What pops into your head when you think of Baltimore? For us, it’s John Waters and The Wire. (We’re pretty big film and television fans.) Also crab cakes. (Okay, so we’re pretty big foodies too.) But there’s really so much more to Baltimore. It’s rarely given the appreciation it deserves as a travel destination. In this age of rampant overtourism, it seems ridiculous to call any locale “undiscovered” or “underrated”. But Baltimore, Maryland is truly both those things.
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is home to the Baltimore Visitor Center for good reason: there are many things to see, do and eat there. The National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center are just a few of the attractions set against the views of Patapsco River, and you could spend many a beautiful day on the waterfront. But you’ll also find some fairly standard tourist fare here (we’re looking at you, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co). The true gem in the area, besides the waterfront with its iconic Domino Sugars sign, is the American Visionary Art Museum.
American Visionary Art Museum
The American Visionary Art Museum celebrates art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training. Founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger was impressed by the artwork created in the People Encouraging People program at Sinai Hospital, which is geared toward aiding psychiatric patients in their return to the community. The idea for the museum blossomed from her work as a Development Director within that program. The stunning mirrored mosaic on AVAM’s exterior facade is thanks to an arts apprenticeship program to benefit at-risk, underserved youth. The museum’s thoughtful “raw art” exhibits offer similarly unique perspectives through a variety of media–often by, or for the benefit of, its community.
After you’ve taken in the American Visionary Art Museum exhibits, budget additional time to explore the museum gift shop. Unlike other museum gift shops that have a small sampling of branded merchandise, the AVAM gift shop is aptly named Sideshow and feels like a novelty store and world market rolled into one. Purchase original artwork, x-ray goggles or handmade crafts from Africa and Vietnam. Let Zoltar tell you your fortune. This is where you’ll find the most unique Baltimore souvenirs.
Pro Tip: AVAM is located at the base of Federal Hill Park. If you’re up for some exercise, climb to the top for beautiful views of the Inner Harbor.
Beyond Inner Harbor
Where to Caffeinate
Bird in Hand
Bird in Hand is the marriage of two Baltimore powerhouses: Artifact Coffee and the Ivy Bookshop. Artifact Coffee is a spin-off from the team at Woodberry Kitchen, one of Baltimore’s most beloved restaurants. The Ivy is a local bookshop owned by Baltimore native and official book nerd Emma Snyder. Bird in Hand has a cool aesthetic, but it also exudes warmth, thanks to the tiled motifs, high ceilings, natural light, and rows and rows of bookshelves. The fun space in the quaint Charles Village neighborhood is a slice of heaven for coffee lovers and bibliophiles alike. Order a cup of Counter Culture coffee and thumb through a curated selection of books. It’s the kind of place we could easily spend hours in.
There are certain cafes you instantly claim as your own the moment you step inside. Dovecote Cafe felt like our neighborhood coffee joint, even though we live hundreds of miles away from Reservoir Hill. Perhaps it’s because co-owner Aisha Pew hails from Brooklyn, and her cafe mixes some of that old-school Brooklyn magic with Baltimore charm. We could imagine spending lazy weekend mornings in the intimate space (in the nook by the windows, of course), sipping on coffee and lingering over brunch. We eyed every single dish that came out of the kitchen, wishing we had room in our stomachs for more. Whether you’re going with the Eggs in Purgatory with Grits or Salmon Hash & Pancakes, there doesn’t seem to be a bad choice here.
Where to Eat
Ida B.’s Table
Ida B’s Table has a lot going for it, and not just its modern take on soul food, which, by the way, is delicious. (Let’s just get that out of the way right off.) The first thing to mention here is the building itself. Ida B’s Table is located in the CJ Youse Candy Box Factory, a landmark building. The large, open space–including a bar, parlor, drawing room, and main dining room–is as stunning as it is inviting. You’ll see many of the building’s salvaged original fixtures as well as lots of gorgeous brick and wood. You’ll also find a selection of Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw’s paintings of prominent figures, including the restaurant’s namesake, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. So, if you are looking for an all around incredible experience–food, service, aesthetic, concept, and history–you know where you need to make a stop in Baltimore.
