Louisiana boasts more than 400 festivals every calendar year. For those bad at math, or drinking too many drive-thru daiquiris, that’s an average of more than one a day.
Regardless of when you find yourself in the Bayou, you’re bound to stumble upon some sort of celebration. The reason could be big, it could be small; for the locals, occasions are easy to come by.
“If you can eat it, shoot it, catch it, or dance to it, we have a festival celebrating it in Louisiana,” said Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who oversees the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism. “Everyone in Louisiana is very passionate about life, food, and culture, and our festivals are the result of that passion and joy that we put into life.”
Most of Louisiana’s festivals are centered around its culinary and musical heritage, but Nungesser said the true treat for visitors is to experience the state’s southern hospitality.
“We treat strangers like family and make them part of the celebration and the culture,” Nungesser said.
To see for yourself, I recommend a short (but sweet) Louisiana road trip that combines one of the states most revered festivals – the infamous Jazz Fest in New Orleans – with one of its most surprising: the Festival International in Lafayette. By combining the two, you’ll get a peek at both big and small-town Louisiana life.
Festival International de Louisiane, April 26-30, 2023
Lafayette is probably best recognized as the home of the Rajin Cajuns of Louisiana State. Like any good college town, the area has blossomed due to the influx of youth and culture, and the diverse downtown area reflects this marriage of old southern charm and the modern, worldly entrepreneurial spirit.
You’ll find this fusion in the local shops, which combine history, culture, music, and fashion (The Cajun Hatter, SOLA Violins, Attakapas Outpost), and, of course, in the food and restaurant scene. Enjoy the modern takes on classic country cooking at neighborhood joints like Hawk’s Crawfish Boil at the Hideaway, compare the breakfast offerings at Dwyer’s Cafe (classic country) and The French Press (Southern modern brunch), or try Cajun-infused Louisiana barbecue at Johnson’s Boucaniere.
Every year in April, this evolution is echoed and enhanced by the arrival of the Festival International de Louisiane, which juxtaposes local and regional music against an international lineup of world musicians, drawing acts from as far away as the Ukraine, Argentina, and Africa.
This year’s festival started out with a night dedicated to local Zydeco, a style of music, similar in sound to Cajun, that emerged from the Black creole communities of Southwest Louisiana. Later, it featured multiple shows by Natu Camara from Guinea, and ended with The Wailers from Jamaica.
The crowd is largely local, made all the more diverse by the fact that it’s completely free to attend, family-friendly with multiple outdoor stages constructed and spread throughout the downtown area. Though accommodations are mostly modest, the Juliet Hotel is the first and only boutique hotel in Lafayette. For the highest luxury, book a room at the Lafayette Hotel or the Carriage House.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, April 28 to May 7, 2023
Leaving Lafayette and driving east on I-10 through the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll feel like you’ve hit on something truly authentic with the Festival International. As you arrive in New Orleans just 2.5 hours later, you’ll have the baseline and perspective you need to fully appreciate the state’s most iconic festival.
The first “Jazz Fest” took place in 1970 in Congo Square, and only 350 people attended. Though small, it created a tremendous spark, and the festival spread like wildfire. It moved to the Fair Grounds Race Course in 1972 – where it still takes place today – and within 5 years it was drawing 80,000 people. On its tenth anniversary, it was three weekends in length with 300,000 people attending.
The growth was due to nothing more than New Orleans’ stature as a hub for musical genius, and it was in the 1990s that the media began to fuel its fire. More stages were added to accommodate more kinds of music, at first worldly and culturally-driven acts, but later genres of all kinds. Over the years, everyone who is anyone, from Bruce Springsteen to Jimmy Buffett, from Christina Aguilera to Phish, has performed at Jazz Fest. In this way, Jazz Fest has become one of the most prestigious festivals in the entire world, and its larger-than-life acts sells themselves.
New Orleans’ reputation as one of America’s best cities for local live music will convince anyone on the fence. Indeed, much of the draw of Jazz Fest is what takes place outside the big names, as there’s still plenty of local flair to be found in the side sessions, both at the festival (Jazz & Heritage Stage) and the nighty, intimate performances that take place around the city at small venues like d.b.a., Tipitina’s (owned by local favorite and 2022 Jazz Fest main stage act Galactic), and Spotted Cat. It is here that you can still experience what the festival may have been like 50 years ago.
Days at Jazz Fest are long and sun-exposed, but there are a couple ways to ensure a more exclusive experience. Consider the Big Chief VIP experience, which gets you a spot in covered viewing areas of the three main stages, as well as access to an air-conditioned lounge, VIP shuttle and parking access, private food and beverage stands, and more.
Restful accommodations are a must to sustain the party. The Four Seasons New Orleans opened less than a year ago on the Mississippi waterfront at the foot of Canal Street in the historic World Trade Center building. The five-star hotel includes multiple dining options, a spa, and Vue Orleans, a rooftop observation deck that provides a bird’s eye view of the city. Plus, easy access to lively areas, like Frenchmen Street.
Jazz Festival is an iconic experience all by itself. But when paired with a smaller, still-growing event like the Festival International, you experience the full range of what Louisiana has to offer in its music, culture, and people – both past and present.