Louisiana is a culture all its own. The cities and streets have unique names — some in French, others derived from Native American languages. The adventures are so much more diverse than you’d expect. And the cuisine…well, to use a local expression, it’ll make you “slap ya’ mama!” Trust us, that’s a good thing. There’s a lot you need to know before visiting the Bayou State — read on for a solid primer that will leave you wanting more.
1. Sucking heads and pinching tails is a legitimate pastime.
In Louisiana, first you learn to walk, and then you learn to suck heads and pinch tails. It’s the authentic — and only — way to eat crawfish. You’ll catch on quickly.
You can practice your skills throughout the state, but the Crawfish Capital of the World is Breaux Bridge, and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival is the place to suck heads and pinch tails along with live bands, crawfish races, crawfish-eating contests, and crawfish dishes prepared in almost every conceivable way — all delicious.
2. You’ll never set foot in a “county” here.
Louisiana has parishes, not counties. The Bayou State’s Catholic roots run deep, dating back to the early 1700s. The first Catholic parish was formed in 1720, and plans were soon underway for the first grand church, the St. Louis Cathedral. Today, it’s the oldest cathedral in the U.S. and the centerpiece of New Orleans’ French Quarter. We’d complain about the confusing semantics of parish vs. county, but the architecture is definitely worth it.
3. Sweet tea actually is all it’s cracked up to be.
Pretty much every restaurant with iced tea serves sweet tea, and we’d strongly recommend opting for the latter. Heck, if we could figure out how to make it come out of faucets like water, we would. We’re working on it.
In the Baton Rouge area, sweet-tea lovers are raving over Sammy’s Grill; and in Bossier City, Notini’s is said to be the go-to for Louisiana’s favorite beverage. No, not all sweet tea is created equal.
4. It’s okay to be confused by the football culture.
Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? The confusing rallying call of New Orleans’ NFL team, the Saints, can be heard all over NOLA and across Louisiana, but no place better than inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as tens of thousands of fans chant in unison for their 2010 Super Bowl champs. You’ll also hear “WHO DAT!” shouted in moments of excitement. You’ll probably pick it up by the time the game’s over, even if you never really figure out what it means.
5. King cake isn’t a once-a-year thing, and there’s no single version.
The combinations of the oval-shaped cake, popular during carnival season, are endless. Traditionally, a king cake is brioche-like in texture, with thick white icing and bright purple, green, and gold sugar crystals.
Not here for Mardi Gras? Not to worry, you can find king cakes year-round at bakeries throughout the state — and in flavors that boggle the mind. Cajun Market Donut Company in Lafayette makes a boudin (Cajun sausage)-stuffed version; for a more traditional take, check out Joe Gambino’s Bakery or Manny Randazzo King Cakes, both in Metairie.
6. Forget Mardi Gras. The party literally never stops in this state.
This is Louisiana. There’s always something going on, with more festivals per year than days in the year. Here’s three of the approximately 400:
- The Louisiana Pirate Festival in Lake Charles celebrates the legend of pirate Jean Lafitte with games, food, and fun (the mayor is made to walk the plank!) for pirates of all ages.
- The Louisiana Peach Festival in downtown Ruston has pretty much everything you could want out of a festival celebrating fruit: a Peach Parade, an exhibition of peach-themed art, a Peach Hunt scavenger hunt with a cash prize, and a Cobbler Gobbler eating contest. Get in on the fun this June 22-23.
- The Natchitoches Christmas Festival — held every year from November to early January — features more than 300,000 lights and 100 set pieces to get you in the spirit of the holiday season.
Visit literally whenever, and you’re bound to run into a festival (or two!) in the streets.
7. You want your po’boy “dressed.”
The po’boy sandwich apparently dates back to 1929, when striking streetcar workers were referred to as “poor boys” and given free sandwiches by a local business. We’re very glad they went on strike.
No matter what kind of po’boy you order, you’ll be asked if you want it dressed — that’s lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo. The debris po’boy (shaved roast beef) at Mother’s in New Orleans is a must. And yes, you want it dressed.
