When Chas and I were in Belgium, we exclusively used quirky, colorful maps called “The Locals’ Guide to…” Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels, respectively (definitely get a copy if you are traveling to a city that offers these). Before the trip, we didn’t have time to get any guide book or pour over webpages on Trip Advisor so we were pleasantly surprised by these maps, which were also free. By the end of Brussels, we had worn a rip down the middle and had to hold the pieces together to get back to our Airbnb from a brewery. At that brewery, recommended by the Locals’ Guide, we sat next to a normie-couple.
normie (n) A normal person. This is not a compliment.
They were nice enough, from California and I gave them points because they weren’t staring at their phones so I said hello. They asked what we’d recommend in Brussels since they’d just arrived and didn’t have a plan. And that’s when I realized they were normies. I excitedly pulled out my two map-halves, moved the Lambic ales out of the way, and showed them the location of the flea market we’d thoroughly enjoyed, where we’d eaten really good Syrian food, and where we’d stumbled upon a free WWI exhibit in a park. Then I closed with where our Airbnb was located, the Airbnb, I added, where we had a surprise roommate named Gen we didn’t know about and no toilet paper. They looked at me and did his and hers Dora the Explorer blinks. She clutched their copy of Lonely Planet Belgium and Luxembourg and asked if I thought it was “safe” to walk through the Arab neighborhood (where we’d just devoured a shawarma wrap and gushed to the owners about their culinary skill) to get back to their hotel because she’d heard it was “sketchy.”
“Of course!” I said with the conviction of…well, myself. She turned to her boyfriend and they started discussing the tram routes. There are at least two types of people who travel to Brussels, Belgium and do the English tour of the century’s-old Cantillon Brewery.
I felt inspired by these maps. Also, one of my favorite things to do is to give what I call Balti-Tours to visiting friends, and even people who live here. And so, I give you: The Locals’ Guide to Baltimore. Normies need not apply. #hometowntourist
Maryland’s largest and most maligned city, Baltimore, is the nation’s 29th most populous. It is one of three cities in the US that is not part of a county. It is its own jurisdiction. The other two are St. Louis and I forget, and I don’t think it’s fair to look that up.
Baltimore was founded in 1729 when it was attractive as a seaport because it was the Westernmost seaport on the East Coast. Ships could deliver goods to Baltimore and get them to the Midwest more quickly than other larger port cities. Baltimore is named for Cecil Calvert, the Second Lord Baltimore. Baltimore’s Irish etymology translates to “town of the big house” but let’s leave out the obvious prison jokes about that. Baltimore’s history includes many of the marks of typical colonial settlements such as a brutal ousting Native Americans who’d been here for…ever.
We were integral in the War of 1812 and are the birthplace of the National Anthem–just check out our license plates. Francis Scott Key wrote it during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, which makes one wonder why they call it “The War of 1812.” During the Civil War, Baltimore was a Union stronghold although Maryland as a whole was a slave state. Remember those “border states” in US History class in 11th grade? That’s us!
1904 saw The Great Baltimore Fire which destroyed over 1,500 buildings in 30 hours, partially because firemen didn’t work on Sundays. We learned some lessons from that fire which we shared with the world: standardized sizes for fire hoses and hydrants, wooden basements connected for blocks and blocks aren’t ideal, and if you put bricks in a pattern where they aren’t stacked directly over one another, your house will burn more slowly. Check your bricks. Yep, that’s us! (If you’d like to explore some artifacts from The Great Baltimore Fire, bring a shovel and come to my backyard. See also this post.)
Baltimore was a location of 1968 race riots which plagued the country, for good reason. Redlining in Baltimore and its lasting and disgusting effects are evident to this day throughout the city. In the 1970s, we really tried with William Donald Schaefer, and out of that we got Harborplace, The Maryland Science Center, the Baltimore World Trade Center, The Baltimore Convention Center, and more. In 1980 we added the National Aquarium in Baltimore but lost the Baltimore Colts.
