Top things to do in Jefferson Parish – historic neighbor to New Orleans
Rich in culture, diverse in its people, and steeped in tradition, there are so many things to do in Jefferson Parish. Only minutes away from New Orleans. Think swamps and bayous to quaint historic districts, a trendy art scene, and contemporary restaurants. Jefferson Parish is the quiet neighbor to the Big Easy, one you definitely want to meet.
Home to the new Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport opened in late 2019, one could argue that Jefferson Parish is in fact the gateway to New Orleans. If you look on a map, the parish sits on both sides of the Mississippi River, and includes the towns of Metairie, Kenner, Westwego, and Gretna, each composed of quaint historic districts, vibrant art scenes, and diverse culinary experiences, not to mention a richness in culture and tradition. Jefferson Parish is also where you need to go to get away from it all and lose yourself in the peace and beauty of the bayous and swampland centered around Lafitte. The district extends from Lake Pontchartrain south to the tiniest islands of the Atlantic.
Getting into nature and the swamps, with a side of Jean Lafitte
Hard to believe that just minutes from the hustle and bustle of New Orleans, you can find yourself deep into Louisiana swamplands and the Barataria Preserve. Administered by the National Park Service, Barataria Preserve encompasses 26,000 acres of Louisiana’s wetlands all of which include swamps, marshes and forests. On a drizzly morning, we headed out from the visitor center along the Palmetto Trail and onto the Bayou Coquille Trail to the Marsh Overlook Trail. While walking along the boardwalks, with the swamp water lapping at the edges of the boards, keeping a sharp eye out for alligators is recommended. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective), the weather was too damp and cool for alligators to be out and about.
Therese and I ducked into the visitor center to escape the damp drizzle and thoroughly enjoyed learning from the exhibits and passionate rangers how the Mississippi River built the Louisiana wetlands and how river’s flow continues to change and shape the coast and the swamp.
If you want to venture deeper into the swamp and bayou, as we did, you’ll want to jump onto an airboat for a dose of adrenaline and a little bit of natural exploration. Therese and I joined an Airboat Adventures Swamp Tour for a 1 hour and 45-minute adventure into the company’s privately-owned swampland. Airboats skim along the surface of the water (making them ideal for shallow swamp travel) powered by a huge airplane propeller. And they are fast, really fast. At one point, our guide throttled up the speed and had us skimming along the main canal at nearly 40 miles per hour (depending on weather and water conditions, airboats on these tours will fly along between 30 and 40 miles per hour). The ear protection provided is a must as airboat engines are also very LOUD!!! Forget any conversation with a seatmate, or driver narration except when you are stopped. Fortunately, in some of the narrower waterways, the guide throttles back the engine and you slip along with less of a roar … and if he sees something, he cuts the engine completely allowing the airboat to glide and float, and all becomes blissfully quiet. While airboat tours — and this one is no exception — tout all the wildlife one can see on a tour (from alligators, snakes and turtles, to egrets, herons, raccoons and bald eagles) seeing wildlife is never a guarantee. Especially if the weather is unseasonably cold, as it was for our tour. Not an alligator in sight. Not even a turtle or an egret. Still, it was fun, and I’d do it again.
Either before your swamp tour or after, it is worth taking the time to drop into the Jean Lafitte Visitor Center in, of course, the town of Lafitte. You won’t need more than 30 minutes, but the superb animated puppet exhibit that tells the story of the pirate Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans is worth every one of those 30 minutes. The center is only open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., so plan accordingly.
Three villages showcase the historic things to do in Jefferson Parish
Gretna showcases its German history
Gretna’s history is firmly linked with that of German immigrants who settled here in the mid-1800s. But its name is actually a nod to the town of Gretna Green in Scotland, made famous for quickly marrying couples who made the trek north to Scotland from England where marriage laws were far stricter.
We toured the German-American Cultural Center to learn more about the German heritage of the town and its German-American activities. It even has a fascinating collection of beer steins! You’ll also want to take in the Gretna Historical Society Museum Complex, where you’ll find a blacksmith shop, the very cool Louisiana Fire Museum (home to the oldest continuously operating volunteer fire company in the country), and three 19th-century Creole cottages. On Valentine’s Day, a justice of the peace visits the Gretna Green Blacksmith Shop and conducts wedding ceremonies and renewals of vows.
There are numerous other annual events in Gretna including the Spring Tour of Historic Homes (April), Gretna Heritage Festival (fall), City of Gretna Oktoberfest (October), and Ringing in The Arts (December). The town has an artsy edge, just across the river from New Orleans, and a new ferry service still being planned should draw more travelers to the area.
Rivertown in Kenner is uber quaint
While Kenner is Jefferson Parish’s largest incorporated city and home to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport, there is a slice of Kenner that is decidedly quaint and small – Rivertown, a 16-block historic district right in the heart of Kenner and next to the levee overlooking the mighty Mississippi River.
It is believed that this land was the first place Europeans set foot in the region, and the first to land here was French explorer Robert Cavelier De La Salle in 1682. Be sure to visit La Salle’s Landing and the monument where flags fly representing the ten different countries that ruled here.
