Anchored by the Ouachita River, Bayou Desiard, and Interstate 20, Monroe, Louisiana, has an enviable location with many great reasons to stop and visit for a while.
It must be noted that Monroe and neighboring West Monroe consider themselves to be tightly linked, and the legal lines separating the two are becoming increasingly invisible. The two towns complement each other in attractions and offerings for residents and visitors alike. From duck calls to World War II navigators and from Coca-Cola bottlers to natural resources, Monroe-West Monroe provides much to learn and many sources of entertainment.
Here are 10 things I had a chance to experience during my recent visit that I would love to share with you and recommend for your future itinerary.
Note: I was hosted for my visit by Monroe-WestMonroe.org, but all opinions are my own.
1. Biedenharn Museum & Gardens
Coca-Cola may have begun its life being served as a medicinal drink in an Atlanta soda fountain in 1886, but the immediate fondness for the product led Joseph A. Biedenharn to devise a way to bottle the product in 1894, making it portable and skyrocketing the number of Coca-Cola consumers. Biedenharn’s first bottling operation was set up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but he moved his family and the whole plant to Monroe in 1913. Visitors are now able to browse a retail shop full of Coke-themed merchandise while sipping a 5-cent bottle of Coke.
Pro Tip: Be sure to have a nickel. That’s the only coin the vending machine will accept.
The family mansion, immaculate gardens, and a Bible museum are also available to tour while you’re at the Biedenharn Museum & Gardens at 2000 Riverside Drive in Monroe. Joseph Biedenharn’s daughter, Emy-Lou, decorated the rooms to suit her taste, and those choices remain today. She was a famous opera singer who performed many times in Europe. On the tour, you can hear a recording of her lovely voice. The Bible Museum contains a Gutenberg leaf in addition to a large collection of historically important Bibles and an exhibition of Russian icons.
2. Chennault Aviation & Military Museum
The Chennault Aviation & Military Museum is another attraction in Monroe-West Monroe with a family connection. Nell Calloway, the granddaughter of General Claire Chennault, is the president and CEO of the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum on Kansas Lane in Monroe. The grounds of the museum were once part of the World War II Selman Army Airfield Navigation School where more than 15,000 navigators were trained for the war effort. The building has been renovated and is filled with exhibits and artifacts representing military involvement from World War I to the present day.
General Chennault was the leader of the Flying Tigers fighter squadron, and a portion of the museum is dedicated to his story and the importance of his military contributions. You’ll also learn about the beginnings of Delta Airlines.
The building is in the shape of an H. It looks small from the outside but is surprisingly large inside. Everything on display has been donated or is on loan. The museum can be toured free of charge from Tuesday through Saturday, but donations are gladly accepted. Allow several hours to fully appreciate this museum.
3. Duck Commander Warehouse
Who would have believed that a product as simple as a duck call could lead to a hit television show and a multi-million-dollar brand known as Duck Commander and Buck Commander? The Robertson family with their easy camaraderie and down-to-earth values attracted millions of viewers to watch the antics of the bearded men of the family and the women who cooked and cared for them.
The warehouse has clothing, duck calls, memorabilia from the show, food products, and other items for sale. For a full tour that comes with a free duck call, the admission charge is $20. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday from 9:30 to 3:30 and start at 117 Kings Lane in West Monroe.
4. Spend Time On The Campus Of The University Of Louisiana Monroe
The University of Louisiana Monroe enrolls slightly more than 5,000 undergraduate students each year in degree programs ranging from liberal arts to pharmacy. ULM welcomes friends and foes to its athletic events at Malone Stadium, Warhawk Field, and Fant-Ewing Coliseum or to music and visual arts events at Biedenharn Hall.
A drive through the campus is a way to feel young again without spending a dime. Check the calendar for scheduled events when you visit Monroe-West Monroe. Buy and wear some gold and maroon fan gear while you’re on campus, and everyone will think you fit right in.
