17 Things to do in Natchitoches La to Bring History to Life!
on Apr 25, 2023, Updated Oct 29, 2023
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There are so many things to do in Natchitoches, La to experience the history, culture, and food in an interactive and hands-on way! Whether you’re a history lover, a foodie, or just looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, a trip to the quaint town of Natchitoches is a must. Even if you think you don’t like history, a visit to the city of Natchitoches might just change your mind.
My trip to Natchitoches, LA was courtesy of the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau. All opinions are mine.
Table of Contents
- How to Pronounce Natchitoches
- Where is Natchitoches, LA?
- Creole Culture of Natchitoches
- Best Things to do in Natchitoches, LA for Interactive History Learning
- Visit the Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District –
- Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site
- Los Adaes State Historic Site and the El Camino Real
- Fort Jesup State Historic Site – No Man’s Territory
- Cane River Creole National Historical Park
- A Visit to Melrose Plantation
- Learning about Clementine Hunter
- Where to Stay in Natchitoches
- Ready to travel? Use these helpful links to book your stay!
I had the pleasure of visiting Natchitoches, Louisiana in February right before Mardi Gras. The trip was part of the Central States Chapter Meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers that took place in Shreveport a few days later. I was initially drawn to the area because of the promise of cultural, historical, and food experiences – and boy did they deliver!
I loved visiting Natchitoches where Native American, French, Spanish, Colonial, Antebellum, and Reconstruction history lessons all come alive in an interesting and interactive way. Located on the Cane River National Heritage Trail, one of 19 Louisiana Byways, I know you will enjoy Natchitoches too!
How to Pronounce Natchitoches
First things first. If you’re going to visit this lovely city, and I highly recommend that you do, you need to know how to pronounce its name. (While you’re here, learn why I used “its” in the previous sentence and not “it’s.”)
When I first saw the name Natchitoches, I incorrectly assumed that it was French. But, that’s not right. Natchitoches gets its name from the Natchitoches tribe of Native Americans who originally inhabited the area.
According to the Natchitoches Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the name “Natchitoches” most likely originated from the Native American word “nacicit,” which means “a place where the soil is the color of red ochre.” With Cane River Lake and the Red River right nearby, it’s a pretty apt name!
Where is Natchitoches, LA?
Natchitoches is in northwestern Louisiana, about an hour south of Shreveport. The central location makes it a great place for a quick getaway from lots of cities. It’s about 3 ½ hours from Houston, 3 hours from Dallas, 2 ½ hours from Baton Rouge, 3 ½ hours from Little Rock, and 4 hours from New Orleans.
On our trip, we flew to Shreveport and then had an easy hour-long drive to Natchitoches. I came in on a convenient American Airlines flight from my home airport in Cedar Rapids, the Eastern Iowa Airport.
Creole Culture of Natchitoches
The Creole culture you will find in Natchitoches, Louisiana is a unique blend of French, Spanish, African, and Native American influences. The complex colonial history of Natchitoches takes a minute to comprehend but maybe this quick introduction to Natchitoches history will help!
When Natchitoches was established in 1714, the area was part of French Canada, under French control. That makes it the oldest permanent settlement of Europeans in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. Located on the Red River, it was a major transportation route for the French and Caddo people.
After France lost the French and Indian War in 1762, Spain took control of Louisiana (and Natchitoches) thanks to the Treaty of Fontainebleau.
In 1800, France gained control of the area once again, courtesy of Napoleon and the Treaty of San Ildefonso.
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Then just three years later, in 1803, Napoleon sold all the French-controlled land west of the Mississippi River to the United States for $15 million. Remember the Louisiana Purchase from history class? Now, Natchitoches became an American town.
Put all of these changes together, and you have the unique Creole Culture for which Louisiana is famous. This melting pot of cultures, languages, and even the way slaves and women were treated changed depending on the ruling culture.
And when you visit, it’s interesting to learn about the different Creole influences (Native American, French, Spanish, and African) to better understand how their lives changed during each period of rule.
Best Things to do in Natchitoches, LA for Interactive History Learning
For more than 95 years, visitors have headed to Natchitoches Historic District for carriage rides, delicious food, light displays, activities, and fun during the Christmas season for the famous Natchitoches Christmas Festival of Lights. The festival starts the Saturday before Thanksgiving and ends on Epiphany (January 6).
It’s great to eat and drink and see beautiful buildings. And I definitely want to do all of that when I visit a new area. But I think learning about its history is another very interesting reason to visit Natchitoches.
