The picture-perfect town of Natchitoches was founded in 1714 by French explorers making it the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. It’s one of the prettiest towns in the western corner of the state and one that’s jam-packed with history and fascinating stories to tell.
Natchitoches – pronounced Nak-i-Tish – is famous for being the setting of the 1989 film Steel Magnolias starring Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field and Olympia Dukakis. You can even book a room in the Steel Magnolia house, the fictional home of the Eatentons in the movie (although no children under the age of 12 unfortunately).
But there are lots of things to do in Natchitoches besides.
The town is famous for its Christmas celebrations; their festive light displays are ranked third in the United States after only the Rockefeller Center and Walt Disney World. The annual festival start in mid-November and run for seven weeks featuring an enormous number of twinkling Christmas lights and kaleidoscopic firework displays. Make sure to book early if you hope to visit during the Christmas celebrations.
If you are planning a visit to Natchitoches then this guide shares the best things to do in both downtown Natchitoches and the surrounding Cane River National Heritage area as well as tips on where to stay and the best places to eat.
Get ready to enjoy one of the best small towns in Louisiana!
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Things to do in Natchitoches
The following are what we think are the best things to do in the town of Natchitoches.
Downtown Natchitoches and Front Street
Take a wander along Natchitoches’ most famous and historic street in the city’s downtown district, Front Street. Originally this street looked out over the Red River but in the 1830s, the steamboat inventor Henry Miller Shreve cleared the Red River upstream from Natchitoches, causing the river to change course.
Today, Front Street overlooks the Cane River Lake. You can take about ride along the waterway on board the Cane River Queen Riverboat.
The architecture along Front Street is reminiscent of the French-Creole style houses that line the roads in New Orlean’s famed French Quarter.
The Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District is made up of 33 blocks of historical buildings and feature some beautiful historic homes. Make sure to wander around and explore.
Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store
Front street is today lined with gift shops and restaurants but the most famous – and longstanding – address is Kaffie-Frederick general mercantile store. Established in 1863 during the height of the Civil War, making it the oldest general store in the Louisiana Purchase territory.
The shop has been run by the same family for three generations and still operates today. Although its stock is a little different these days, some of the original merchandise is still on display including rusted cans and old glass bottles. It’s a great place to pop in and buy souvenirs.
Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum
Located just off Front Street is the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, housed within an incredible building that cost a whopping $23 million and took 2.5 years to build. The design, which features 1,150 pieces of individually cast stone, is said to have been inspired by the curves of the Cane River.
On the ground floor is the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, which celebrates accomplishments by Louisiana athletes, coaches and sports stars. Sports memorabilia from Louisianan sporting superstars are displayed in glass cases and there’s also the wall of fame with notable names including basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal and former American football quarterback Archie Manning.
Upstairs is dedicated to the history of Natchitoches and the surrounding area. Through displays, imagery and text, the museum tells the story of how such diverse groups of people – including Caddo Indians, French and Spanish settlers, free and enslaved Africans and rural southern whites – came to settle in the region and how they shaped the area’s distinct culture.
The displays are fascinating and well worth visiting before you explore the region, particularly to read about Marie Therese Coincoin, the former slave turned wealth owner of Melrose Plantation.
One of our favourite things to do in Natchitoches was the tour of Melrose Plantation with our guide Tommy. One of a number of historic sites in the region, this is a great place to learn more about the history of the region.
The plantation became the seat of the Afro-Creole Metoyer family, owned and managed by Marie Therese Coincoin, a former slave who at one point became the wealthiest woman in Louisiana and her plantation was for a time was the largest in the state of Louisiana.
Melrose Plantation was later owned by German cotton famers and was then bought by J H Henry Senior, who started growing pecans. When he died, his wife Cammie Henry took over, opening the plantation up as an artist and writer colony. Writer and Journalist Lyle Saxon lived here for a time writing Children of Strangers and Francois Mignon arrived for a six week stay and ended up living there for 32 years.
The last person to be associated with the house is self-taught black folk artist Clementine Hunter who worked on the plantation. Francois Mignon spotted her talent and she became a hugely successful artist; today her work is on display in galleries including the Smithsonian and the Louvre.
You can see her original murals in the Africa House (where the tobacco was once cured and dried) and visit her original home on the plantation. Access to the African House murals are on a guided tour only.
Guided tours of the Big House and the Africa House take place Thursday – Sunday from 10am – 3pm at quarter past the hour. Check timings before visiting because the plantation is not open year-round and times may vary in low season.
Melrose Plantation also has a very good gift shop selling (among other things) artwork by Clementine Hunter’s grandson James
Founded by Jean Pierre Emanuel Prud’homme in 1785, Oakland Plantation is another one of the region’s historic plantations and another one of the best things to do in Natchitoches.
Eight generations of his French Creole family lived and worked on the land for nearly 200 years, growing first tobacco and indigo and later cotton as well as farming animals. Today the plantation is owned by the National Park Service as part of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
There are still nearly 60 historic buildings remaining on the plantation including the cook’s cabin, tenant cabin, mule barn and overseer’s house. The plantation is open for self-guided tours Wednesday – Sunday. The Main House is open for self-guided tours on Saturday and Sunday only.
Be aware that the park closes at 3.30pm.
Along with Oakland Plantation, Magnolia Planation is part of Cane River Creole National Historical Park. This plantation was established in 1835 as a plantation growing cotton and other crops, although the main building’s history dates back earlier.
Today 20 of the original buildings still stand in the Magnolia Plantation grounds including the store, the overseer’s house/hospital, tenant cabins, the blacksmith shop, and gin brand. These are all open to visitors. The main house, however, is privately owned and not open to the public.
