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Lively Louisiana has reclaimed much of its former glory after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Visitors from around the world are once again flocking to New Orleans, Louisiana's tourist powerhouse.
Most who arrive in the Big Easy want to experience the city's traditional toe-tapping Dixieland jazz music, to dine on Cajun cuisine, and to enjoy the laidback lifestyle where a carnival atmosphere seems to prevail all year round.
Louisiana is hedonistic and historic, musical and memorable. The southern American state has a distinctive scenic beauty and a slightly European feel, with a cultural uniqueness that makes it more than attractive as a holiday destination.
It's the cultural melting pot in particular that gives Louisiana its special appeal, a result of the numerous peoples who have left legacies upon the land. From Native Americans, Creole inhabitants and the Cajuns of South Louisiana to Spanish and French colonists and the African slaves.
Louisiana's past is just as colourful and varied as its residents. It's been governed under 10 different flags since 1541 when Hernando de Soto claimed the region for Spain. During the Civil War, Louisiana even became an independent republic for six weeks before joining the Confederacy.
Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803, with the reason behind its constant chopping and changing being the region's importance for trade and security in the American Midwest. The mighty Mississippi River flows through Louisiana and New Orleans controls access to the mouth.
Further along the Mississippi, travellers marvel at the plantation houses of Louisiana's rich landowners of old and enjoy the sights and sounds of the Mississippi Valley, one of the most scenic areas in the United States. Just like the renowned Creole dish known as the State of Louisiana contains a bit of everything.
Most tourists visiting Louisiana arrange their itineraries around New Orleans. But although this exciting and unique city is well worth the trip, the state boasts many other attractions. Beyond the Big Easy, Louisiana maintains the joyful, hedonistic spirit that made New Orleans such a global favourite. The city's good music and good food are found across the state.
Baton Rouge, the capital, is a worthy sightseeing destination, with a number of acclaimed museums and historic buildings. The old plantation mansions in the surrounding area are evocative reminders of Louisiana's history and many examples are well preserved and maintained as living museums.
The alligator-filled bayous still have a strong pull on foreigners, ideal for a boat ride. Those looking for a road trip through the state should drive the Great River Road, winding along the Mississippi River. The river itself passes through New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as well as many of the most impressive antebellum plantation homes in Louisiana.
If you're not able to visit New Orleans during its famous annual celebrations, don't worry. Mardi Gras World offers the festival experience all year long. The museum is actually the working studio of the foremost carnival float designer, Blaine Kern, for whom producing floats and props for the city's annual Mardi Gras is a fulltime job.
Visitors can watch Kern and his team design and construct the giant sculptures including everything from cartoon characters to mythological figures and creatures that they'll eventually parade through the streets. Tours are offered every half an hour, including a Mardi Gras costume display, a historical video and even a free slice of traditional Mardi Gras King Cake.
The Louisiana State Museum, affectionately called the Cabildo, is an entertaining and informative attraction in the city's vibrant French Quarter. The exhibitions explore the history of Louisiana from a multicultural perspective, from the first European explorations to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
The museum is the flagship of the Louisiana State Museum facilities and housed in the historic building of its namesake, dating back to 1799, originally serving as the Spanish city council offices. Two major historic events took place in the Cabildo building: the Louisiana Purchase Transfer ceremonies in 1803, and the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalised racial segregation. The Cabildo takes pride in the fact that five American presidents have visited it.
Founded in 2000 by historian and author Dr Stephen Ambrose, the unique D-Day National World War II Museum is as a highlight of any New Orleans sightseeing tour. Situated in New Orleans' Warehouse District, the museum depicts the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy, the Home Front during World War II, and the D-Day Invasions in the Pacific.
Exhibits include text panels, artefacts, and personal account stations where visitors can listen to the stories of war veterans. A panorama exhibit recreates a Normandy beach landing and there are also regular film shows. This is a modern, imaginatively curated museum which brings the war to life for visitors.
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River is the New Orleans' state-of-the-art Audubon Aquarium, regarded as one of the best in America. Underwater tunnels allow visitors to marvel at a Caribbean Reef and a re-creation of the Gulf of Mexico, complete with sharks.
There's also a walkthrough Amazon rainforest and an exhibit displaying the inside story of swamp life. The aquarium features almost every type of aquatic creature imaginable, from jellyfish and sea horses to otters and penguins.
Audobon Aquarium's sister attractions, also run by the Audubon Institute, are the excellent New Orleans City Zoo, situated in Audubon Park further uptown, and the Audubon Insectarium, situated in the historic Custom House on Canal Street.
