Summer Hotspot: Baltimore, Maryland

If scenes from “The Wire” are the only images that come to mind when you think of Baltimore, it’s time to reevaluate. The city is a hodgepodge of distinct neighborhoods, including historic Fells Point, where you can take your pick from more than 120 pubs, and quirky Hampden, where you still might be able to spot a beehive hairdo straight out of a John Waters film. Although Baltimore is only a stone’s throw away from Washington, D.C., and a short drive from Philadelphia and New York, it’s a charming, comfortable city with its own culture and a lively arts scene. Plus, the city has several events happening this summer that are worth a trip.This summer, Baltimore will ring in a three-year celebration commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with the Star-Spangled Sailabration, a maritime festival that will bring dozens of tall ships and warships to the city’s bustling Inner Harbor from June 13-19. The Inner Harbor is a pretty public space filled with shops, museums, ships and restaurants. It is overlooked by Federal Hill, a park that sits on a prominent hill that was a lookout during the Civil War and the War of 1812. Don’t miss the American Visionary Art Museum, just to the west of Federal Hill, which is filled with oddball outsider art. On Thursday nights during the summer, the museum plays movies on the side of the building facing Federal Hill, which turns into a makeshift amphitheater.

From August 31 to September 3, IndyCars will race around a 2.04-mile temporary circuit set up around the Inner Harbor for the Baltimore Grand Prix. The circuit passes many Baltimore landmarks – including Oriole Park at Camden Yards – and contains 12 turns, one of which is an adrenaline-pumping hairpin turn. Race fans from around the world are expected to descend on the city and the crowds are expected to surpass 150,000 people.

Also in the Inner Harbor, Phillips Seafood – known for creating the first ever crab shack in Ocean City – recently moved to a new space in a restored power plant along the water. When doing so, Phillips opened up a huge new crab deck that juts out in the water. Visitors shouldn’t miss the true Chesapeake Bay experience of ordering up a bucket of clams and cracking them open in the sunshine. Wash the crabs down with Baltimore’s most famous beer, National Bohemian (better known as “Natty Boh” to Baltimoreans – just look for the can or bottle with the mustachioed man), and you have a true Baltimore experience.

Don’t forget that there is a lot to do in Baltimore beyond the Inner Harbor, including Artscape, the largest free arts festival in the country that features funky art cars, musical performances and plenty of neat art to peruse.

[flickr image via sneakerdog]

Exploring the Baltimore Beyond the Inner Harbor

To me, a huge fan of Baltimore but still a tourist, it seemed like a random Saturday in the early summer. But in Charles Village, a neighborhood between Johns Hopkins and the harbor, it was the weekend of the “Pile of Craft” fair at St. John’s church. I found out about it by chance, leafing through a copy of City Paper while doing laundry. (One accumulates lots of laundry on long road trips!)

Dozens of tables filled the sanctuary, selling prints, jewelry, art, fashion, toys, gizmos, and all manner of decorative doodads. A food truck was parked on 26th Street, selling fancy grilled cheese sandwiches, as neighbors bumped into each other outside, catching up-and probably discussing the day’s haul from the nearby farmer’s market.

This was Baltimore, alive and fun and quirky. I’d found Charm City a couple miles north of the Inner Harbor.


I wasn’t staying there either. I’d found a hotel built on the site of a brewery in what real estate people and Baltimore boosters are calling Harbor East, a little east of the National Aquarium and a little west of Fells Point, the historic district that’s one of the city’s busy nightlife districts. The Fairfield Inn & Suites Downtown caught me eye for more than just the free wifi, free breakfast and free bikes to borrow: It’s a newly built, LEED-certified hotel that’s embraced the architectural vernacular of its city.

The general manager, Roberta Wittes, explained as she took me on a tour, pointing out the row home that’s been integrated into the building and now serves as a presidential suite. The hotel is built on the site where the original Star Spangled Banner was sewn: Mary Young Pickersgill finished the flag that would fly over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 at 101 President Street, when it was Claggett’s brewery.

While the Fairfield was built to echo the look of an old brewery, Woodberry Kitchen, the city’s hottest restaurant, is set in a foundry built around 1870. The menu lists the farms and fishermen of the Chesapeake Bay region who provide the night’s ingredients, making it as of-the-moment as a restaurant can be, with handsome waiters parading around in plaid button-ups. The night I had dinner, Duff Goldman was sitting at a two-top and got up to say hey to the guys working the wood burning oven.

There are, of course, still problems in Baltimore, starting with blocks and blocks and blocks of abandoned housing that are both symptom and cause of urban decay. With a talented local photographer named Patrick Joust, who happens to have a day job as a research librarian, I toured some of the more depressed corners of the city. An understatement: It’s not all new hotels and fancy restaurants.

But among the boarded up row homes are signs of civic pride, like Roots Fest 2011, an event held in West Baltimore the Sunday after the craft fair. The idea is to reunify a neighborhood that was rent in two by the construction of a highway that’s now been partially abandoned. (Traffic still flows in one direction.) Attendance was light, but that the festival would happen at all is a sign of progress, Patrick said.

I found more good news at Lexington Market, the home of Faidley’s, the restaurant that’s been praised so many times it shouldn’t need to make lump crab cakes that taste this good. But they do. The line still snakes around the space, all the way to the lobster tank, as fish mongers banter in thick Baltimore accents. Who needs the Inner Harbor anyway?

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 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.