On the Eastern banks of the great Mississippi rests a uniquely diverse and culturally rich city. Layered with influences stretching back thousands of years, the city and its surrounds have been the home of native American nations, French and Spanish settlers, African enslaved peoples, and northern European colonialists. New Orleans? Nope. Though perhaps not as famous as its southern sister, Baton Rouge has plenty to celebrate. Not only does it offer historical treasures of all sorts, but also boasts a spirited college sports scene and thriving foodie culture. So, head north for a change and visit Baton Rouge. We’ll show you that there’s plenty of bon temps to be had.
Baton Rouge is easily reached by air (Delta, United, and American all have regular flights in) or car. BTR Airport is in the northern quadrant of the city and within a $25 rideshare to the city center and hotel district. New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Airport is another option, only an hour or so from the city limits.
Where to stay
Baton rouge’s Downtown/Capitol District has a number of modern hotel options that put you close to some of the city’s most popular attractions. Here, you can find chain properties like Courtyard by Marriott, Hampton Inn & Suites, and the slightly more upscale Watermark Baton Rouge, Autograph Collection. All have reliably good dining options ranging from a grab-and-go breakfast to solid steak and seafood fare for dinner. Rates generally range from $115-170 per night. Our pick is the lovingly-restored historic Hilton, largely because of its Old World charm and the amazing river view from the roof deck’s saltwater pool — the only downtown hotel with swimming facilities.
Expect to use wheels (via rideshare or rental) to get around while you visit Baton Rouge. The heart of the city is comprised of a patchwork of neighborhoods that are spread out across 15 miles east-to- west with attractions scattered throughout. If you’re spending the day downtown, however, we recommend the Capitol Park Trolley, an old-style bus service that stops at most of the district’s attractions, is free, and mega Insta-worthy.
Where to eat
Baton Rouge cuisine reflects its multicultural heritage, making for a uniquely broad selection of available styles and flavors. While there is plenty of Cajun and Creole fare, there is also a chef-driven scene that takes its cues from contemporary Southern fare and farm-to-table influences. Chef Nathan Gresham of Beausoleil Restaurant (in the Bocage District) puts his Baton Rouge heritage and outdoorsman sensibilities to work on bistro delights like Chopped Seafood Salad and Grits and Grillades.
For quick eats, try Baton Rouge’s gourmet White Star Market (Capital Heights District), which serves as a veritable microcosm of what the city has on offer. Try a taco built around coffee/chile-rubbed beef; or Molasses-Mustard Fried Catfish at local Chef Jay Ducote’s Gov’t Taco; or Chow Yum Phat’s bold take on phô and ramen.
Poor Boy Lloyd’s (Capitol District) is a must for breakfast or sandwiches. We think the Shrimp Omelet and maybe the Turkey Po’ boy with wheat French bread, lettuce, mayo, and pickles should do. And of course, when you visit Baton Rouge, the Creole and Cajun thing still must be done. Cecelia Creole Bistro (Capitol District) is the place to go for exceptional Creole cuisine and fabulous cocktails. Chef Mark Reilly’s kitchen leans deep into African, Native American, Caribbean, and Portuguese influences in his modern interpretation of old favorites. Rice & Roux (Broadmoor District) is your go-to choice for nearly perfect Cajun takeout — try the jambalaya or gumbo.
What to see
Capitol/ Beauregard Districts
While state capitols aren’t on everyone’s top 10 list, make an exception for this one. Like colorful Governor Huey P. Long who had it built in the 1930s, the Capitol is a tower of personality. At 34 stories tall (450 feet) it is literally a skyscraper, and the tallest state capitol in the nation. The building’s limestone facade is embellished with various sculptures and reliefs symbolizing the state and its history.
Rivaling its impressive exterior, the building’s interior includes the majestic four-story Memorial Hall, along with red marble pilasters, gold leaf, and bronze fixtures throughout. The observation deck on the 27th floor (that’s 350 feet up) provides a birds-eye view of the city and the mighty Mississippi. Interestingly, Long was later assassinated in the same building and his gravesite is in the adjoining Capitol Gardens. Admission is free.
Speaking of Huey Long, the Governor was also responsible for building the Old Governor’s Mansion. As the story goes, Governor Long insisted that the residence look like The White House, and with its Palladian-style architecture, massive Corinthian columns, and white paint, it seems the Governor got his way. Serving as home to nine governors and their families, the residence is now a historic house museum featuring many original furnishings and artifacts. Guided tours are $8-10 per person and are available Tuesday through Friday.
Moving west from the Mansion, head over to Louisiana’s Old State Capitol. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, the site is thought to have been where 17th-century French explorers discovered the original “baton rouge” or “red stick” protruding from the ground, signifying neutral native American territory, and the city’s namesake. Built in the late 1840s to house the newly relocated state government (once housed in New Orleans), the Capitol can only be described as a castle – and a Disney-worthy one at that. Constructed with neo-Gothic influences in a medieval style, the château was loved and loathed in equal parts. Mark Twain, a Mississippi steamboat pilot at the time, fell into the first camp. His description in his memoir, “Life on the Mississippi,” reads, “It is pathetic enough that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things … should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place.” Judge for yourself. Admission is free and guided tours are available with reservations.
Moving west another half mile to the Mississippi River’s edge, and forward another 100 years in history, jump aboard the USS Kidd (DD-661), a Fletcher-class destroyer that saw significant action in both WWII and the Korean War. Decommissioned in 1964 and lovingly restored as a memorial to the state’s WWII veterans, the USS Kidd is the only destroyer to retain her WWII configuration and a must-see for WWII history buffs. By all accounts, the self-guided tour is the best way to go and includes a look at mess rooms, wardrooms, and the extremely tight quarters in which servicemen functioned under wartime conditions. If you’re a movie fan, you’ll also want to check it out – Tom Hanks’ film, “Greyhound,” was filmed here. Tickets for self-guided tours, available throughout the week, can be purchased online.
While recognized as a top-tier public university and lauded for many of its engineering programs, Louisiana State University also fields a premier college football team. Check out LSU’s Tiger Stadium, dubbed Death Valley thanks to the intimidating cheers from the home crowd that make the opposition shudder. You can even see Mike VII — the live Bengal-Siberian tiger mascot in his state-of-the-art tiger habitat on the university campus.
While you’re there, check out the two LSU Indian mounds. They are 20 feet tall and are reported to be over 6,000 years old – pre-dating Egypt’s pyramids by at least 1,000 years. By some accounts, they are the oldest man-made structures in the Americas, if not the world!
LSU Rural Life Museum (Not on the LSU Campus)
Located on the Burden family plantation, the LSU Rural Life Museum is comprised of 30 unique historical buildings that tell the story of Louisiana’s working classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Considered one of the best museums of its type, the Rural Life Museum brings to life the complex cultural structures and mores of a working Louisiana plantation. Exhibits include the overseer’s house, kitchen, slave cabins, sick house, and schoolhouse, among other facilities, all restored and furnished to authentically depict the lives of its original inhabitants. This is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of Louisiana. Guided tours are available throughout the week at $10 per person.
For more information about what to see and do in when you visit Baton Rouge, check out visitbatonrouge.org.