Often called the heart of French Louisiana, Lafayette is the hub of the Acadian, Créole, and French culture of southern Louisiana. From the food, music, and festivals, Lafayette has kept these cultures alive for a new generation to love.
The Acadians settled here after they were expelled from the Nova Scotia area of eastern Canada in the mid-1700s when the British took over the area. These French speaking, mostly Catholic immigrants found a home in southwestern Louisiana (the French area of the New World) along with indigenous Atakapa people and Caribbean settlers who came before them. Today, the region is commonly called Acadiana with 22-parishes (counties) making up this geographic region of Louisiana, with Lafayette as the center. The fall Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, October 13-15, 2023, celebrates this rich cultural heritage with music, food, crafts, and special events.
For a good overview of the history of the area, start your visit in Vermilionville, the original name of the city. The 23-acre living history site on the banks of the Bayou Vermilion has many restored homes and gardens with costumed reenactors who tell the story of the early settlement, which was renamed Lafayette in 1884. For a taste of the food and music, there are free Cajun jam sessions on Saturday afternoons. The restaurant menu includes cultural favorites of gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, platters of fried fish and chicken, and local boudin sausage.
Gardens and Nature
Live oaks and colorful azaleas define the city’s landscape. While the live oaks are everywhere – from the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to city parks and private homes – it’s the live oak at St. John Cathedral that draws great attention.
This live oak, one of the largest in the U.S., is estimated to be more than 500 years old – older than the church itself. The trunk of the 126 foot tall tree exceeds 28 feet in circumference with an average spread of its branches reaching out 138 feet. The paved path around the tree allows for different vantage points to view this impressive specimen.
A wide range of plants grow year round in Lafayette, but it’s the mass blooms of azaleas in spring that gives the city its floral splendor. Over 25 miles of the city’s streets are lined by azaleas, some over 50 years old, with the main variety the Formosa azalea, also called “General Lafayette, LA”. To promote the city’s love of azaleas, an Azalea Trail was started in the 1930s. It became a unifier of the neighborhoods as residents planted azaleas and wandered with wonder through this floral Mardis Gras of color spread across the city. This annual flower attraction has earned Lafayette the designation as an “Azalea City” by the Azalea Society of America.
From late February until early March, depending on the weather, you can travel the Azalea Trail by car using the trail map (download or in print) or via a trolley tour offered on Saturdays. The trolley tour (fee charged) does not take reservations so arrive early to get a seat. The trail goes through neighborhood gardens, historic districts, and downtown, past the university, and along grand boulevards, all lined with glorious azaleas in full bloom.
It’s hard to imagine that before 2018 the land used to create Moncus Park was a flat field of a former dairy farm. With commercial development threatening to change this large tract of open land, the community stepped in and through fundraising purchased 100 acres to preserve it as a park. While the park’s master plan is a work in progress, in less than five years the land has been transformed into a multi-use space of gardens, a play area for children, pathways for walking, and an event space for gathering.
There are 27 heritage live oaks in the park, some 150 years old or older, with another 52 live oaks recently planted along the promenade. Some 1,500 trees were planted to create an arboretum and 67,000 square feet of garden beds were planted. A 4.5 acre lake was created, lined with pickerel reed, juncus, and over 7,000 irises donated by the Society for Louisiana Irises. A coastal prairie, locally called a Cajun prairie, was planted with 120 species of flowers and grasses.
The back area of the property features a ravine garden, rare in this area of mostly flat southern Louisiana, and some 185 native azaleas donated by a local were planted after the space opened up from a recent hurricane that took out many trees. There are also 23 acres of wooded area with dirt paths for walking. Throughout, there are cypress trees, holly, oak, magnolia, and many others.
The park’s treehouse is for young and old with an elevated walkway that spans two live oaks with an adjacent garden of palmetto palm, camellia, buddleia, drift roses, and muhly grass. The community gathering events range from a spring fest in April to Autumn in the Oaks on October 28 and a Saturday farmers market with vendors selling locally grown food, crafts, and botanical themed products. It’s not unusual for a jam session to form with local musicians in the middle of it all.
Across the street from the park, the All Seasons Home, Garden & Landscaping Showplace is worth a stop for the gift shop of garden themed products and plants.
Closer to downtown, the Urban Naturalist is a unique concept that transformed a vacant city lot into a garden center. Row after row of veggies, herbs, and mostly native flowers are sold via a cashless system that has no employees on site. If you can’t afford to purchase the plants, you can work for plants and earn points to exchange for your purchase. Since the plants are grown from Baker Creek seed, it’s worth finding space in your suitcase for a few to take home.
The McIlhenny Family
Just 30 minutes from Lafayette is the international office of a product you probably have in your home – TABASCO Hot Sauce. In 1868, a New Orleans banker Edmund McIlhenny invented his pepper sauce and introduced it to the public. Using just three ingredients – red peppers (Capsicum frutescens v. tabasco, a hotter variety than cayenne peppers used in other hot sauces), natural vinegar, and a dash of Avery Island mined salt, he made a product that five generations later is still an instantly recognizable brand.