These days, we’re still doin’ our thang, still plagued by violence and a shameful murder rate. But Baltimore does not give up and I for one, am convinced it WILL get better if we don’t just sit back and hang our Orioles caps on hope and actually take action (feel free to ask me how). This resilient little place has much more than murder to offer. Check out some of the sites that led to the following bumper sticker.
Each category will happen in no particular order. This is a completely incomplete list of things that I personally know about and love. It’s random. Feel free to suggest additions. Omissions are not purposeful, just a result of day 5 of jet lag or lack of knowledge.
(As locals can attest, “miscellaneous” is probably the best place to start in Baltimore.)
1. On 89.7 FM on Friday nights from 7-10 p.m. and Saturdays from 12-3, you can catch Weasel’s Wild Weekend. Its tagline: Radio the way it used to be. The intro includes a little diddy called “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Someone yells out something like, “In New York it’s 5 o’clock, in Denver it’s 3 p.m., in Kansas City it’s 4 in the afternoon,” and then a squeaky voice takes over and screams, “In Bawdy-more it’s 6:42!”
2. Like to walk? Run? Bike? Hear the birds in the middle of the city? Check out the Stony Run Path. It connects Remington, Hampden, Evergreen, and Roland Park. This 5-mile stretch will give you your fix of nature and get you through some of our great neighborhoods. (Warning: there is a possibility you could see a Civil War era ghost on Stony Run, as Dot and I did in June 2012.)
3. You know the six degrees of Kevin Bacon? There are about two degrees in Baltimore, earning it the nickname Smalltimore. Try out Smalltimore. Pick two people at random, sit them down together, ask them to share where they went to high school and it’ll go from there.
4. Say “No thanks, hon” to the multiplex in favor of Baltimore’s historic movie theatres–both opened in 1939. The Senator, in Northern Baltimore City, boasts blockbusters and the occasional revival. Look down as you approach the box office and see what stories the sidewalk tells. Go in the lobby and look up and take in some history. Inside the theatre, take in the 1930s design. At The Charles, on Charles Street just north of Penn Station you can catch indie films, foreign flicks, and usually a blockbuster before it’s dubbed one. If you’re not claustrophobic, plan to eat at Tapas Teatro beforehand and take the last of your red sangria in the theatre with you. The Charles does not have previews.
5. The Water Taxi is a Balti-must. Start in Fells Point. Get a pretzel dog (available well after the bars close too). Then, pull out $7 and hop on. Take it to Fort McHenry, a range of other stops, or just float around all day. The ticket comes with some great coupons. Right, Don? Alternatively, you can take out a paddle boat and see the Harbor from a new view on your own steam. Opt for a dragon boat–go ‘head with your bad self.
6. Baltimore ghost tours are a hidden gem. I loved the Fells Point tour and learned a lot about places I’d been hanging out for years. Learn and laugh and get shivers. Check out Fells Point Ghost Tour. I know the owner, Amy, and she’s good people.
9. Enoch Pratt Free Library is one of the oldest library systems in the country, dating back to 1882. Baltimore City libraries are great peeks into a given neighborhood. My favorite is Central Library, old majestic, and still a peek into a neighborhood. Visit the Pratt Library website for great programs, speakers, and events.
10. Eastside and Over West are two of Baltimore large infamous areas–one is where “The Wire” was filmed, and the other is the part it depicted–can’t remember which. Both comprise several neighborhoods that vary in amount of vacants, food desertion, crime, and relative danger. I think it is important to visit these neighborhoods to see what Baltimore is dealing with. When you see some of these areas, you may think “Why should they keep trying?” Well, there are children there. And grandparents. And people just trying to do the best they can do with what they know.
Eats and Bohs
1. You know when you’re in a place like Coos Bay, Oregon or St. Louis and the menu reads “Maryland Crabcake”? Don’t do it. Instead, try Koco’s Pub in Hamilton for a kind, down to earth staff and a whopper of a cake. Or, head to Faidley Seafood in Lexington Market which has been making them since 1886. Alternatively, join my Grammom and her peers at Pappas (in the county!)–maybe avoid the early bird special, as that’s likely to be the most crowded time for this octogenarian hangout.