Pro Tip: Ida B’s is highly regarded for its insanely delicious fried chicken (and the accolades are well deserved), but it would be a shame not to mention their breakfast cobblers, which they describe as “gently baked buttermilk biscuit dough hugging a savory, eggy filling.” We tried the Brisket for Breakfast, which was indescribably delicious. Go early, because these are so popular they sell out fast.
Dylan’s Oyster Cellar
Maryland crab cakes get a lot of attention, and rightfully so. But all manner of seafood is abundant in Baltimore, and it’s only right to take advantage of that. For oyster lovers, Dylan’s Oyster Cellar is a no-brainer. The variety is incredible, offering the freshest sustainably caught options available. Choose from a selection of raw oysters based on your taste preferences (mild? briny?). Or if you prefer them breaded and fried, try the Fried Oyster Sandwich.
But even if you’re not a huge fan of oysters, there are plenty of seafood and non-seafood options on the menu. One thing that you shouldn’t miss; however, is the coddie. Coddies are a vintage Baltimore specialty that has made a comeback in recent years. The patties are primarily made of salted cod, mashed potatoes and eggs, which are then breaded and fried. Served with saltine crackers and mustard, it’s a delicious taste of Baltimore.
Pro Tip: If you’re in Baltimore between Tuesday and Friday, try to make your way to Dylan’s Oyster Cellar for their Happy Hour from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Select oysters are 6 for $9, along with typical drink specials.
We’re not strangers to the proliferation of food halls in our fair city as well as across the country. Food halls offer eateries the option of reduced overhead, and they offer diners a wealth of choice. It’s a classic win-win. R.House is a large, industrial space in the Remington neighborhood that houses ten innovative food vendors and its very own r.bar. When you have several vendors in one space, some struggle to stand out. Not so with Ground & Griddled. The coffee shop and eatery churns out delicious coffee specialties (along with adorable latte art!) as well as delicious breakfast sandwiches. Other standout options include the fried chicken sandwiches at BRD and the Mediterranean street food at ARBA. Look out for the one-of-a-kind parking validation robot right by the entrance. Artist and maker Jen Schachter crafted it with salvaged wood from Baltimore row homes and hardware from Bethlehem Steel Factory.
Where To Drink
Bluebird Cocktail Room
Locals know Hampden is where it’s at, but the Bluebird Cocktail Room is the kind of chic space you’d expect to find in a quiet corner of London or Berlin. After climbing a flight of stairs, a narrow corridor opens into a vast space with wood floors, warm blue and gold tones, and brass accents. The speakeasy-style bar has a sexy vibe, but what really endeared us to the establishment was its carefully crafted menu. As stated in its Prologue, the cocktail menu is “inspired by our two loves: great literature and the wonderful world of botany.” Beautiful illustrations and lyrical descriptions make the menu read like a poem, mainly because it’s inspired by one. The Loves of the Plants by Erasmus Darwin ties all the beautiful details together.
Pro Tip: You can sit anywhere in the space, but you need to place your order at the center of the bar. You’ll be handed a numbered placard, and your order will be delivered to your table by the wait staff. Checks are similarly settled at the same spot.
Union Collective occupies an impressive 155,000 square-foot space east of Jones Falls River in the heart of Baltimore. The former Sears warehouse has been given a facelift, with punchy paint colors and large murals glossing over its past. The storage facilities and loading docks are now spaces to congregate and socialize. It’s anchored by Baltimore’s very own Union Craft Brewing, which has a brewery, tap room and beer garden on site. But Union Collective is also home to several other independently-owned, Baltimore-based businesses. Well Crafted Kitchen serves up pizzas across from the Union Tap Room. Local ice cream purveyor The Charmery sells its popular scoops and also provides factory tours. Vent Coffee Roasters offers locally sourced baked goods in addition to its delicious artisanal coffee. Union Collective is community-based revitalization at its best, but it’s also just a great space to hang out.
Pro Tip: Union Craft Brewing offers free brewery tours every Saturday at 1:30 pm, 2:30 pm, and 3:30 pm. The Union Tap Room is open Wednesday-Saturday from 12:00 pm-10:00 pm, and Sunday from 12:00 pm-6:00 pm.
