WHY GO: The Flag. Yes, ours. The one we sing about in the Star Spangled Banner was sewn and originally sent up the pole in Baltimore. So a visit to the “Monumental City” wouldn’t be complete without seeing where Old Glory was stitched and flew proudly.
Chances are you’ve been here already – at least to the more commercialized Inner Harbor where the National Aquarium, Maryland Science Center the Baltimore Maritime Museum, and a myriad of shops and restaurants draw year round tourists like ants to a picnic.
But this Getaway takes you to some lesser known attractions and neighborhoods: to the most outrageous art museum in the country, to the streets where filmmaker John Waters lived, to a do-gooder farm-to-table restaurant, to the Birthplace of American Railroading (and its corporate office, now a boutique hotel). You don’t have to look very hard to find “Offbeat” Baltimore. This city is quirky enough. But here’s where to start:
Things to Do in Baltimore MD
VISIT: American Visionary Art Museum. Students, laborers, dyslexics, misfits, recluses, mental health patients – and the rest of the unwashed, self-taught intuitive artists ignored by mainstream art world have finally found recognition at this unbelievably eccentric museum. My absolute favorite institution in Baltimore, The American Visionary Art Museum is filled with works produced from found objects, matchsticks, bottle caps, yarn, and lots of what other people would call “junk.” See an intricate model of the SS Lusitania fashioned entirely from toothpicks, a “jolly” apocalyptic Christmas scene, a knitted horse dress Lady GaGa would adore, and galleries teaming with madcap creations. War, workers, whackos, technology, terror, tchothkes; all here in this highly entertaining fun house of an art museum. Plus, the storage-shed of a gift shop will consume your attention for hours. $16 adults, $10 children/students. Tues-Sun 10-6.
VISIT: Star Spangled Banner Museum. Before you even step foot inside, consider that the flag built into the front wall of the building is the same size as the one observed by Francis Scott Key on September 14, 1814 as he penned The Star Spangled Banner from a boat just off Fort McHenry. When war was declared two years earlier, the Army in Baltimore requested an “ensign” large enough to see from afar. But, who would stitch it? Mary Pickersgill’s family had a long history of sewing “colors” and sign flags for merchant ships (quite possibly competing for the same jobs as Betsy Ross up in Philadelphia). For this purpose Pickersgill was asked to craft an American Flag 30 ft. X 42 ft, with each stripe two feet wide and 15 stars two feet each from tip to tip. With just a few aides, she managed to get the job done in six weeks.
A visit to this museum complex includes a tour of Pickersgill’s original circa 1793 home in its original location, exactly where she spent those 6 weeks sewing the fateful flag. With floorboards and windows over 200 years old, and samples of Old Glory folded in her workroom, it’s a thrilling look at a perspective of US History we don’t ordinarily consider. The flag that Mary made still exists, though you won’t find it here. To see it, you’ll have to head down to Washington, DC and the Smithsonian Museum*. Museum open Tues. –Sat. 10-4, $8 adult, $6 kids.
TOUR: Baltimore Trolley Tour. We’d ordinarily steer you clear of these kind of touristy things, but at least this 90-minute tour takes you out of the Inner Harbor and exposes you to other, lesser known Baltimore neighborhoods, while allowing for a bit of history. Sure you’ll hear all about attractions of the Inner Harbor: the USS Constellation, which was the last all-sail ship, used as a Naval Academy Training vessel, and the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture – the latest museum to open there. On the cobblestone streets of Fells Point, you’ll learn about the mustering site for Massachusetts Civil War recruits, the bar favored by Edgar Allan Poe, and the row of homes that Frederick Douglas purchased after escaping slavery disguised as a seaman. “When I left Maryland, I was property. When I came back, I bought property,” he was purported to have said.
You’ll drive through Little Italy, “Cornbeef Row” – the Jewish section and home to the third longest-standing synagogue in the United States, and the monument studded Mount Vernon, arguably the most beautiful area of Baltimore. The 178-ft. marble column and statue of George Washington, completed in 1829, was the first monument in the country to honor a president. When President John Quincy Adams came to town, he called Baltimore, “The Monumental City,” and the name stuck. The adjacent gothic spire Methodist Church and a central city garden creates a tableau that appears elegantly European. “This area unfortunately gets lost in the whole harbor thing,” say in-the-know guides. After passing Federal Hill you’ll stop for a quick visit at Fort McHenry (see below). Maven’s Picks for Off-Trolley visits: Edgar Allan Poe’s Gravesite at Westminister Hall, the “by-appointment only” National Museum of Dentistry that holds George Washington’s dentures and Queen Victoria’s toothbrush, and Babe Ruth Birthplace. Tours, $27 adults, $16 kids, run from Visitor Center 10:30 and 12:30 daily.
VISIT: Fort McHenry. Sometimes, it’s important to pay respects to the old. Baltimore has its own key place in our nation’s history: the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British in the War of 1814 inspired an observer, Francis Scott Key, to write the words that would become our Star Spangled Banner. One of the most uplifting moments of the tour comes just after watching a short movie in the Visitor’s Center when you are invited to stand to sing the national anthem as curtains open to reveal an American flag flying right outside. It’s worth visiting Baltimore for that spine-tingling moment alone. Open daily 9-4:45, $7 adults, kids free.
