The Regions of Louisiana
No where else is Louisiana’s uniqueness more evident than in New Orleans, affectionately and correctly called “The Big Easy.” The most European looking and feeling city in America, New Orleans offers architecture, history, art, music and food the city can distinctly call its own. Mixed in are shopping, entertainment and nightlife, at every turn in the heralded French Quarter, the Central Business District, the Arts and Warehouse District, Faubourg Marigny, and the Garden District (or “uptown,” as the locals call it).
Just the term “uptown” is an example of how affectionately “different” New Orleans is from the rest of America. Locals don’t give directions using “north” or “south” or the like. They say “river side” (south towards the Mississippi River), “lake side” (northward towards the massive Lake Pontchartrain), “down” (in the eastern direction of the Mississippi’s current) and “up” (going west against the river’s current).
New Orleans was founded as a trading post almost 300 years ago on a graceful curve in the river, and the original city is now the French Quarter. “The Quarter” as locals call it is the oldest part of the city, comprising 90 city blocks laid out in a grid pattern containing some 2,700 buildings with striking wrought iron embellishments and architecture.
The district’s centerpiece, Jackson Square, is dominated by the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in North America. On its flanks are the Cabildo and the Presbytere, governmental buildings during colonial days, and a statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Both the Cabildo and the Presbytere are now Louisiana history museums.
A unique feature of New Orleans is what’s known as “Creole” culture. It evolved during the late 1700s and early 1800s through the mixing of European, African and Native-American residents, their culture and their traditions that were prevalent in the city’s early history. The city’s unique Creole cuisine, the presence of voodoo in religious practices and the history and evolution of what’s now known as American jazz music are all examples of the city’s Creole heritage.
Popular tourist attractions include the Audubon Institute’s Audubon Zoo, Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Insectarium; the paddlewheel steamship Steamboat Natchez; shopping districts and galleries on Canal, Royal and Magazine streets; the city’s historic streetcar system; and nationally-acclaimed restaurants and live music venues.
Fun things to do in the New Orleans region include swamp and marsh experiences in the Barataria Preserve south of the city and in the Pearl River basin to the northeast; and antique shopping in downtown Pontchatoula, Mandeville, Covington and Slidell on the city’s “Northshore,” or the region to the north of Lake Pontchartrain.
“Plantation Country” is the corridor of the “Great River Road” along the Mississippi River. The region is adorned with one of the greatest collections of historic architecture in the country – pre-American Civil War plantation mansions like Houmas House, Nottoway, Oak Alley, Laura and Rosedown.
The homes were the lavish centerpieces of large and extremely profitable sugarcane plantations from the late 1700s to the first half of the 1800s. In that era, America’s greatest concentration of millionaires lived along this route from New Orleans to St. Francisville. And some of the mansions (most notably, The Myrtles) are reportedly haunted by their past residents.
At the region's midpoint sits Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capitol city. Two downtown state capitol buildings again show testament to the uniqueness of Louisiana. The “Old State Capitol” building is a mid-1800s Gothic architecture castle. Its 1932 replacement one mile north is the tallest state capitol building in America (34 stories) and one of the nation’s best examples of classic Art Deco design.
Notable attractions in Plantation Country include the Louisiana State Museum-Baton Rouge in the city’s downtown Capitol Park; Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge; Oakley Plantation, the former home of naturalist John James Audubon, at Audubon State Historic Site in St. Francisville; the Port Hudson State Historic Site, a Civil War battlefield site north of Baton Rouge; and the Global Wildlife Center near Folsum.
West of Baton Rouge is “Cajun Country,” Louisiana's southwest region settled by Acadians expelled from Nova Scotia and French Canada in the late 1700s. The Acadians, or “Cajuns,” adapted well to the strange environment of south Louisiana, learning to fish and trap from Native Americans already residing in the swamps and cultivating livestock and crops like rice, peppers and okra.
The Cajun culture has remained unusually intact for over two centuries – many in the region still speak a Cajun variant of French as a second language; eat savory Cajun dishes like gumbo and jambalaya; and play the culture’s indigenous Cajun and zydeco music.
Visitors here experience Cajun food, music, history and culture in cities like Lafayette, Lake Charles and Houma; in smaller towns like Breaux Bridge, New Iberia and Opelousas; nature experiences in the 838,000-acre Atchafalaya River Basin swamp and on the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail; and through attractions like the Jean Lafitte National Park System museums in Lafayette, Eunice and Thibodaux.
