Exploring Baltimore: Maryland’s City of History and Culture

September 13, 2013 by

City Tours & Sightseeing, North America, Places to Go, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Baltimore, Maryland, is a great place to soak up nearly three hundred years of history and culture.  Whether you want to walk the decks of historic ships, stroll along streets in charming waterfront communities, or experience sophisticated dining and nightlife, Baltimore is a city that appeals to everyone, and most of its attractions, hotels and restaurants are within walking distance of its spectacular waterfront.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

Baltimore's Inner Harbor

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

At the heart of Baltimore is its vibrant Inner Harbor, the city’s most photographed and visited area. It has been one of the major seaports in the United States since the 1700s, and the city’s cultural center since the 1970s.  This scenic waterfront area sports dozens of retail stores, restaurants and attractions.

For a hands-on encounter with Baltimore’s maritime history, visit the Baltimore Maritime Museum, where you’ll learn the intriguing story of American naval power and technology.  The museum consists of three historic ships including the US Coast Guard Cutter Taney, the only warship still afloat that saw action during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US Submarine Torsk that sank the last enemy vessel of WWII, and US Lightship Chesapeake, a beacon of safe haven for ships returning from the sea.  Here, too, is the Knoll Lighthouse, the oldest surviving “screw-pile” lighthouse on the Chesapeake.

Visitors to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor can also walk the decks of the USS Constellation, flagship of the US African squadron from 1859 to 1861.

Guarding the harbor is Fort McHenry, an 18th century star-shaped fort where American forces gave a valiant defense during a British attack in 1814, inspiring poet-lawyer Francis Scott Key to pen America’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

For those who prefer life beneath the sea, the fabulous National Aquarium, built to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures, is the home of 16,000 animals, everything from dolphins and sharks to puffins, seahorses and even the world’s smallest monkeys.

Here as well is the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, a good place to spend the night for its panoramic views of the city’s picturesque Inner Harbor.

Take a dinner cruise on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Historic Federal Hill

Little Italy in Federal Hill. Photo courtesy of Guy iva Flickr.

Little Italy in Federal Hill. Photo courtesy of Guy iva Flickr.

Exploring Baltimore’s Inner Harbor attractions will keep you busy, but it is only a starting point.  Next you’ll want to see the city’s many historic and charming neighborhoods, each offering their own unique character, history and cuisine.

In Little Italy, for example, you’ll find yourself in pasta-lovers paradise, and this is where you’ll go during summer weekends to enjoy outdoor movies.  Mount Vernon, the city’s cultural center, was home to the wealthy during the 18th and 19th centuries.  And in funky Canton, to the east, many of the city’s old factories have been converted into a thriving retail and entertainment hub.

Historic Federal Hill is one of Baltimore’s most distinctive neighborhoods, offering a blend of old and new.  Just a short walk from the Inner Harbor, Federal Hill boasts a variety of shops, art galleries, and pubs, as well as many of the city’s best restaurants located in picturesque 19th century buildings.

Originally, Federal Hill was known as “John Smith’s Hill,” as Captain John Smith was the first European to set eyes on it back in June of 1608 when he sailed from Jamestown up the Chesapeake Bay on a 19-day journey.

Today, Federal Hill is a great place for a walking tour, as the area preserves hundreds of 18th, 19th and early 20th century works of architecture.

Here too, you find the renowned Cross Street Market, where you can grab a bite to eat among stalls of produce, fresh meats, and seafood.  The original market building, a long open-air shed, was erected in 1845 and 1846.  Today, the place comes alive on Friday nights when locals flock to the sushi bar in the back.

Explore Baltimore on a Segway tour.

Fell’s Point

Charming Fell's Point. Photo courtesy of Mr. T in DC via Flickr.

Charming Fell’s Point. Photo courtesy of Mr. T in DC via Flickr.

For a hip yet sophisticated Baltimore dining experience head to Pazo in Fell’s Point.  The culinary adventure of restaurateurs Tony Foreman and Chef Cindy Wolf, Pazo has soft-lighting and a Mediterranean-inspired palette.  Located in a defunct machine tool shop on Aliceanna Street, it is called Pazo after the Galician word meaning “grand house,” and the building lives up to its name.  It has been meticulously restored, and now boasts soaring ceilings and original wood pillars of the 1880′s era.

Fell’s Point, whose streets are paved with ballast stones and lined by rows of houses once occupied by seamen, merchants, shipbuilders and craftsmen, was a thriving, deep water port where clipper ships, schooners and U.S. Navy frigates were built.  Today, it bustles with tugboats, taverns, restaurants and inns, as well as fabulous shops.

If you want to meet some of Fells Point’s more “ethereal” residents, take a supernatural nighttime stroll with Fell’s Point Ghost Tours.  First, imagine life in old Fell’s Point:  seamen and sail makers, sea captains and prosperous merchants, all packed into this once-rowdy seaport town’s streets.  Add to that foreign sailors pouring off ships, immigrants anxious to start a new life and ladies-of-the-evening struggling to survive.

Then, on the tour, when you see the pub frequented by the restless spirit of Edgar Allen Poe, and the building where Doc the dancing sailor can’t stop doing the polka, it’s not difficult to imagine that some of these residents never left.

Unusual Museums

Camden Station. Photo courtesy of Reading Tom via Flickr.

Camden Station. Photo courtesy of Reading Tom via Flickr.

Restless spirits aside, another historic Baltimore building is Camden Station, constructed in 1856.  Once the terminus for the famed B&O Railroad, it’s also where the first blood of the Civil War was shed, when Union troops, on foot from President Street Station, clashed with angry southern sympathizers.  President Lincoln also passed through this building several times, once on his way to Gettysburg.

Now the building is the home of the non-profit Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, which opened in May of 2005, occupying the basement and first floor of the building.  On display you’ll find a wide range of sports artifacts and interactive exhibits.  Much of the first floor is devoted to Babe Ruth and Maryland’s other baseball heroes, but there are exhibits to entertain fans of many different sports.

Upstairs on the second and third floors you’ll find Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, opened by comic book king Steve Geppi.  The museum’s exhibits span 230-plus years of American life.  Rare toys, comic books, and other pop-culture artifacts are arranged in a sequence that takes visitors through each period of US history in a chronological progression.

For a different type of historical experience, visit the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, located on one-and-a-half acres of waterfront property at the gateway to Fell’s Point.  The site has captivating interpretive and hands-on exhibits that lead visitors through the evolution of shipbuilding and Baltimore’s maritime history.

This major African-American heritage site honors Maryland’s Frederick Douglass, Isaac Myers and other local African American leaders who overcame adversity to reach their full potential and empower others.

Finally, the quirky Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood was once a polluted copper paint factory and an even older whisky warehouse.  Now it’s a thought-provoking museum that features eclectic artwork and one-of-a-kind giant sculptures, such as Fifi, a huge pink poodle constructed with bicycle frames, gears and pink tutus.

Opened in 1995, the Visionary Art Museum is America’s official national museum and education center for self-reliant and original artistry. Although in a central, urban location, its buildings, which have been beautifully reclaimed, feature seasonal gardens and open spaces.

Baltimore, so easily accessible from the East Coast, whether by flight, Amtrak train or a road trip, has such a wide range of attractions, it appeals to almost everyone.  Perhaps that’s why the Fell’s Point ghosts don’t want to leave.

If You Go

For more information visit www.Baltimore.org.

-Melody Moser

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