New Orleans is a pretty exciting destination in its own right and you could spend as many vacations as you wanted to explore everything it has to offer. However, it is also surrounded by some genuinely amazing destinations, sights, and experiences that are a little more off-the-beaten-track and under the radar, and offer a bit of a breather from the party vibes of the Big Easy.
For New Orleans locals looking for a weekend getaway, or if you’re in New Orleans for a cruise and fancy seeing the sights beyond the city, these are some of the best day trips from New Orleans.
A Mississippi river cruise
A trip along the Mississippi is one of the best ways to see New Orleans in all its glory, and a river cruise makes for a lovely day trip. Hop aboard the Steamboat Natchez, the only authentic steamboat still serving the Mississippi, and explore the scenic landscapes that surround the wide, lazy river. There is a range of cruise options to choose from, from history tours exploring the cotton trade to music cruises where you’ll relax and take in the countryside to the sounds of smooth jazz. However you choose to spend the day, a steamboat river cruise is a relaxing alternative to the hustle and bustle of the big city.
Only a short drive from downtown New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain is a special spot and a great place to get a feel of Louisiana beyond NOLA. The Northshore is a delightfully laid-back, alternative collection of towns and villages that boast some excellent museums, gorgeous natural landscapes, and some surprisingly high-end foodie gems.
The bridge over Lake Pontchartrain itself is an experience, the longest continuous over-water bridge in the world. The Abita Mystery House is a must for fans of weird history and eclectic museums, while swamp tours bring you up close and personal with snakes, mangroves and gators…! If you fancy a spot of fine dining, you shouldn’t miss Middendorf’s, whose famous thin-slice catfish brings in customers from miles around.
Louisiana is famous for its marshes, swamps, and wetlands that collectively make up ‘the bayou’. There are bayous across the state, all with their own unique ecosystems and indigenous animal and plant life. Bayous are perhaps most famous for their most dangerous residents, ‘gators. For the more thrill-seeking traveler, an alligator tour on a flat-bottomed boat through the bayou will be the highlight of a day out.
Honey Island Swamp and Pearl River offers one of the best full swamp bayou experiences and is only 45 minutes from New Orleans.
The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Marrero, just half an hour from the city, is heaven for wildlife enthusiasts, with alligators, nutrias, and more than 200 species of birds, including snowy egrets, bald eagles, and pelicans.
The Atchafalaya Natural Heritage Area, known as ‘America’s Foreign Country’, is a National Park with over 150 square miles of swamps, marshland, rivers and prairies along the Louisiana coastline. It’s a wonderful spot to explore genuine Cajun Country.
You can even finish off a bayou day trip in New Orleans itself! Bayou St John is a picturesque neighborhood edged by Esplanade Avenue and the Lafitte Greenway. The bayou itself runs along one edge of the district and is perfect for paddleboarding, kayaking, or taking a yoga class on the grassy riverbank.
If asked ‘what is the capital of Louisiana?’ many, if not most tourists would say New Orleans. But in fact, the capital is Baton Rouge, an exciting, cosmopolitan city about an hour’s drive from NOLA. Baton Rouge boasts a wealth of culture, art, and wonderful attractions, and it is a great way to explore a little more of Louisiana beyond New Orleans.
The Louisiana Art and Science Museum has some superb permanent exhibitions, while the African American Museum is perfect for anyone looking to learn more about the local Louisiana culture.
Families will love the enormous Conja water slide at the Blue Bayou Water Park, and Brec’s Botanical Gardens or Louisiana State University’s Hilltop Arboretum are wonderful places to spend a sunny day just enjoying the fresh air.
Bay St Louis
For a simple, easy day at the beach, there aren’t many places better than Bay St Louis. It is stunningly pretty, yet remarkably uncrowded, with miles of pristine public beaches that are absolutely perfect for a supremely relaxed day away from the parties of Bourbon Street.
There really isn’t too much to do here beyond stroll along the sand, check out the pier, and have lunch at one of the many fantastic seafood restaurants that line the beach. But if you are looking for an uncomplicated beach experience with an extra side of tranquility, Bay St Louis is the perfect day out.
Lafayette is the heart of Acadia and the true center of Cajun country. It has an entirely different rhythm to New Orleans and is a wonderful place to explore the fascinating, alternative culture and history of this unique element of Louisiana life. Best of all, it is the place to explore Cajun culture – the food, the music, and the interesting and unusual history of this community.
Start off at the Acadian Village, a recreation of a 300-year-old settlement with genuine reconstructed buildings brought in from elsewhere in the region. Get a feel for what life was like for these early settlers, and explore their unique traditions and culture. Follow this up with a taste of real Cajun specialties at Johnson’s Boucaniere, being sure to try authentic gumbo and boudin sausage, as well as the amazing smoked meats on offer. You can discover Cajun music and zydeco at the Blue Moon, one of the best venues in this charming, quirky city.
Abita Springs in St. Tammany Parish has been a local favorite destination for a quick weekend getaway for years. The peaceful countryside and gorgeous forests full of excellent hiking trails make this sleepy little town a brilliant choice for any outdoorsy travelers looking to get back to nature.
More recently, Abita Springs has developed a reputation as the craft beer capital of Louisiana, largely due to being the home of Abita Brewing, the oldest and largest brewery in the state. Sadly you can’t see the springs above ground anymore, but they still use the freshwater to make their delicious brews.
A day trip to Abita Springs wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Abita Mystery House, a truly bizarre bit of surreal weirdness. This abandoned gas station has been converted into a home for oddities, curious, and loads of random, weird stuff, and is well worth exploring.
Louisiana and New Orleans might be full of good times and hullabaloo, but there is a darker side to the history of the South, particularly when it comes to plantations and slavery. Learning about this history is incredibly important, but touring the plantations can be a tricky business, as some have a tendency to gloss over their awkward past and concentrate on their picturesque beauty.
The Whitney Plantation in Edgard is quite the opposite, directly designed to help educate the public about the lives of slaves, the institution of slavery, and the connection to the fabulous lifestyles of the plantation owners and their beautiful homes. While it isn’t a fun day out, as such, it is a richly rewarding, thought-provoking experience, and is an extremely powerful way to spend a day.
Another amazing spot for birdwatchers and animal lovers, Grand Isle is Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island. Most of the seafood that drives NOLA’s unique cuisine comes from here, and it is also home to exceptional state parks, unspoiled beaches, and a wildlife reserve filled with birds, butterflies, and beautiful native species.
Grand Isle has been a favored vacation destination for Louisiana natives for generations, most of whom come here to fish and relax. You can spend a lazy day fishing off the public pier at Grand Isle State Park, or hire a charter boat from one of the many companies on the island. After a day’s fishing, this is the best place in the state to try the freshest seafood possible, with shrimp and oysters particularly recommended.
Due to its location and make-up, erosion and climate change mean that Grand Isle is in serious peril, and the island itself probably won’t be around all that much longer. This makes it even more worthwhile to squeeze in a visit before it is too late!
A little further afield, Hattiesburg is a picturesque little town just across the state line in Mississippi. The town itself is rich in history, while the surrounding area is a haven for outdoorsy types, with beautiful forests full of lovely views and great hiking trails. The DeSoto National Forest is a gem, with trails for hikers, ATVs, and horseback riding, as well as a few wonderful free-flowing rivers perfect for canoeing and kayaking.
In town, the African American Military History Museum is a must-see, telling the story of African American contributions to every war fought by the United States since 1776. The Hattiesburg Area Historical Society Museum is a great way to dive into local history, as is a walk around the downtown Hattiesburg Historic Neighborhood, the oldest district in the city.