Made in the Middle

It might lack the quirk and culture of New Orleans and Lafayette, but Baton Rouge still makes for one heckuva “bon temps”

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FOLLOWING INTERSTATE 110 into Baton Rouge, there’s a moment when, after a sweeping right turn to the west, the Louisiana State Capitol suddenly looms over the city. The Gothic tower, erected in 1932 by infamous Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, seems so out of place jutting out from the flat, green landscape that its appearance is enough to make you do a double take.

But that’s not the only double take you’ll do in Baton Rouge. If it’s your first visit to the city, you may be expecting shellfish shacks and alligator boots. After all, the wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter are a mere 80 miles down Old Man River, and Lafayette’s boudin-filled cafes are just across the mysterious Atchafalaya swamp. Anyone who’s been to those cities—Louisiana’s Creole and Cajun capitals, respectively—knows what a cultural tour de force they are. But while this capital, the official one, may play middle child to its siblings, that doesn’t mean it’s any less Louisianan. It just plays its cards closer to its chest.

Despite the Capitol building on its northern edge, downtown Baton Rouge is decidedly ungothic. From the hip Hotel Indigo and the glass-and-steel Shaw Center for the Arts to the coffee shops and music venues, the city is sleek and urban. It’s the kind of place where all it takes to go from the LSU Museum of Art to a rooftop sushi-and-cocktail lounge is an elevator ride, where glass-fronted office buildings share space with boutiques and farmers’ markets. But despite downtown’s lack of Spanish moss, one stroll down the riverwalk along the mighty Mississippi is enough to remind you exactly where you are.

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NOTTOWAY PLANTATION 

As you make your way south of downtown toward campus, the high-rises of the central business district soon give way to sprawling live oaks. Though they’re famous for shading the long driveways of antebellum plantations and New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue, here, the iconic trees simply provide shade for undergraduates making their way to class and young couples out walking with their children after school. It’s one reason the city feels so real compared to its neighbors. Where New Orleans and Lafayette can look like movie sets and feel like theme parks, Baton Rouge comes across as a place where people actually live, work and study. There’s no Bourbon Street here, no swamp-boat tours.

That’s not a bad thing—in fact, it makes it easier to stop playing tourist and experience the city like a local. And there’s no better place to do so than the Overpass, a strip of shops and restaurants not far from campus along Perkins Road near and, in fact, under Interstate 10. Though named by The New York Times as a game-day “must” back in 2004, this area is far from a tourist trap. Instead, it’s the kind of place where hip neighborhood eateries like City Pork Deli & Charcuterie, a sandwich shop and artisanal butchery, and Magpie Cafe, a locavore and caffeine-fanatic favorite, rub shoulders with old dives like George’s. It’s the kind of place where you can grab a seat and a beer and strike up a conversation with the regulars. And while that could easily happen in Little Rock, only in Baton Rouge can that conversation take place over a bowl of killer etouffee.

But as with a middle child who every once in a while just needs to yell look at me!, all that subtlety, all that quiet sense of place goes out the window most Saturdays come fall. New Orleans and Lafayette may reign supreme the rest of the year, but when the Louisiana State University Tigers take the field in Death Valley, there’s only one true capital in Louisiana. Purple and gold cover the state from one end to the other, and there is nowhere else Louisianans would rather be.

But even on those days, don’t expect the city to forget what it is.


LA LA LAND

The Best of Baton Rouge

STAY

Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center

Located right on the river in the center of downtown, the Hilton is everything you’d expect from a classic Southern hotel. Elegant, well-appointed lobby? Check. Room service and tastefully decorated suites? Check. Pool overlooking the Mississippi River? Why, of course. (The fact this art deco building once served as the Louisiana State Capitol is just a bonus.) (201 Lafayette St.; hilton.com)

Hotel Indigo Baton Rouge

With bright, modern rooms featuring floor-to-ceiling art, the accommodations at this downtown Baton Rouge hotel are perfect for those who prefer their old-school Southern charm mixed with a modern aesthetic. Plus, thanks to free bike rentals, you can explore the city on two wheels while burning off all those vacation calories. (200 Convention St.; ihg.com/hotelindigo)

The Stockade Bed and Breakfast

Named for the Highland Stockade once located on its grounds (and used by Union troops to guard the city), this bed-and-breakfast just a few minutes southeast of the university offers five guest rooms in a hacienda-style home. Don’t sleep in or you’ll miss the complimentary Southern breakfast. But even if you do, don’t worry. There’s an afternoon cocktail hour as well. (8860 Highland Road; thestockade.com)


