Welcome to Baltimore, Hon
Story by Carolyn Males
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor shimmers with sound and color: The blast of a water taxi’s horn as it maneuvers among pleasure craft, tour boats, and tugs. The clank of the rigging in the USS Constellation, the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat. The bold geometry of the National Aquarium and its rooftop rainforests. The glass pavilions of Harborplace shops at the Inner Harbor and eateries. If you did nothing more than stroll along the red brick promenade edging the waterfront, you’d have more than enough to fill your free time. Explore the Maryland Science Center packed with hands-on fun. Climb a screw-pile lighthouse, roam a Coast Guard lightship and test your tolerance for claustrophobia in the cramped quarters of a submarine.
Head east to Little Italy and Harbor East for shops and restaurants. Then take an evening stroll through Fells Point, a once scruffy sailors’ hangout where music pours out of pub doorways. And to the west? Join the roar of the crowd from Oriole Park at Camden Yards or the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium. That’s just for starters.
Go beyond the harbor and you’ll find that Baltimore is a collection of villages and neighborhoods, each with its distinct flavor: leafy enclaves like Roland Park; former blue-collar mill areas like Hampden-Woodberry; and Formstone-clad runs of row houses like Highland town, just to name a few. And yes, Baltimore does have its dark side, portrayed in television shows like The Wire and Homicide Life on the Street, hardscrabble sections of decrepit blocks not on any visitor’s itinerary. But that being said, the rest of the city beckons with offerings that are highbrow, quirky lowbrow and everything in between.
When a waitress asks, “What can I getcha, Hon?,” ask if she’s a local. She’ll more than likely nod and say “Born and bred in Bawlmer, Hon.” Or better yet, sound like a insider and ask if she’s from the Charm City, which is one of the city’s nicknames.
Colonists began settling around the Patapsco River in the 1600s. After 1729, when Baltimore was officially established, the new town began draining and filling in marshes to create a large bustling port that would attract immigrants from Germany and other European nations, creating a rich ethnic mix.
The British, noting the city’s now thriving commerce and strategic location, took aim during the War of 1812.
As bombs crackled in the skies above Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key penned “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But 47 years later, in a twist of fate, his grandson Francis Key Howard and a group of fellow secessionists found themselves imprisoned in that same spot, promptly dubbed “The Baltimore Bastille.”
As tensions between the North and South arose, Baltimoreans had straddled the divide. In 1826, abolitionist Frederick Douglass was sent to work as a house slave in Fells Point. Twelve tumultuous years later, disguised as a free black seaman, he would make a dramatic escape north via train and boat. In 1850, Harriet Tubman began her first rescue mission, hiding her niece and her children in Fells Point until she got them safely to Philadelphia. (To learn more, visit Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.)
During this period, Johns Hopkins, a successful entrepreneur and a fervent abolitionist, grew concerned about the cholera and yellow fever epidemics plaguing the city. In 1870, he willed funds for the establishment of a hospital with medical training schools, a university, plus an orphanage for children of color. Today, Johns Hopkins University is one of the world’s premier medical research centers and is ranked as one of the top global universities.
Art lovers will want to devote a few hours to wandering through the Baltimore Museum of Art’s outstanding galleries of American and European masterpieces, as well as its African, decorative, and contemporary art. The BMA’s not-to-be-missed Cone Collection of Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and Cézanne is one of the finest in the country. The Walters Art Gallery sprang out of Baltimore business tycoon William Walters, and his son Henry’s passion for art. The elder Walters, a Southern sympathizer, sat out the Civil War in Europe where he collected anything that caught his fancy.
Today, the museum holds over 36,000 pieces ranging from mummies to pre-Columbian pottery, illuminated manuscripts, armor, sculpture, paintings and a major Asian art collection.
Want music? Catch blues, jazz, rock, rap, country, steel drums, even ukulele playing at festivals, clubs, pubs, restaurants, flea markets and parks around town. If you’re in the mood for classical, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Maestra Marin Alsop performs at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute offers an array of concerts throughout the year.
The top venues for theater are Center Stage, a professional regional company now in its 55th year; Everyman Theatre with its resident troupe; and The Arena Players, the nation’s oldest continually operating African-American community theater.
The Hippodrome, a former vaudeville and movie house, entertains with crowd-pleasers like Fiddler on the Roof while the Modell Lyric venue features headliners like John Cleese and Celtic Thunder.
Baltimore’s old mills and warehouses have become the hottest venue for many fine artisanal restaurants. The Woodberry Kitchen in a refurbished foundry sources ingredients for its award-winning new American cuisine directly from farms and watermen. Nearby at Meadow Mill, La Cuchara serves up Basque cuisine in the former home of a London Fog factory.