So here are things to do in Natchitoches, La to gain a deeper appreciation for the complex history you can find in this US region.
Visit the Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District –
No visit to Natchitoches is complete without exploring the many historic sites in the 33-block National Historic Landmark District. Beautiful buildings and homes dating back to the early 1700s feature original wrought iron railings and balconies.
This area reminds me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, but on a smaller scale. Here are a few things you might do! You’ll find lots of things to do in Natchitoches as you stroll along the brick-paved streets.
Related – 5 Reasons You Must Visit New Orleans
Take a Guided Walking Tour of Natchitoches
The very first thing to do upon arrival in Natchitoches is to take a walking tour of the city. The city’s free Historic District Walking Tour will transport you back in time, through the charming brick-lined streets, and give you a greater understanding of Natchitoches’ complex history.
Led by knowledgeable, local experts who are passionate about sharing the stories and secrets of Natchitoches, the information they share is informative and interesting! Best of all, these walking tours are free! Hearing stories from tour guides with first-hand knowledge is a great way to acclimate to this small town.
Most walking tours start at 10:30 am each Wednesday through Saturday. There are generally no tours on Mondays or Tuesdays. Tours depart from the CVB office located at 780 Front Street.
Explore Cane River Lake
Cane River Lake used to be part of the Red River. It still looks like a river, but two man-made dams turned it into a 34-mile-long lake. Now, it’s a great recreation spot for outdoor activities, perfect for boating, fishing, swimming, tubing, and more.
You can take a boat tour or paddle or pedal your way through the Cane River on a kayak or hydrobike from Cane River Paddle & Pedal Sports. Or, you can just walk along the banks and enjoy the beautiful views.
Shop in the Downtown Boutiques
You’ll find lots of cute, independently-owned stores, restaurants, and bars as you walk through downtown! A few we enjoyed checking out include:
- Cane River Candy Company
- Sweet D’s Bakery
- Story Brew Coffee Cafe
- Cane River Kitchen Ware
- Brick and Row Merci Beaucoup Gifts
There are lots more fun gift shops to explore in the downtown area, so make sure to find them all!
Delicious Natchitoches Restaurants
Natchitoches Parish is very famous for its cuisine, including the Natchitoches meat pie, a savory pastry filled with beef, pork, and spices and fried in peanut oil. You’ll definitely want to eat your way through Natchitoches – gumbo, jambalaya, muffuletta sandwiches, crawfish étouffée, and more. We definitely recommend:
- Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen – at Lasyone’s meat pie restaurant, you must try the original meat pie or the red beans and rice – or both! It’s also a great place to go for breakfast.
- Mariner’s Restaurant – for an upscale dining experience overlooking Sibley Lake. You can’t go wrong with the oysters or the Steak Oscar!
- Nakatosh Deli & Pub – you can’t go wrong with the Shrimp Pizza or the Muffuletta!
- Merci Beaucoup Restaurant – Definitely try the Cajun Potato!
Find my full Natchitoches restaurant guide here, but make sure you try these foods when you’re trying to decide what to do in Natchitoches.
Related – Make your own with my Yummy Muffuletta Sandwich Recipe!
This is one of the oldest historic homes in Natchitoches and also one of the largest known bousillage buildings (mixture of animal hair, mud, and Spanish moss used to fill in wall panels). It’s privatley owned by the Service League of Natchitoches and open primarily for private events. Sometimes, it’s also open for tours. So check the link above if you’d like to visit.
Explore Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store
Located in the Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District right next to the Visitor’s Bureau, the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store is the oldest general store in Louisiana and one of the oldest in the entire United States. You’ll want to take a walk through this amazing store for sure!
It survived the Civil War, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, and more and is currently run by a third generation of the same Jewish Prussian immigrant family that started it back in 1863.
Fun things to see in the Mercantile include:
- the operational freight elevator installed in the 1890s
- the 1917 hand crank cash register
- an original cotton scale
- the wide range of home and farm goods that it still sells
- I was very intrigued by the ceiling skylights which served as original light fixtures before electricity!
Northwest Louisiana History Museum and Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame
While you’re touring downtown Natchitoches, make sure to check out the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Northwest Louisiana History Museum as well.
Long before Natchitoches became a French trading outpost, it had a thriving Native American history. The best place to learn about the Native American history of Natchitoches is the Northwest Louisiana History Museum.
