Budget Travel: Baltimore

Summary: When most people think of the city of Baltimore, tourism is the last thing that comes to their mind. The Maryland city known for high crime, seedy neighborhoods and social stratification often falls by the wayside when travelers consider the hipper east coast cities — Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Washington DC.

But nestled deep in the grit of Baltimore lies a dark warm culture, a thriving food and nightlife scene and volumes of history. Coupled with its proximity to the coast, Philly and DC, Baltimore serves as an excellent budget destination and home base for day trips through the east. Come along as we show you around.
Getting in: Ever since Southwest Airlines set up camp at BWI airport in ’93, Baltimore has enjoyed budget airfares across the United States and to foreign destinations alike. Visiting from Detroit? Book far enough in advance and you can get flights for around $100. Visiting from London? You can get to Baltimore direct on British Airways.

From the airport it’s an easy ride on the light rail into the city for $1.60.

If the rail lines fit your fancy, Amtrak, where you can often find good weekend fares, serves Baltimore from all over the east. Or you can even take the MARC train up from DC for less than $10.

An even less expensive option is to use the Chinatown Bus, that despite dropping you off on the outskirts of the city, will get you all over the east for often less than a meal at Olive Garden.

Where to Stay: Unlike New York and Toronto, you can’t just plop down in most places in Baltimore and consider yourself safe. Crime, while in digression, is still a concern in the city and it’s best that you stay in safer neighborhoods during your visit.

That said, there are several excellent, rewarding neighborhoods, around the city that are both walkable and full of culture.

  • Right downtown is always the best bet if you’re looking for safety first. Adjacent to the Inner Harbor and a short hop away from Fells Point, the largely commercial region is a good central hub for attacking the city. You can get there in an inexpensive taxi from Baltimore Penn Station or via light rail for next to nothing, and there are a wide variety of traditional hotels available for you to use your points at. The Holiday Inn right downtown is always a safe, inexpensive bet.
  • Just south of downtown and on the waterfront is the Inner Harbor, the revitalized social and tourist hub in the city. It will be more scenic and you’ll have better access to the sights here, but it’ll subsequently be more expensive than downtown spots.
  • Fells Point (pictured) is just adjacent to the Inner Harbor and is the “bar and restaurant” core of the city (try the chowder.) With the wealth of activity in the area it’s also an excellent choice for accommodation, although hotels are not as numerous. As an alternative, there are a variety of delectable rentals that you can find on vrbo.com for a very good price.
  • Other neighborhoods including Towson and St. Charles Village host pockets of hotels and activity. If you do decide to stay in these areas though, make sure you do your homework and know how safe it is before you commit.

What to See:

  • Edgar Allan Poe’s grave: While the Poe House and Museum are in a seedy part of town, the poet’s final resting place is actually quite close to the downtown area. On the corners of Fayette and Greene Streets just west of downtown you’ll find Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, where the likes of Poe, James McHenry and Philip Barton Key are buried. Make sure you stop by Poe’s tombstone and drop off your pennies. Oh and the best part? It’s absolutely free.
  • The National Aquarium in Baltimore: One of the best aquariums in the nation, pictured, is at the far end of the Inner Harbor. The sprawling exhibit is host to 16,000 creatures with a multiple story shark tank, dolphin display and rooftop rain forest. Admission for adults is just over $20.
  • At the center of downtown’s activity, The Inner Harbor is the revitalized host to much of the city’s social and commercial activity. You can find all sorts of the standard big city accoutrements here, from the ESPN Sports zone to the Hard Rock Cafe, but be forewarned that it’s a very touristy and some say, less authentic Baltimore. The USS Constellation is also docked here.
  • Founded in 1876, The Johns Hopkins University is one of the oldest, most prestigious research institutions in the United States. Their Homewood campus, a quick cab ride north of down town, is set in a beautiful Federalist style where you can roam between campus buildings, stop in a cafe for a break and watch the students pass by. Walking east from the campus, you can sneak into the top of Charles Village where you can get some excellent pub food at the Charles Village Pub.
  • Take a day trip out to Washington DC or Philadelphia. For a mere few dollars you can slip into either of the more expensive cities for the day, enjoy the sites and take the evening train back into Baltimore for the night. You can usually catch the MARC from Penn station for a few dollars while the Amtrak to Philadelphia can be a bit pricier. Annapolis is also fairly close, but you’ll have to rent a car to get there.

Finally, remember to stay on your toes and practice good tourism in Baltimore. By the numbers, the city isn’t as safe as most on the east coast, but if you’re smart, attentive and logical you’ll love the city, its culture and you’ll even save a few dollars by staying in a Gadling Budget Destination.