The zoo is a fun diversion for kids, and the insectarium, a more unusual attraction, is one of the largest freestanding insectariums in the US, housing more than 900,000 species.
Regarded as the heart and soul of New Orleans, the French Quarter is the historic part of town covering about 90 square blocks radiating out from Chartres Street and Jackson Square. Established in 178, the French Quarter is also known as the Vieux Carre.
Originally a French military outpost, which was later taken over by the Spanish, it gradually developed into a cultural hub incorporating slaves, pirates, mercenaries, call-girls and various freemen of every colour and creed.
Today, the area looks and feels much as it did before Hurricane Katrina, with its wrought-iron railings and tall doorways. There's a thrilling offering of nightclubs, bars, live music venues, Cajun-seafood restaurants and all sorts of shops.
By day it is one of the best people-watching spots in the world and is the focus for visitors to New Orleans. By night, areas such as the famous Bourbon Street become giant street parties, with a world-class dining districts backed by a soundtrack of jazz music.
Situated on the Burden Research Plantation, run by the Louisiana State University, is the Rural Life Museum and Windrush Gardens. The museum features an extensive collection of tools, household utensils, furniture, vehicles and farming implements, some outdoors and others housed in some 32 historic buildings that depict the lifestyle of pre-industrial 19th-century Louisiana.
Once you're finished reliving the past, take a stroll through the Windrush Gardens, which are spread over 25 acres and feature majestic oaks and ancient crape myrtles. The Rural Life Museum is set in very pretty grounds and is a popular wedding venue.
The historic Old State Capitol building, once described by Mark Twain as being the 'ugliest thing on the Mississippi', sits on a bluff overlooking the river and today operates as a museum for political and governmental history.
The unusual building, completed in 1849, housed the Louisiana Legislature until Union forces captured the city of Baton Rouge in 1862. The legislature returned to the building in 1882 and stayed until construction ended on the new capitol in 1932.
Now fully restored, the old Capital offers interesting and interactive exhibits, with multimedia presentations detailing Louisiana's past. This attraction will appeal to those interested in the political history of Louisiana but may be a bit dry and academic for kids and teenagers.
A highlight of the Baton Rouge Nautical Center and USS Kidd Veterans Museum is the restored 369ft (112m) World War II Fletcher Class Destroyer, USS Kidd (once known as the 'Pirate of the Pacific'), which is the prime exhibit. The ship is a National Historic Landmark and a memorial to the US veterans of World War II.
Overnight camping experiences on the ship are offered, while the centre also features a huge collection of model ships, a restored World War II fighter plane, a jet fighter from the Vietnam era and a walkthrough exhibit of the gun deck of Old Ironsides. Lovers of military history, and naval history in particular, will relish this attraction.
Louisiana's most authentic restored 'great house' is the San Francisco Plantation house, situated on the east bank of the Mississippi under centuries-old live oaks, about 40 minutes from downtown Baton Rouge and near the small town of Garyville.
Built in 1856 by Edmond Bozonier Marmillion, the galleried house reflects the Creole open-suite style. The home features five hand-painted mural ceilings, faux marble and bois wood graining, and one of the finest antique collections in the United States. Also on the plantation is an 1830s slave cabin, a one-roomed schoolhouse, and a museum store.
Throughout the day, period-costumed guides take visitors on tours lasting about 45 minutes. Other plantation houses open to the public on the Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge include Oak Alley, Nottoway, Laura, Madewood and Tezcuco.
Housed in a historic railroad depot, the Louisiana Art and Science Museum offers educational and entertainment opportunities for visitors of all ages. Featured are changing fine art exhibitions, interactive art and science galleries for children, an Egyptian tomb and a simulated space station.
The enormous skull of Jason the Triceratops singlehandedly justifies a visit for many. Also on the site is the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium and ExxonMobil Space Theatre, offering planetarium shows and large-format films. Capital Transportation Corporation buses on the Florida Boulevard route stop on River Road directly across from LASM making the museum easily accessible on public transport.
The city of Lafayette is the hub of the eight-parish area in the heart of Louisiana's southern Acadian region, famed for its unique Cajun and Creole heritage, and where the French language is soft on the ear and French traditions prevail.
Lafayette, to the east of Baton Rouge, lies at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 49. Known for its great food, music, and festivals, it also has historic attractions, majestic plantation homes, vibrant gardens, leisurely swamp tours and fascinating museums to entice visitors.
