Baltimore is a world apart from DC. The touristy waterfront is just the beginning. Here are some of my favorite, off-the-beaten-path destinations in Charm City, USA.
- DAY 1: The Waterfront
- Day 2: Local Favorites
- Day 3: Arts & Culture
- Explore More
DAY 1: The Waterfront
On a recent trip to Baltimore, I had a tête-à-tête with a three-toed sloth and caressed a live jellyfish with my bare hands, and that doesn’t even begin to explain what makes Baltimore so special. I always wonder why I don’t come here more often. Maybe it’s the crowds, which can be pretty thick on the weekend, or maybe it’s the cost: the attractions on the waterfront can be expensive — but worth the splurge, now and then.
One note on cost: Although there are deep discount days when harbor attractions like the aquarium are virtually free, you shouldn’t do it unless you like wall-to-wall shoving matches. Instead, I like to put that cost into context. Imagine if, in the middle of DC’s dreary winter, you discovered a portal that could take you and your family to Australia or the Amazon rainforest for the day. What would that be worth?
9:30 am: Park by the aquarium
If you’re coming on a weekday or before 9:30 on a weekend, the free, 3-hour street parking in Little Italy is worth considering. It’s less than a 10 minute walk from the aquarium, and it sets you up nicely for a leisurely afternoon nosh at one of the best pizza joints in the country. If you need more than 3 hours or plan to arrive late-morning, though, fuhgettaboutit: there’s plenty of pricy parking across the street from the aquarium. Just remember to validate your ticket when you exit the museum. We went to one of the two main lots and it was $19 for the day, after the validation discount.
10:00 am: Visit the Amazon Rainforest
Let’s start in the rainforest of the National Aquarium, which sits above the main aquarium and has a lively array of tropical animals of the land and air. A Macaw kept his distance from my two kids as he preened his feathers and gave us the side eye. James kept noticing things that I would not have found on my own, like the three-toed sloth that was hiding up in the trees. Julia liked jumping on the explorer-style bridges and the canopy walk above the winding path at the forest bottom.
For me, the great joy was seeing a side of the Amazon rainforest that I’d never seen before. I’ve been to the Amazon (spent weeks there, in fact), but I was afraid to swim in the waters when I was younger and, after seeing all that lurks beneath the surface, I think I was a pretty wise lad. I also remember how excited I was when my guide at the Explorama Lodge found a poison dart frog on our walk through the dank forest. Today in Baltimore I saw a dozen different species of poison dart frogs, and all under better lighting.
10:45 am: Descend into Shark Alley
After the rainforest, we wandered down to the touch tanks at the entrance to the Atlantic tank. Guides are there to help you overcome your fear of touching live horseshoe crabs, skate, giant sea-snails, and, yes, even jellyfish. Also nearby is the puffin viewing area and the Peacock Mantis Shrimp, which is cool because usually these buggers bust through glass.
Past the touch tanks, you can look down over a gigantic, 270,000 gallon Blacktip Reef, which is full of sharks and other predators, zipping around searching for food and oxygen. The tank is designed as an enclosed oblong donut that allows people to descend 4 levels of ramps down to the bottom of the tank while being surrounded by some of the largest and most ferocious ocean animals. And their speed really is frightening: we heard a small child screaming unconsolably each time a shark darted by. The parents were screaming inside, I’m sure.
11:15 am: Step into the Australian outdoors
After the dark depths of Shark Alley, we passed through a revolving door to step into a brighter, more arid climate. A cacophony of bird call greeted us as kookaburras and cockatiels registered the threat of approaching primates (us). With two large waterfalls and an elaborately crafted lagoon, all sense of enclosure is erased. It really feels like a little park on the cusp of the outback: big enough for you to get lost (briefly) and small enough to be assured of seeing several of the 1,000 animals in this section of the complex.
Noon: Mangiare in Little Italy
There’s plenty of touristy fare right next to the Aquarium, like Phillips and The Hard Rock cafe. If you’re looking for more adventurous food, head on over to Baltimore’s Little Italy. Little Italy is one of our 6 Secret Cities of the DMV, and is full of dining options for pastavores and pizza monsters. It’s an easy 10-minute walk from the National Aquarium, or you can drive over to ample on-street parking options. Chiapparelli’s (pictured below) is a crowd favorite, offering huge portions on a budget.
1:30 pm Catch the dolphin show at The National Aquarium
Back at the aquarium, line up for the dolphin show, which usually requires advanced purchase on-line (or when you bought your tickets to the aquarium in the morning). The trainers do an excellent job of making the show entertaining for the kids and also educational for adults.
3:00 pm: Explore the tall ships in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor
I’m not a big fan of the Harbor in the wintertime, but in warmer months it is a fun place to walk around. Many of the ships (including the USS Torsk, pictured below) are open for tours. The heart of Baltimore’s tourism scene, the harbor is also home to a million and one attractions, including the Maryland Science Museum, the Port Discovery Museum, the very strange (but very Baltimore) American Visionary Art Museum.
