Three perfect days in Lafayette, Louisiana, include a visit to Vermilionville, an airboat swamp ride, a Tabasco® factory tour, Jungle Gardens, and the best Cajun cuisine.
I was a guest of Lafayette Travel, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out Design Your Own Louisiana Road Trip for a wealth of itinerary resources and planning hacks.
Lafayette would be my first destination on a week-long Louisiana fly-drive. I awoke at 4:00 AM to learn that my Tampa to New Orleans flight had been cancelled due to storms in the area. Fortunately, I was able to rebook my flight for later that afternoon, with arrival scheduled during a break in the inclement weather.
The skies held steady for the first hour of my westbound drive across the state, but shortly after leaving Baton Rouge, the bottom fell out, and I drove I-10 across the 18-mile Atchafalya Basin Bridge with minimal visibility, following the taillights of a tractor-trailer at a distance.
I arrived safely in Lafayette, but the rainy weather would continue for two more days. I was not deterred. I am one of those strange people who love overcast, gloomy days, and rain would be a welcome addition to my three-day itinerary. As a travel writer, the only downside for me is that gray skies don’t photograph as well as blue, but that’s small stuff, and the sun would return on day three.
- 1 Three Perfect Days in Lafayette
- 1.1 Downtown Lafayette
- 1.2 Around Town
- 1.3 Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center
- 1.4 Vermilionville
- 1.5 Tabasco® Factory
- 1.6 Jungle Gardens
- 1.7 Basin Landing Airboat Tour
- 1.8 Cajun Food Tours
- 1.9 Dining & Lodging
- 1.10 Map It!
- 1.11 Design Your Own Louisiana Road Trip
- 1.12 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 1.13 Pin this Post!
- 1.14 Helpful Links
Three Perfect Days in Lafayette
I have visited New Orleans more times than I can remember, but only once prior did Jerry and I venture out of town, and that was for a one-day drive along Louisiana’s River Road Plantations. This new road trip would be my opportunity see more of the state and explore its fascinating history, culture, and scenic beauty, and it would begin with three perfect days in Lafayette.
Located 150 miles west of New Orleans, Lafayette is the heart of Acadiana, a region of southern Louisiana where many descendants of French Canadians settled after they were expelled by the British at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. The area is rich in Cajun culture and to this day more than 11% of the local population speaks fluent Cajun French. Lafayette is also home to the University of Louisiana and the Rajin’ Cajuns.
Positioned at the intersection of roadways headed all directions, Lafayette has been dubbed “The Hub City.” And that it is. Not only did I take in the city itself, I easily managed two day trips to spoke destinations during three perfect days.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Lafayette has a downtown designed for walking. Its most striking feature are the huge bald cypress trees that line the streets, the result of excellent planning to expand green space with native plantings of the state tree. Like many cities I visit these days, signs of urban renewal abound. The Atakapa-Ishak Trail, a shared-use route perfect for hiking and biking, weaves through the city center and is part of a multi-phased recreational project that will connect to neighboring communities and trails.
Historical homes, like the 1886 Ambassador Caffrey House have been lovingly restored, while other structures, such as the Sans Souci Fine Crafts Gallery, have been repurposed to serve the clientele of today.
I was both intrigued and pleased to discover memorials in Lafayette recognizing American heroes from other parts of the country. The Rosa Parks Transportation Center honors the iconic Civil Rights leader and features a “sittable” life-sized bronze statue of the Montgomery seamstress. A 9/11 Memorial in Parc Sans Souci incorporates beams from the World Trade Center, a slab of limestone from the Pentagon, and soil from the Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the most stunning feature of Downtown Lafayette are are the magnificent street murals by local painter Robert Dafford.
Other points of interest located within a 2-mile radius of Downtown Lafayette can be reached with an extended walk or short drive.
The 1916 Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist towers over Lafayette. The impressive red and white brick church built in the Dutch Romanesque Revival style is the third structure built on this property donated in 1821 by town founder Jean Mouton.
An equally impressive natural fixture known as the St. John Cathedral Oak shares the church property. Believed to be over 500 years old, the massive live oak pre-dates all of the manmade structures built on the property. Measurements have proven it to be one of the largest live oak trees, not just in the state of Louisiana, but in the entire United States.
Cypress Lake, called “The Swamp” by locals, occupies two acres on the campus of the University of Louisiana. This manmade water feature, complete with cypress trees, Louisiana iris, palmettos, Spanish moss, alligators, fish and turtles, not only enhances the urban green space, but it brings an authentic slice of rural Louisiana to the city of Lafayette.
Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center
The Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette is one of six separate Louisiana locations under the NPS Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve umbrella. The park takes its name from the infamous French seaman who engaged in smuggling and piracy in the Gulf of Mexico during the early 19th century. Lafitte partially redeemed himself, in exchange for a pardon, by assisting General Andrew Jackson as a privateer in the defense of New Orleans during British attacks in the War of 1812.