The Helmand, on downtown Charles Street, has been a favorite with Baltimoreans for almost 30 years with Afghani dishes like kabobs, Aushak (ravioli filled with leeks), lamb and beef challows.
Neighborhood eateries in Little Italy and Greektown, and food stalls in places like the historic Cross Street Market in Federal Hill, serve up ethnic and local specialties.
But no matter where you go or what you eat in Charm City, have a good time, Hon!
Suggestions from a Local…
My husband, Dick, and I moved to Hilton Head in 2006. We lived most of our lives in the Baltimore-Washington area and still head back to see family and friends and check out old favorites and discover new ones. What makes our trips north more fun was that years ago, I co-authored a guidebook to Baltimore. It gave me the excuse to explore the city in depth, venturing into different neighborhoods, interviewing a variety of local characters and visiting great museums and offbeat spots. Today, it’s a difficult task to narrow food, attractions, and lodging choices in this big city, so I’ve picked some stylish and some very Bawlmer places.
3 Things to Do
Experience Offbeat Art Baltimore brought the world John Water’s oddball movies like Hairspray and Pink Flamingoes, both starring Divine, a 300-pound drag queen. So it’s only natural that it boasts the American Visionary Art Museum, one of the most original galleries in the country. Walk beneath whirligigs and enter the world of outsider artists who paint, sculpt, and scavenge bits of debris to fashion their unusual and always interesting visions.
Explore Civil War History We South Carolinians know about Fort Sumter. However, it turns out the first bloodshed of the Civil War occurred here on April 19, 1861 as Confederate sympathizers hurled stones and bricks at Union troops walking from the President Street Railroad Station (home of this tiny museum) to a transfer point at Camden Station on their way to protect Washington.
Pay Homage to Edgar Allan Poe Diehard aficionados of the writer’s macabre tales may also want to venture off the beaten track into an ungentrified neighborhood to the Edgar Allan Poe House. Around 1832, the impoverished poet crowded into this small brick building with his aunt Maria Poe Clemm, her mother, son and daughter. Poe went on to live in other cities but on a trip back here in 1849, he dropped dead at age 40, most fittingly under mysterious circumstances.
3 Places to Eat
Italian In the late 1800s immigrants brought their colorful cuisine to Little Italy’s narrow streets and row houses. Try the famous veal chop at Da Mimmo, where Luciano Pavarotti came to lift his fork. Or dig into Sicilian-born Nino Germano’s fresh pastas, followed by his mother’s delectable cannoli at La Scala. Afterward, get a post-prandial workout rolling balls across the restaurant’s indoor bocce court.
Crabs and Crustaceans Michelle Pfeiffer may have waxed nostalgic about her star turn as “Miss Baltimore Crab” in the movie Hairspray, but crabs in Baltimore are serious business from April through December. Crab houses steam them with Old Bay seasoning and them dump them onto your brown paper-covered table. But you’ll have to work for your supper, whacking at their shells with mallets and picking them with your fingers.
Captain James Landing, sitting like a marooned boat in the city’s Canton section, serves them up Bawlmer-style. Prefer a less strenuous approach to eating crustaceans? Cookbook author John Shields offers his famed crab cakes at Gertrude’s north of downtown at the Baltimore Museum of Art. And don’t forget Bertha’s mussels! This iconic Fells Point spot has been serving up big steamed bowls of them for almost a half century.
3 Places to Stay
Kimpton Hotel Monaco Step beneath the Beaux-Arts arch of this former B&O Railroad downtown headquarters and head up to the lobby where wine is served daily at 5 p.m. in the contemporary art-filled lounge. Dine in the B&O Brasserie before retiring to a sleek city-view guest room and climb between Frette linen sheets.
The Ivy Located in historic Mount Vernon, a cobblestone neighborhood of brownstones, this ultra-luxurious Relais & Chateaux boutique hotel offers romantic rooms and suites with canopy beds, soaking tubs and fireplaces in a Gilded Age mansion. After a day of sightseeing, treat yourself with a massage at the spa followed by dinner at the Magdalena, the hotel’s bistro. Private car service available.
The Sagamore Pendry In the early 20th century, couples waltzed beneath moonlit skies on the roof of the City Recreation Pier. In 1992, Baltimore filmmaker Barry Levinson transformed this waterfront building into a soundstage for the TV series Homicide. Its latest incarnation, the Sagamore Pendry, dazzles with 128 luxury guest rooms and suites, rooftop pool overlooking the harbor, classic chophouse, whiskey bar and an open-air courtyard with one of Botero’s huge horse statues.