VISIT: B&O Railroad Museum. Conceived as a new technology to compete with the New York Erie Canal, the 1827 Maryland State Legislators granted a charter to build a “road of rails” between Baltimore and the Ohio River. This 40-acre museum tells the story of railroading from the place of its origins. Most of the train cars are arrayed within St. Claire’s Roundhouse, which, at 235 feet interior diameter was designed to accommodate the largest passenger cars of the day, and was the largest circular industrial building in the world at the time of its construction in 1884. Enormous train cars radiate like spokes from a wheel inside this colossal building and you can jump aboard each one, and then avail yourself of various tours through the day. “The War Came By Train” exhibit illuminates the way this new technology influenced the outcome of the Civil War. Outside, walk through retired train cars – some set up with model-train dioramas, others available to ride. $6, adults, $4 kids, Mon-Sat 10-4, Sun 11-4.
DO: Take The Baltimore Water Taxi which ferries beau coups visitors to 17 harbor access points, for just $12 per day. On an ideal afternoon, it’s the best place to chill out on the water – even if you have no desire to get off.
Best Restaurants in Baltimore MD
EAT/BREAKFAST: Miss Shirley’s. This is where most Baltimore natives will send you for your morning meal, provided you have enough room in your stomach for some serious eats. With portions designed to share, the savories win out. Battle Of the Brunches bestowed best dish on Crab Cake and Fred Green Tomatoes, though Shirley’s Affair with Oscar – Beef Fillet with Crab has won numerous awards.
EAT: Waterfront Kitchen. In the cobblestone-chic section of Fells Point, this “Seed to Plate” Spirited American cuisine restaurant also doubles as training ground for at-risk kids and adults through the very successful Living Classroom. “Mission driven dining never tasted so good” owners boast, and how true it is. Greens come directly from a greenhouse down the street, and daily menus are often designed around what looks good that morning. Contemporary “industrial” design with wall of windows overlooking Baltimore Harbor, you can enjoy Blue Ridge Asparagus Salad with Truffle Goat Cheese ($12), Truffle-Saffron Risotto ($24), and homemade pasta with flavorful sauces. Eat well and feel good about the check: you’re helping humanity.
EAT: The Food Market, Hampden Neighborhood. Set inside a renovated old food market in filmmaker John Water’s old stomping grounds, amiable owners Elan Kotz and Chef Chad Gauss have a hit on their hands – The Food Market was just named one of Open Table’s 2013 Top 100 Hot Spot Restaurants in the country. The menu is a witty mix of comfort foods, molecular gastronomy and unusual combinations of flavors, divided into “Little,” “Small,” “Big” and “In Between” categories. Try the Amish Pretzels with Beer Cheese Fondue $7, Fried Gorgonzola Pickles $7 (sounds gross, but it’s really amazing), Salt and Pepper Tuna with Avocado Tzatziki ($13), Grilled Lamb Porterhouse with espresso, apricots and limoncello glaze ($14) and a heady Heath Bar Crunch Bread Pudding. The Food Market elevates grazing to high art, compelling you to return to try everything you missed.
EAT: Woodberry Kitchen. Another hotspot in the gentrifying outskirts of town, Woodberry Kitchen is tucked into the repurposed Clipper Mill complex. With an outdoor patio strung with lights, flickering votives, wood beam interior a hermit’s cabin gone wild, Woodberry has the atmosphere and quality of locavore food that keeps the reservation phones a-ringing.
EAT/DRINK: Pick a place in Fells Point. It’s the oldest section of Baltimore – and charms you with brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets. Fells Point has been Baltimore’s go-to neighborhood for drinking and carousing since 1763. A party every night. With bars named The Cat’s Eye Pub, Ale Mary and One Eyed Mikes, and Bad Decisions, you can’t go wrong stumbling in to any and all.
Where to Stay in Baltimore MD
STAY: Baltimore Hotel Monaco. The 1906 Beaux Arts Hotel Monaco was initially the B&O Corporate Headquarters and is just three blocks from the Inner Harbor. A bit more sedate than the typical crazy-cat Kimpton Hotel décor, the multi-nook lobby is a quiet-riot of maroons, dollar-bill greens, and ecru, punched up by flashes of chartreuse where every evening, guests are invited to a convivial complementary Wine Hour. High ceiling guestrooms are perfect lairs for CEO’s and those who like to travel like them. Rich blue leather headboards on Frette linen enrobed beds, red lacquer desks, Poupon-yellow leather walls in dark marble baths, the Monaco caters to lovers of the colorful. And here’s an “offbeat” amenity: if you’re lonely, staff will bring up a companion goldfish to keep you company. Rooms $179-$399, Majestic Suite, $1500. Includes complimentary hosted wine hour, use of bicycles, companion goldfish.
STAY: Lord Baltimore Hotel. Another historic hotel three blocks from the inner harbor, the Lord Baltimore was the centerpiece of upscale Baltimore hospitality when it opened in the late 1920’s. After fading and falling out of favor, Rubell Hotels purchased the property in 2013, redesigning the common areas and most of the guest rooms. Though bathrooms still have a ways to go (bathtub tiles and fixtures have not been replaced), rooms are handsomely masculine and cool – and at this point, reasonably priced for the area.
In the morning, have breakfast in the spectacularly reimagined French Kitchen Restaurant – in blues and golds, high ceiling and oversized windows, it’s a great place for your first meal of the day. Rooms from $155 per night plus tax.