A Local’s Travel Guide to Baltimore, MD (Things to Do & More)
Originally published on Friday, May 7, 2021
Baltimore is Maryland’s largest city and it’s filled with history and fame. A lot of people confuse it for being the capital of Maryland, which it isn’t, but it’s nonetheless a great place to spend a day or two for travellers and an awesome day trip from DC. Every building is so beautifully crafted and the entire city sits on its original streets, making it feel as it must have been a century or two ago. Add in delicious food and a passion for the sports teams and it’s a very cultured place. I love this place so much that I’ve already bought a home here.
The History of Baltimore
The city dates back to the colonial era. Named after Lord Baltimore, Baltimore was founded as a port city in 1659-1661; however, the town of Baltimore as we know it officially came into existence much later, in 1729.
The city’s history is laced with unique stories. One of Baltimore’s highlighted achievements came during the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” here in Fort McHenry, which can still be visited today. Shortly after came another achievement – the establishment of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the first west-bound railroad in the United States. The Baltimore Basilica of the Assumption, still standing, was the United States’ first cathedral. You’ve probably read about it if you’ve studied American architecture. The city has a history of firsts.
Maryland’s Civil War history is a bit complicated because of our status as a border state. We were part of the north but much of our past agriculture relied on slave labour, so many people here supported the southern cause. Baltimore, in one of the most northern parts of the state, became a refuge for freed slaves who were travelling north – notably Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who stayed here for an extensive period of time. Also, much of the Lincoln assassination was actually planned here in Baltimore rather than in Washington, DC, though the buildings it was planned in no longer exist.
Though Jim Crow plagued the city for decades, Baltimore also got another claim to fame: Johns Hopkins Hospital, established with the intent of equal care for all races. In the 1930s and 40s, Baltimore also accepted many Jewish refugees from Europe and its huge Jewish community still lives on today. It’s the background for the popular musical Hairspray.
To date, Baltimore has been home to many notable figures, including Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Babe Ruth, Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nancy Pelosi, Tupac, and Oprah Winfrey. And believe it or not, Elmo himself is from Baltimore! It holds a very large cultural history that extends through today.
Areas to Explore in Baltimore
Let’s get this out of the way: a lot of people go to the charmless harbor and leave without getting a real taste for the city. So I want to tell you some places you can visit and experience the best Baltimore has to offer.
For tourists, the Baltimore Harbour is difficult to not see, and it boasts the architectural splendor of the National Aquarium, which also houses great exhibits if you’re into marine life – but note that it is quite pricey. I recommend going on Friday nights as tickets are half off. There are several chain restaurants such as Pizzeria Uno and the Hard Rock Cafe in the Inner Harbour area, which makes the place look quite generic. Lots of people flock to the Harbour but it’s one of the blandest areas of Baltimore. It’s really disappointing that it’s become the representation of Baltimore when there’s so much more to the city.
Luckily, some of the more local areas are only a short walk away. To the east you have Fells Point, debatably the most popular area of Baltimore for locals. There’s lots of restaurants, bars, stores, and old town charm in this area. Fell’s Point is right next to another popular area called Canton. Canton extends from Patterson Park all the way down to the water and is filled with local gems like restaurants, shops, bars, etc. The Canton Waterfront Park is a nice place to go and watch the sunset, and Patterson Park is a great place to take a run or unwind. It’s like the Central Park of Baltimore. Both Canton and Fells Point are excellent places to stay, particularly if you like nightlife.
South of the harbor is Federal Hill, which is just as nice an area and a little less undiscovered. It’s filled with nice restaurants and shops and is often quite busy on weekend nights. It’s another nice place to stay, though it is a bit of a walk from the rest of the city. If you go atop Federal Hill Park, you can get sweeping views over Baltimore’s harbor too.
Those are some of the areas surrounding the harbour, but there are a few more areas I recommend exploring if you’re staying in Baltimore for longer. I particularly enjoy Mt. Vernon, a neighbourhood filled with soul and decadent architecture. Nearby is Charles Village, the home of Johns Hopkins University, which is a bit more modern but filled with college-aged people. However it also houses lots of good restaurants. Then there’s Hampden, Baltimore’s hipster home. It’s a bit on the smaller side but is always a vibrant place to see.
All are beautiful areas filled with old buildings and many walks of modern life. And everywhere you go, there’s tonnes of locally-owned restaurants. If you’re vegan/vegetarian, Baltimore actually has a huge veg scene and a tonne of delicious veg-friendly and veg-exclusive restaurants. I also have my own blog post reviewing some of the vegan restaurants I’ve tried.
Things to Do in Baltimore
You can’t complete a Baltimore visit without the Walters Art Museum. It’s my favorite museum in Baltimore and is said to be one of the best art museums in the world! There’s also the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is a bit smaller. Both are free to visit. If you like more modern art then I also recommend the American Visionary Art museum, which is many peoples’ favorite. Since the Walters is quite large, seeing all three in a day would be very rushed, so definitely pace yourself.
If you like house museums, I recommend heading up to the Evergreen Museum. It’s a charming mansion filled with art and it’s very off-the-beaten-path. Make your reservations ahead of time so they’ll know you’re coming.