Authentic Cajun and Creole cuisine served up with original zydeco and Cajun music is usually top of the lists for tourists, but sites like the Acadian Cultural Center, University of Art Museum, and the Natural History Museum are all well worth visiting.
Lafayette is only a short drive away from Baton Rouge and is comfortably explored in a day. Although, there is certainly enough about to see and do to justify a weekend getaway.
Since Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in August 2005, its people have been rebuilding. The beautiful, vibrant city has largely recovered but remnants of the tragedy remain. In many ways, the memory of the hurricane has become integral to the city's identity.
Gray Line Tours offers a three-hour bus ride around some of the hardest hit areas in New Orleans, including Lakeview and Gentilly, and is aimed at gathering support to continue the rebuilding of the city. To respect the privacy of the locals, buses will not allow tourists off the bus to take pictures.
Instead, they will pass around pictures of the storm and its destruction, and guides will describe the events before and after the storm hit the city, as well as explaining the significance of the levee system.
Historic Preservation Hall is New Orleans' most popular jazz venue, where Preservation Hall jazz bands serve up first-rate Dixieland Jazz every night in the French Quarter building, originally built as a residence in 1750. There are three performances a night, each lasting about 45 minutes.
No seating, food or drinks are available, but crowds of all ages flock here simply for the wonderful music. It's possible to get tickets at the door without booking in advance, but it's advisable to arrive about 30 minutes before the show to avoid long queues or disappointment when tickets sell out.
The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) is a world-class facility. The permanent collection at the museum features over 40,000 objects, from the Italian Renaissance to the modern era, and is celebrated for its collection of both American and European works, including art by masters like Degas, Matisse, Rodin, Jackson Pollock, Monet, Renoir, Georgia O'Keeffe and Picasso.
The museum sits in the lovely City Park, surrounded by ancient oak trees and lagoons. There is also a small amusement park and Storyland, a charming fairytale playground, in the park to help amuse younger travellers.
One of the most impressive parts of the museum is the superb Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The Sculpture Garden provides a unique opportunity for visitors who treasure the arts, with a varied collection of modern and contemporary sculptures presented in an exquisite natural setting.
The Louisiana Children's Museum offers kids a vast selection of exhibits, art activities and educational programmes to help make learning fun. The kid-sized Winn-Dixie grocery store is a favourite, as are the climbing wall and the giant bubble that kids can play in.
Eye to Eye has fun showing the workings of the human eye, and Art Trek features drawing, painting and sculpture lessons. The games and facilities change fairly often and the museum hosts regular events and activities to keep eager young minds captivated. A great option for a rainy day!
The Mississippi River is really the primary reason New Orleans exists. It is the trade and transport artery which made the situation of the city such an asset over the centuries. New Orleans is therefore a great place to take a boat ride, whether it's simply a fun paddle boat excursion with the kids, or a historic riverboat tour.
The Natchez steamboat traverses this great river and passes many of the city's historical sites, while the John James Audubon ferries passengers between the Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Zoo. There are also a number of Louisiana swamp tours which are fun for the whole family. You can't visit New Orleans without experiencing the Mississippi!
Louisiana has a semi-tropical climate, which remains relatively constant. The amount of rainfall and humidity in the state depends on a region's distance from the Gulf of Mexico. Areas closer to the Gulf tend to be far more humid, with little variation between temperatures.
New Orleans is usually hot and humid, with sunshine occurring for 60% of the year. Average temperatures in the city range from 52°F (11°C) in January to 82°F (28°C) in July, with an average daily temperature of 68°F (20°C). Some snowfall occurs in the north of the state, but southern Louisiana very rarely experiences any.
June marks the beginning of the hurricane season, usually lasting until September, and the state has been hit repeatedly by severe hurricanes throughout recent decades, the most severe being Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and Hurricane Rita in September 2005. Most hit the southeastern and southwestern parts of Louisiana respectively, with devastating effect.
A classic old restaurant in New Orleans, grand Arnaud's offers a taste of history along with its ambitious menu. Arnaud's glitters with chandeliers, leaded windows and a mosaic floor, all look over by a portrait of the founder, Count Arnaud Cazenave. The eatery consists of 13 buildings in the French Quarter, including a brasserie, bistro, grill bar and banqueting halls. The main restaurant requires formal attire as one needs to look their best when sampling its celebrated fish dishes, as well as traditional favourites like filet mignon. Open daily for and brunch on Sundays.
