Outdoor food and music festivals have been a part of New Orleans and South Louisiana since before there was a New Orleans. In 1699, King Louis XIV sent the LeMoyne brothers Iberville and Bienville to defend France’s claim to the Louisiana Territory. In those days there were not yet reliable maps of the North American coastline. So, the intrepid explorers sailed around the Gulf of Mexico until they finally found the mouth of the Mississippi River on March 3.
The crew made camp a few miles upriver on that Tuesday, which just happened to be Mardi Gras. The bedraggled bunch was exhausted from their long sea journey, but they were also fun-loving French explorers, so they soon proceeded with a spontaneous Carnival celebration. To this day, that spot is known as Point d’Mardi Gras.
By the time Bienville founded New Orleans 19 years later, that first modest Mardi Gras had grown into a full season of frolic. And while New Orleans’ Mardi Gras has become world renowned, a number of lesser-known South Louisiana festivals are definitely worth exploring.
One of the most culturally significant festivals is Los Isleños Fiesta, a two-day event (March 5-6, 2016) celebrating the heritage of Canary Islanders who settled in nearby St. Bernard Parish in the 1700s. Hailing from Spain’s Canary Islands, the Isleños were brought here after France ceded Louisiana to Spain. They brought with them a culture that endures to this day. Traditional clothing, dances, music and food of these early settlers are all on display at the festival, which takes place on the grounds of Los Isleños Museum. Additionally, living history demonstrations of folk crafts, historic Isleños foodways and the cultural evolution of local Isleños descendants will take place in the adjacent Isleños Village. Members of the Native American Houma Nation will be on hand to exhibit their cultural traditions. Admission is $3 for everyone age 12 and older. Clothing, dances, music and food of early settlers are all on display
Locals know the annual French Quarter Festival (April 7-10, 2016) as the New Orleans music festival they get to enjoy for free right before shelling out big bucks for JazzFest. Virtually the entire Vieux Carre becomes festival grounds with 23 stages set up on various streets. They host more than 1,500 up-and-coming as well as established musicians representing virtually every musical genre associated with the city including brass bands, all forms of jazz, funk, R&B and zydeco. The city’s top restaurants sponsor food and beverage booths, collectively cooking up “the world’s largest jazz brunch.” After extensive sidewalk repairs were completed for the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans, the French Quarter Festival was established as a means to draw locals back to the Vieux Carre. A hit with residents, the festival has steadily grown, bringing in more than 730,000 people in 2015, making it the largest free music festival in the South.
About an hour northwest of New Orleans, the town of Ponchatoula is definitely worth the drive come the second weekend of April. This is when this “Strawberry Capitol of the World” presents its annual Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival (April 8-10, 2016, at Memorial Park). As many as 300,000 people attend the three-day event, making it one of the state’s largest free festivals. Festival-goers are treated to the official Louisiana State Fruit in more dishes than anyone could eat, from traditional strawberry shortcake to deep-fried strawberries. There are also musical entertainment, games, a parade, and festival royalty. In 2015, local artisans and crafters, along with their jewelry, woodworking and handmade soaps, were added to the mix. The strawberry festival first took place in 1972 as a way to promote the local strawberry industry and to help local charities raise money. It is still one of only a handful of Louisiana festivals at which all vendors are non-profit organizations. Admission is free.
Everything from traditional shortcake to deep-fried strawberries
Country music fans have truly found in South Louisiana a place to call home with the advent of the Bayou Country Superfest, held each Memorial Day Weekend (May 27-29, 2016) at Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Established in 2010, the three-day event is a relative newcomer to the local festival scene. But with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s powerhouse producer Quint Davis behind it, the Superfest has grown every year, now drawing more 135,000 people throughout the weekend. The key to that success is the appearance of some of country music’s hottest acts, which have included George Strait, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. Three-day festival passes cost $99 to $750.