Edgar Allan Poe is one of our most iconic residents. You can visit where he once lived at the Edgar Allan Poe museum, which does not look as it originally did, mind you. His grave is also at Westminster Hall. The large white one is his current resting place, but you can also venture into the cemetery to find his original resting place – thoughtfully marked with a raven headstone. You can even go to a Poe-themed bar called Annabel Lee Tavern, which actually has good food and drinks. For more Poe, you can head on over to my blog post that explores the write in Baltimore and beyond.
For more history, Fort McHenry is a popular place to see in Baltimore as it’s the birthplace of the National Anthem. Inside there is an exhibit on the anthem and the fort’s history, and the grounds are free to explore. Many people like to go jogging or dog walking there. There’s also the B&O Railroad museum, as Baltimore is the home to America’s first railroad, and the Baltimore Museum of Industry. There’s also the lesser-known Maryland Museum of History and Culture but I didn’t find it particularly noteworthy.
Baltimore’s also a very notable city in Catholic history. Our Basilica of the Assumption is dubbed America’s First Cathedral, finished in 1821. We are also home to the USA’s first saint! Her name was Mother Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. You can visit her birthplace, called the Mother Seton House.
Also for history buffs, we have the old ship (USS Constellation) that’s fun to check out on the harbour, and the Reginald F. Lewis museum of African-American history, which I consider a must-see since Maryland has played an important role in Black history. Something I’d really like to see in the future is a museum dedicated to Baltimore. But I live here, so maybe I better get started on creating it!
For younger visitors, the Maryland Science Centre and Port Discovery are fun places to visit, as well (in addition to the National Aquarium of course). They’re all in the same vicinity so it makes for an easy trip.
Another popular thing to do in Baltimore is see a sports game. We have two stadiums right downtown, the M&T Bank Stadium (American football) and Camden Yards (baseball). So if you want to day trip to Baltimore, ending the day with a game is a great option.
Is Baltimore safe?
It depends on the part of the city, so it’s really important you choose a good place to stay. All the aforementioned neighbourhoods are generally fine.
Baltimore can be a safe place to visit, no more dangerous than say Paris or New York City. But in certain areas, it can most definitely live up to its reputation. The city is really patchy so one area can be lovely, and the next block can be riddled with crime. It’s all about knowing where, and where not, to go.
So I’ve made a map of places to avoid, and places I feel comfortable taking friends to. It’s just a rough outline and is based on my experiences.
Simply put, I wouldn’t live in this city if I didn’t feel safe. There’s a lot to see, do, and enjoy in the unmarked sections – but it’s really, really rough once you get into those red areas.
What is the weather in Baltimore like?
The weather here can be very frustrating because of global warming. I advise packing layers. In the summer, it can get very hot and humid. In the winter, it can be freezing cold with a dash of warm days, and sometimes hot days. In the spring and autumn it can either be hot, or warm, or chilly. So all in all, layers are the best way to go when packing for Baltimore.
You should also bring an umbrella since it tends to rain every few days, but generally the days here are sunny.
What are some seasonal things to do in Baltimore?
Autumn is a great time to visit because Baltimore hosts a ton of events. They change every year so I recommend checking Facebook or the Baltimore website to see what’s on when you’re in town.
I have my own list of things to do in Maryland during summer, autumn and winter. If you’re in town for December then I highly recommend Baltimore’s German Christmas Village. It’s a very charming Christmas market with good food, hot wine, and artisan sellers. My favorite seasonal activity!
What is driving & parking in Baltimore like?
When there’s no sports games, driving in Baltimore is usually traffic-free, especially compared to our neighbour DC. During sports games, downtown can get pretty crowded and people are usually out redirecting traffic. The thing you have to look out for most is the potholes. There are a lot of them!
As for parking, there is generally ample street parking available. I strongly recommend avoiding the parking garages at the Inner Harbor because they are grossly expensive. If you go nearby, like to Fells Point, Downtown (a few blocks north of the harbor), or Federal Hill, you can probably find paid or free street parking, or a much cheaper garage.
How do I get to Baltimore without a car?
Your best bet is to take either the MARC or Amtrak trains to Penn Station. Penn Station is near Mount Vernon. For longer trips you can also take the Megabus but it does not go to Baltimore city! You will have to take a bus to the city and it will add about an hour each way to your trip. I don’t advise this option for day trips.
How do I get around Baltimore without a car?
Baltimore has a free Charm City Circulator bus that goes around popular areas. This is a great way to get around town. Otherwise there are CityLink busses, which do cost money to take, but these can get you to more obscure locations.
There are so many great things about Baltimore and I truly believe it is an undiscovered gem. It’s rough around the edges but lots of us who live here love it. There’s also so many people who come here and say they were surprised it was so nice and there was so much to do.
I wish everyone who visits explored Fells Point and Canton at the least, since Baltimore has so much local flavour to offer. The best thing about Baltimore is exploring its old architecture, good eateries, and colourful street art that’s dispersed throughout the city. The city has many secrets to be uncovered.
If you’re headed to Baltimore, also check out my other posts for ideas on things to do and places to see.
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Tags: baltimore, maryland, united states