Baltimore has always been a multifaceted city. The "Star-Spangled Banner" was written here, and it was once known as the nation's spice capital-the famed spice merchant McCormick opened its factory here in 1889. Today, Baltimore is a bright spot on the cultural map, with abundant historical attractions, a vibrant museum scene, great neighborhoods, and sensational seafood-inspired restaurants. And thanks in part to its rich immigrant influence, Baltimore's palate reaches far beyond the local crustacean craving; Italian, Greek, and Polish fare (and culture) abound.
Technically a southern city-the state of Maryland falls below the Mason-Dixon line-Baltimore is a geographic hodgepodge, architecturally and commercially northern, mixed with southern grace. And Baltimore's working class roots and counterculture edge give the city a quirky vibe.
On the Waterfront
Baltimore's latest renaissance harks back to the 1980s, when the city redeveloped its inner harbor. Harbor Place is considered one of the country's most successful urban revival projects, featuring shops, ships, and a world-famous aquarium. The mix makes it a mecca for locals and visitors alike, and a natural place to start your visit. Make your first stop the Baltimore Visitor Center (at right; 877-225-8466, www.baltimore.org), where you can purchase attraction tickets and make dinner reservations.
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore (410-576-3800, www.aqua.org), you can see more than 600 species, both fresh and saltwater. Don't miss the aquarium's newest addition, the Animal Planet: Wild Extremes wing, where you'll find native animals from a northern Australian river gorge, including crocodiles, turtles, and flying foxes. Before leaving the Inner Harbor, check out the Water Taxi service (800-658-8947, www.thewatertaxi.com). It stops at 14 landings, which encompass more than 30 attractions, from Fort McHenry to the Fell's Point neighborhood. Make sure to pick up one of their excellent free maps of downtown Baltimore.
For the ultimate Baltimore view, try The Downtown Sailing Center (410-727-0722, www.downtownsailing.org), which gives private day lessons in sailboats around the scenic harbor.
Museums with Vision
Baltimore might be the U.S. capital of niche museums, including venues devoted to African American history, sports, and maritime history, to name a few. It's also home to three top art museums. The Walters Art Museum (410-547-9000, www.thewalters.org) spans 5,500 years of art, from ancient Egyptian works to 20th-century art deco. The museum's Palace of Wonders highlights the European Masters collection of father and son William and Henry Walters, the founding forces of the museum.
For an eclectic take on contemporary art, visit the American Visionary Arts Museum (410-244-1900, www.avam.org), which offers art with local cultural history, mixed with the work of artists from around the world. Don't miss the creations of Paul Darmafall, also known as the Baltimore Glassman, who creates mosaic messages containing political statements, and the adjacent Jim Rouse Visionary Center, where you can learn about the unique Baltimore tradition of painting window screens, which were prominent in the pre-air-conditioner days.
At The Baltimore Museum of Art (410-396-7100, www.artbma.org), a big draw is The Cone Collection. In the early 20th century, sisters Claribel and Etta Cone amassed one of the world's largest collections of Henri Matisse's work, including "The Pink Nude," and modern masters Picasso, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. The museum's permanent collections also include contemporary, African, and decorative art.
Bite of Baltimore
Crabs rule in Baltimore. One top place for steamers is Captain James Crab House (410-327-8600, www.captainjameslanding.com), one of the city's few old-fashioned open-air eateries. As is tradition, crabs are served family style on long tables during the season, which generally runs from May to September.
Locals sprinkle their crabs with Old Bay seasoning, which can include as many as 14 spices, including celery, mustard, red pepper, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, and paprika. The best-known commercial brand is McCormick's, which was headquartered in Baltimore's Inner Harbor for 100 years, until the company relocated outside the city in 1989. City natives still recall the smell of spices that filled the air on Light Street.
A favorite indoor spot for steamed crabs and crab cakes is Obrycki's Restaurant (410-732-6399, ), open from March to November. The lump crab cakes are classically robust, whether they're broiled or fried, and are seasoned with a homemade blend of spices. www.lexingtonmarket.com). Opened in 1782, it's the country's oldest continuously operating market.
For another taste of Baltimore's culinary roots, head to Lexington Market (410-685-6169,
In Little Italy, stop for a snack at Il Scalino (410-547-7900, www.ilscalino.com), a deli well-stocked with Italian meats and cheeses. For lunch or dinner, Luigi Petti (410-685-0055, www.luigipettirestaurant.com), at the corner of South President and Eastern Avenue, has an outdoor patio and serves Italian fare with a Baltimore twist, like ravioli stuffed with crabmeat.
The Fell's Point area has a thriving pub scene that offers great music. Enjoy a pint of Guinness and people watch at Sláinte Irish Pub (410-563-6600, www.slaintepub.com). A few doors down on Thames Street, the Cat's Eye Pub (410-276-9866, www.catseyepub.com) is a local favorite best known for its eclectic band lineups. When you're ready for a light bite, The Black Olive, (410-276-7141, www.theblackolive.com )is a delicious, healthful option. The organic restaurant is run by Greek immigrants and specializes in seafood-among the mezze, the grilled stuffed calamari is a standout.
Stitch in Time
Baltimore is a haven for American history buffs. The flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the "Star-Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812 was made and flown here. Key wrote the poem after seeing the huge flag-30 by 42 feet-tattered but still flying at Fort McHenry after a decisive clash during the Battle of Baltimore. At the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum (410-837-1793, www.flaghouse.org), you'll see where flagmaker Mary Young Pickersgill sewed the flag, and though the original is now at the Smithsonian, you'll garner a sense of this period of history here, as well as at the adjacent Museum of the War of 1812 (both sites are open Tuesday through Saturday).
In the Fell's Point neighborhood, the Preservation Society (410-675-6750, www.preservationsociety.com) provides free walking tours. On Saturdays, its Immigration Tour highlights Baltimore's role as the mid-Atlantic's version of Ellis Island, recounting to visitors the waves of entrants at Henderson Wharf.
For a sense of Baltimore during the Civil War, walk up to Federal Hill on the south side of the harbor. The trapezoid-shaped hill was built during the war, so that Union troops could keep watch over the city's pro-Confederacy contingent, which threatened an insurrection. Today, the hill offers one of the best views of Baltimore's booming cityscape and, to the east, the harbor.
Places to Stay
The historic 80-room Admiral Fell Inn (rates from $159; 410-522-7377, www.admiralfell.com) is located in the heart of the Fell's Point neighborhood, and once provided lodging to sailors. Today, its elegant rooms are appointed with 18th-century furniture.
For a more urbane setting, check into the Peabody Court Hotel (rates from $190; 800-292-5500, www.peabodycourthotel.com) in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood. A five-minute stroll from the Inner Harbor, it's just steps away from cultural venues like The Walters Art Museum and Antiques Row, which stretches along Howard Street.
Barbara Benham is a writer in Washington, D.C., who has contributed to Travel + Leisure and Consumer Reports.