Have you ever been to the jazz festival? Try this road trip for the ultimate Louisiana experience
Louisiana has more than 400 festivals each calendar year. For those who are bad at math or drink too many daiquiris while driving, that’s an average of more than one a day.
Whenever 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 locals, opportunities are easy to find.
“If you can eat it, pull it, grab it or dance to it, we have a festival that celebrates it in Louisiana,” said Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, who oversees the Department of Culture, Recreation and Louisiana Tourism. “Everyone in Louisiana is very passionate about life, food, and culture, and our festivals are a result of that passion and joy that we put into life.”
The most of Louisiana Festivals are centered on its culinary and musical heritage, but Nungesser said the real treat for visitors is experiencing downstate 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 state’s most revered festivals – New Orleans’ infamous Jazz Fest – with one most surprising: the Lafayette International Festival. By combining the two, you’ll get a glimpse of Louisiana big and small town life.
Louisiana International FestivalApril 26-30, 2023
Lafayette is probably best known as the home of the Rajin Cajuns of the state of Louisiana. Like any good college town, the area has thrived on an influx of young people and culture, and the diversity of the downtown area reflects this marriage of old southern charm and modern, worldly entrepreneurship.
You will find this fusion in 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 modern takes on classic country cuisine at neighborhood eateries like Hawk Crayfish Boil at the Refugecompare breakfast deals at Coffee Dwyer (classic country) and The French press (modern southern brunch), or try the Cajun-infused Louisiana BBQ at Johnson’s Smokehouse.
Each April, this evolution is picked up and reinforced by the arrival of the Festival International de Louisiane, which juxtaposes local and regional music with an international lineup of musicians from around the world, attracting artists from as far away as Ukraine, the Argentina and Africa.
This year’s festival began with an evening dedicated to local Zydeco, a style of music, similar to Cajun, that emerged from black Creole communities in southwest Louisiana. Later he presented several shows by Natu Camara from Guinea and ended with The Wailers from Jamaica.
The crowd is mostly local, all the more diverse as it is completely free to attend, suitable for families with several outdoor stages built and distributed throughout the city center. Although the accommodations are mostly modest, the Hotel Juliet is the first and only boutique hotel in Lafayette. For the ultimate in luxury, book a room at Hotel La Fayette or the Carriage house.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, from 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 discovered something truly authentic with the International Festival. Arriving in New Orleans just 2.5 hours later, you’ll have the base and perspective you need to fully appreciate the state’s most iconic festival.
The first “Jazz Fest” was held in 1970 at Congo Square, and only 350 people attended. Although 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 was attracting 80,000 people. On its tenth anniversary, it ran for three weekends with 300,000 people in attendance.
The growth was only due to New Orleans’ stature as a hub of musical genius, and it was in the 1990s that the media began to fuel its fire. More stages were added to accommodate more types of music, first social and cultural acts, but later genres of all kinds. Over the years, everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Jimmy Buffett, Christina Aguilera to Phish has performed at Jazz Fest. In this way, Jazz Fest has become one of the most prestigious festivals in the world and its larger than life acts sell out.
New Orleans’ reputation as one of America’s best cities for local live music will win over anyone on the fence. Indeed, much of the appeal of Jazz Fest is what happens outside of the big names, as there is still plenty of local flair to be found in the side sessions, both at the festival (Jazz & Heritage Stage ) and the nightly, intimate performances that take place around town in small venues like dba, Tipitina’s (owned by local favorite and Jazz Fest 2022 main stage performer Galactic), and spotted cat. This is where you can still experience what the festival looked like 50 years ago.
Jazz Fest days are long and sunny, but there are several ways to ensure a more exclusive experience. Consider the Big Chief VIP experiencewhich gives you a seat in the covered viewing areas of all three main stages, as well as access to an air-conditioned lounge, VIP shuttle and parking access, private food and drink booths, and more.
Relaxing accommodations are essential 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 several dining options, a spa and Orleans View, a rooftop observation deck that offers a bird’s eye view of the city. Plus, easy access to busy areas, like French Street.
The Jazz Festival is an iconic experience on its own. But when paired with a smaller, growing event like the Festival International, you experience the full range of what Louisiana has to offer in its music, culture, and people – past and present.