Popular activities include "fais-do-do" events at Cajun dance halls; authentic zydeco roadhouses on the Cajun prairie; eating dishes featuring crawfish, a freshwater shellfish resembling (and tasting like) a miniature lobster; living history tours at reproduced Cajun colonial villages; and air boat rides in swampy forestlands and Gulf coast marshes, featuring up-close encounters with alligators.
Notable attractions include the historic Liberty Theater in Eunice; and the McIlhenny Company factory, where the hot pepper sauce Tabasco is produced, on Avery Island.
Northward in Louisiana, subtle shifts are found in history, culture and in overall way of life. The “Crossroads” region of Louisiana cuts across the center of the state and serves as a cultural and geographic junction within the state. Within this region are people of Franco-African, Indian, Acadian French and Spanish descent. They enjoy Cajun fare like gumbo and jambalaya along with traditional Southern cooking like chicken-fried steak, homegrown vegetables and pecan pies.
Large plantations also prospered in central Louisiana during the Antebellum South period, but the crop of choice in this region was cotton, not sugarcane. Notable examples are Frogmore Plantation west of the city of Vidalia and Melrose Plantation near the city of Natchitoches.
By the mid to late 1800s, timber operations significant enough to create actual towns dedicated to harvesting operations joined the mix. 150 years later, timber is still a major economic contributor in this Louisiana region, and the little timber towns like Zwolle, Florien and Fisher have evolved but are still there.
While jazz, Cajun and zydeco music are indigenous to south Louisiana, north and central Louisiana are home to the roots of blues, Southern gospel, country and even American rock and roll. Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, learned to play piano growing up in the little central Louisiana town of Ferriday.
Louisiana’s oldest permanent settlement, Natchitoches, began in this region as a trading post in 1714 (predating New Orleans by two years). Its downtown historic landmark district, reproduced French colonial Fort St. Jean Baptiste and Bayou Pierre Alligator Park to the north of the city are popular tourist attractions. A nearby sub-region called “Cane River” is Louisiana’s northernmost and most remarkably intact pocket of Louisiana Creole culture, of which the centerpiece is Melrose Plantation.
The cities of Alexandria and Pineville face each other across the Red River at the center of the state. The cities were occupied by both Confederate and Union troops during the Civil War.
To the west are districts of Louisiana’s 600,000-acre Kisatchie National Forest and biking, hiking and canoeing opportunities. Further west, some of the South’s best fishing and water recreation is found in the massive Toledo Bend Reservoir separating Louisiana from Texas.
Northernmost Louisiana, “Sportsman’s Paradise,” differs from other parts of the state in that its settlers were not French and Spanish – they were mostly second-generation Anglo-Saxon pioneers moving westward from other Southern states.
The culture here differs from south Louisiana as much as the local accent. Visitors will still find gumbo and jambalaya, but it is alongside barbecue, biscuits and white gravy and peach cobblers, served with a distinctly Southern drawl.
The region is called “Sportsman’s Paradise” due to incredible outdoor things to see and do. The rolling, pine hills are a Mecca for hunters of deer, wild turkey and ducks.
Numerous waterways like Caney Lake, Lake Bistineau and Lake D’Arbonne are incredible for freshwater anglers (all three of those are accessible through Louisiana State Parks sites).
History enthusiasts will want to visit the Poverty Point prehistoric Native-American mound site east of the city of Monroe, where a culture prospered 3,500 years ago and left behind earthen mounds that predate The Pyramids or Stonehenge.
Science enthusiasts and family travelers will adore the city of Shreveport’s SciPort Learning Center, a hands-on children’s science museum that’s considered one of America’s best.
One of Louisiana’s best outdoor offerings is at Lincoln Parish Park in Ruston. The park’s 10-mile mountain biking trail is said to be one of the most challenging in the South.
Offerings in Shreveport and its sister across the Red River, Bossier City, include the massive gardens of the American Rose Center; the SciPort Learning Center, a hands-on children’s science museum; the Stage of Stars Museum at Municipal Auditorium; Chimp Haven, a retirement home of sorts for primates; and the Louisiana Boardwalk shopping and entertainment complex.