Baltimore–Charm City, Mobtown, Monument City, Birdland, Crabalot, Land of Pleasant Living–is a town:
- whose people repelled a British invasion by land and sea just days after these royal forces left our nation’s capital smoldering in glowing embers
- whose rise came from the trade made possible by the US National Road and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that linked its port with rustbelt partners in the Midwest
- that required federal occupation during the Civil War to make sure it stayed on the Union side
- where 70 blocks burned in the span of 30 hours in 1904
- that rioted in 1835 (bank riot), rioted in 1861 (Confederate sympathizers), rioted in 1873 (railroad strikes), rioted in 1968 (assassination of MLK), and did not riot in 2013 (Ravens super bowl victory)
- that was once the 2nd largest port of entry for immigrants
- that is 63% African-American
- where people lay newspaper down on their patio table, listen to dem O’s on the radio, and spend hot summer afternoons dissecting and devouring Maryland’s famed Old Bay-covered crustacean
Just 38 miles to the south of the City on the Bay is another city exploding with new growth and local ambition reflecting its national and global power. My city is connected by a rickety 52 minute train that still passes over wooden cross ties, but functions mostly oblivious to the action to the south. My city is a very different colorful textured kind of place. Welcome to Baltimore. This is not the Visit Baltimore tour or the Wire tour.
Where to Stay?
While I do not regularly book nights in my hometown, here’s where my list would start. The Admiral Fell Inn, with architectural features that date to the 1780s, certainly has ghosts. It’s provided lodging for over 50,000 seamen over its long history, and today it’s evolved into well-reviewed hotel, sporting a great location at that.
You could also step into the grandeur of the 1906 Baltimore & Ohio Railroad headquarters, built from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1904, and stay at the new Hotel Monaco. The building is a testament to the power of the Era of Railroad, with sculptural adornments like the Roman god Mercury, a mythological symbol of commerce. You may desire cheaper places than these two, but try and stay in Fells Point, downtown/Inner Harbor East, or Mt. Vernon.
What to do?
Baltimore is a city of 200+ neighborhoods. These eight are the most visitor friendly: Federal Hill, downtown/Inner Harbor/Harbor East, Little Italy, Fells Point, Canton, Mt. Vernon, Hampden, and Station North, for the young and edgy.
Don’t be afraid to go into the Baltimore Visitor Center (BVC) to begin your search for the right museum, but be wary that their mandate is to hawk the goods, the hotels, and the restaurants of their subscribing members. The BVC can help you decide from among 30+ museums spanning a range of topics from art, railroads, industry, dentistry, to Great Blacks in Wax. There are many good museum choices to meet the needs of the curious. I won’t completely punt on the museum options–here are a few specifics.
Visit Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine unless you absolutely hate history. The nerdy rangers and the on-site film help interpret a very distressing couple of days for Baltimore and the country. When 5000 troops and an armada of naval ships attack your city with the intent of burning it to the ground, it makes for a quite a story. But the outcome turned out in our favor, and we are still patiently waiting for Hollywood to make a major motion picture out of the very worthy narrative that is the Defense of Fort McHenry and the penning of the Star Spangled Banner. The fort sits at the end of a little peninsula in a park-like setting, affording great views of different city neighborhoods and the outer harbor. From here, you can imagine naval ships tossing cannonballs your way, or watch the 21st century ocean-going vessels importing and exporting. You can get to Ft. McHenry either by the free Charm City Circulator (Banner Route) or the harbor taxi during the summer. If you need lunch in the neighborhood, go to Hull Street Blues or consider packing a picnic.
The American Visionary Art Museum features the works of the “non-professional” artists. I saw an amazing emotional exhibit featuring the art of a girl imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. More traditional art enthusiasts should go to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum.
I wish our town had a well-marked sightseeing loop for bicyclists, but sadly we don’t. Therefore, the best way to see Baltimore by bicycle and not get lost is to time your visit with Tour Dem Parks or Tour Du Port, two well-organized rides that show off a lot of the city. The new Baltimore Bike Party offers riders a short dusk/night-time ride and takes place the last Friday night of the month. It departs from the Washington Monument and generally ends at a brew pub. Check ahead to see what the theme for the ride is. Bicycles can be rented at Light Street Cycles and Race Pace Bicycles, both in Federal Hill or Twenty20 Cycling in Hampden.