The Lafayette location interprets the history and culture of the Acadiana region, giving visitors a deeper understanding of the French Canadian influence through the years. One informative example is the museum placard that explains the evolution of the the term “Cajun” from it origin as “L’Arcadie.”
Visitors to the cultural center should allow time to take in the dated, yet informative documentary The Cajun Way: Echoes of Acadia that tells the story of the British expulsion and deportation of the Acadians (1755-1764) to Louisiana and other destinations.
I also recommend that visitors be at the Acadian Cultural Center when it opens at 9:00 AM for the first showing of the film. Then after exploring the museum, head across the street to Vermilionville and continue the story of the Acadians in Louisiana.
The town of Lafayette was renamed in 1884 after the French general who fought with the Americans during the Revolutionary War. The Vermilionville Living History and Folk Life Park assumes the town’s original name from its founding in 1821 along the Vermilion Bayou.
Vermillionville is nestled on 23 acres between Bayou Vermilion and Petit Bayou. The park interprets the local Acadian, Native American, and Creole cultures between 1765 and 1890.
The property boasts seven lovingly-restored historical homes from various locations and periods, as well as several newly-constructed buildings that complement and complete the illusion of life long ago.
It didn’t take long for me to immerse myself in historical Acadiana, and I confess I could not stop taking pictures of this realistic historical community both inside and out.
Living history interpreters and artisans situated throughout the park are the element that truly brought Vermilionville to life for me.
These experts and craftspeople enhanced the experience with stories, historical details, and demonstrations that perfectly complemented the Acadian ambience.
Landscape designers and master gardeners have added the final touches throughout the park, making the immersive experience not only a lesson in history, but also a place of stunning beauty.
I have wanted to tour the Tabasco® Factory at Avery Island, Louisiana, for as long as I can remember. On my many visits to New Orleans, I recall the Tabasco® brochures, rack cards, and advertisements, but somehow the allotted vacation time never allowed a visit. Perhaps that was a blessing in disguise, because the company completely renovated and expanded the visitor center with new museum exhibits and a restaurant to mark the 150th anniversary of the brand in the fall of 2015.
Avery Island, literally an inland salt dome, is a 28-mile drive south of Lafayette through scenic Louisiana bayous and farmland, making it a perfect day trip destination while in town.
Although there are guided tours available, I embarked on the new self-guided 10-stop tour through the greenhouse, barrel warehouse, factory building, and country store.
It’s not that I am a huge Tabasco® fan. Although I love the flavor of the hot sauce, it is a bit too fiery for my palate. Crystal brand is my go-to Louisiana hot sauce because I never have to worry about overdoing it.
What I do love about visiting the Tabasco® Factory is learning the history of the company and observing the process of producing and distributing this iconic Louisiana product around the world.
My itinerary did not allow for lunch at Restaurant 1868, but I was able to sample plenty of excellent Tabasco® products, standouts being the jalapeño ice-cream and spicy pickled green beans. Visitors can also take home pepper plants descended from the original 1868 mother plant.
There is a second attraction on Avery Island, situated between the Tabasco® factory and Bayou Petite Anse, and even though I had not heard of it, this verdant sanctuary has been open to the public since 1935.
The 170-acre Jungle Gardens was the love child of Tabasco® heir Edward Avery “Ned” McIlhenny, who was also an avowed naturalist and conservationist.
Mr. Ned’s first project on the property was the creation of a snowy egret rookery in the 1890s to combat the slaughter of egrets for feathers used with fashionable ladies hats of that era. He captured eight baby egrets, raised them in captivity, and then released them to migrate across the Gulf of Mexico in the fall.
The following spring the egrets returned in the company of other egrets to raise their young on the island, initiating a migration route that continues to this day. The colony came to be known as Bird City.
Another highlight of the park is an Asian-themed landscape and shrine that houses a 900-year old statue of the Buddha. The tenth-century sculpture had been looted from its temple by a Chinese war general and shipped for sale to New York. It was discovered years later in a Manhattan warehouse by friends of Mr. Ned who purchased the statue and presented it as a gift for the gardens in 1936.
Jungle Gardens has a drive-through route which worked perfectly for our drizzly day. Visitors who have more time can park and do a walking tour. A narrated mobile tour is also available online.
Basin Landing Airboat Tour
My airboat tour through the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area almost didn’t happen. It was originally scheduled for the day I arrived, but my flight cancellation shot that down. Fortunately, we were able to reschedule the tour for day three.
Atchafalaya Basin Landing and Marina is a 19-mile drive east from Lafayette, making it an easy half-day trip for the 90-minute tour.
