In a region proudly possessing world-famous sites, Howard County, northwest of Washington DC near Baltimore, gets little play. But if you give it a chance to visit, you’ll find an enchanting small town, a nationally important railroad museum, amazing African art, an unexpected Korean enclave, and much more.

Green pastures with a white fence, with cloudy skies overhead in Howard County, Maryland
Maryland's Howard County mixes rural landscapes with small-town charm © AppalachianViews / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Ellicott City

As far as small towns go, Ellicott City has been celebrated for its restaurant scene, Old Word panache, boutiques and galleries, and haunted buildings making for some great ghost tours. It’s also experienced its more-than-fair-share of natural catastrophes, including two recent floods, though each time it comes back strong. Sitting above the Patapsco River that once powered a cotton mill, its 18th- and 19th-century stone buildings line a winding Main Street filled with all kinds of fun shops, including Gramp’s Attic Books and Sweet Elizabeth Jane, restaurants, and art galleries. The historic Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station, dating from 1831 (making it the nation’s oldest railroad station), is now a museum especially noted for its living history exhibits.

Patapsco Valley State Park

You may not expect a state park with all the trimmings in the populated corridor between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, but Patapsco Valley State ParkMaryland’s oldest state park, established in 1907 – provides all the refuge you need from the hustle-bustle of urbanity. The park protects 32 miles of the Patapsco River, offering hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing, and mountain biking. There are five developed recreational areas, with Hollofield located near Ellicott City. Here you can hop on the Ole Ranger Trail or Peaceful Pond Trail, or simply enjoy a magnificent river view from the Overlook.

Children climbing on a wooden obstacle course surrounded by trees in Howard County, Maryland
Kids will find plenty to do at Terrapin Adventures, Savage Mill © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Savage Mill

When Hollywood set designers seek period furnishings, they often come to Savage Mill’s large antiques center, where you can find anything from fancy crystal chandeliers to retro suitcases to a Shirley Temple porcelain doll. But there’s much more here in this renovated canvas mill on the Little Patuxent River dating from the 1820s. You’ll find one-of-a-kind shops and galleries, as well as an adventure hub. That’s right – while the adults in your group browse the shops, visit with artists, and sip cappuccinos at the little bakery, the kids can zipline, swing from trees, and climb up rope ladders. There’s also a nature trail along the river, the landmark Bollman Truss Bridge – one of the last iron bridges of its kind – and ghost tours dredging up spooky stories about former mill workers and child laborers.

Korean Way

The 5-mile segment of Route 40 running through Ellicott City may look like any other old traffic-plagued suburban road edged with uninteresting strip malls and chain restaurants. But if you take the time to look, you’ll see English and Korean blended on signs and shopfronts – your first hint that a large Korean-American community resides here. And what that means is, tucked among the sprawl you’ll discover 150-plus Korean-owned restaurants, bakeries, markets and other businesses offering authentic fixes of kimchi, bibimbap and bubble tea. Lotte Plaza Market in the heart of Golden Triangle Shopping Center is where it all began in 1999, while other notable spots include H Mart, Shin Chon Korean Restaurant, and Bonchon Chicken. Plan your attack on the new Maryland Korean Way website.

A stone building with a sign reading "Carrollton Hall, Est. 1831" in Howard County, Maryland
The stone facade of Carrollton Hall in Howard County, Maryland © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Carrollton Hall

The last living signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton built a neoclassical country villa on part of his vast acreage of pastoral lands in 1832 as a gift for his granddaughter, Emily MacTavish. She enjoyed decades of genteel living here (and some of the best dancing parties around, it’s said). Through a series of iterations, the historic estate and 236 acres of land ended up with the Franciscan Friars in 1928, who established the Shrine of St. Anthony on the still bucolic property. Today, the place is a quiet refuge where you can stroll peaceful trails, visit a replica of the Lourdes grotto, and stop by the chapel containing a relic of St. Anthony. The original manor house is being renovated with plans to open at designated times and by appointment throughout the year; check the website for updates.

African Art Museum Of Maryland

Located in a strip mall in the quiet planned community of Maple Lawn, the African Art Museum of Maryland showcases gorgeous examples of African masks, textiles, baskets, jewelry, musical instruments, and household items representing more than half the countries in the African continent. Founded in 1980, it’s one of only three museums in the USA devoted solely to African art, and the only one owned by African Americans. Rotating exhibits reflect both traditional and contemporary African art. And if you’re interested in visiting Africa, the museum offers tours to the continent as well. 

A large red barn surrounded by other buildings in Howard County, Maryland
Howard County's rural spaces feature farm visits that show the agricultural side of Maryland © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Farm visits

Howard County remains delightfully rural – meaning, there’s lots of room for cows, sheep, and chickens to roam. You’ll find more than 300 different farms that host educational visits, farm markets, special events  and other unique experiences – from wine making to cheese pairing to alpaca-fiber spinning. Breezy Hill Alpaca Farm, for example, has barnyard tours and a retail store, while Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum showcases the agricultural way of life with a museum, farm tours and a calendar full of events. Kids especially love Clark’s Elioak Farm, home of the Enchanted Forest storybook theme park, along with a petting farm, hayrides, and pony rides. Learn more about farm visits at the Visit Howard County website.

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