2. Feelin’ fancy? Go back in the past and go to the Prime Rib in Mt. Vernon for Happy Hour. If your wallet is Costanza-sized, stay for dinner (it’s amazing). But whether you’re there for a long time or a good time, take in the feel of the supper club. It’s true old school–the carpet, walls, piano player, tuxedoed wait staff. Leave your phone in your pocket and take in what it’s like to be treated well in an old-timey way. Also, keep your eyes peeled–you have a good chance of seeing a Baltimore celebrity.
3. Best place to get a Natty Boh? Easy: Camden Yards but unfortunately they stopped serving it there–preposterous. Second best in my opinion? Hon Bar. They’re $2 and served in refrigerated glasses. Go there on a Friday night and enjoy some fantastic and frightful karaoke singing. You might catch me there. “Goodbye Earl” is my bread and butter.
4. When you’re in Mt. Vernon climbing the first Washington Monument, call ahead to Sammy’s Trattoria and ask for the fireplace table for a romantic evening for two. Or, just have a seat at the bar and ponder life with a guaranteed colorful bartender. What I think is Baltimore’s best Italian food, you may not need to go to “Lil It-lee” (by all means do, though, it’s adorable). Get a Julia House Salad to split and to save money but not room in your stomach, split the lasagna with meat sauce. It’s homemade and huge. Ask if Sam made the tiramisu from scratch this week and if the answer is yes, say yes. Otherwise, ask for Vaccaro’s prideful cannoli.
4. Do you like ice cream? Hit Hampden for The Charmery. Lines can be long but they are worth it. Homemade ice cream in Baltimore-themed flavors is worth the wait. Try Burger Cookies & Cream, Old Bay Caramel, Otterbein Sugar Cookie, or A Day at the Yard.
5. Hamilton Tavern serves my favorite burger. Ever. Say yes to the candied bacon and the fried egg. When you go to the bathroom, test your knowledge and play the matching game with female literary figures from history.
6. For breakfast, Golden West Cafe is the bees knees. Their coffee is strong so be sure to ask for lots of cream. Their diverse menu is bound to leave you full or cure your hangover. Try the Breakfast Polenta while you take in the artwork. My favorite table is the one directly under the moose.
7. The Horse You Came In On Saloon is allegedly the last place Edgar Allan Poe ever took a drink. It is the nation’s oldest continually operated saloon and many believe it is legitimately haunted. Don’t go late on a weekend night unless you are 21-22, ready to bump and grind, and not easily annoyed. Also, I wouldn’t know first-hand, but I would eat elsewhere.
8. Sticking with the theme of old bars, check out the old Belvedere Hotel in Mt. Vernon. Check out the Owl Bar (pizza, yum). Look up at the owls above the bar and watch their eyes light up. See it? Those were indicators that the cops were coming for prohibition-era drinkers.
Purnts of Intrest (normie/non-Baltimoron translation: Points of Interest)
1. Probably my favorite Balti-tour stop is the George Peabody Library. A mecca for bibliophiles, it does not contain any books published after 1920 (if I am remembering correctly, and if I’m not, then just know that the books are really old). Go on a weekday between 10-5 or on a Saturday between 10-1. If you can find the special collections librarian among the shelves and floors of stacks, ask to go in the special collections room. First editions abound, gold-edged books, giant dictionaries. It’s a bibliophile’s dream. Let me know when you’re going, I can’t get enough.
2. Graffiti Alley in Station North is a living canvas. Inside the corner of Howard St. and North Ave. you will find where vandalism is flipped on its head. Park on North Ave. and walk north on Howard St. and take it in (well, maybe not the fumes). You might come across someone adding to the display or you might find an abandoned spray paint can with a little bit of juice left so you can leave your own mark. That said, respect the talented.
