From the lofty vantage point of the I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge (pop. 227,818) appears to be a largely industrial city, its skyline dominated by smokestacks, a WW II destroyer, a mock–Mississippi Riverboat casino, and the nation’s tallest state capitol—essentially a 34-story monument to the populist demagoguery of Huey “Kingfish” Long. Just south of the towering Capitol, a lifesize animatronic figure of Long, the state’s legendary Depression-era governor, dominates the Old State Capitol (daily; $4), that clearly visible white Gothic-style castle—the only thing missing is a moat. Inside the restored 1847 edifice are engaging computer-aided history exhibits, including one about Huey Long’s unresolved 1935 assassination: Was the patronage-dealing, road-building, vote-buying potentate the target of premeditated murder, or was then-U.S. Senator Long the victim of his five trigger-happy bodyguards’ “friendly fire,” aimed at a man who merely punched the boss? Review the evidence and draw your own conclusions.
Another lesson in Louisiana history can be yours at the wonderful Rural Life Museum (daily; $7; 225/765-2437), managed by Louisiana State University and located at 4600 Essen Road, east of downtown off I-10 exit 160. This expansive collection of shotgun houses, barns, farming equipment, riverboats, donkey carts, hand tools, and appliances—basically, anything that might have been seen in the state 100 years ago—was assembled on a former plantation by artist Steele Burden. The rest of the plantation is now a picturesque garden that covers 25 acres.
Baton Rouge hosts a National Balloon Festival early in August. Besides being a beautiful sight, the hundreds of colorful balloons take part in a target competition, trying to drop bean bags onto a bulls-eye from 1,000 feet in the air.
The popularity of college football shouldn’t be underestimated in Baton Rouge: Motel No Vacancy signs light up all over town whenever the LSU Tigers play. Basketball, baseball, and other sports are big, too; for tickets, call LSU (800/960-8587).