An institution on Bourbon Street, Galatoire's has been serving up French-Creole specialities since 1905 and still uses many of the original recipes. Starched white linen and shiny crystal set the tone in this establishment where tradition reigns and New Orleans fine dining shows off. Locals and visitors return again and again, usually to enjoy the fresh local seafood. Galatoire's requires business casual dress for lunch, and jackets for men starting at 5pm. No shorts or t-shirts. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner.
The sounds of jazz music and the beautiful skyline of downtown New Orleans provide a wonderful backdrop for a moonlight dinner cruise. Upon the mighty Mississippi River, diners sit aboard the Steamboat Natchez. The cost of the two-hour cruise includes a traditional southern buffet dinner. A Sunday brunch option at 11am is also available, with a mouth-watering buffet menu. Cruises depart from the Toulouse Street Wharf, opposite Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter.
Along the historic Saint Charles Avenue, Herbsaint respects its location's culinary history. The name gives a clue to the seasoning of this French and Louisianian blend of fine dining, along with more rural and rustic aspects of Italian cooking. An esteemed, award-winning chef and menu of classic dishes betray the restaurants' casual atmosphere, and an extensive French wine selection puts a classy spin on the delicious gumbo dishes. Reservations are advisable.
Founded in 1911, Parkway Bakery and Tavern is an institution with more than a century of New Orleans pedigree. It's not fine dining, it's better. The po'boy is a New Orleans classic fried sandwhich packed with so many ingredients it's better to try one than read about it. Parkway is the best and oldest place to grab a po'boy mouthful, and the shrimp and beef options have been voted the top po'boys in New Orleans. Parkway also doubles as a fun place to grab a beer. Note that Parkway is closed on Tuesdays.
An institution nearing its centenary year, Casamento's is one of the many jewels in the Big Easy's culinary crown. Much like the menu's delicious oysters, the rugged exterior of the restaurant betrays just how great this oyster bar really is. One of the oldest oyster bars in town, Casamento's serves them every-which-way, although the best way is to line up a big serving of fresh ones on the counter. Cheap prices and reliably tasty shellfish make it a favourite for locals. The restaurant is closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, as well as in June, July, and August.
Mulate's is the original Cajun restaurant, featuring authentic Cajun cuisine that embraces the small town cultures dotted along southern Louisiana's bayous. Be sure to try the Zydeco Gumbo and don't miss the homemade bread pudding. Live Cajun music and dancing each night attracts many New Orleans visitors. Even Bob Dylan stopped by when he was in town. This restaurant and bar is open for lunch and till late at night. While not required, prospective diners should make reservations.
Ralph's on the Park offers food fresh from the farms and waters of Louisiana, with a side helping of splendid City Park views. Their shrimp rémoulade is a favourite, creamy and not a bit spicy, and the filet mignon brings mutterings of 'buttery, so buttery…' to mind. The chocolate Kahlúa mousse or Creole cream cheese ice cream on peach cobbler wraps things up nicely. Ralph's is open for dinners and Sunday brunch.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is a great place to experience bayou life in Louisiana. The park, named after the notorious early-19th century pirate, consists of six physically separate sites and a park headquarters.
These include the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice, the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, the Barataria Preserve in Marrero, the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery in Chalmetter, and the French Quarter Visitor Center in New Orleans.
The park offers a variety of activities, including bayou cruises from the Acadian Cultural Center, birdwatching and swamp walks in Barataria Preserve, and paddlewheel boat trips from New Orleans to the historic Chalmette Battlefield sites.
A great weekend getaway from New Orleans, Grand Isle is a popular holiday town located on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. Formerly a busy port of call for notorious pirates like Jean Lafitte, Grand Isle is now a peaceful haven for relaxation, fishing and birdwatching, revelling in its reputation for being a sportsperson's paradise.
Grand Isle State Park is home to one of the top winter beaches in the US, and there is a small town nearby with a few restaurants and self-catering accommodation. Grand Isle comes alive each year for the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, a salt-water fishing rodeo that draws some 15,000 people annually. Another popular event is the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Festival, held each spring.
Avery Island is located on an eight-mile (13km) deep salt dome located in Iberia Parish, 137 miles (220km) west of New Orleans. A rock salt mine opened on the island during the American Civil War, producing enormous amounts of salt for the Confederacy.
Known as the birthplace of Tabasco Sauce, Avery Island is still home to the Tabasco Pepper Sauce Factory, which offers tours to the public. The island also contains the Jungle Gardens wildlife refuge, home to alligators, deer and raccoons, and Bird City, a pond with specially built piers for viewing snowy egrets, among other birds.
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