Baton Rouge’s Old Capitol building reminded me of a European castle with crowns atop each column and tower. Inside, though, instead of drafty corridors, you’ll find a stained-glass dome and windows, a cast-iron circular staircase rotating 270 degrees and marble floors. There’s even a ghost that haunts this Gothic architectural treasure, a Civil War-era woman named Sarah Morgan. You can see her every 20 minutes with 4D immersive theatrical technology!
Sarah’s story is just one part of the history preserved and presented in multimedia inside the museum in the Louisiana Old State Capitol, which is free to visit. The museum’s focus is on state political history, leaving no stone or scandal unturned.
While the Old State Capitol is one of the oldest structures along the waterfront, you’ll find a growing number of new attractions along River Road in Baton Rouge.
About Baton Rouge
The Louisiana capital since 1846, when the state legislature moved it from the “sinful” location in New Orleans, both the old and “new” Capitol buildings are distinctive. The current Capitol, inaugurated in 1932, is the tallest capitol building in the U.S. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. The view of Baton Rouge from the observation deck on the 27th floor is something spectacular on a sunny day!
Baton Rouge is just an hour away from both New Orleans and Lafayette, two of the largest cities in the state. It’s situated on a bluff above the Mississippi River, some 230 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, at the junction of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. In fact, the Port of Greater Baton Rouge is the 10th largest port in terms of shipping volume. It’s located at the head of deepwater navigation on the Mississippi River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains its 45-foot shipping channel to the mouth of the river.
I visited Louisiana a half dozen times before ever making my way to this state capital and central hub — and hub definitely describes it, both for water and land access with a number of intersecting Interstate Highways.
Downtown Baton Rouge
A levee that separates the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge’s downtown provides 15-foot-wide waterfront biking and walking trails for nature lovers. Thousands of visitors cross this levee to reach the downtown every year via Mississippi riverboats stopping at the City Dock.
In fact, the downtown is home to a vibrant mix of tourist attractions. From its open green space in the North Boulevard Town Square for events like Mardi Gras to the Baton Rouge River Center, with a 200,000-square-meter facility that’s home to shows ranging from ballet to comedy to fine hotels, the city shares its mix of Cajun and Creole culture with visitors.
You could even say the combination of cultural offerings in the dining room is what earned Baton Rouge a reputation as the best “Foodie city” in the South. Whether you’re looking for oyster po’boys, boudin balls, or red beans and rice, you’re bound to find it within walking distance of the riverfront.
There are lots of places to sit and enjoy a picnic lunch along the levee if you’d rather, too. The Louisiana Veterans Memorial Plaza is located on the riverfront, with steps where you can sit and relax while watching the world go by. Designed around the levee along with an old rail line, the plaza features several memorials, including an A-7E Corsair plane from the Vietnam War.
As you continue along the riverfront, you’ll find the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, which is also home to the Planetarium. They’re housed in the 1925 historic railway station, making your visit a trip through the past, present and future!
The USS Kidd
For me, the USS Kidd was the best attraction along the waterfront. Dry docked in Baton Rouge since 1982, the ship was named for Admiral Kidd, the first U.S. flag officer to die in World War II. But the Kidd also has another nickname — the Pirate of the Pacific—since her crew flew the Jolly Roger on her maiden voyage, then had a pirate figure painted on the forward smokestack.
And just like pirates avoided capture on the water, so did the Kidd.
More than 13,000 Japanese kamikaze pilots died driving their planes directly into Allied ships during World War II — and the Kidd was one of those ships. Luckily, the ship survived to limp back to base, and eventually received a total refit before being deployed again during the Korean War. Today, the USS Kidd is a part of a Veterans Museum in Baton Rouge. Every April 11 they hold a Memorial event for that day, celebrating the 70th anniversary in 2015.
My museum guide on the tour, Buck, shared some of the stories from the three survivors of that fateful day. One had been a boy who joined the crew at 14, faking his age to fight for freedom and earning a purple heart for his actions on the Kidd. In addition to hearing about the blast that hit the ship’s hull, killing 38 crew and injuring another 55, we also saw photos taken by the ship’s doctor at the plane’s impact.
The USS Veterans Memorial Museum, situated next to the USS Kidd, also has a number of fascinating exhibits. My favorites were the Veterans Signature Quilt and the full-scale replica of the pilothouse of the 19th century paddlewheel riverboat Louisiana.
Nearby Things to See
When you’re in Baton Rouge, there are also some great nearby attractions. I particularly enjoyed the Cajun Pride Swamp Tours, where we still got to see half a dozen alligators sunning themselves in the wild. I found the Oak Alley Plantation — also called the Grande Dame of the Great River Road — intriguing, as it’s an example of a Creole plantation that’s a little less ostentatious. Some of the best exhibits are of the cabins occupied during the slavery period, including the names of those who lived in them.
Louisiana’s Old State Capitol – www.louisianaoldstatecapitol.org
Visit Baton Rouge – www.visitbatonrouge.com
USS Kidd Veterans Museum – www.usskidd.com
Oak Alley Plantation – www.oakalleyplantation.com/
Cajun Pride Swamp Tours – www.cajunprideswamptours.com/
Author: Linda Aksomitis is a contributor to HeartLand Boating magazine