Whether it's for listening to great music, relishing a restful weekend, or exploring the deep-fried history of Louisiana, this sleepy town is worth getting to know. St. Francisville lies just 30 miles north of Baton Rouge but seems far from the hustle and bustle of Louisiana's capital city.
St. Francisville is a crossroads you'd miss if you were moving too fast. In fact, you can easily overlook it on an even slower first pass because it doesn't have the traditional town square. It's said to be the second oldest town in Louisiana. (Natchitoches claims itself the first.) Situated among the first bumps of the Appalachian Mountains and high on a bluff above the Mississippi River, St. Francisville began as a cemetery for a nearby monastery in the 1770s. Through the years, the culture of the town has been flavored as the Spanish and English came and went, cotton planters went boom and bust, and the ever-present and unpredictable Mississippi River ebbed and flowed. The result is a vibrant hodgepodge of people, food, architecture, and activities that you won't find in any other like-size town.
Where To Go and What To Do
St. Francisville is in the heart of plantation country, so you'd be remiss if you didn't visit a few of them. Because the state historic sites are open from 9 to 5 daily and many shops don't open until later, it's a good idea to start at one of the two must-see historic homes, Rosedown or Oakley, and go from there. There are a total of seven homes to tour in the area, but these two have been restored the best and feature the most to see on the grounds.
Rosedown dates back to 1834 and was originally the heart of a nearly 3,500-acre plantation. Make time to take the guided tour; it offers the best glimpse of what life at Rosedown was like. Be sure to walk the grounds. The gardens bloom this time of year with glorious displays of massive azaleas underneath 10-foot camellia bushes. The more ordered flower and parterre gardens are a must stop, as well as the much photographed live oak allée. You may not have 28 acres to cultivate at home, but the many ideas at Rosedown can offer great inspiration for your own garden.
Oakley Plantation anchors the Audubon State Historic Site. That's because John James Audubon tutored the owner's daughter for a short time around 1821. The house is older and much simpler than Rosedown, but inside you can see several rooms that look as if Audubon has just stepped out for a minute. This was his first introduction to the area, but its lush forests and wildlife ultimately led him to paint 80 of his Birds of America paintings in and around St. Francisville, 32 of them at Oakley alone. The ones you'll see today at Oakley are first edition prints.
Once you've experienced the history of the town, St. Francisville offers a variety of choices on what to do next. If the weather is nice, wander the town on foot. St. Francisville is not big, so you can walk it in an afternoon. Start by having lunch at the Magnolia Café; then pop into the Mosaic Garden next door for quirky garden gifts and ornaments. When you get to Ferdinand Street, turn left, and peruse the shops that line both sides. Be sure not to miss Miller's on Main, where you can meet potter Michael Miller. You'll soon come upon Grace Episcopal Church. The site dates to 1827, but the current brick church was built in 1858. Spring is a good time to see what's blooming in the live oak-canopied cemetery.