Eggnog daiquiris, meat pies, and flying beads–plus 300,000 twinkling lights.

Downtown Natchitoches Christmas
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Travelers have been visiting Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-a-tish) since 1714, when adventurer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis created a trading post and the first European settlement on the banks of Cane River Lake (and named the town after a local Indian tribe). And we are certainly not alone: People from across the Southeast come here throughout December when the quaint downtown is decked in garland, cloaked in over 300,000 twinkling lights, and transformed into a magical setting for its annual Festival of Lights. The high point of the season is a daylong Christmas festival held on the first Saturday of December, with music, meat pie vendors, a rousing parade, and a spectacular fireworks show over Cane River Lake.

Steel Magnolia House in Natchitoches, LA
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Steel Magnolias, was set in Natchitoches. The film's tough-as-nails, wisecracking Southern women put the town in the national spotlight. Writer and Natchitoches native Robert Harling modeled the characters after real women he grew up with, and he understands as well as anyone what makes the Natchitoches Christmas Festival so unique.

"No one knows how to throw a party better than Louisianans," Harling says. "The festival has been so magical throughout the years, and it remains that way. It's a beautiful town and a beautiful way to celebrate it." For locals, the celebration is more or less a giant block party. "You know you're going to see everyone there," he says, laughing. "The food is fantastic, the fireworks are world-class, and there's a wonderful chill in the air. It's a magical moment when the lights are turned on and the oldest town in the Louisiana Purchase is illuminated."

Crab Cake Remoulade from The Landing in Natchitoches, LA
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Eat and Drink Here.
Options such as Seafood Mac & Cheese (with crab, crawfish, and shrimp) and Grits & Quail make The Landing Restaurant & Bar a must. Locals will point you to Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen for the best example of the town's iconic meat pies. Crowds line up for these famous crispy meat pies. They're as good as they sound: A round of flaky pastry is folded over and crimped around seasoned ground beef or crawfish (my favorite) and deep-fried until crisp. At Lasyone's, they're served with dirty rice or potato salad and a river of hot sauce (an essential garnish).

But nothing says "Merry Christmas" quite like a creamy eggnog daiquiri from Maggio's Package Liquors, a drive-through beverage barn. Also, about 8 miles northeast of town in Clarence, Grayson's Barbecue is an essential rib pilgrimage that attracts 18-wheelers, an after-church crowd, and state troopers. Take home one of Grayson's famous smoked hams, which are shipped to holiday tables around the country. And pick up hot chocolates and peppermint lattes at CaneBreak Café.

Natchitoches Christmas Lights
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Stop Here.
Pop into the towering Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (on the National Register of Historic Places). Built in 1728, the church has magnificent stained glass windows that throw a kaleidoscope of light across the polished pews and hand-painted French and German art. Follow the parade route to the Judge Porter House, a Queen Anne-influenced bed-and-breakfast built in 1912, with wreaths strung from every window and an ornate tree in its tiny, jewel box lobby. The wraparound porch is so picturesque and a great Christmas card photo op.

Do This.
Cane River Boat Tours is a great way to take in the festive light displays and even the fireworks. Captain Tom and his golden retriever provide great company as you slowly motor past the pretty waterfront homes and stately oak and citrus trees. To get a deeper sense of the region's storied past, a drive to two plantations that decorate for the holidays is well worth the side trip. Melrose Plantation is located about 15 miles south of Natchitoches on State 119. Clementine Hunter served as a cook at Melrose, and she later went on to become one of Louisiana's most celebrated primitive folk artists. Just down the highway is Oakland Plantation, which is part of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park. Many of the original outbuildings, including a carpenter shop and a carriage house, are still intact.

Shopping in Natchitoches at Christmas
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Shop Here.
You'll find presents and stocking stuffers galore at the many shops along Front Street. Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile is a National Historic Landmark that's been open since 1863. The store sells toys, cooking supplies, and home-and-garden accessories that are rung up on a massive 1910 cash register. An upstairs Christmas shop is a great place to look for holiday linens and souvenirs. Stop by Dickens & Co., a cheery boutique brimming with locally made jewelry, holiday candles, and seasonal treats. Then follow your nose a few doors down to the Bathhouse Soapery for soaps in scents like Sweet Potato and Magnolia.

Samuel Guy Bed & Breakfast in Natchitoches, LA
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Book a Room.
Seek out one of the many bed-and-breakfasts in Natchitoches' historic district. The Church Street Inn is located in the heart of town, which makes navigating the festival on foot a breeze. Nearby, along Cane River Lake, the 1830s Steel Magnolia House was recently purchased by district judge Desiree Dyess, who spent last year restoring the guest rooms. The Samuel Guy House Bed and Breakfast was moved to Natchitoches from Mansfield, Louisiana, and was restored to its original grandeur in 2004. The Greek Revival home features a stunning porch and offers seven unique guest rooms. Enjoy the Praline French Toast Casserole, and then walk to Olive's Garden, named after a beloved local arts patron, to discover hundreds of hydrangeas, sweet olives, and sago palms.