Travel

The Best Weekend Getaways Near New Orleans

New Orleans is a fun place -- sometimes overwhelmingly so. You could stay in the city for weeks and never run out of things to do, music to hear, and beignets and crawfish to eat, all in the marshy area between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. But, hey, if you need a breather from the 24/7 booze, brews, and bon temps, we don’t blame you. Luckily, the city is also pretty close next to sandy beaches, national parks, and even a space center -- all within a few hours driving distance. Here are our picks for the best day-cations, weekend getaways, and road trips near New Orleans.

Best Beach Getaway: Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

If you’d like a simple day out at the beach, Bay St. Louis is your best bet. Beautiful and uncrowded, this tiny town in Mississippi offers unspoiled public beaches where you can read, relax, and recover from any over-partying you might have done in NOLA. There’s a pier and some quaint seafood restaurants, but this isn’t really a place you come to for the nightlife -- it’s more for quiet meals and sunset strolls. Be warned that jellyfish abound!
Distance from New Orleans: One hour

Best Nerdy Getaway: John C. Stennis Space Center, Mississippi

This Mississippi NASA site is just over the border from Louisiana, and geeky types need weekend getaways, too. If the beach isn’t your thing, or you are in awe of the heavens above us, this is a cool, educational, and definitely different day-trip excursion. The Stennis Center is restricted access, but the neighboring INFINITY Science Visitors Center offers tons of different exhibits as well as the opportunity to actually go check out the top-secret NASA facility next door (while on a guided tour, but still).
Distance from New Orleans: One hour

Best Gator Getaway: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana

Because of course Louisiana dedicates a series of parks to a bloodthirsty pirate. Technically there are six different sites run by the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, but we’re talking about the one in Marerro, in the Barataria Basin preserve. Lots of indigenous wetland wildlife to see, including alligators, nutrias, and more than 200 species of birds, including the snowy egret, the bald eagle, and of course, the pelican. Take a self-guided or cell phone tour and explore the many boardwalks that lead in and out of the bayous and forests.
Distance from New Orleans: 30 minutes

Best Full Swamp Experience:  Honey Island Swamp, Louisiana

Bayous. In actuality, just as there are many more neighborhoods in New Orleans besides the French Quarter, there are bayous all over the state with unique indigenous plant and marine life ripe for exploration. Also, alligators. If you’re interested in checking out gators in their natural habitat, may we recommend utilizing a professional to assist you, as that will greatly reduce the chance of maiming, dismemberment, and death. Fortunately, the area boasts plenty of businesses that would love to guide you through the wonders of the swampy bayous of Honey Island Swamp or the nearby Pearl River in a flat-bottom boat (those bayous are pretty shallow, dontcha know) or airboat.
Distance from New Orleans: 45 minutes

Best Cajun Culture Getaway: Lafayette, Louisiana 

Venture to the heart of Cajun country with a trip to Lafayette and Breaux Bridge. Louisiana Cajuns are French-descended people who left the maritime provinces of Canada after the French and Indian War (the word Cajun comes from the word Acadian). Lafayette -- also home of the University of Louisiana -- is still the epicenter of this distinctive culture, with not one but two historical villages with live reenactors (Vermilionville and Acadian Village), and a host of incredible spots to eat, drink, and make merry. Randol’s, a seafood restaurant/dance hall, offers Cajun tunes seven days a week, but stay away if you’re not one to get up and start moving when the accordion sounds. Breaux Bridge, a small town a bit east of Lafayette (known as the “Crawfish Capital of the World”) is also worth a visit. Stroll the adorable downtown, pop into antique shops, and check out the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge
Distance from New Orleans: Two hours

Best Craft Beer Getaway: Abita Springs, Louisiana

Abita Springs is more than the headquarters of Louisiana’s oldest and largest brewery -- although, with Abita Brewing’s visitor’s center and self-guided tour option, you definitely want to get to that. The small, sleepy town’s park and trailhead with a historic pavilion, museum, and picnic tables is good for wandering, picnicking, and perhaps finding a place to nap with a beer. The eponymous springs no longer flow freely above ground, alas, but that water is used to make the beer which makes this town famous. Do not miss the Abita Mystery House. It’s a converted gas station which houses -- a lot of random and weird stuff. It’s like walking into a hoarder’s apartment, only all the stuff is really cool to look at and no one is weighed down with a fallen pile of newspapers.
Distance from New Orleans: One hour

Best Historical Getaway: Edgard, Louisiana

Plantation touring can be a sensitive subject, given the South’s unseemly past use of people as property. The Whitney Plantation is specifically geared to educate the public about the lives of slaves and the institution of slavery. While not exactly an uplifting experience, it is thought-provoking, enlightening, and well worth your time. The visitor center exhibits can be wandered on your own, but you need to purchase tickets for a guided tour to see the plantation grounds in full.
Distance from New Orleans: One hour

Best Fishing and Birdwatching Getaway: Grand Isle, Louisiana

Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, Grand Isle supplies New Orleans with seafood, especially shrimp and oysters. It’s also home to state parks, public beaches, a wildlife refuge, and a copious amount of birds and butterflies (perfect for birdwatchers, either hardcore or casual). It’s been a vacation spot for Louisianians for generations -- including Kate Chopin, whose classic feminist novel The Awakening is set there. Only about 1,500 people live there permanently, but officials estimate a whopping 12,000 tourists come through every year. Make like a native and spend a lazy day fishing -- hire one of the dozens of charter fishing companies on the island or check out the public fishing pier at Grand Isle State Park. If you’re not the fishing type, no worries, because there are plenty of places to indulge in the freshest seafood in the state. Grand Isle is at a serious threat from climate change and erosion, so if you can fit in a visit to this singular spot, it’s probably good to do it sooner rather than later. 
Distance from New Orleans: Two hours

Sign up here for our daily New Orleans email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in the Big Easy.

Nora McGunnigle is a New Orleans-based writer. Follow her adventures on Twitter: @noradeirdre
Carrie Murphy is a freelance writer, doula, and poet currently residing in New Orleans. Her work has appeared in or on ELLE, Women’s Health, Glamour, Apartment Therapy, and other websites and publications. Follow her on Twitter.