From La Salle’s Landing, spend a couple of hours wandering the quaint historic district of Rivertown with historic buildings, cafes and markets. There’s certainly a lot to do: Kenner Planetarium and Megadome Cinema, where you can enjoy a show in the 50-foot domed planetarium; Heritage Park where you can wander shaded walkways and visit buildings from the turn-of-the-century; And, if you’re in the mood for some theater, attend a performance at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts.
Westwego is a melting pot of cultures
Westwego (“west-we-go”) is a town you might be tempted to miss if you simply glance at the map, but don’t! It is a historic fishing village that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019. And the Westwego Farmers & Fisheries Market showcases this connection with an open market that features fresh local produce, seafood, an outdoor amphitheater and local arts and crafts. The working harbor is right next to the market and worth a peek.
And do not miss the cute Westwego Historical Museum! Housed in the original General Merchandise Store, formerly owned and operated by Durac Terrebonne as the Fisherman’s Exchange from the late 1800s until 1917, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once you are inside, though, the fun begins. You’ll be greeted by a 12-foot mounted alligator dubbed “Salagator.” Wander around the grocery store, set up exactly as it was in the early 1900s, stock still filling the shelves just as it was. I very much enjoyed looking at original Cajun artifacts used by the Cajun people to make their living off the land.
Oh, and about the town’s name? No one knows for certain, I was told, but it is thought the name comes from the Texas and Pacific Railroad (which founded the town in 1870). It was the start of the rail line heading west, and legend has it that travelers would hear the conductor say, “West we go,” prior to departure. A railroad engineer, G. W. R. Bayley, first publicized the name in 1873 when he wrote, “The construction of the railroad west of New Orleans was commenced at Westwego, opposite the Western boundary of the city (New Orleans), in the latter part of May 1870.”
Street art tour – Fat City Mural Project
If you are into street art, as we are, you will want to plan a tour of the Fat City Murals in Metairie. First a bit of history: Fat City is an area within the city limits of Metairie once infamous for its bars and nightclubs. The area has experienced a bit of a revitalization since 2018 with a focus on green spaces, restaurants, and art. And with the focus on art the Arts Council New Orleans and Fat City Friends embarked on an ambitious mural project – the Fat City Mural Project.
My personal favorites were “Everyone’s in the Belly of Some Beast” (above) and “Imaginatarium” (below). And, though not technically in Fat City, I also loved the “Love That” mural in Gretna for Popeyes – a colorful classic.
Jefferson Parish promises culinary immersion in Louisiana cuisine
Get your taste buds ready to dance because you’ll be on the trail of oysters, shrimp, fresh seafood from the Gulf, creole cooking, and gumbo like, well, like you’ve never tasted before. Oh, and gator tacos? Yeah, they are delicious.
I’d recommend you begin your dining adventure with a visit to Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in downtown Metairie (Louisiana’s fourth-largest city don’t you know). It’s part of the Louisiana Oyster Trail which means you will have to try the famous charbroiled oysters. Even if you don’t like oysters, I suspect these will at least surprise your palate in a good way. Want to make your own charbroiled oysters? Then check out our charbroiled oyster recipe based on Drago’s deliciousness.
Enjoy lunch at Restaurant Des Familles (also on the Louisiana Oyster Trail), and be sure to pick a window seat with a picturesque view of Bayou des Familles, a lazy waterway home to a wonderful assortment of wildlife – we watched an alligator hunting while we munched on alligator stuffed mushrooms, fried catfish, and seafood gumbo.
You can’t come to the area and not indulge in a tray full of the famous French donuts coated in powdered sugar known as beignets. And that means a visit to Café Du Monde in Metairie or Gretna. One word of advice though … do not wear dark clothing as it will turn white with a coating of the powdery goodness as you munch your way through beignet after beignet. This branch alone goes through some 50 pounds of the white sweet stuff a day!
Although a quirky place with its Bugs Bunny-themed sign, the food at Café 615 Home of Da Wabbit is delicious. Café 615 is the oldest restaurant in Gretna (open since 1948 and still bustling), and it is deservedly famous for big portions and tasty Creole cooking. I fell in love with the chicken and andouille sausage gumbo and the seafood platter with gulf shrimp, oysters and fish.
Lastly, if it is a gumbo dining experience you are seeking then enjoy dinner at Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop. Here you will find Cajun-creole classics and an upbeat ambiance, likely with a grinning Chef Ron Lafrate working the floor seating guests and serving tables. I enjoyed the Mumbo Gumbo with a side of red beans and rice – mmm, mmmm good.
Other articles about things to do in Plantation Country
Plantations are certainly a significant part of the history of this region and you will want to visit a number while you are in the area. We would recommend you begin with the Whitney Plantation for its authenticity. Read our story Whitney Plantation museum of slavery in New Orleans tells real story. For a look at other plantations and things to do in New Orleans Plantation Country, you will want to read Explore New Orleans Plantation Country along the Great River Road.