5. Pose With Public Murals
A great way to show your friends back home where you are is to pose by one of the growing numbers of colorful murals scattered around town and post the photos on social media. Monroe-West Monroe will love you for that! In honor of the Biedenharns, you’ll find several vintage Coca-Cola murals, and there are great ones for both Monroe and West Monroe. Another has just been completed by Jason Byron Nelson showcasing the heritage of the region and depicting only animals found locally.
6. Go On A Heron Hunt
More public art has shown up in Monroe-West Monroe in the form of colorful herons appearing throughout both towns. Herons on the Bayou began with a flock of 51 painted herons in 2019, and 30 more joined in 2021. Herons are the perfect representatives of Monroe-West Monroe, and Brooke Foy spearheaded the creative effort. Herons are found near the water, and Monroe-West Monroe has an abundance of water.
To find all the herons, go to the city’s website and download the map.
7. Have Dinner At Warehouse #1
At Warehouse #1, not only do you have the soaring ceilings and open floor plan made possible by the restaurant’s former life as a warehouse, but you also have relaxing views of the Ouachita River from the back deck or the dining room windows.
For dinner, there are steak and chicken options, but seafood grabs the menu headlines. Some of it comes from the Gulf of Mexico, but catfish is also prominent. Oysters, shrimp, redfish, crawfish etouffee, and creole pasta all remind you that you are in Louisiana. For dessert, you know you will want to try the delectable bread pudding, but key lime pie and other sweets will also tempt you.
Pro Tip: For my entree, I chose the Redfish Louisianne — which was topped with crawfish etouffee and served over jalapeno grits — and enjoyed it immensely.
8. Shop On Antique Alley
Allow yourself ample time to browse the many shops and boutiques along the three-block span known as Antique Alley. You will find plenty of antiques and vintage collectibles, but there are also clothing, jewelry, purses, shoes, and home décor items from which to choose. While wandering from one of the 40+ shops to another, you can grab a quick, sweet pick-me-up at Sugar Loves Bakery or an exotic tea at The Spice & Tea Exchange.
If your plan is to spend a couple of days shopping, consider booking a room at Hamilton House Inn. It offers five bedrooms with private bathrooms right in the heart of the action.
9. Sample The Barbecue At Jac’s Craft Smokehouse
For a hearty meal on the edge of Antique Alley, head to Jac’s Craft Smokehouse. At the height of Duck Dynasty’s television popularity, the matriarch of the family — Miss Kay — owned Miss Kay’s Sweets and Eats in this location at 401 Trenton Street. Now it is home to West Monroe’s first smokehouse restaurant. You will start salivating from the smells as soon as you park your car and head to the door. The barbecue sauce produced by owners Tracy and Kristi Carter makes a delicious difference.
Brisket and ribs are menu headliners, but the smokehouse also produces chicken, turkey, pulled pork, and sausage along with burgers, salads, and sumptuous sides. Jac’s is closed on Sunday and Monday, so plan carefully to enjoy lunch or dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Pro Tip: An order of fried pork skins will arrive at your table piping hot. They are so good!
10. Head Outdoors To A Park Or Wildlife Refuge
The northern portion of Louisiana is referred to as Sportsman’s Paradise. Outdoor lovers engaging in hunting, fishing, kayaking, and paddling are constant sites along the Ouachita River and its many access points. Cheniere Lake Park, Forsythe Park, Kiroli Park, Lazarre Park, and Restoration Park are popular with families, while Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge, D’Arbonne National Wildlife Refuge, and Ouachita Wildlife Management Area attract sportsmen and photographers.
Catch largemouth bass, crappie, or bluegill. Go crawfishing and cook up your catch. Play disc golf, jog, walk, or picnic. Thousands of acres are teeming with wildlife and natural beauty waiting to be appreciated and enjoyed.
The conjoined towns of Monroe-West Monroe are well worth stopping to get a closer look, so plan your trip along Interstate 20 accordingly. I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the wonderful hidden gems waiting to be uncovered.