Baltimore is an urban American success story with an uplifting ending — a Cinderella kind of tale. Once gritty and industrialized, Maryland’s largest city has shed its down-at-the-heels character and transformed into a gleaming tourist magnet with world-class attractions, restaurants and sports. Its nickname, Charm City, says it all.
The civic revitalization movement started in 1980 with Harborplace, the lively downtown marketplace jammed with foods to eat and souvenirs to snap up. Eventually, other developments began to crop up along the Inner Harbor’s waterfront, from the National Aquarium and the American Visionary Art Museum to the Power Plant (a dining and entertainment complex anchored by the Hard Rock Cafe) and Port Discovery Children’s Museum.
The adventures, of course, don’t dead-end at the Inner Harbor. The city is a mecca for baseball aficionados. Any stroll through America’s favorite pastime should include Oriole Park at Camden Yards, one of the most fabled ballparks in the country, as well as the adjacent Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards and the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, which pays homage to the Sultan of Swat.
To really understand Charm City, you need to wander its many distinctive neighborhoods, which resemble a collection of quaint villages within the larger borders of the metropolis. Such areas as Fell’s Point, Canton, Federal Hill, Little Italy, Harbor East and Mount Vernon contain treasures — historic, culinary and otherwise — that are ripe for discovery. Most of the neighborhoods are within walking distance of the Inner Harbor. However, if your feet are complaining, take a 90-minute spin through the ‘hoods aboard the new purple Trolley Tours, the only tourmobiles to depart from the Baltimore Visitor Center. The city also provides free transportation on the Charm City Circulator (four routes) and the Water Taxi Harbor Connector (two), both apropos forms of travel in this major seaport town with landlubber appeal.
You can spend an entire day and then some around the Inner Harbor. Start with Harborplace & the Gallery, a waterfront complex connected by a public plaza that hosts street performers and concerts on weekends. In addition to shopping (more than 100 stores) and eating (dozens of restaurants and food stands), visitors can test their sea legs, and maritime knowledge, aboard a trio of warships now at peace.
Alongside Harborplace, the National Aquarium is a splashy institute with dolphin shows, a large ray exhibit, a multi-story shark tank and a spooky jellyfish exhibit. Also nearby: Port Discovery, a hands-on children’s museum for ages 2 to 10 that was designed in part by Walt Disney Imagineering, and Power Plant Live!, a vibrant entertainment and dining compound that recently received an $11 million facelift. The renovation amped up the good times, adding to the already packed roster the Baltimore Comedy Factory; PBR Baltimore, a country-western bar; and Luckie’s Liquors, a club with live music and the city’s largest canned beer selection.
Flanking Harborplace’s other side is the Maryland Science Center, which causes mouths to drop with full-size dinos, an IMAX theater and a planetarium. Farther along the harbor, the American Visionary Art Museum celebrates the extraordinary creations of self-trained artists who follow their own wacky muses. Innovation also seeps into the museum’s restaurant, Mr. Rain’s Fun House, which serves artful cocktails and modern American cuisine.
We love the historical Mount Vernon neighborhood, where many 19th-century mansions have been converted into museums, restaurants and shops. The prime attraction is the Walters Art Museum, with its wide-ranging collection ranging from ancient Egyptian artifacts to 19th-century European paintings by Monet, Sisley and Delacroix. Also in the area are the stunning George Peabody Library and the Maryland Historical Society, where you can see the original draft of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has one of the world’s largest collections of works by Henri Matisse, as well as a strong sampling of modern and contemporary pieces. You can relax in the landscaped sculpture gardens.
When it’s time to play ball, take in a game at the new-but-looks-old Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which recently replaced the old seats, installed viewing platforms on the club level and improved sightlines. Between innings, swing by the new concessions to sample such home-town treats as Berger cookies (vanilla wafers coated in chocolate ganache) and bratwurst cooked in Natty Boh, the local brew. For a triple play of sports attractions, stop by the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum and the Sports Legend Museum, whose equal opportunity exhibits cover baseball, football, college teams and soccer. While you’re in the neighborhood, hop on pop culture at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, where toys and comic book characters, such as Batman and Spiderman, illustrate the history.
The waterfront neighborhood of Fell’s Point, Baltimore’s original downtown, oozes ambience with streets paved in Belgian blocks, colorfully named pubs (i.e., One-Eyed Mike’s, Ale Mary’s), indie boutiques, and restored 18th- and 19th-century rowhouses.
