Big cats, beauty pageants, and blues. These are just some of the best things to do in Baton Rouge. The capital of Louisiana shows its historic ties to French exploration and Native Americans in its name, Baton Rouge. When Pierre Le Moyne Sieur d’Iberville first came to the area in 1699 he found a red pole along the Mississippi River that marked the dividing line between the Houmas and Byougoula Indigenous territories. He named the place Baton Rouge, meaning Red Stick, and it’s since grown to be the second-largest city in the state of Louisiana.
The Best of Baton Rouge
On my fourth visit to Louisiana, I wanted to explore Baton Rouge so I left New Orleans for the 90 minute drive to this beautiful city. Leaving New Orleans, you can meander along one of America’s great highways, Louisiana’s River Road. If you do, make sure and stop at Whitney Plantation Museum, the only plantation that focuses on the lives of enslaved people, telling their stories through sculpture and art.
Or you could take the more direct route on Highway 10. The 80-mile drive can take you an hour and a half, or one or two days if you stop at every mom-and-pop diner and wedding-cake plantation. That drive alone can change your life and make you fall in love with Louisiana. It did it for me.
Beauty pageants in Baton Rouge
Rolling up to the Baton Rouge Marriott, I found the lobby full of young ladies decked out in fluffy tulle skirts and sparkly tiaras. They were taking part in the Miss Baton Rouge pageant and hoping to make their way to the Miss Louisiana pageant, and who knows how much further, one day.
In the meantime, their moms were happy to chat and explain that every little girl deserves to shine. It was fun to ride in the elevators with these charming little ladies, who left a trail of glitter everywhere, on the way up to my comfortable hotel room. The Baton Rouge Marriott is a hotel of choice for these bevies of well-behaved pageant participants.
Tiger Stadium at Louisiana State University
Another important dividing line can be found mid-field at Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium. Billed as the loudest stadium in the USA, the cheers from the crowd in a 1988 game against Auburn University caused an earthquake reading on the seismograph at the campus geoscience complex.
At 102,321 seats, LSU is the eighth largest stadium in the world. On every game weekend, the entire campus is taken over by tailgate parties where fans compete for the best spots to set up portable grills, snap out the lawn chairs, and crack open a few cold beers. Marching bands and wannabe mascots decked out in the team’s colors of purple and gold parade through the grounds while friends and families munch on shrimp and grits, grilled meats of all shapes, and crab stuffed po’boy sandwiches. Check out: Traditional New Orleans Dishes
Mike the Tiger
Right across from the stadium is the enclosure where you’ll find Mike the Tiger, Mike VII, to be precise. He’s a 345-pound Bengal/Siberian cross rescue tiger who was brought to the habitat in 2017. He continues the long lineage of Mikes, beginning with Mike I who arrived in 1936. The most recent incarnations of Mike have all come from big cat rescue shelters across the US. His habitat is impressive.
The 15,000-square-foot environment includes a live oak tree, a waterfall, and a stream for Mike to cool off in. There are plenty of plants and bushes to hide behind, and a special comfort rock that is automatically heated or cooled as needed, to keep Mike comfortable. In addition to hanging out, Mike takes part in tiger research, conservation, and husbandry programs. Not a bad life. A full-size bronze statue of Mike guards the entrance.
The LSU Museum of Art
LSU’s influence can be seen throughout Baton Rouge. The LSU Museum of Art has permanent and rotating exhibits with an emphasis on Southern artists, and several neighborhood art programs. But I was itching to see one of the university’s other projects, the LSU Rural Life Museum & Windrush Gardens.
LSU Rural Life Museum
I’m not sure if the LSU Rural Life Museum and Windrush Gardens are always as quiet as they were when I visited, but this is a great outdoor museum and well worth a few hours of your time. In fact, it was named one of the Top 10 Outdoor Museums in the World by the British Museum. It holds the most impressive collection of Louisiana’s historic architecture that I’ve ever seen and the largest collection of 18th and 19th-century buildings in the state. As I wandered on the gravel paths, I was reminded of the spectral visions of the two ladies of Versailles. I didn’t see any ghosts, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see some.
This was never a grand, white-pillared, plantation home. It was a family farm of around 400 acres that was purchased by the Burden family in 1861 who eventually donated it to LSU. There are three sections to the museum. The Working Plantation, Folk Architecture, and The Exhibit Barn.
At The Working Plantation, the lives of enslaved people are brought into sharp focus by the buildings that they lived and worked in. The excellent state of the buildings is due to the cypress wood used in their construction. It is naturally durable, does not rot, and is insect and water-resistant. As a result, there was no need to paint them and they continue to sit, solid and grey, open to visitors and the weather. The Overseer’s House dominates the quadrant that contains the slave cabins, the sugar grinder, the kitchen, blacksmith’s shop, and the commissary.
The Folk Architecture section has a beautiful rustic church with painted windows instead of stained glass, a pioneer’s cabin, and a breezy dogtrot house. An excellent example of a so-called Shotgun House, long and narrow with rooms off a single corridor, stands next to the road, surrounded by rose bushes. This style of home is common in New Orleans. The Acadian house has a ladder that leads to the second floor garçonnière where the boys had their bedrooms once they became teenage terrors.