Avery Island is the original home of the family and the hot sauce and is where the production continues today. A self guided tour takes you through the process from a greenhouse with pepper plants on display to an area where white oak barrels age the pepper mash for up to three years. You can watch the bottling, too. The gift shop sells TABASCO branded products and has a tasting bar of the seven hot sauce flavors sold by the company. As you walk from building to building on the tour, take time to walk through the bamboo forest. One of McIlhenny’s sons introduced bamboo to the U.S. with 60 varieties of plants, though only 30 types survive today. The bamboo was originally used to help with erosion control but went on to produce products from fishing poles to ski poles.
The foundation of Avery Island is a 2,200 acre salt dome created by evaporating salt water that eventually became thousands of feet thick as the downward pressure of the earth’s mantle caused a column of salt to push it up. The dome is 160 feet above sea level and extends 2.5 miles wide. Salt mining ceased due to the developing sinkholes. The walk through exhibit offers interesting details on this geologic phenomenon.
Elsewhere on Avery Island, another of McIlhenny’s sons developed 175 acres into a plant nursery in the 1920s that specialized in camellias and other southern favorite plants. Some of the early plants included 150 varieties of azaleas, 700 types of camellias, and 1,700 iris varieties. Remnants of the nursery that closed in 1952 can still be seen in what today is called Jungle Gardens, a drive through garden that started in 1935.
Thirteen miles of roads wind through Jungle Gardens with stops along the way to get out of your car and see highlights of the area. Use the garden’s app on your phone or the map provided at the entrance to guide you. The road is lined with live oaks and azaleas of every color. It’s a drive back in time as no new plants are being added to the gardens today. You can see remnants of the old nursery plantings, rows of camellias, a wisteria arch covered with blooms in spring, the sunken garden with Aspidistra, the holly hedge, and many other rare and exotic plants. Avery Island also has the largest grove of bamboo outside of China.
A stop at Bird City, the rookery for snowy egrets migrating in the area, showcases the work started by McIlhenny in 1895 to keep the birds from being hunted to extinction. It worked as evidenced by the thousands of birds that descend here from February to August.
Other Lafayette Places to Visit
On your way back into town, stop at Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island. This semi-tropical garden paradise is set amidst 350 year old live oak trees sited on another salt dome overlooking Lake Peigneur. The setting is the original home of Joseph Jefferson, a celebrated actor from the mid-1800s who played the part of Rip Van Winkle over 4500 times on stage. He built his Victorian style home in 1870, which stands as the centerpiece of the gardens today. After his death, the property was sold and the extensive gardens were added in the late 1950s.
A network of gravel paths guides you through the gardens that include a tea house replica, a lotus pond, and an impressive Balinese structure on the shore of the lake. Throughout is an allée of crepe myrtles, a collection of camellias, Aspidistra, and sword fern filling the shade gardens, a grove of bamboo, a rock garden, and significant plantings of azaleas, irises, hibiscus, hollies, magnolias, and scores of other plants and bulbs that fill the garden with seasonal color. There is a cafe and a bed & breakfast for you to linger longer in this wonderland of plants.
The Atchafalaya River Basin is the largest river basin in North America. You can learn more about this important ecosystem on a McGee’s Swamp Tour that winds through the bayous, swamps, and backwaters that make up this 1.4 million acre tributary of the Mississippi River. While only an average of 12-14 feet deep, the basin has a series of connected canals, lakes, and islands with old growth cypress and willow. The tour guide provides hours of information and experiences like spotting alligators in the water.
What to Do in Lafayette
Downtown is the heart of Lafayette and is the location of most of the city’s best loved events, including its Mardis Gras parades. The city has three parades on Fat Tuesday and all schools are closed during Mardi Gras. You’ll also notice the street signs in both English and French, a nod to the city’s heritage. Other events include the Festival International de Louisiane in spring which celebrates the Francophone heritage of the city, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in fall, and weekly cajun and zydeco music and dancing during Downtown Alive.
Where to Eat in Lafayette
Lafayette is a foodie town with menus ranging from favorites like gumbo and jambalaya to modern, yet still Southern, styles of foods.
Spoonbill restaurant serves up fresh, local ingredients from area farmers in a former Conoco gas station. Social Southern Table & Bar is farm to table fresh, plus it has an extensive network of copper tubes overhead where the beer on tap is piped in. Whiskey & Vine is part cocktail lounge and part restaurant, with live jazz and blues served on the side. Vestal is all wood fired cooking in downtown. And don’t forget to top off your meal with dessert at the last Borden Ice Cream Shoppe left in the world.
For more information on Lafayette, visit www.LafayetteTravel.com.