On one hand Baltimore – or 'Bawlmer' to locals – remains something of an ugly duckling: a defiant, working-class, gritty city still tied to its nautical past. But in recent years Baltimore has begun to grow into a swan, or more accurately, gotten better at showing the world the swan that was always there, in the form of world-class museums, trendy shops, ethnic restaurants, boutique hotels, culture and sports. 'B'more' (another nickname) does this all with a twinkle in the eye and a wisecrack on the lips.
Morning on the waterfront
Early morning is the best time to stroll the docks along Baltimore's Inner Harbor. You'll enjoy cool breezes and fine views without the jostling crowds. After winding your way along the waterfront, delve into the city's nautical past at the Historic Ships in Baltimore (historicships.org). Without leaving the shoreline, you can wander through four historic ships: the Taney, a US Coast Guard Cutter that saw action in WWII during the attack on Pearl Harbor; the USS Torsk, a Navy submarine that was also active in WWII; the Chesapeake, a 1930s lightship used by the US Lighthouse Service; and the USS Constellation, a photogenic sail-powered warship that was launched in 1797. Also on the waterfront is the National Aquarium, considered one of America's best aquariums. Here you'll find more than 600 species spread across a variety of ecosystems, and the recreated settings are well done. Rainforest, coral reef and river gorge set the scene for exploring the world's great aquatic life.
Mid-day exploring in Mt Vernon
Leave the waterfront and take a stroll up North Charles St (you can also catch the 003 bus that runs up North Charles St). After a 20-minute walk, you'll pass the backside of the striking Baltimore Basilica (americasfirstcathedral.org). Dating from the early 1800s, this was one of the first Roman Catholic Cathedrals built in the US. Even if you don't go inside, you can admire its grand Neoclassical design. The church lies on the edge of Mount Vernon, a historic district – and Baltimore's oldest neighborhood – that contains heritage buildings dating back to the 19th century. At its epicenter is the 178ft-tall Washington Monument, a Doric column topped with a statue of America's first president (note that this Washington Monument predates the similarly named structure in Washington, DC). You can climb up the 228 steps for a fine view over the city.
Afterwards, stop for lunch in the nearby Dooby's Coffee (doobys.com). This sun-drenched cafe serves up a creative Asian-accented menu of roast pork ramen, seafood-stuffed dumplings and a kimchi-topped burger. Fresh bakery items and excellent coffees invite lingering.
A handful of excellent attractions lie within the Mt Vernon historical district. Start off in the Walters Art Museum, a gorgeous and free exhibition space that contains an encyclopedic collection of art, including ancient Roman sculptures, Renaissance paintings, Japanese woodblock prints, Meso-American carvings and works by French impressionists. Sated on art, take a peak inside the George Peabody Library (peabodyevents.library.jhu.edu). Its centerpiece is a soaring atrium ringed with five stories of cast-iron balconies. The collection contains 300,000 volumes, many dating to the 18th and 19th centuries. End the afternoon at the Maryland Historical Society, which houses a staggering collection of old and odd artifacts (textiles, paintings, furniture, weapons, jewelry and much more), with pieces dating back some 400 years.
Evening in Fells Point
Once the center of Baltimore's shipbuilding industry, the historic cobble-stoned neighborhood of Fell's Point is now a gentrified mix of 18th-century homes and restaurants, bars and shops. There are some outstanding dining options here, and some lively neighborhood bars where you can grab an early-evening drink (though some spots draw a rowdy frat boy crowd later in the night). A good anytime spot is the Thames Street Oyster House (thamesstreetoysterhouse.com). You can slurp oysters and cocktails at the vintage bar on the main level, or head upstairs to the elegant dining room for a seafood feast.
Exploring Federal Hill
Start the morning on the south side of the harborfront. The star attraction here is the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. The old star-shaped fort survived a naval onslaught by the British in 1814, and inspired Francis Scott Key to write America's national anthem, 'The Star-Spangled Banner'. Watch the film to learn about what transpired here, then tour the fort and admire the fine views. Afterwards, head over to the American Visionary Art Museum. Here you'll find mind-boggling works by outsider artists: self-taught painters and sculptures working well outside of the traditional boundaries of fine art. Don't miss the huge installations in the buildings in the yard – where you'll find delightfully mechanized pieces as well as movable art that have featured in the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race. A 12-minute stroll from the museum leads to the Cross St Market, an old-fashioned indoor market lined with vendors hawking fruits, flowers, bakery items, meats, seafood and snacks. The culinary highlight is Nick's (nicksoysterbar.com), famous for its crab cakes, oysters and giant 32-ounce beers.
Historical attractions around town
After lunch, pay a visit to the Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum. Though Poe was born in Boston, it was in this house in Baltimore where the poet found literary success in the 1830s. Ever a wanderer, he lived in Philadelphia, Richmond and New York City, though he moved back to Baltimore at the end of his life, and died in mysterious circumstances. His grave lies about seven blocks east off W Fayette St.
Although it's a bit of a drive (a 20-minute taxi ride from the harbor), it's well worth the effort to reach the Evergreen Museum (museums.jhu.edu/evergreen.php) on the north side of Baltimore. This grand 19th-century mansion provides a fascinating glimpse into upper-class Baltimore life of the 1800s. The house is packed with fine art and masterpieces of the decorative arts – including paintings by Modigliani, glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany and exquisite Asian porcelain – not to mention the astounding rare book collection, numbering some 32,000 volumes. More impressive than the collection however, is the compelling story of the Garrett family, who were world travelers (John W was an active diplomat for some years), astute philanthropists and lovers of the arts – if not always successful performers in their own right (though that didn't stop Alice from taking the stage – her own, which you'll see in the intimate theater below the house).
Farm to table fare
That evening, head to the Woodberry Kitchen, which serves an exquisite selection of locally sourced cuisine. Recent favorites: Shenandoah Valley lamb with wheatberry salad, wood-roasted yellow squash with dill yogurt, Cape May dayboat scallops and Chesapeake softshell crabs. The barnlike setting is complete with a wood-burning hearth that seems a world removed from bustling downtown.
Nightlife in Midtown-Belvedere
End the night in Midtown-Belvedere, a neighborhood just north of Mount Vernon that has a smattering of brewpubs, dive bars and cocktail lounges. It's also something of Baltimore's arts district as it's home to Symphony Hall, the Lyric Opera and the Baltimore Theater Project. A longtime favorite is the Brewer's Art, a two-story eating and drinking space, with a subterranean beer cellar, an elegant dining room in back and a more casual bar-lounge up front. Try housemade brews like the Belgian-style Beazly or the Resurrection, a full-bodied brown ale that has become the flagship brand.
A handy way to get around the waterfront is to use the Baltimore Water Taxi (baltimorewatertaxi.com). Though called a 'taxi', this boat service makes regularly scheduled stops at 13 different landings along five different routes. Key stops include the Harborplace (for the Historic Ships of Baltimore), Fells Point, Rusty Scupper (for the American Visionary Art Museum) and Fort McHenry. Fares are $8 one way or $14 for an all-day pass. You can buy tickets on board.