Fort St. Jean Baptiste
The State Historic Site of Fort St. Jean Baptiste is one of the most popular things to do in Natchitoches – the historic fort was the first permanent European settlement in what later became known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Natchitoches was founded in 1714 by Louis Antonine Juchereau de St. Denis, a French Canadian who was en route to Mexico from Alabama on a trade mission. When reached the village of the Natchitoches Indians on the Red River, he constructed two huts and left a small detachment there.
Two years later, Sieur Charles Claude Dutisn was sent to Natchitoches with a troop on a mission to build an outpost that would prevent Spanish forces in neighbouring Texas from advancing across the border of French Louisiana. The fort was garrisoned until 1762 when England defeated France in the French and Indian war and Louisiana was ceded to Spain.
Today you can visit a replica of the original fort, built based on historical records. Although the fort is not in the original location (its exact position is unknown but it’s thought to be where the Old American Cemetery stands today), the historic structures offer a fascinating insight into what life was like when the city was first founded.
There are daily tours and a very good interactive visitor centre (with a video explaining how Natchitoches was first settled).
Natchitoches Christmas Festival
The Natchitoches Christmas Festival is an enormous amount of fun for the entire family and easily one of the most famous things to do in Natchitoches. This world-famous festival is nearly 100 years old (it will celebrate its centenary in 2206) and is celebrated over seven weeks with Santa visits, historic home tours, carriage rides, parades, fireworks displays and an incredible 300,000 lights.
Every weekend during the Christmas season, some 40,000 visitors come to the city of Natchitoches to see its transformation into the city of lights. It’s a festive display quite unlike any other.
The American Cemetery
Considered by many historians to be the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase, the American Cemetery is the final resting place for war heroes, doctors, teachers, politicians, a former mayor who met a grisly end and possibly Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis, the founder of Natchitoches. I say possibly, because none of the gravesite markers predate 1797 so it’s not known if he was buried here.
The Cemetery sits to the edge of town, next to Samuel Guy House (see below) and is a lovely place for a morning walk. The cemetery was also featured in Steel Magnolias.
Steel Magnolias Film Tour
A tour of the sites used to shoot the 1989 Hollywood movie Steel Magnolias might be a little lost on kids but if you’re a fan of the film then it’s well worth downloading the free map. Filming locations include the Lemee House and the Cane River Lake behind the historic Roque House.
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Where to stay in Natchitoches
Samuel Guy House
We stayed in the historically handsome Samuel Guy House, a B&B with a story to tell. The house was originally built in 1850 by Samuel Eldridge Guy and was the main house in a working plantation in Mansfield, a town almost 50 miles away. After it was abandoned it fell into disrepair until the current owners bought it….and had it moved piece by piece to Natchitoches.
The transformation took two years and today the house is a beautiful guest house with seven bedrooms all looked after by the fabulous inn keeper Susan (who also cooks up a mean Southern breakfast).
Inside the home is decorated with antiques and artwork and also features the owner’s incredible (and eclectic!) collection of, well, collectables. There are cookie jars by famous artists, artwork by James Hunter, grandson of famed black folk artist Clementine Hunter, and even an entire winter village displayed behind glass.
Note that Samuel Guy House does not accept children under the age of 12.
See the map below for some more accommodation options
Where to eat in Natchitoches
Natchitoches is famous for its meat pies and there are several places around town where you can find them. I personally like those from the French Market Express best but you should definitely try a few and see which one is your favourite!
French Market Express
A gas station might not be the obvious place to go and eat but in this corner of Louisiana dining out at the gas station is a big deal. So much so that there’s now a Gas Station Eats trail running through seven parishes in western Louisiana.
French Market Express sits on the outskirts of town and sells all manner of goods including a range of pickled products, ice cream, wine and even clothes.
They also serve food and have a dining area if you want to eat-in. They sell three types of Natchitoches pies: beef, spicy beef and crawfish. We tried all three and they were all delicious. If I had to pick one, however, I would opt for the spicy beef.
The French Market Express also makes delicious yam cakes, which you really must try.
Address: 5109 University Pkwy, Natchitoches, LA 71457,
Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant
Lasyone’s have been frying meat pies since 1967 and are something of a Natchitoches institution. The family-owned restaurant serves other dishes too but its most famous for its meat and crawfish pies.
The difference between these pies and the ones old at the French Market Express are that they are deep fried. Make sure to take a look at photos on the entrance wall, which is filled with celebrities who have dined at the restaurant.
Address: 622 Second St., Natchitoches, LA
3 J’s Fourway
3 J’s Fourway is another gas station and a favourite stop with farmers and workers. The speciality here are Renee’s famous fried ribs, which are absolutely delicious!
Address: 11028 LA-1, Natchitoches, LA 71457
Mama’s Oyster House and Papa’s Bar and Grill
These two restaurants sit side by side on Front Street, one specialising in seafood and the other catering more towards carnivores.
Options at Mama’s include fried alligator, BBQ shrimp, soft shell crabs and fried frog’s legs. They also have a children’s menu with kid-friendly fare including fried popcorn shrimp, pasta and fried catfish.
At Papa’s you have the choice of hamburgers, club sandwiches, cane river pasta (pasta with a crawfish creole sauce) and steak among other options.
Address: 604 and 608 Front St, Natchitoches
Cane River Commissary
Located in what was once the commissary (i.e. the general store) for the plantations is this excellent laidback restaurant serving lots of delicious cajun and creole food.
Favourites on the menu include gumbo, meat pies, jambalaya and the catfish platter. They also serve pizza, sandwiches and burgers. There’s an outdoor dining space too and the restaurant hosts a Zydeco breakfast every Saturday from 9am – 12pm.
Adress: 4191 HWY 494, Natchez, LA 71456