My favorite part was the Northwest Louisiana History Museum which shares stories of 3,000 years of Louisiana history. You can also see 12 original paintings by famous folk artist and Natchitoches native, Clementine Hunter.
If you’re a sports fan, you might prefer the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame area. Here you walk through displays about famous athletes, coaches, and sports stars from Louisiana including Archie Manning, Willis Reed, Shaquille O’Neal, Chanda Rubin, and many more!
I really enjoyed the modern architecture of this museum. It was designed by New Orleans–based architect Trey Trahan and built in 2013. Its contemporary design might seem a bit out of place among the wrought iron balconies and ferns but it is awe-inspiring to walk through! And with no corners, you might feel like you’re floating along the nearby Red River.
The Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
Religion also played a significant role in the history and culture of Natchitoches. The Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception dates back to the early 18th century in Natchitoches when the first Catholic church, and the oldest continually active parish in the state, was built.
This Basilica is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it’s been rebuilt numerous times over the years. The current church building is either the sixth or seventh building to house the church – depending on which source you read.
It was the first church in the United States consecrated under the new title of “Immaculate Conception.” In 1956, it was designated as a minor basilica by Pope Pius XII.
The Rectory for The Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
This building has a really interesting history too. It was originally built in 1885 in New Orleans. Then it was taken apart, moved to Natchitoches by boat, and then reassembled where it currently stands!
Since we moved and rebuilt a barn on our own homesite, moving buildings always interests me!
Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site
Another one of the interesting things to do in Natchitoches, La is to visit the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site for a fascinating glimpse into Louisiana’s French colonial past. The original fort built in 1716 is long gone. However, the replica fort (located near the original build site) was painstaking built to the original specifications. It provides a neat representation of what life was like for the soldiers who were stationed there.
When you walk the grounds you can get up close and personal with the reconstructed palisade walls, barracks, and officer’s quarters that you can actually go inside and explore! You can enjoy interpretive exhibits and demonstrations that demonstrate the fort’s history and the daily lives of the first European settlers to Natchitoches.
Fort St. Jean is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It costs $4 per person to visit.
Los Adaes State Historic Site and the El Camino Real
The El Camino Real, also known as the Royal Road, was a trail that connected the colonial settlements of Mexico and Louisiana during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a significant trade route between Spanish and French colonies. The El Camino Real played an important role in the development of Natchitoches, as it became a hub for trade between Louisiana and Mexico.
You can learn about the El Camino Real at Los Adaes State Historic Site. Located on the El Camino Real about 12 miles outside Natchitoches, this 14-acre site houses the remains of a Spanish fort built in the 1700s to protect Texas from the French. Although the fort was abandoned in 1773, the cultural heritage of the 18th-century Spanish capital of Texas lives on and you can learn about it here.
Los Adaes is also surrounded by beautiful natural scenery along the Sabine River. It’s a quiet and peaceful place to take a picnic, go fishing, hiking, and wildlife watching.
Fort Jesup State Historic Site – No Man’s Territory
Located 30 minutes from Natchitoches, Fort Jesup was a large military outpost built in 1822 after the Louisiana Purchase to help define and protect the western border of Louisiana. Its first commander was Zachary Taylor who later became the 12th president of the United States.
Fort Jesup was used to establish order in the area known as the Neutral Ground, a lawless area outside the jurisdiction of the US and Spain.
It also helped open the frontier to settlers, control slave insurrections, catch criminals trying to cross the border, and as a staging area for troops heading off to war with Mexico. Fort Jesup officially closed in 1845. However, it was used again during the Civil War. General Patton also used it as a staging area during the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941 which helped prepare the US Army for World War II.
When you visit Fort Jesup, you can take a guided tour of the grounds to learn more about the Neutral Ground and the role that Fort Jesup played in Louisiana history. The site features an original kitchen/mess building that’s fun to explore. You’ll also want to visit the museum in the reconstructed officers’ quarters with visitor information and interpretive exhibits.
Cane River Creole National Historical Park
Another one of my favorite things to do in Natchitoches, La was visiting the Cane River Creole National Historical Park. Run by the US National Park Service, Cane River is not one of the 63 National Parks in the United States. However, kids can still earn a Junior Ranger badge by visiting and we highly recommend heading out of town to explore.
At Cane River Creole National Historical Park, the National Park Service showcases two of the most intact French Creole Cotton Plantations in the US, Magnolia Plantation and Oakland Plantation.
