When French explorers first came upon the site of Baton Rouge in 1699, they found poles smeared in animal blood to designate the separate hunting grounds of the Houmas and Bayougoulas Indians. The area on these shallow bluffs therefore appeared on French maps as Baton Rouge – "red stick." Now capital of Louisiana and the fifth biggest port in the US, Baton Rouge is an easy-going city for its size. Even the presence of the state's largest universities, LSU and Southern, has done surprisingly little to raise the town anywhere much above "sleepy" status.
Surrounded by fifty acres of showpiece gardens, the magnificent Art Deco Louisiana State Capitol (daily 9am–4pm; free) serves as a monument to Huey Long, the "Kingfish," the larger-than-life Democratic governor who ordered its construction in 1931 and was assassinated in its corridors just four years later.
Mark Twain referred to Baton Rouge's Old State Capitol (in use from 1850 to 1932), 100 North Blvd, as "that monstrosity on the Mississippi." A crenellated, pseudo-Gothic pile on a mound overlooking the river, it's worth a look for the Museum of Political History (Tues– Sat 10am–4pm, Sun noon–4pm, also Mon 10am–4pm in April & May; $5), which illuminates Louisiana's scandal-ridden political history. The LSU Rural Life Museum, 4560 Essen Rd, just off I-10 southeast of downtown (daily 8.30am–5pm; $7), recreates pre-industrial Louisiana life through its carefully restored buildings – among them a plantation house, slave cottages, and a grist mill – spread over 25 acres in a sultry garden setting.