Whether you’re a first-time visitor who’s looking to explore beyond the excitement of the French Quarter or a local weekend-wanderer who wishes to appreciate all that Louisiana has to offer, you haven’t truly been to the Pelican State until you get out of New Orleans on a day trip. From historic national parks and shimmering Gulf Coast beaches to marshy bayous and charming villages, Louisiana is home to a contrasting rural world filled with some of the country’s most alluring and charismatic attractions. Here’s a guide to the five best day trips from the Big Easy, all within a couple of hours’ drive.
In order not to repeat the horrors of the past, the Angola Museum is housed right outside the gates of the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, which was known for a time as the ‘bloodiest place on Earth’. The prison was built on the site of a plantation, and became known as the Angola Penitentiary after the country where most of the former slaves came from. The correctional facility officially opened in 1901, though convicts were used there as leased labor as early as the 1880s. Today, Louisiana State Penitentiary stands as the largest maximum security prison in the United States, and the Angola Museum is the only prison museum in the country operated within an active prison.
Receiving more than 120,000 visitors a year, the museum is located in an old bank outside the main gate, and features permanent and changing exhibits that chronicle what life was like life inside Louisiana’s prisons. The exhibition also showcases a plastic comb carved into a key so effective that locks had to be changed, a shotgun a prisoner made from metal pipes, and ‘Gruesome Gertie,’ the wooden electric chair where 87 inmates took a seat for the last time.
The 1,800-acre penal complex also hosts an arts and crafts fair with works created by inmates during Sundays in October, and for one week each spring, as well as a rodeo featuring professional acts and inmates taking on bulls and wild horses.
Lying about 140 miles west of New Orleans, the McIlhenny Company – and its world-famous Tabasco sauce – is located on one of five salt dome islands rising above the flat Louisiana Gulf Coast, located in New Iberia Parish.
Avery Island is home to the Tabasco Museum and factory, where the McIlhenny family and their employees continue to live and work. Learn more about the spicy sauce’s history, not to mention the area’s famous Cajun food, with tours of the factory that focus on cuisine, history and nature. The island is also a natural paradise and botanical treasure where pepper fields are inhabited by indigenous plant species – there is even an exotic bird sanctuary, known as ‘Bird City.’
Surrounded by low-lying swamps and marshes, Avery Island visitors can learn about the island’s history, see how a bottle of Tabasco is made, try some of spicy treats, shop at their country store, and take one of their fun tours around the Jungle Gardens.
With the exception of some holidays, factory tours are available seven days a week. It costs $1 to enter the island.
Home to over 4,000 exotic, endangered and threatened animals from all over the world, the Global Wildlife Center is a non-profit organization where families have the opportunity to come together and appreciate animals living and flourishing like the beginning of time – in a free-roaming natural environment.
The Folsom facility, which is just a short drive up the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, seeks to be the center of excellence in education; to create a place where, through first-person sensory experiences, children, adults, students and teachers can learn about the importance of active conservation and wildlife preservation.
The center prides itself on being the largest totally free-roaming wildlife preserve of its kind in the country, and is open seven days a week for daily tours.
Located in Hancock County, Mississippi, just over the border from Louisiana, the John C. Stennis Space Center is home to NASA’s premier and largest rocket engine testing facility in the United States.
Not only has the NASA center tested engines for all manned Apollo and space shuttle flights, but also serves as the site where NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) is testing next-generations engines and rocket stages to carry humans aboard, deeper into space than ever before.
While the rocket-testing facility is based inside a restricted area, the neighboring non-profit science museum, INFINITY Science Visitors Center, features a variety of exhibits that blend space, earth science, engineering and technology content, as well as the opportunity to go see the NASA site next door during a guided tour.
An easy day trip from New Orleans, the Abita Mystery House provides the perfect excuse to take a city break and explore thousands of handmade folk-art scenes depicting southern life by Louisiana artist and inventor John Preble. With push-buttons that activate animated displays on the exhibit, the roadside attraction, which lies inside a vintage gas station in the heart of Abita Springs, features vintage arcade machines, Louisiana-themed sculptures such as ‘Darrel the Dogigator’ (half alligator, half dog), a 100-year-old Louisiana Creole cottage, the much-photographed House of Shards, and a miniature southern town with scenes from a Mardi Gras parade, a New Orleans jazz funeral, a rhythm and blues dance hall and a haunted plantation. For those looking to get an extra kick of their trip and explore beyond the mystery museum, the city is home to Louisiana’s oldest and largest brewery, the Abita Brewing Company, and is filled with gorgeous bike trails, including a leg of the Tammany Trace.
The Abita Mystery House is open every day except major holidays from 10am to 5pm. If you are over three years old, admission is $3.