by Zydeco, Cajun, Swamp Pop and country concerts for the Music & Market series in the fall.
15. Old Schoolhouse Antique Mall
Ten minutes away in Washington, a former school building has been turned into a giant antiques mall with 40,000 square feet of floor space.
Every inch of the building, including the old gym, is filled with 50+ dealers selling furniture, vintage tools, home decorations, art, ceramics, books, vinyl, toys, books, home appliances, sports equipment, vintage signs and a range of new arts and crafts.
For a bite, you’ve got the Old Schoolhouse Café, which has 50’s-style diner decor, and serves burgers, sandwiches and plate-lunches.
Also keep an eye out for the biannual antiques fair in April and October, with some 200 vendors on six acres of grounds.