At long last, Baltimore is shedding its industrial pallor, providing lots of good reasons to venture beyond the touristy Inner Harbor. The city's neighborhoods, popping with life, are where it’s at, with new restaurants, bars and boutiques providing singular twists on each area's persona.
Here are the best neighborhoods in Baltimore that are worth exploring.
Best neighborhood for museums
The Gilded Age lives on in this exclusive corner of town, about a mile up North Charles from the Inner Harbor. It all started with Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard, whose family donated land in 1815 for the Washington Monument, the Doric marble column that towers over the quarter. Some of the city’s richest subsequently built elaborate townhouses centered on Mount Vernon Square. Today it’s a place to visit for a dose of culture and tree-shaded relaxation.
Center stage, the spectacular Walters Art Museum houses 55 centuries of art and artifacts from around the world. Medieval armor, art nouveau jewelry and Egyptian mummies all add to the mix. Henry Walters was one of the early Mount Vernon residents who built the Georgian structure specifically as a private gallery for his friends. Luckily, everyone is welcome these days – for free.
Nearby, the historic George Peabody Library overwhelms with its five tiers of cast-iron, open-faced alcoves of mostly 18th- and 19th-century books overlooking a striking atrium, often regarded as the world’s most beautiful library. If you think you’ve seen it before, perhaps you have – in Sleepless in Seattle, Washington Square or one of the other many movies that have used it as a backdrop. Peabody was a grocer’s apprentice who became a philanthropist, giving the city not only the library but a stellar music academy and cultural center.
Grab a bite at the Korean-bowl lunch joint, Dooby’s Coffee, proving that this neighborhood isn’t stuck in the past. That’s also clear at the Hotel Revival Baltimore, built on the original site of the Garretts’ mansion (of B&O Railroad fame) and decorated in mod-Americana style. Ask for a north-facing room to admire the Washington Monument gleaming far below. Better yet, grab a cocktail at the rooftop bar and watch the sun set over the city.
Best neighborhood for seafood
The historic neighborhood of Fells Point was founded in 1730 as a shipping hub and has had a reputation for seediness pretty much ever since. That is, until the arrival in 2017 of the stunning Sagamore Pendry Baltimore hotel in the former Recreation Pier building, which has set in motion a dramatic resurgence. Today, one-of-a-kind boutiques, bars, restaurants and nightclubs occupy the neighborhood's colonial-era homes, set along cobbled streets.
The heart of it all is Broadway Square, a large brick plaza just north of the waterfront illuminated by 18th-century-style lanterns. Just as it was in colonial days, the square is once again a gathering place, and it's the site of the weekly farmers market. Being on the water, Fells Point is the natural place to sample Old-Bay-spiced crab cakes or slurp super-fresh oysters. The iconic Thames Street Oyster House is always a good bet, or go upscale at the Sagamore Pendry’s clubby Rec Pier Chop House. You can also sip a whiskey or brew at The Horse You Came In On Saloon, said to be where Edgar Allan Poe downed his last drink before dying.
You’ll be tempted to stay all afternoon and evening in this happening quarter, eating, drinking and shopping. But whenever you’re ready, simply hop aboard a water taxi and zip your way back to Downtown Baltimore (and the nearby Inner Harbor), no longer a world away.
Best neighborhood for indie shopping
The heart of the up-and-coming Hampden neighborhood is 36th St, a revitalized boulevard of kitschy-chic boutiques, terrace restaurants and happy-hour bars that’s simply called "The Avenue." Some cinema buffs may already be familiar with the area, which featured in many John Waters films (the iconic film director, a Baltimore native, once described The Avenue as an “uneasy mix of redneck culture and hipster culture”).
Artists wandered into Hampden a few years back, and now you’ll find a slew of original shops, such as quirky Caravanserai. Atomic Books is an independent bookstore with a bar in the back, and this is where John Waters receives his fan mail. The restaurants go far and beyond the city’s traditional crab cakes and oysters, most notably Bluebird Cocktail Room, with its dark blue walls, chandeliers and long bar for pub-style dining service. The sublime, handcrafted cocktails are literary-inspired (try the rhubarb-based Ms. Havisham).
The past cannot be ignored in this historically hardworking blue-collar quarter, making it all that more authentic. You’ll find a taste of “Ole Bawlmer” at Cafe Hon, home of the famous HonFest, the annual tribute in June to “all things Hon” – a term of endearment, pronounced with the definitive Baltimore accent that encompasses the local mid-century fashion of beehive hairstyles, cat-eye glasses and color print dresses (anyone who has seen any of John Waters’ flicks know what we’re talking about).
Best neighborhood for street art
The arts are the name of the game in this still somewhat gritty quarter just north of Penn Station, where galleries, live-work spaces, row homes and businesses are starting to sprout. The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), rising on the North Street’s west end, is a hub of artistic activity, while The Charles movie theater, in an old cable-car barn to the east, screens classic, art and foreign films.
One of the most recent game-changers is the state-of-the-art Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center, which opened in May in an old movie palace. Housing the organizers of the Maryland Film Festival, this rescued ruin features bold programming year-round, including international, independent, documentary and cult-favorite films from every era, region and genre.
Station North is blessed with a plethora of murals by streets artists from around the world, many part of a project curated by famed artist and MICA grad Gaia. Use this map to create your own tour. There’s also tucked-away Graffiti Alley (behind Motor House, a creative hub, gallery and performance space), where every inch of wall space comprises an artist’s outdoor haven of free thought (and the one place in Maryland where spraying graffiti is legal); it changes nearly every day.
For sips and bites, Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse is a “radical gathering place” that mixes artists with coffee (and some downright serious veggie dishes: Buffalo cauliflower wings and tempeh BLT), while Joe Squared Pizza serves up live music and sourdough-crust pizza made from 200-year-old starter.
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