Tucked into the northwest region of Louisiana, on the banks of the Cane River, is the little city of Natchitoches (pronounced Nak-A-Tish). One look will tell you that you are in one of the prettiest cities in the state. It was in Natchitoches that the movie Steel Magnolias was filmed in its entirety.
The French architecture of Natchitoches’ buildings is reminiscent of, if not better than, New Orleans’ French Quarter. The entire downtown, thirty-three blocks of buildings and sites, has been designated as a National Historic Landmark District. Settled in 1714 by French Canadian explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, this is the oldest city in Louisiana.
Natchitoches may be small but it packs a huge wallop with history and culture. There is a lot to see and no shortage of places to stay with an abundance of captivating bed and breakfasts.
An interesting way to learn the city’s history is with a free guided walking tour given by the Cane River National Heritage Area. You can find the tour times on the Natchitoches Convention & Visitors Bureau website.
Famous Museums and Artworks
The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Northwest History Museum share space in a stunning, copper clad building. The Sports Hall is one stop shopping for everything you will ever want to know about sports in Louisiana. Inductees into the Hall of Fame include such luminaries as Terry Bradshaw, Lou Brock, Joe Brown and Shaquille O’Neal.
The museum’s exhibits give a timeline of the region’s heritage and culture, 3000 years of history, beginning with the Caddo tribe of Native Americans, and French, Spanish, and African and Creole settlers to the region. Many of the artifacts on display date to the early 1700s.
An added bonus in the museum are 12 paintings by noted African American artist Clementine Hunter, a self-taught folk artist who painted what she knew; plantation life. She was born in 1887 on Melrose Plantation, her scenes depict farming, pecan picking, courtships, weddings and funerals.
Photogenic Plantations and Historic Sites
There are ten beautiful pre-Civil War plantations in Natchitoches Parrish, three of which are open to the public. National Park Service Rangers give tours of Oakland Plantation, circa 1789 and Magnolia Plantation (outer buildings only) c. 1830.
The jewel in the crown is the stunning antebellum style Melrose Plantation c. 1815, a National Historic Landmark. On each of these properties you will see living history in the blacksmith shops, cotton picker’s sheds, gristmills, slave hospitals and slave quarters giving a resemblance of life on a Louisiana plantation before the Civil War.
Near the site of the original Fort St. Jean Baptiste is a meticulously and historically correct reproduction fort. The mud and grass used to fill the chinks between the logs is the same mixture Louis Juchereau de St. Denis used when he built the original one in 1714. With its strategic location on the Cane River, Natchitoches was an important trading post.
Exhibits and costumed re-enactors describe the battles between the French and the Spanish for control of the fort.
More Natchitoches Finds
Walk the flora and fauna lined trails of Briarwood Nature Preserve National Historic Place. Briarwood was the home of naturalist, artist and author Caroline Dormon. She was the first women employed by the U.S. Department of Forestry. In her will she stipulated that her estate be managed as a nature preserve.
The Historic Downtown District brims with distinctive shops. Indulge yourself with some luxurious handmade soaps and scents at Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium. Pick up a Clementine Hunter print at Plantation Treasures. Handmade furniture and lamps made out of Creole Cypress wood is the theme at Olivier Woodworks.
The grandfather of all the shops is Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile. Founded in 1863 by Adolph and Harris Kaffie, Jewish immigrants from Prussia, it is the oldest general store in Louisiana. Today a third generation of the Frederick family owns the store, they still ring up sales on a 1910 cash register.
Food and Restaurants in Natchitoches
This is a city steeped in traditions, one of them is the Natchitoches meat pie, a mixture of ground beef and pork, onions, garlic and peppers covered with a crust, crimped into a half-moon shape and deep fried.
The history of the meat pies goes back to the 1700s when vendors sold them from kiosks lining the streets. You could say they were Natchitoches’s first fast food. The beloved meat pie is honored every September with the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival.
Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen and Restaurant is the place the locals head to for meat pies. They are also famous for their crawfish pies and corn fritters.
Maglieaux’s on the Cane is casual dining overlooking the river. Portobello mushroom fries, pecan shrimp, or seafood cannoli are just a few items from their extensive menu.
Another great restaurant is The Landing in the Historic District. Here the food is a little more refined with dishes such as shrimp etouffee or quail and shrimp over jambalaya with rosemary scented gravy. Give the alligator sausage gumbo a try.
Natchitoches, A Must-See
No matter what you do here; whether it’s sitting in or strolling the gardens of Beau Jardine Park, admiring the beautiful architecture on Front Street, walking the Historic Downtown, or visiting antebellum style plantations you’re sure to want to return to pretty little Natchitoches.
This article was written by Frances J. Folsom.
Images courtesy of Natchitoches Tourism.
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