From the lofty vantage point of the I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge (pop. 221,599) appears to be a largely industrial city, its skyline dominated by smokestacks, a World War II destroyer, two riverboat casinos, 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, the state’s legendary Depression-era governor dominates the Old State Capitol (10am-4pm Tues.-Fri., 9am-3pm Sat., free), that clearly visible white Gothic-style castle—the only thing missing is a moat. Inside the restored 1847 edifice are engaging audio-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 (4560 Essen Lane, 225/765-2437, 8am-5pm daily , $10), managed by Louisiana State University and located 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 to 200 years ago—was assembled on a former plantation by landscaper Steele Burden. The rest of the more than 430 ac (174 ha) of land is now picturesque gardens.
Gonzales, just outside Baton Rouge, hosts the Ascension Hot Air Balloon Championship in late September. Besides being a beautiful sight, the hundreds of colorful balloons take part in a target competition, trying to drop beanbags onto a bull’s-eye from 1,000 ft (305 m) 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 (tickets 800/960-8587) play. Basketball, baseball, and other sports are big, too.
Where to Eat and Stay in Baton Rouge
If you’re looking for a place to eat and absorb a little Baton Rouge ambience, the Pastime (252 South Blvd., 225/343-5490), a few blocks from the Old State Capitol, right under the I-10 interchange, is one of those windowless, smoky sports bars ideally suited for discussing political chicanery over po’boys, fried fish, and beer. It has the best pizzas in town, too—try the one topped with bayou shrimp for some local flavor.
Another bunch of good eating and drinking prospects are clustered around the Highland Avenue entrance to Louisiana State University, a couple of miles south of I-10. Louie’s Café (3322 Lake St., 225/346-8221), is open 24 hours, so there’s no excuse to miss it. Facing the North Gates of LSU, The Chimes (3357 Highland Rd., 225/383-1754), a restaurant and taproom with more than 100 beers and a live music venue next door. Several other bars in the vicinity offer music with some regularity, but be warned that undergraduate projectile vomiting is a serious hazard.
While there are a number of hotels in downtown Baton Rouge and along the highways south and east of town, most of the inexpensive accommodations cluster around exit 151 on I-10, just west of the Mississippi in Port Allen. For a memorably characterful overnight, try The Stockade Bed & Breakfast (8860 Highland Rd., 225/769-7358, $150 and up), a home-style inn on spacious grounds near LSU.