EAT & DRINK

The Chimes

The Chimes, located literally just outside the gates of the university, is an LSU tradition. And like any good LSU tradition, it involves copious amounts of beer—some eight pages of local, national and international brews. If a cold pint isn’t your thing, rest easy—the seafood is even better than the beer. (3357 Highland Road; thechimes.com)

City Pork

It only takes one bite of the crowd-favorite Cubano—a mass of smoked pork shoulder and honey ham topped with Swiss, savory house pickles and Dijon—to see why the quick-serve City Pork Deli & Charcuterie has become not only a neighborhood staple, but among the best restaurants in the city. Those in the mood for a full-service establishment needn’t miss out. The newer City Pork Brasserie & Bar across town ups the ante with entrees like beef short ribs and rabbit with pork gyoza “dumplings.” (multiple locations; cityporkdeli.com

Parrain’s Seafood Restaurant

With its rough-hewn wood exterior, vintage signs and rusted, antique gas pumps, Parrain’s exudes shrimp-shack chic. Its assortment of fried seafood platters may be a case of the book matching the cover, but the eatery’s specialties—andouille-encrusted fish fresh from the Gulf, catfish topped with etouffee, and New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp, among others—offer some of the best seafood in the city. (3225 Perkins Road; parrains.com)

George’s

Its etouffee is mouthwatering and its burgers have landed it on national TV. But perhaps the best thing about George’s original location on Perkins Road is the atmosphere. The ceiling is covered in thousands of dollar bills—a tradition that dates back to when New Orleans’ sailors would pin money on the ceiling of their favorite bar so they’d have money to pay their tabs when they returned from sea. (2943 Perkins Road; georgesbr.com)

Juban’s

Sure, the menu is filled with creative south Louisiana dishes, but you don’t even have to open it—if you don’t order the fried, stuffed soft-shelled crab, you’re doing it wrong. Filled with crawfish, shrimp and crab, and topped with Creolaise sauce, it certainly earns its moniker: Hallelujah Crab. (3739 Perkins Road; jubans.com)


SEE & DO

Shaw Center for the Arts

Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the museum, education center and performing arts venue—which fills an entire city block in the heart of downtown—is home to many of the city’s arts organizations, including the LSU Museum of Art and the 325-seat Manship Theatre. The award-winning building alone is worth the visit—and can be best enjoyed from Tsunami, the center’s rooftop sushi and cocktail bar. (100 Lafayette St.; shawcenter.org)

Louisiana State Capitols

Say what you will about Louisiana politics—but they really know how to build capitol buildings that stand out in a crowd. The Old State Capitol (100 North Blvd.; louisianaoldstatecapitol.org), now a museum dedicated to the state’s political history, was built in the mid 1800s and looks more like a medieval castle than a traditional neoclassical dome, and the view from the current Capitol’s 27th-story observation deck is unrivaled. (900 N. 3rd St.; house.louisiana.gov)

Nottoway Plantation

Baton Rouge may not exude “Louisiana” quite like its siblings, but you don’t have to go far to find it. Several grand homes along the famous River Road to New Orleans are open to the public, but as the South’s largest remaining antebellum plantation, the Greek revival and Italianate Nottoway Plantation is its crown jewel. (31025 Louisiana Highway 1, White Castle; nottoway.com)

Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center

This 103-acre ecotourism and education center in south Baton Rouge is all about Louisiana’s most defining feature: the swamp. Check out the live animal exhibits inside its 9,500-square-foot facility or search the critters out yourself—armadillos, foxes, coyotes, deer and otters can sometimes be seen along the center’s boardwalks and gravel paths. (6201 Florida Blvd.; brec.org)


SHOP

Red Stick Spices Co.

From all-purpose Cajun and Creole blends to dish-specific seasonings perfect for shrimp, gumbo, red beans and rice, burgers and more, it’s easy to take a little bit of Louisiana home with you in the form of these hand-mixed, locally sourced spices from Mid City’s Red Stick Spices. But it’s not all spices all the time. The shop also has extracts, olive oils, balsamic vinegars, sea salts and even teas for the taking. (7970 Jefferson Highway; redstickspice.com)

Perkins Rowe

Located just a few miles down the road from the shops and restaurants that call the Overpass home, this new, mixed-use development is packed with chic national chains like Sur La Table and Kendra Scott. And if all that shopping wears you out, fuel up at one of its many eateries or with a glass of Pinot from Bin 77 Bistro & Wine. (10202 Perkins Rowe; perkinsrowe.com)

Edit by LBP

The buyers at this upscale women’s boutique are constantly jet-setting to New York and Los Angeles to curate a collection of the hottest items from the hottest lines such as Rag & Bone, Chloe, Veronica Beard and Loeffler Randall. Expect edgy art deco jewelry, architectural heels, stylish tunics and more. (3535 Perkins Road; editlbp.com)