3. Both The Walters Art Museum and The Baltimore Museum of Art are free, what I think of as No-Guilt-Museum-Visits. Go to both, it’s not like you’re paying and need to put in time to make it “worth it.” At The Walters, prioritize the suits of armor, tapestries, and bugs. At the BMA learn about the Cone Sisters, see their key collection, go into the horse room, and marvel at large European pieces. Then, go to the sculpture garden and have a bite at Gertrude’s ($$).
4. Museums that cost money but are worth the trip are in Baltimore too. I will list them and let you decide so I can get back to the weirder sites. The Museum of Industry: old oyster canning factory, Baltimore firsts, and a range of printing presses. The American Visionary Arts Museum: just WOW.
5. Poe’s Grave is absolutely a stop on a quality Balti-tour. You can arrange to see the crypt where for years on Poe’s birthday the “Poe Toaster” left him a half-drunk bottle of cognac. The cognacs are all there in a row like a timeline in Poe’s honor. The entire graveyard, in the shadow of University of Maryland, Baltimore, isn’t far from Camden Yards either. Poe re-enactors will meet you there if you like and recite the raven beside the grave. Definitely nighttime. Definitely October.
6. Guess who else is buried here? Well, you probably won’t guess so I will tell you. John Wilkes Booth (in case US History class has been a while–he assassinated Abraham Lincoln). He hailed from Bel Air, north of Baltimore. His grave is in a pretty dicey area, adding to the effect of the visit for sure. Read Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and I promise you’ll be intrigued enough to go.
7. I have not yet been (shameful) but the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is a highly prized Baltimore spot. They’re open everyday in the summer at $15 per ticket. Let’s go! Who wants to join me?
8. Another, who’s coming with me? I heard on NPR about the State Medical Examiner’s Office diorama collection called the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. They were an early method of forensic science as they are recreations of crime scenes, in miniature. They are still active training tools.
9. Sadly, one of my very favorite Baltimore institutions, The Book Thing, burned in 2016. They’re attempting a rebuild and post when they are accepting and giving out free books. It’s just that–a free book exchange. It’s right across from the Peabody Brewery and worth a stop and/or your support.
10. Visit the Bromo-Seltzer Arts Tower for a view, some art, and a tour. You can’t miss it if you’re downtown, look up, and toward the west. It lights up a nice blue, unless the Ravens are in need of our support, via colored lights, then you’ll see purple.
11. It’s not possible to do in a day but, if you like public art, check out Baltimore’s mural scene. There are over 250 murals throughout the city. Try google-mapping a route to them all and be impressed but not necessarily convinced to do it all. Mainly, as you drive or walk around, appreciate the wide array of murals.
12. Not scared of heights? How about steps? Go to the original Washington Monument (yes, before DC) and climb 227 steps to the top for a $6 donation to the Monument. Enjoy a 360 degree view from the top. Come back down and enjoy learning about the time capsules that were found in the statue’s foundation from 1815 and 1915, respectively. The ticket to the top of the Monument also gets you half off at the Maryland Historical Society down the street where the items from the time capsule (and a ton of other incredible artifacts) are housed.
13. A huge but little-known and under-appreciated Baltimore building is the War Memorial. I don’t know if it’s open to the public but if you have a chance to attend an event there, just do it.
14. Baltimore is for the
Birds Breweries. Check out the Yelp list of Baltimore Breweries. I recommend Union Brewery and Waverly Brewery, and they’re right across the street from one another.
15. Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. Some of the best: Hampden, Remington, Fells Point, Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon, Canton, Charles Village, Station North, Homewood, Ednor Gardens :). There are so many greats. Make yourself a neighborhood tour.