For runners, there are many events that can give you the flavor of the city–from the rigorous marathon down to much easier choices. Every Monday evening, you can join a friendly group called the Federal Hill Runners for a nice six-miler covering some interesting parts of town that sometimes ends with a beer at a local tavern. If running or walking on your own, I suggest the Baltimore waterfront promenade or the perimeter of Patterson Park: each offer panoramic city views.
It should be easy to rent kayaks in our harbor city, but our old infrastructure can’t keep the sewage out of the water, so for now this dream will have to wait.
To quickly jump into Baltimore’s creative scene (one area in which Baltimore may claim to one-up D.C.), touch base with Station North Arts & Entertainment near the train station or the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown. More formal options are the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Mt. Vernon and the performances at the beautifully restored Hippodrome downtown. Baltimore has festivals on most weekends in the warmer months. Artscape, Honfest, Maryland Film Festival, and the Fells Point Fun Festival are some of the larger ones.
You’ve got to eat. I won’t leave you stranded. For breakfast, go to the Blue Moon (Fells Point) and get there before 9:15 on weekends to get a table. The place is cozy and food is tasty. Other options are Miss Shirley’s (downtown), Golden West (Hampden), Gertrude’s at the BMA (Charles Village), Spoons (Federal Hill), or on Sunday morning, the Baltimore Farmers Market (downtown).
For lunch, try Mama’s on the Half Shell on O’Donnell Square (Canton). You can eat Maryland seafood while enjoying an outside table and watching the natives. If downtown, get a great crab cake at Faidley’s in the lively 225 year old Lexington Market.
If you had crab in your omelet and a crab cake for lunch, you are off to a good start. But for dinner I’ll offer something different. The Helmand is a fantastic Afghan restaurant (Mt. Vernon). Order their kaddo borwani (baked pumpkin) appetizer. Crème Restaurant Lounge is teetering on my list, but I have a soft spot for it. I love the southern-style food and the cool architectural space, but be wary of the quality of service. If you are looking to treat yourself to a special farm-to-table restaurant, hop on the light rail for an interesting panoramic ride of the eclectic Baltimore Jones Falls valley, get off at the Woodberry stop, and head to Woodberry Kitchen (be sure to make a reservation). This well-deservedly high-ranking restaurant is part of the old Clipper Mill, a former machine shop, iron foundry, and cotton duck mill. Be patient with light rail; it should come every fifteen minutes, but pay attention to the schedule. Other good choices for dinner are: Geckos (Southwestern/Canton), Jasa Kabob (Pakistani/Canton), Samos (Greek/Greektown), Café Gia (Italian/Little Italy), and Joe Squared (American/Station North).
For a beer, stop in at the Brewer’s Art. The restaurant and bar sprawl across the first floor and the basement of a grand 19th century Victorian mansion. Fair warning: their beers are potent. In Fells Point, Max’s Taphouse taps 140 rotating drafts. Draft Magazine agrees with my choices. The harbor neighborhoods have a local watering hole on almost every block, a vestige of Baltimore’s working class past, where corner bars functioned as today’s living rooms.
Getting around (without a car)
The free Charm City Circulator will get you to about 2/3 of where you need to go. Use it! The Water taxi is a good way to and from harbor neighborhoods, but it can get hot, crowded, and sticky during peak tourist season. Unfortunately our subway is useless for visitors. Light rail is a north/south option from the airport to downtown or further north to Woodberry Kitchen. You can also get to the Avenue in Hampden by taking a half mile walk from the Woodberry stop. If you must go to or come from Washington, MARC or Amtrak trains are usually the best bet.
Baltimore is a big enough and interesting enough place, so much so that this post does not cover it all. Charm City is pretty charming. Come to Baltimore and have a great time–just don’t go in the water.
Pre-gaming at Pickles Pub before Orioles Game at Camden Yards.
The Avenue in Hampden.