By Debi Lander
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was the last destination I visited before the coronavirus lockdown. I went for a conference, and honestly wasn’t expecting much from the city. But I was wrong. The revitalized and clean downtown impressed me. I found fantastic interactive museums, an old and new capitol building, and a lively spirit that flowed through the city, likely due to hometown Louisiana State University’s (LSU) football team winning the National Championship.
If you’re not from Louisiana, you might think New Orleans is the capital — but that’s wrong. Baton Rouge, meaning “red stick” in French, earned the honor in 1849. The name dates back to 1699 when French explorers noted a red cypress tree stripped of its bark that marked the boundary between Houma and Bayou Goula tribal hunting grounds. They called the tree “le baton rouge,” or red stick.
Over the centuries, Baton Rouge functioned under seven governing bodies: France, England, Spain, Louisiana, the Florida Republic, the Confederate States, and the United States. In the mid-1700s, French-speaking settlers from Acadia, Canada’s maritime regions, driven into exile by British forces, came to rural Louisiana. Hence the nickname Cajuns, as descendants of the Acadians.
During the first half of the 19th Century, the city grew steadily as a result of steamboat trade and transportation, but the Civil War halted economic progress. In 1909, the Standard Oil Company built a facility, and that lured other petrochemical firms. In recent years, a building boom brought money, improvements, and restored the downtown.
State capitol building tours are always worth the time and effort, but in Baton Rouge, you get two for free. Statehood symbolism abounds from the exterior and interior of the current capitol, constructed in 1932 (although it’s often called the new capitol). The Observation Deck on the 27th floor overlooks the city at the height of 350 feet. What began as the dream of one man — Governor Huey P. Long — became a city symbol. Rising 450-feet, it’s the tallest state capitol in the U.S. In 1935, the building that Long built became the site of his assassination, and his grave.
The Old State Capitol looks like a castle and contains the most colorful interior glass dome I’ve come across. You climb a wrought iron staircase looking up into a blaze of stained glass.
Adjacent to the current capitol building stands the modern Capitol Park Museum brimming with interactive displays that tell the Louisiana story. Trust me, this museum is not outdated or old-style dull.
Since Baton Rouge is a port city, you’ll find a lovely riverwalk, perfect for strolling and with more attractions. Visit the USS KIDD historic battleship, a WWII destroyer restored to her 1945 appearance. Families with kids enjoy the permanently docked boat.
The Louisiana Art and Science Museum overlooks the river and includes wonderfully arranged exhibitions and a planetarium. Check out the mummy in the Ancient Egypt collection. FYI: Many Baton Rouge museums offer free admission on the first Sunday of every month.
Drive over and see Mike the Tiger and the Louisiana State University (LSU) Stadium. The school mascot has a good life. Mike’s yard encompasses 14,010 square feet plus a night house. He gets the best of care from a personal veterinarian from the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. Mike’s fur glistens in the sunshine like a woman’s hair in a shampoo commercial. Animals activists should know that Mike is not sedated, nor taken into the stadium.
Besides museums, there’s plenty to do in the area. Nearby you’ll find Bayou tours, plantation tours, botanical gardens, boating, fishing, and other sports. And, you can’t go to Louisiana without dining on some decadent Cajun dishes.
If you go: A road trip across the Panhandle of Florida will take eight and a half hours to Baton Rouge. VisitBatonRouge.com
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander
Current Capitol Building