Discover Louisiana's French Roots in the Heart of Cajun Country

Find some joie de vivre here—and po' boys.

kayak through a swamp
It's a swampy Cajun-country heart. | Photo by Stephanie Foden
It's a swampy Cajun-country heart. | Photo by Stephanie Foden

Pick a town or small city in rural USA for your summer road trip and you’re bound to get a lot of the same. Perhaps a cute main drag, a church or two, an old-school diner... Don’t get me wrong, small-town America can be great—but there’s no place quite like Lafayette, Louisiana.

Called the happiest city in America year after year, plus tastiest Southern town and music mecca, this New Orleans-adjacent city and geographic heart of Louisiana is oozing with joie de vivre. That’s mostly thanks to the resident Creoles (French-speakers born outside of France) and Cajuns (descendants of the Acadians expelled from the Canadian Maritimes in the 18th Century) who get what it means to have a good time.

Sure, there are Mardi Gras traditions unique to Creole and Cajun country like chicken chases, but Lafayette (which is known as Hub City because of the many towns that surround it) has so much more to offer. You’ll find arguably more festivals than any other US city of its size, wild parties every night at dancehall honky tonks, and some of the best food in the country—think New Orleans’ best cuisine, and then think where most of those dishes actually come from.

And Lafayette is only getting better. Over the last few years, passionate locals—many of whom have left and come back—have revitalized downtown Lafayette with shops and restaurants you won’t see anywhere else.

So if you find yourself, like Paul Simon, "standing on the corner of Lafayette, state of Louisiana, wondering where a city boy could go to get a little conversation, drink a little red wine, catch a little bit of those Cajun girls dancing to zydeco,” here’s your guide.

Lafayette Festival International
Lafayette Festival International | Photo courtesy of

Lafayette knows how to party

Mardi Gras is done very differently here and absolutely needs to go on your bucket list, even if you’ve experienced carnival season in New Orleans. On Fat Tuesday in Lafayette, locals dress up in colorful masks with big noses (like a more colorful big bird), get wasted, and eat thousands of crawfish.

But Lafayette doesn’t stop all year ‘round. In March, there’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles for Cajun fiddle and washboard zydeco music. In April you’ve got Festival International, which attracts hundreds of thousands to the city every year, and a festival for boudin (sausage links or balls stuffed with meat and rice). The rest of the year, there are festivals for everything from New Orleans po' boy sandwiches to frogs to sweet dough pie.

Any time of the year, party while you eat during zydeco breakfasts at Buck and Johnny’s or Cajun jams at Tante Marie in Breaux Bridge. Essentially, they’re exactly what they sound like: you eat a decadent brunch while listening to traditional music, and everyone is encouraged to get up and boogie. Just know that you’ll never master the slick moves of the octagenarians you’re bound to see cutting up the dancefloor.

Last but certainly not least, go dancing at Blue Moon Saloon and Artmosphere. These two dancehalls encapsulate Lafayette’s love of life more than any place else.

po-boy sandwich
Lafayette should be called the heart of po' boy country, really. | Photo courtesy of

Get that Cajun and Creole grub

Cajun and Creole food are celebrated the world over, and Lafayette is where it all began. There are literally 50 places to eat boudin, so many crawfish boils during the season, gumbo (a meat stew made with dark roux in Acadiana as opposed to tomato-based roux in New Orleans), and shrimp étoufée (seafood stew over rice). You really can’t go wrong with food in Lafayette, but if you want a guide to give you a sampling of the most traditional dishes, you can do a Cajun Food Tour.

After you’ve tried the classics, downtown Lafayette has some exciting new restaurants that are definitely worth checking out. The finest is Vestal, where chef Ryan Trahan—a.k.a. The King of Louisiana Seafood—is doing something special with live fire cooking techniques. Otherwise, try farm-fresh burgers and protein bowls at Scratch Farm Kitchen, Pop’s Poboys, or Pamplona Tapas Bar, which surprisingly goes all-out on decor (i.e. for National Absinthe Day, the staff dressed up like aliens and served cocktails in Yoda cups).

Grab a drive-thru daiquiri at Frankie's | Photo by Stephanie Foden

Drink bookstore wine or drive-thru daiquiris

Beausoleil Books & Whisper Room is the kind of place that proves Lafayette is on the up and up. The queer-owned bookstore is the only place that has a collection of French books for sale in Lafayette these days, and it duals as a bar and event space—yes, you can even take your drink with you as you peruse.

Wild Child Wines has the city’s best selection of natural and traditional wine, which can be sipped in-shop. If craft beer’s what you’re after, Bayou Teche Brewing in Arnaudville is worth the drive for its big selection of intriguing flavors (king cake beer during carnival season!) and does a mean pizza. If you’re daring, try their Boudin Bomb: a cajun stout with bourbon and “Gatorbite” coffee liquor.

Just make sure you don’t leave Lafayette without getting a drive-thru daiquiri at a place like Frankie’s, because where else in the world can you say you did that?

A gator under the water
Don't worry, this guy has smaller fish to fry. | Photo by Stephanie Foden

Gander at the ‘gators and get (hot) sauced

Humans and alligators have a complicated relationship. They scare us, but they’re really nothing to be afraid of. Well, as long as you’re not a tiny, bite-sized human or swimming right next to them. From a lovely, floating, safe boat, they're pretty neat to watch.

After nearly losing all its ‘gators by the 1950s, a successful conservation campaign in the 1970s has seen them return to the Lafayette area, and you can see plenty in nearby swamps. The best way to do that is with McGee’s Swamp and Airboat tours, which are also a good way to gain appreciation for Louisiana wetlands.

Another fun thing to do is to drive down Avery Island, the home of the Tabasco hot sauce factory. More than a worthwhile museum experience, Avery Island has jungle gardens with exotic wildlife, including hundreds of rare egret birds.

Large bed and breakfast
With porches made for juleps and hand fans. | T'frere's House Bed & Breakfast

Where to stay in Lafayette

Lafayette has chain hotels aplenty, but if you’re looking for a more unique experience, you can stay in a cottage beside the Blue Moon Saloon. The hotel has a country kitsch vibe with well-designed interiors and live music in the saloon. You can either rent a bungalow, a room in the main house, or the entire house for your party.

Another excellent option is T’ Frere’s, a lovely bed and breakfast with elegant country/French decor in a Cajun home. There's a free cocktail upon arrival, which you can enjoy on the classic, wide southern porch, hopefully wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

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Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.