Spots That Make You Wish You Were A Local
If you ache for the good old days when you could wander through the aisles of your neighborhood hole-in-the-wall video store, looking for that new release, campy B-movie, or obscure cult film, then Beyond Video has just what the doctor ordered. The idea here is simple: a non-profit, crowd-sourced video rental store. How it came about isn’t. The short is this: over a period of nearly six years, a collective of enthusiasts, led by a former director of programming for the Maryland Film Festival and the Parkway Theatre, hatched a plan to save a dying film format. With the help of volunteers, donors, a Kickstarter campaign, film directors, collectors, distributors, and production companies, Beyond Video became a reality, with nearly 10,000 unique titles to offer its subscribers.
This antidote to streaming services offers new releases as well as hard-to-find titles, and you can often find limited edition versions with bonus features. The store is located in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood in the former digs of the once beloved punk-rock record store, Reptilian Records. It’s worth a visit just to peruse the extensive collection and take in the space, which, by the way, has a smell reminiscent of a charming, neighborhood library. Come and see how a community rallies together, bound by a simple passion.
If you’ve ever dreamt of being a Plant Queen or Plantfluenster, then B. Willow is where you can make those dreams a reality. The beautiful store brings nature indoors, and promises you can too. Besides having an array of botanicals to suit your level of ability and/or commitment, it also offers floral workshops so you can build your own terrarium or make stunning floral arrangements. B. Willow is also a proud supporter of Baltimore businesses, and its retail store provides a curated selection of local goods from around the area. It’s a great place to pick up gifts.
George Peabody Library
Johns Hopkins University is America’s first research university, and has such notable alumni as novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The school’s main campus is located in Baltimore, and it is the city’s largest anchor institution. If you’re looking for a quiet place to escape the city’s hustle and bustle, make your way to its stunning George Peabody Library on the Mount Vernon campus. The romantic cast iron balconies are reminiscent of those found in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Communal tables are tucked away within each section, so you can easily claim a spot. Catch up on some work, peruse the interesting reading material, or simply look up a fun place to eat dinner on your phone.
Pro Tip: Although the balconies soar high, visitor access is limited to the first floor. Since this is a working library, be mindful of noise and refrain from intrusive photography.
Where to Stay
Mount Vernon is a great non-touristy neighborhood to call home during your Baltimore visit. It offers a central location between Penn Station to the north and Inner Harbor to the south. Anchored by Baltimore’s own Washington Monument, you’re in close proximity to institutions like the Walters Art Museum and the Maryland Historical Society. There’s also the Mount Vernon Marketplace for a variety of fun eateries. Here are two great hotels in the area:
Hotel Indigo is the boutique arm of IHG Hotels, and it takes that concept seriously. Not only is Hotel Indigo unique from other hotels, it’s unique to its individual location so that no two Hotel Indigo experiences are the same. Hotel Indigo Baltimore has a fun literary theme. There is a library on the property, each room has a literary-themed mural, and its hotel restaurant is called Poets.
Pro Tip: There is an affordable self-park garage directly across the street from Hotel Indigo that costs only $5/night (with no in/out privileges). You can opt to have the parking cost charged to your room.
Hotel Revival is a destination in and of itself, with its rooftop bar offering 360-degree views of Baltimore, and private karaoke rooms. We loved having access to local Ceremony Coffee on the premises, which we took full advantage of in the morning. The boutique hotel has a beautiful overall aesthetic, but we particularly loved its keen focus on art. The walls aren’t covered with mass-produced prints, but curated pieces by local artists.
Pro Tip: The cost to valet park at Hotel Revival is steep and they do not offer a self-park option. After 8:00 pm there is free street parking around the area, but you have to leave by 7:00 am. As an alternative, you can locate a local garage nearby using a service like Parking Panda. (The $5/night garage across from Hotel Indigo is also a walkable distance.)
If there’s one thing we hope that comes through in all our picks for things to do in Baltimore, it’s that it’s still very much a community. As the world becomes more homogenized, character is something we truly value in a destination. So make Charm City your next destination. You won’t regret it.
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