The once-blue-collar neighborhood of Canton, which abuts Fell’s Point, showcases rowhouses, marble stoops and a waterfront park with a Korean War memorial. Much of the action centers on O’Donnell Square and the repurposed Can Company, a repository of restaurants and shops.
Baltimore is best known for its seafood, especially crab cakes, and you could easily eat your way around town in a quest to find the city’s best. But don’t overlook Little Italy for homey Italian fare or the many up-and-coming neighborhoods for other types of ethnic cuisine. Many eateries dot the Inner Harbor area, but they tend to be chains and a tad overpriced.
Inner Harbor: Harborplace is a great family dining destination with many familiar options, such as M&S Grill, the Cheesecake Factory and Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries. J. Paul’s, a spawn of the classic Georgetown establishment, and Lenny’s Deli, where breakfast is always a la mode, recently set down stakes here. For a quick bite, graze the numerous “stalls” selling a range of easy-snacking specialties, such as fried dough, raw oysters and pizza.
Fell’s Point: This is arguably the best all-around destination for foodies, with lots of tough decisions to make: Go casual at Peter’s Inn or at Duda’s Tavern? Try the smoked crab cakes at Pierpoint or the Mediterranean tapas at Pazo? The steamed mussels at the Pier or at Bertha’s? You can also make it easy on yourself and grab a table at the Greek-influenced Black Olive, known for serving the best seafood in town.
Little Italy: This Italian-American enclave lies between the Inner Harbor and Fell’s Point. Sabatino’s and Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano are classics.
Mount Vernon: Try Sotto Sopra for nouvelle Northern Italian or The Helmand for Afghan cuisine. At the latter, order the kabuli, which blends pallow (an Afghan-style rice) with chunks of lamb tenderloin, raisins and glazed julienne of carrots.
Harbor East: Chazz: A Bronx Original, which was developed by actor Chazz Palminteri (“Bullets Over Broadway,” “A Bronx Tale,”), brings the NYC borough south with Italian-American dishes and pizza baked in a coal-fired oven. Cinghiale finds its culinary inspiration across the Atlantic, in the Milan and Bologna of “La Dolce Vita.” Sidle up to the seviche bar at Talara, which specializes in Latin American small plates.
Crab Cakes and More: Inside the centuries-old Lexington Market, J.W. Faidley cooks up some of the city’s best crab cakes. For adventurous eaters, the market has stall after stall of regional foods, plus picnic tables scattered around the huge hall. Dig into a tasty mess of steamed crabs at Gunning’s Seafood Restaurant, 15 miles south of Baltimore in Hanover, MD. Closer to home, Miss Shirley’s has three “locations,” including one that rolls around the streets in a food truck.
Most Romantic Restaurant: For bring-your-date-to-dinner night, try the acclaimed Kali’s Court, which serves Mediterranean-inflected, romance-kissed seafood in Fell’s Point.
Best Restaurant: Charleston, near the water in Harbor East, is renowned for its nouvelle Southern cuisine, A-list wine list and top-notch service.
Shopping in Baltimore
Baltimore knows how to shop, with bustling malls, friendly neighborhood boutiques and a concentrated area of antiques. On the hunt for souvenirs? Anything bearing an Orioles logo is a safe bet. Crab memorabilia is also popular and easy to find; Faidley’s even ships frozen crab cakes to your kitchen.
Spread over three buildings, Harborplace & the Gallery are chock-full of clothing boutiques, souvenir shops and specialty stores. Harborplace comprises the Light Street Pavilion and the Pratt Street Pavilion; the Gallery is attached to the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel.
Mount Vernon’s Antique Row, America’s oldest antiques district (circa 1840’s), spans the 800 block of North Howard Street and the 200 block of West Read Street. Browse for European and American period furnishings, fine art, special-edition books, Chinese porcelain and more.
One of Baltimore’s hottest new shopping districts is Harbor East. Offerings include designer clothing, handcrafted jewelry, handbags, fine wines and chocolates, and other upscale goods.
Find unique and quirky shops on “The Avenue” (West 36th Street between Keswick and Falls Road) in Hampden. Keep your credit card at the ready for art, books, vintage clothes, antiques and housewares.
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown; updated by Andrea Sachs