Visiting these plantations is an eye-opening experience and offers lots of valuable history lessons we think everyone should experience. I’ve visited some plantations that glorify the beauty of the home and its slave owners, but Cane River lends a different experience.
The NPS does a good job of not glorifying the slave owners. It pays close attention to the slaves who worked here and tells a more complete story than I’ve seen elsewhere.
Visiting Oakland Plantation
First up is Oakland Plantation, founded in 1785 by Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme, a French Creole planter. The Prud’homme family lived and worked here for eight generations – over 200 years. It was the first large-scale cotton plantation west of the Mississippi River.
Visitors can walk around more than 60 historic buildings at Oaklawn, including the plantation house, cook’s cabin, mule barn, overseer’s house, slave cabins, the Plantation Store, Doctor’s Cottage and more. Lots of exhibits help teach about the lives of the slaves and sharecroppers who lived and worked on the property.
Most outbuildings are open for self-guided tours Wednesday through Sunday. The Oakland Main House is open for self-guided tours only on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.
Visiting Magnolia Plantation
Also part of Cane River Creole National Historical Park, you can take a visit out to Magnolia Plantation. The Magnolia plantation house and farmland is privately owned by descendants of the original owners, the Herzog family.
But the NPS manages about 20 outbuildings including some of the only brick slave quarters that still exist. You can also tour the plantation store, cotton picker shed, slave hospital, and gin barn at Magnolia. I didn’t get to see Magnolia, but it is significant because it has original cotton picking tractors and two cotton gins.
Magnolia Plantation is open for self-guided tours daily from 9 AM to 3:30 PM, except on federal holidays. It’s free to visit.
A Visit to Melrose Plantation
While not part of the National Park Service, Melrose Plantation is another amazing thing to do in Natchitoches, La that we highly recommend because of its fascinating history and also its connection to Clementine Hunter.
Melrose was built in the late 18th century by the French Creole family, Louis Metoyer, the son of Marie Therese Coincoin and Pierre Metoyer.
Interestingly enough, Marie was born a slave in 1742, owned by none other than Louis St. Denis, the founder of Natchitoches. He leased her to Pierre Metoyer with whom she had a long relationship and ten children. Metoyer eventually freed Marie and their children. However, she had five children from a previous relationship that she had to free herself! Can you imagine?
Marie was quite a savvy business woman. She became one of the richest and largest landowners in the area. She was also a slave owner, though it appears that she worked alongside her slaves and may have treated them better than many white slave owners.
The Metoyers thrived as free people of color in an area called Isle Brevelle Creole Community which still exists today. And lots of Metoyers still live there! One of her sons, Augustin Metoyer, was instrumental in building St. Augustine Parish Church, America’s first church built by free people of color still an active Catholic Parish.
Learning about Clementine Hunter
One of the more interesting things to do in Natchitoches, La is learning about Clementine Hunter. This remarkable woman was a self-taught African American folk artist who was born at Melrose Plantation. Hunter began painting in her 50s and continued creating art until her death at the age of 101.
Her formal education ended in the first grade and she couldn’t read or write.
Hunter’s sometimes fantastical paintings depict everyday life on the plantation, including scenes of workers, animals, flowers, and the landscape. I loved her giant roosters (she called them Goosters) pulling wagons instead of horses and her zinnia paintings most of all.
When you visit Melrose Plantation, you can see Clementine Hunter’s famous African House Murals as well as the home she lived in during her 101 years at Melrose!
Where to Stay in Natchitoches
If you love this list of things to do in Natchitoches, La to bring history to life and you’re ready to visit, you have lots of options for places to stay from many B & Bs, Airbnbs, boutique hotels, and more.
We stayed at the Boutique Church Street Inn. This lovely Inn used to house a bank, but it’s been given a new life as a very comfortable and centrally located hotel! The hotel was very comfortable, and the location made it very easy do check the items off our things to do in Natchitoches, La list.
The Steel Magnolia House Bed and Breakfast is a popular choice for visitors who are fans of the movie “Steel Magnolias” as it was used as the setting for the film. It features beautiful gardens and a pool, and is located in the heart of the historic district. Click here to find Bed & Breakfast accommodations in Natchitoches.
Chateau Saint Denis is a modern hotel located in downtown Natchitoches. It features spacious rooms, a fitness center, and an outdoor pool.
If you liked this post on Things to Do in Natchitoches, La, you’ll like these too:
Ready to travel? Use these helpful links to book your stay!
- Book your plane ticket with Expedia or Kayak
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