This saucy Southern charmer will surprise you in all the best ways.
Welcome to “Go There,” a Livability.com series about travel and how to maximize your time in some of our favorite cities. Do you have a place in mind that we should visit next? Let us know! Today, we’re heading down to Louisiana and spending a weekend in Baton Rouge.
As someone who has lived in the South my entire life, I shouldn’t be surprised by the unique charm of a Southern city, yet here we are: Baton Rouge still caught me off guard.
Baton Rouge, French for ‘red stick,’ gets its name from an actual red stick. Upon arriving in the area a few hundred years ago, French explorer Sieur d’Iberville spotted a stick stained with the blood of fish and animals on a Mississippi River bluff, marking the line between the Bayougoula and Houma Native American hunting grounds. The red stick story is an early instance of the blended cultures that converge in Baton Rouge: French, Native American, Creole, Spanish, African and more. (The Capitol Park Museum is a great place to learn more about them and glean a local history overview.)
The city offers many surprises for visitors. For instance, did you know that Baton Rouge is home to the tallest state capitol building in the U.S.? Or that the city is home to Baton Rouge Gallery of Contemporary Art, the oldest art cooperative in the U.S.?
Anyone can find something to love in this Mississippi River town, filled with an eclectic history, indulgent cuisine and uncommon arts scene.
What To Do
Be sure to catch the Old State Capitol since you’re likely to be downtown at some point; it’s free, and it’s STUNNING. It’s the building that looks like a castle, complete with stained glass windows, so you can’t miss it.
Initially unveiled in the 1840s, the building was completed in 1884 following a Civil War fire that gutted the building. Today it’s Louisiana’s Center for Political and Governmental History with an exhibit or two typically on display to explore in addition to enjoying the building’s impressive architecture. The new state capitol building is also stunning in its own right and is the tallest in the U.S.
Another spot that can’t be missed? The Baton Rouge Contemporary Art Gallery (BRG). The gallery typically displays the work of three to four artists at a time and covers a variety of mediums.
When you visit, be sure to purchase a $5 token from the staff to check out the Art-o-mat machine that vends mini art pieces. Winston-Salem-based artist Clark Whittington refurbishes old cigarette vending machines into the Art-o-mats, and you can find them at art galleries and tourist attractions around the country.
BRG represents one of the most accessible art experiences I’ve had and truly felt designed for anyone and everyone to enjoy. Set in the middle of a lush park and golf course, BRG’s exhibits change monthly, and pieces for sale are set at a range of price points (starting at $50!). During my visit, a juried high school exhibition was on display, featuring the work of student artists from around the East Baton Rouge Parish. (Fun fact: Louisiana refers to its municipalities as parishes. They’re one of two states to use phrasing other than ‘county’ — Alaska and its boroughs are the other.)
The LSU Rural Life Museum is unique as an outdoor building museum featuring 32 historic buildings on 25 acres. The museum’s site began as Windrush Plantation in the 1800s. Some of the buildings are original, but many were carefully moved to this site from elsewhere in the state for preservation. Named a Top 10 Outdoor Museum in the World by the British Museum, this museum also displays a huge collection of artifacts from the 19th century.
I’d be remiss not to mention the many sporting events enjoyed by all in Baton Rouge, but quite frankly, I’m the wrong person to speak about anything sports-related. Luckily, LSU games and tailgating have great energy whether you’re a sports fan or not! And you’ll see people sporting purple and gold everywhere.
Where to Eat
There’s no shortage of delicious food options here. Of course, locals and Uber drivers will inevitably suggest more restaurants than you could visit in just a few days, but here are some delicious places to get you started:
BLDG 5, a cute spot underneath a highway overpass, offers live music and a variety of menu items, including a variety of unique boards. Beausoleil, an unassuming bistro highlighting local flavors, boasts a varied menu focusing on fresh seafood.
For a trendy bar fix, The Main Lobby is a fun stop. And to satisfy a sweet tooth, The Sweet Society at Electric Depot in the Mid City neighborhood is the perfect spot. Here you’ll find a variety of Japanese sweet treats like taiyaki ice cream served in a fish-shaped waffle cone and the concoction pictured above called Bingsu.
Other great spots? Mansurs, Simple Joe Cafe, Fleur De Lis and Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar can’t be missed. Bonus: Raising Cane’s, a fast-food chicken chain, was both born and remains headquartered in Baton Rouge if you’re looking for creature comfort.
Where to Day Trip
45-minutes north of Baton Rouge is St. Francisville, part of the West Feliciana Parish. This must be one of the most adorable and charming places you could spend a relaxing day (or an entire weekend!) For a stay, you can’t go wrong with the historic St. Francisville Inn (also serving lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch).
From there, it’s easy to explore the quaint downtown area. The St. Francisville Inn is walkable to a variety of shops like Grandmother’s Buttons’ menagerie of buttons and antique jewelry plus clothing, home and lifestyle goods, and Bohemianville Antiques is an eclectic shop to buy yourself a souvenir, like bright red crawfish earrings. Then, continue by foot to explore the area’s surrounding streets filled with gorgeous historic homes.
A variety of ecotourism and estate attractions can round out your time in St. Francisville — the Audubon State Historic Site’s Oakley House is where James Audobon worked as a drawing teacher and completed or began 32 of his famous bird paintings while there.
Baton Rouge has the blues. The Baton Rouge Blues Festival is ideal for music aficionados or light listeners. Spend your time eating, drinking and shopping local vendors (like Magnolia Studios’ preserved flower jewelry) while enjoying parts of the dozens of different acts during the two-day festival. I loved seeing people of all ages enjoying the sunshine and each other.
Blue Fest isn’t every weekend, but Live after 5, Baton Rouge’s free community music event, happens every Friday from May to August.
And don’t miss Bee Nice Music — a literal backyard hangout and lowkey music venue tucked away in a neighborhood. This concert series happens on a covered porch in front of a vintage travel trailer, in a cozy yard with string lights everywhere. There’s no admission, just a hat pass between acts and at the end of the night for the artists. So many people here seem to know each other, but they’ll make you feel at home even if you’re an out-of-towner. It’s BYOB, family-friendly, and you can purchase hot dogs if you’re hungry.
You can catch Bee Nice Music shows on Friday nights late spring through May, starting September 1.
What to Pack
Cool, light clothing. Then wear as little of it as you can get away with if you’re visiting during the warmer months. Baton Rouge is hot and humid! If you’ve been saying that you’re ready for summer, Baton Rouge will deliver nearly all year long. Stay hydrated for sightseeing, grab some shade where you can and have the best time in Baton Rouge.