Our guide for the airboat tour was Captain Tucker Friedman, a local who grew up on the bayou and purchased the marina in 1999.
We set out from the marina over the basin floodplain that would become dry ground later in the year. The airboat effortlessly skimmed the surface of the water, weaving between moss-laden cypress trees to a secluded spot, and Captain Tucker killed the engine.
Soon he began making making smooching vocalizations, uttering Cajun French phrases, and slapping the surface of the water with a paddle. As if on cue, a male alligator appeared in the distance and swam to meet Captain Tucker boatside.
As a fifth-generation Floridian, alligators are not much of a novelty to me, but I was intrigued with the captain’s fearless relationship with these reptiles. He did not encourage the tour group to engage in foolish behavior around wild animals, but it was clear that swimming gator-infested swamps and bayous since childhood had given him a respect and understanding of these creatures that was foreign to outsiders.
I had enjoyed exploring Lafayette during the two previous overcast days, but as the tour continued, it was great to see the sun, fluffy clouds, and blue sky once again.
The airboat tour ramped up as Captain Tucker steered the airboat toward the double-spanned I-10 Atchafalaya Basin Bridge.
I felt like I was in a James Bond movie as the captain expertly wove the craft between the pylons and spans of the massive bridge I had driven in the blinding rain two days earlier.
On the return ride to the marina, we paused for one more gator visit. As we prepared to move on, I put my earplugs back in. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed waving and pointing from the young passengers seated next to me. I looked down to see a vivid green dragonfly had lit on my arm. I won’t go into detail, but dragonflies have a special significance to me, and this was the perfect ending to an unforgettable experience on the Atchafalaya Basin.
Cajun Food Tours
Where better to enjoy Cajun cuisine than in the heart of Cajun country?
A passion for food and a love for Lafayette led former educator Marie Ducote-Comeaux to buy a bus and begin Cajun Food Tours a few years back. Marie’s 3.5-hour food tours carry up to 14 passengers to six stops throughout Lafayette to sample a variety of local favorite dishes.
I was first to board the party bus on Marie’s sweep of local hotels. Joining me were an Australian couple who were doing a road trip across the South, a local singer who had performed his final concert the night before in Baton Rouge, and a small group of the singer’s hardcore fans.
Jimmy Clanton was a “swamp pop” singer and teen idol in the late 1950s and 1960s with a string of million-selling hits including “Just a Dream,” and “Venus in Blue Jeans.” Meeting Jimmy aboard the party bus and learning about his six-decade career in music was a bonus treat on the tour.
Our first stop was at the Crawfish Pot where we learned how to peel and eat the Cajun staple of boiled mudbugs.
At the historical Poor Boy’s Riverside Inn, we sampled a cup of gumbo and Lafayette’s new signature cocktail the Rouler, a refreshing blend made with a base of Sweet Crude Rum from local distillers Rank Wildcat Spirits.
Our third stop at the Bon Temps Grill featured martinis and “twice cooked gator legs smothered in sweet and spicy Thai sauce.”
Earl’s Cajun Market served up my two favorite dishes of the tour: cracklin (fried pork belly) and boudin (cooked meat and rice in a sausage casing).
Next up was a sample of the famous shrimp poor boy at Olde Time Grocery. One of my Florida friends had recommended this iconic location, so I was happy it ended up on the tour.
Our final stop was for bread pudding at Don’s Seafood and Steakhouse. Needless to say, I was so stuffed by the end of the tour that I skipped supper that night. Cajun Food Tours partners with many restaurants around town, so the six stops will vary depending on the schedule.
Dining & Lodging
Lafayette has many more fine restaurants that feature Cajun and Creole cuisine, as well as other ethnic and fusion dining establishments. I enjoyed visiting the following outlets during my visit.
Randol’s Restaurant & Cajun Dancehall
Randol’s is best known for its nightly live music and dancing. I am not much of a dancer, but I witnessed lots of uninhibited fun in a family atmosphere to the beat of Cajun and Zydeco tunes.
The French Press
The French Press is a downtown location that offers brunch by day and fine dining by night.
Bread & Circus Provisions
Bread & Circus Provisions is a popular lunch spot specializing in pizza, panini, and gourmet fries. Reservations are recommended for dinner.
Social Southern Table & Bar
My final meal in Lafayette may have been my favorite. Social Southern Table and Bar offers fresh farm-to-table southern dishes, elevated by low profile, yet flavorful fusions. My host and I opted to order appetizers and sides to share, a tasty conclusion to my time in Lafayette.
DoubleTree by Hilton Lafayette
My host hotel was Doubletree by Hilton Lafayette. Love those warm, welcoming trademark cookies!
Design Your Own Louisiana Road Trip
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