Of course you know New Orleans…but did you know it’s NOT the capitol of Louisiana? The government seat is just north in beautiful Baton Rouge. But the legislature is not the only thing happening here…Baton Rouge is filled with rich history, amazing eats, spectacular art, and a gorgeous river walk.
Sure, you could do a day trip here…but if you ask me, that’s not nearly enough time to see it all. In fact, I recently spent four days here and barely scratched the surface.
We recommend you go for a long weekend and experience all these freebies! That will allow you the affordable direct Delta flight from Atlanta, plenty of dough to spend on seafood, and the ability to splurge at one of their amazing hotels! So read on for our list of the best FREE things to do in Baton Rouge!
Best Freebies Worth Your Time
Riverfront Plaza. The Riverfront Plaza in Downtown Baton Rouge is a must (and it’s super easy to get to if you’re staying at the hotels we recommend.) Walk along the Mississippi River levee for miles and miles, or just take in the sites from the Downtown area.
Also here you can see the USS Kidd Museum and the destroyer, and the Sing the River sculpture which is the start of the Heart Project Walk (more on that later.)
There are chairs and seats along the levee so you can take a load off…and stop for the sunset. The river runs north to south, and the sun sets directly across from those chairs. It’s amazing – most nights the sun loves to show off, and you’ve got to be there to enjoy it!
The heART Trail. I mentioned this above, but I also want to give it its own listing because it’s so cool. While you can pick up the trail at any location, it “starts” at the Sing the River sculpture, where about every 50 feet for the next three miles you are met with a sidewalk heart walking you through the downtown area.
The brain child of the heART Trail is artist Taylor Jacobsen, who we’ll discuss a little later. His idea was to develop a trail for the locals to shine light on the importance of daily exercise and heart healthy life styles. What he did for tourists is give us a chance to take the Downtown in stride, since it passes so many ideal local bars, museums, landmarks, coffee shops, restaurants, and more.
Cocha. To be fair, Cocha is not free…but I have to mention it for the work that the owners, Enrique Pinerua and Saskia Spanhoff, have been doing with afore-mentioned Taylor Jacobsen. Located in the 6th District, these brave souls are working diligently to beautify the space with murals, artistic landscapes, and a sense of community.
Again, you’re going to want to stop in to Cocha and try their delicious tapas-inspired dishes like the corncake stuffed with slow braised pork and jackfruit or the fried green plantains with mojo and guasacaca dipping sauces.
But even if you can’t enjoy an alfresco dinner that will have you singing, roll through his street and see the murals being created, the gardens coming to life, and a new way of experiencing Baton Rouge. Together Enrique and Taylor (left) are making a big difference.
Louisiana’s Old State Capitol. In 1854 the capitol building of Louisiana moved from NOLA to Baton Rouge, and thus the Louisiana’s Old State Capitol was born. (Now only “old” because there is a “new” one.) Architect James Dakin designed a prominent gothic style building. If for no other reason, you must visit to see the gorgeous dome.
There is no charge to tour the building or use the audio guide, and there is even a children’s room for your minions. If you can spare $3/pp then it’s worth it to see the 4D immersive theatrical presentation, too.
Southern University. LSU isn’t the only university in town. Southern University sits on the Mississippi and is a terrific place for a visit, even if you don’t know anyone attending. Walk the grounds and see the big Red Stick, have a picnic at one of the tables along the river, or see where Lizzo filmed her video “Good as Hell” with Southern University’s Human Jukebox and Dancing Dolls. Lordy, if you ever have a chance to see that band, DO IT! I heard them when I was there and they blew my socks off!
While you’re there, stop at the Museum of Art. The museum is dedicated to those African American pioneer artists who fought and won the battle for artistic freedom. Be sure to see the “Voices of Freedom” presentation where University staff adopt the lives of slaves and abolitionists and narrate their lives in first-person presentations as images of these slaves.
Louisiana State University. LSU has some freebies for you, too. Head over to see Mike the Tiger in his 15,000-square foot habitat. Mike VII, who has both Siberian and Bengal characteristics, was donated to LSU from a sanctuary in Okeechobee, Fla., called “Wild at Heart Wildlife Center.” He is the only live tiger on a college campus in the U.S.
While you’re here, you can also capture a selfie with the life-sized Mike statue across the street at Tiger Stadium.
Louisiana State Capitol. Out with the old; in with the new! At least, that was Governor Huey P. Long’s take. The tallest capitol in the U.S., the building is 450 feet high with 34 floors. You can tour it daily for free with a reservation, taking in the art deco interior, which juxtaposes the original capitol’s gothic interior. From the top you can see sensational views of Baton Rouge and the Mississippi!