8. You really can dance to Cajun music.
Anyone who says you can’t dance to Cajun music has never been to a fais-do-do (fay DOUGH DOUGH), or Cajun dance party. Check out Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing in Henderson, about 17 miles northeast of Lafayette, pretty much the place to be on Sunday afternoons. Whiskey River promises “one of the best live Cajun and Zydeco musical experiences of your life.” Tourists and non-dancers are welcomed with open arms.
9. Floating down the river is a rite of watery passage.
You haven’t lived until you’ve gone tubing on a Louisiana river, and Bogue Chitto State Park near Franklinton is considered among the top spots. The park has some of the most dynamic and scenic river systems you’ll find anywhere in the state, including the Bogue Chitto River. And when we say scenic, we’re not talking marshes and swamps — we’re talking canyons and pebbly beaches. Though the iconic cypress swamps and bayous are pretty great, too.
10. When they said “everything is fried” in Louisiana, they weren’t kidding.
No matter where you go in this state, you can be assured something on the menu will be fried. Shrimp, catfish, oysters, and crab are popular, but so are alligator, okra, beignets, cracklins (pork rinds), and boudin balls (rice and pork balled up and fried).
Oh, and don’t forget chicken. Ball’s Fried Chicken in Lake Charles, Southern Classic Chicken in Monroe, and Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans are just a few that should not be missed.
11. If you only visit New Orleans, you’re missing out.
While New Orleans may be the most famous city in the state, you’ll want to explore the rest to get a true sense of Louisiana. Head to the Lafayette and Lake Charles areas for Cajun culture. Hit up (or even camp on) the Gulf of Mexico beaches of Grand Isle. Try your hand at the world-class bass fishing and other water activities in Toledo Bend Lake Country. Check out scenic parks in the Shreveport-Bossier City area. Hike the forested hills of the Monroe-Ruston area. Do it all.
What’s more, no visit to Louisiana is complete without seeing the state capitol building in Baton Rouge and taking a walking tour of Louisiana State University, arguably one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country.
12. Ghosts love Louisiana as much as tourists do.
In the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, people have reported hearing footsteps down empty hallways and doors slamming shut. Louisiana became a state in 1812, and its storied history includes its fair share of scandals — that makes for a lot of once-upon-a-time occupants who’ve potentially chosen to stick around.
Historic tours of the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium are great fun as well. People say strange voices can often be heard, and some even report seeing the ghost of a young girl in blue running around the auditorium. In Lake Charles, at the Calcasieu Courthouse, the ghost of the only woman ever to die in Louisiana’s electric chair is said to haunt the place.
13. You don’t have to go far to see alligators.
Swamp tours are awesome, but to see one of Louisiana’s most popular reptiles, you have plenty of options that don’t require a boat ride. Kliebert’s Turtle & Alligator Tours in Hammond has been around since 1957 and is home to more than 300 alligators — some as large as 19 feet.
Apart from the tours, be sure to watch when the alligators are hand-fed by the staff. If you want to get really close, at Alligator Park in Natchitoches you can feed, touch, and even pose with these ancient almost-dinos.
14. Yes, you should pack your hiking boots.
The Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area has some of the most beautiful terrain in the state (more than 5,000 acres of it!), with rugged hikes, bluffs, and ravines nearly everywhere you look. At just under five miles, Trail A is the most challenging of the three — but there are steep ravines, sand-filled bayous, Cooper’s hawks, and even the occasional black bear print to distract you.
Kisatchie National Forest, Louisiana’s only national forest, has plenty of trails — varying from a half mile to nearly 30 miles — with no shortage of rolling hills and photo-worthy spots throughout.
15. You really do need to learn some French.
“Let the good times roll” — the state’s most popular expression — just isn’t as sexy as Laissez les bon temps rouler (lay-ZEH leh BAWN taw ROO-leh). You really want to impress a Louisianian? Get this one right!