It’s easy to spend several hours here, especially if you visit the Exhibit Barn that has displays and artifacts from the days of early Louisiana, through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Industrial Revolution. There’s also a large collection of horse-drawn carriages, farming equipment, and tools.
Windrush Gardens is the working research garden adjoining the museum and a place of great beauty with three miles of walking paths through Burden Woods. Rose lovers will appreciate the specialty specimens in the Rose Garden. There’s a boardwalk over Black Swamp, a Children’s Garden, and trees and flowers not found anywhere else in the state. Gardeners will want to linger.
After my visit, it was time for lunch. I stopped in at Sammy’s Grill on Highland, a local favourite for Louisiana crawfish and Gulf shrimp and oysters. Along with rich gumbo and delicious crawfish etouffee over rice, they also serve alligator, fried or blackened, and typical Southern sides like grits, or red rice and beans.
I opted for a crawfish boil, a traditional dish with potatoes and corn on the cob. Crawfish get bigger as the weather warms from February to May, with Easter generally being prime time for these freshwater crustaceans. They taste like a cross between shrimp and lobster and make a perfect meal, once you release them from their shiny red jackets.
Louisiana Old State Capitol
After lunch, I was off to the Louisiana Old State Capitol for a lesson in politics. Mark Twain was not a fan of this National Historic Monument that stands on the banks of the Mississippi. He called it “a little sham castle”. Of course, being a world traveler and having seen plenty of genuine castles may have influenced his view. In any case, in this one instance, I must disagree with one of my favourite travel writers. The Old State Capitol is impressive in its way. It’s a mash-up of Gothic and Victorian architecture that emerged after it was partially destroyed by a fire after the Civil War.
The lobby is dominated by an ornate circular cast iron staircase and lit in confetti colours by an extraordinary circular glass dome overhead that dates to 1882. Off the lobby, a short film called “Ghost of the Castle” tells the history of the building. Painted Moorish arches lead to exhibition spaces.
Governor’s Office and Reception Room
In the Governor’s Office and Reception Room, things have mostly stayed the same since the turn of the century, except for the interactive podium that features speeches by former governors, including Huey Long. A permanent exhibition delves into his controversial legacy. He was a left-wing Democrat who criticized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for not going far enough to help the poor.
As a Senator, he took on Standard Oil and Wall Street while advocating for a tax on the wealthy. Bellicose and belligerent, he once declared “I am the Constitution”, when challenged on a point of law. He was assassinated in 1935 at the age of 42 by a relative of a political opponent. His fascinating journey through Louisiana politics is revealed through the interactive displays. An adjacent exhibition deals with the history of voting and the democratic process.
USS KIDD Veterans Museum
Take the spiral staircase up to the second floor to see the original Senate and House chambers, complete with their own stained-glass windows. This was the place where Louisiana famously seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy in 1861. Group tours take you even higher up, to the rooftop of the building with a sweeping view of the Mississippi and the USS KIDD Veterans Museum.
This World War II restored Destroyer is the only ship in the US Navy that’s allowed to fly the skull and crossbones pirate flag, at the request of the widow of Rear Admiral Isaac Campbell Kidd, Sr. He was killed aboard the USS ARIZONA during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The floating museum is free to the public, and you can visit the entire vessel from stem to stern on all levels.
Baton Rouge Blues Festival
I was shooed out of the Capitol building at closing time and crossed the street to find the Baton Rouge Blues Festival in full swing. This free two-day event has been held every spring since 1981, with a short break for the pandemic. It celebrates “swamp blues”, a homegrown Baton Rouge variety. Four stages are scattered around the downtown mall, with plenty of shade, cool drinkables and snacks to be had.
Nikki Hill, of Montreaux and Monterey Jazz Festival fame, closed out the show as part of her world tour. In April 2023, headliners will include the sacred soul and gospel singer Elizabeth King of Memphis and the blues and r&b group Tommy Castro & the Painkillers along with many others. There’s some seating to be had, and the dance floor is always packed with music lovers of all ages.
Mid City Beer Garden
I wrapped up my visit to Baton Rouge with a visit to Mid City Beer Garden, an airy courtyard space with over 50 beers on tap, including their own specialty brews. The boudin balls were calling so I had to check them out. A Louisiana appetizer and all-around comfort food, they’re made with rice, meat, and savoury spices, rolled into balls and coated with breadcrumbs. The deep-fried result is a crispy shell and a moist interior that’s irresistible.
Dare you to eat just one. They’re so beloved that Louisiana has its own Cajun Boudin Trail that you can follow through the state. Boudin is made as a sausage or as boudin balls, and each recipe is unique. Next up was the house special – a cheese sandwich, but not just any cheese sandwich. This one boasted six kinds of cheese on a rosemary focaccia bun and it was delicious. Then it was back to my hotel for a good night’s sleep. Baton Rouge will always be a winning contestant in my travel beauty pageant.
Debra Smith was a guest of Louisiana Travel. As always, her opinions are her own. Visit the Louisiana Travel website for more information on Baton Rouge and other wonderful cities in Louisiana. For more stories by Debra, visit her website at WhereToLady.com And follow her travels on Instagram @where.to.lady and on Facebook