There is also a free guided tour of the grounds, which cover 27 acres, and together with the building, create Louisiana’s tallest National Historic Landmark. My favorite view is from the Capitol Park Museum’s entry, where you can capture a sensational picture in the reflecting pool.
Parks and Nature Centers. The large green spaces around the city are perfect for enjoying on a budget. For the kids (or you adventurous Xers and Boomers) Perkins Road Community Park is the place to be. The “Extreme Sports Park!!” includes the a skate park, BMX raceway, a rock climbing wall, a community playground, tennis court and walking, skating and biking trails.
You’ll also want to take time for Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center. Inside you’ll find a 9500 sq ft building filled with live animal exhibits, photographic presentations of the site’s flora and fauna, natural artifact and mineral displays, and a sizeable, vintage waterfowl decoy carving collection. There is also about a mile of gravel pathway for exploring and seeing wildlife.
Finally, if you’re visiting in the warmer months, consider taking the kids to one of the free BREC Splash Pads. They are open March – October from 8am -8pm.
Red Stick Farmers Market. I am a sucker for a good farmers market...we love trying to eat healthy while traveling, seeing what’s new and fresh in an area of the country we’re not familiar with, and meeting the local farmers! Red Stick Farmers Market is an open-air, producer-only market, which means all of the produce a farmer sells under their tent was grown on their farm. The produce selection will vary depending on the season.
Parking and admission are free, and you can just roam the booths, but I’ll promise the sweet smell of Southern produce will have you reaching for your wallet. Cards accepted if you purchase tokens at the Market Info Booth. There is a Thursday location and a Saturday location to get your morning started right.
First Free Sundays. If you really want to paint the town red (see what I did there?) while you pinch a penny, then come for a visit on the first Sunday of the month where all of these adventures are… you guessed it…FREE! Here are museums offering free admission:
Veterans’ Museum and USS Kidd. Explore the museum and take a tour of the original World War II Fletcher-class Destroyer ship.
LSU Museum of Art. I was able to tour this museum while visiting Baton Rouge and it was my #1 favorite. If you can only pick one thing, this should be it! It’s one of the largest university-affiliated art exhibitions in the South, and there is family fun and free art from 1pm – 5pm on First Sundays.
Heading to Louisiana? Monroe is another great city to check out, about 3 hours north of Baton Rouge.
Louisiana Art & Science Museum. Take on the interactive art and science exhibits here. And if you feel inclined to sit for a planetarium show, tickets are reduced to $8.
Baton Rouge Gallery of Contemporary Art.Art is free here every Sunday after 4pm. Besides art, there is also live music!
Capitol Park Museum. I’m cheating with this last one. This museum is only free if you’re 6yo and younger. However, tickets are very affordable and the story here is one not to be missed.
Learn about Mardi Gras; American Indians from the region; slave markets, resistance, revolt and Jim Crow around Louisiana; and see (and hear) interactive exhibits about the music of Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop, Baton Rouge blues and New Orleans jazz.
Hotels to Splurge On
Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center. This is where I stayed during my Baton Rouge visit, and it was lovely! Location is everything here. You’re sitting right on the Mississippi river; I had a great view from my room. Not to mention that the pool overlooks the water, bridge, and ideal sunset location. You’re also in the heart of Downtown, and within walking distance to everything (I didn’t even have a car when I visited!)
Oh, and kiddy-corner from the hotel is Poor Boy Lloyds. Since 1967 they’ve been serving the most delicious po’ boys you’ve ever tasted. You’ll probably think ‘seafood’ and want to order the shrimp or crawfish…but I’m here to tell you the roast beef will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Back inside the hotel you’ll find a great bar with snacks and the Kingfish Grill restaurant with a kiddo menu. High chairs, playpens and cribs are available, as well as the pool and fitness center.
Rooms are large and clean. My double queen had enough space that the boys could put on their own gymnastics routine (OK, they didn’t…but they could have!) There is also a desk and fridge for your convenience.
Watermark Baton Rouge. If you’re a sucker for history, then Watermark is for you (and if you don’t stay here, I recommend you at least grab a drink at the bar!) The skyscraper originated in 1927 as the headquarters of Louisiana Trust & Savings Bank. Today you will find evidence of that in hand-painted ceiling murals, carved marble walls and staircases, and old bank vaults converted into meeting and dining spaces.
No pool, no child-friendly amenities, and no location on the water…but its grandeur makes up for that, especially if you’re sans kiddos. It’s also situated Downtown with easy access to everything.
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Disclosure: Thank you to Visit Baton Rouge, Louisiana Office of Tourism, and Travel South USA for hosting me in the city while at a conference. Opinions here are all our own, as always. Links may contain affiliates at no cost to you.