When I told people that my next trip was to Louisiana, everyone had more or less the same reply. “Oh, I love New Orleans, you’ll have such a blast.” Not one person even mentioned Baton Rouge, which is a major oversight because this southern belle has tons of style!
All right, I grant you that the story behind its “Red Stick” moniker is not the prettiest tale. In 1699 a French explorer was traveling up the Mississippi and spied a red, blood-smeared pole hung with animal parts. The “bâton rouge” (French for “Red Stick”) was used to designate the hunting grounds between the Houmas and Bayougoulas Indians tribes.
The stick is now part of a large sculpture to commemorate how Baton Rouge got its name, which you’ll find at Southern University’s campus.
This is just one of the many historical moments that the city is known for. Perched on the banks of the Mississippi, Baton Rouge was once the heart of plantation country, so you’ll want to tour one of the gracious antebellum mansions as well as dive into the city’s vibrant arts and culture scene.
City center: Watermark Hotel
If you want to be right in the thick of things, check into downtown’s luxurious Watermark Hotel, part of the Autograph Collection, which is an independent brand of Marriott Hotels. This 144-room Art Deco stunner shows off its massive marble staircase, hand-painted ceiling murals, and original bank vaults from almost 100 years ago when it served as the headquarters of Louisiana Trust & Savings Bank.
Not just a token amenity, the hotel’s signature restaurant, The Gregory, has become a premier destination for modern Southern cuisine in Baton Rouge. Standouts include the gumbo and bread pudding.
Ask for one of the rooms that overlook the mighty Mississippi River for an incredible backdrop.
A neighborhood retreat: Stockade Bed and Breakfast
For an authentic, ol’ timey feel, try the Stockade Bed and Breakfast named after a Civil War stockade that was here. This hidden gem is situated on 11 acres of wooded land located about 8 miles from downtown on historic Highland Road. Named after the Civil War Highland Stockade site that was once located here, the Stockade is on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic Civil War site. Each of the six guestrooms is uniquely furnished in period pieces while The Great Room (the main gathering spot) is decked out with a baby grand player piano, fireplace and fountain.
If you’re feeling amorous, spring for the Romance Package, which includes Champagne, Hors d’ oeuvres, artisanal chocolates, breakfast in bed with Mimosas or Bloody Marys and even rose petal turn-down service.
Best Attractions Around Baton Rouge
Get your bearings, as well as your daily exercise, by walking, biking or jogging along the 4.31-mile stretch of the Baton Rouge Mississippi River Levee bike path. You can chill on one of the benches while watching the action on the mighty Mississippi. The path, which is lined with some fantastic sculptures and fountains, leads you to an entertainment center, Veteran’s Museum, the Museum of Art and Science, and the Capitol building. They have the best, informative signage all along the path, so it’s virtually impossible to get lost.
My fave sculpture is “Sing The River,” which not only lights up at night but magically connects musically to the movement of the tides!
This remarkable piece of art is at the Florida Street riverfront access point.
Old State Capitol
The striking Old State Capitol (now a museum of political history) is located in a dramatic Gothic-Victorian castle fortress built in 1847. It served as the state capitol until 1932 when the new State Capitol building opened. The museum features some fascinating exhibits such as The Legacy of Huey Long, and Baton Rouge and the Civil War, but if you’re short on time, do a quick pop-in to marvel at the grand old staircase, extraordinary stained-glass dome and windows.
The new-ish Louisiana State Capitol
Did you know that this 450-foot structure is the tallest state capitol building in the country? Ironically, this building, a dream come true for Governor Huey P. Long, was also the site of his assassination. Book one of the tours where the knowledgeable guides will fill you in on the rich history and colorful tales behind the controversial Long.
Be sure to visit the 27th-floor Observation Deck overlooking Baton Rouge and the river…no charge!
LSU Rural Life Museum
Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum transports you back to the 18th century, where you can experience the lifestyle of pre-industrial rural Louisiana. This sprawling outdoor complex offers hours of fun as you explore the plantation quarters complete with a commissary, church, kitchen, slave cabins, sick house, schoolhouse, blacksmith’s shop, etc. all authentically furnished.
In the exhibit barn, you’ll find hundreds of antique farm tools and artifacts used in daily life.
Be sure and check out the calendar for the line-up of unique events, such as different folk art classes or elegant Plantation suppers.
The historic Houmas House Plantation and Gardens
If you only have time to visit one antebellum head to the Houmas House where you’ll get a feel for the opulent lifestyle of plantation owners in the 1800s. You can wander on your own through the 38-acres of formal landscaped gardens, filled with statues, fountains, and humongous live oaks before you tour the mansion. Inside, your costumed guide will take you through 16 rooms filled with original art and period antiques while sharing stories about past owners over the last 200 years.
If you’d like to see how sugarcane barons entertained their guests back in the day, make reservations at the intimate Latil’s Landing Restaurant where the farm to table food is served on replicas of the original china used by General Wade Hampton.