1. Be Free Fridays. If you happen to be in B-more on the last Friday of the month, head to Howard Street. Take in what used to be a bustling shopping mecca. You’ll see that storefronts are again starting to open up but they aren’t the Hecht Company or Hutzler’s of the past. Art galleries, tiny wooden table cafes, and hipster hubs are gradually taking hold. At the Eubie Blake House, learn about jazz musician, Eubie Blake downstairs then take the elevator to the top. Leave your normie-ness and your sensitivity to foul language at home (matter of fact, don’t even bring those things with you to Baltimore). Grab a Red Stripe and a delicious $5 meal. Take in the view from the window near the food counter and see the changing landscape that Eubie Blake once saw. Settle in at a table and enjoy poets, musicians, and unofficial comedians. You can plan something afterward, but I promise you won’t want to leave until the last poet throws down the mic at 11 p.m. [8 p.m., last Friday of every month, $10 or $5 with student ID]
2. Take in Baltimore’s annual cultural displays at Honfest (mid-June) or Hampdenfest (mid-September). Bring your own beehive hairdo or get one done while you’re there. Take in the Most Ironic Mustache Pageant, Oyster Shucking Contest, or Baltimore’s Best Hon. Park is available in the Hopkins Keswick Garage (and not on my street).
3. Investigate a music show at Pier 6 Pavilion. Check the online box office. Or, just hop on a boat, sail up to the edge and catch the same show with cheaper beer. This is also a good opportunity to visit Mr. Trash Wheel who works tirelessly to try to get the Harbor’s water quality above a D+. Swimmable by 2020? Good luck, Mr. Trash Wheel! At least he’s garnering support. Try a Mr. Trash Wheel Beer from Peabody Heights Brewery.
4. Baltimore is home to the nation’s largest free arts festival, Artscape. This year it’s July 21-23. Come hungry, thirsty, and open-minded. Enjoy music, the local eats, a slew of visual art displays and art for purchase, and some of the nation’s best people-watching. It’s big enough that it’d be prudent to download the Artscape app before you head into Station North, Mount Vernon, and Bolton Hill, where the fest takes over. Take Lightrail, the Charm City Circulator, a $4 Lyft from my house, or as I was raised, ride your bike down either on Maryland Ave. or via Falls Rd. In years’ past, parking a bike gets you a coupon for a free Chipotle burrito–but I’ll have to teach you how to say Chipotle in a Baltimore accent.
5. October is a fantastic time to visit Charm City. The Baltimore Running Festival is like Christmas Day for some locals (present company included). Sign up for the 5K, grab three friends (or your parents and sister) and do the marathon relay, or really see Baltimore in the half or full marathon. If running’s not your thing, no problem! But do not try to drive the city on BRF. You literally can’t even. So it’s best to pick a spot and cheer on the runners–I recommend Lake Montebello.
6. If it’s between April and October, don’t leave Baltimore without rooting for the Orioles. Hold out hope with us that “This could be the year!” (It can’t.) The best bleacher seats are under the scoreboard–Lochdawg can help you with that. Ahead of the game, be sure to practice John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” as you will want to sing along with us. And, don’t forget to yell OH during the National Anthem. Camden Yards has been voted the country’s best ballpark several times and many other cities have modeled their own ballparks after ours. So there.
7. Nothing says Baltimore like the Stoop Storytelling Series. A themed storytelling series, Stoop can be caught in various Baltimore venues throughout the year. Their main season is Fall through Spring. Prepare to laugh and cry, within 4 minutes. Put your name in the Trohv bag and have your name drawn to tell a three-minute story the night of. When was the last time you tried something for the first time?
8. Jury Duty in Baltimore City is obviously compulsory if you live here. That said, I do not mind it. What an interesting look at the microcosm we are? Want to get out of a case? I recommend an inventive, clashing outfit, more braids than are normal, and carrying your bike helmet into the courtroom. That said, having served on a Baltimore City jury, I do highly recommend it for a learning experience, better understanding of the judicial system, and general amusement.
As you’d expect, there’s a literal slew of other Baltimore things I am missing and I do plan on making this a live document so, if you have suggestions and/or corrections, please share them–but I have to go to work. I am happy to be your Balti-tour guide whether you live here or not, as long as you’re not a normie.