Day 2: Local Favorites
Many people think of the Inner Harbor as a tourist trap, but there is much more to it than the “first taste” we got yesterday. Today’s itinerary is also geared to families, but will also help you expand their horizons and find a deeper appreciation of the city.
9:30 am: Hike up Federal Hill
Park on the street next to the American Visionary Art Museum, which sits at the foot of Federal Hill. The short 5 minute walk up to the top will reward you with sweeping vistas of Baltimore. There’s also a small playground on top to keep your kids occupied while you sip coffee and prepare yourself for the day.
10:00 am: Tour AVAM
The American Visionary Art Museum was established with the premise that the world’s best artists had at least occasional bouts of insanity. Like Van Gogh, who famously sold only a few paintings in his lifetime, many mentally ill artists would be forgotten by history without visionary curators and promoters .
To celebrate the breathtaking beauty that sometimes emerges from the cray, the American Visionary Art Museum has assembled a collection of paintings and sculptures that is far more inclusive than the traditional art gallery. Be sure to roam the outbuildings beyond the main gallery, especially the wooden kinetic models in the Barn.
11:30 am: Tour the BMI
Sharing the crazy side of the harbor with the AVAM is the weirdly popular Baltimore Museum of Industry. With its gigantic equipment and industrial sculptures, it’s hard to tell sometimes which is art and which is functional.
Inside, a number of exhibits celebrate the long industrial history of Baltimore, from its early days as a shipping town, to the burgeoning technology companies of today.
1:00 pm: Nom Crabs and Oysters at Fell’s Point
For delicious seafood in historic surroundings, head on over to Fell’s Point. It’s hard to underestimate the significance of this neighborhood for the the Chesapeake Bay region, which has more coastline than the British Isles. Fell’s Point was established in the 17th Century as a shipping center, and quickly gained world renown for its shipyards, which produced the tall-masted schooners known as Baltimore Clippers.
It was also here that Frederick Douglass found his path to freedom. As he recounts in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, his master’s wife taught him to read and write before hiring him out to a nearby shipyard, where foreign dock-workers deprogramed him from acceptance of his bondage and helped him plan his escape.
And it was also immigrants who broadened the food horizons of Charm City in the 20th Century and made Fell’s Point the culinary capital of Baltimore. With a higher concentration of restaurants than anywhere else in the city, it’s hard to go wrong here. Side note: for a sense of what it was like to be an immigrant here in the 1940s, check out Baltimore filmmaker Barry Levinson’s greatest film: Avalon.
3:00 pm: Port Discovery Museum
The Port Discovery Museum is a children’s paradise in the heart of Baltimore’s harbor district. Expect to pay over $70 for a family of 4, but once inside, your children will thank you. Amy says she would happily pay $20 not to go to the Port Discovery Museum again, but you owe it to your kids to take them there once in their lives.
Keeping track of your little ones is the biggest challenge at the Port Discovery. There’s plenty to do with them, like the Egyptian adventure (pictured above) or the bubble zone (below), but once they’re in the rope spider-maze, you’re not likely to see them again for an hour or more. Fortunately, the museum takes safety seriously: you’ll need to match wristbands to leave the museum with your child.
Day 3: Arts & Culture
Once one of the largest ports in the United States, Baltimore (and its captains of industry) turned some of their wealth to the benefit of the city. There’s so much art here, in fact, that it’ll be hard to even scratch the surface in one day, but we’ll try.
10:00 am: Visit The Walters Art Museum
When America was in the depths of the Civil War, liquor baron William Walters spent his days wandering Europe collecting art. After the war, he returned to the US, investing much of his money in banking stocks and founding the Atlantic Railroad. In his spare time, he filled his house at Mount Vernon Place with his growing collection, and opened it to the public for a 50c entry fee .
His son Henry carried on the tradition and eventually donated the entire collection to the public, with a sizable enough endowment to ensure that entry would always be free.
This is, beyond measure, the most kid-friendly art gallery I’ve ever encountered. Children love the maze of secret staircases and hidden rooms. To their labyrinth of secret, kid-friendly passages, basement family room and courtyard popup art they have added what can only be described as a family playground for aesthetes.
11:00 am: Tour 1 Mount Vernon Place
My son would rather visit the dentist than an Art Museum. So I’ve come to associate cultural enlightenment with the sound of a low, constant moan. Not so at One Mount Vernon Place, which is right next to the Walters and also owned by the gallery.
You may find the augmented realty features in the various rooms to be a little gimmicky. But, hey, these creepy-cool talking busts will at least distract your kids from the fact that they are in an art gallery.
It is also hard not to be swept away by the odd mixture of post-modern ceramics in a neo-classical setting. And the infinity chandeliers in the main ballroom is something even an adult will enjoy.
When your kids finally realize that there in an art gallery and start to complain, take them to the art room. The neurotically manicured craft drawers and a magnetic wall with carefully selected art that you could take off the wall make your kids feel a bit like Henry Bemis in Time Enough at Last.
12:30 pm: Grab a bite and stroll Patterson Park
Patterson Park is Baltimore’s Central Park (they even have their own, Friend’s inspired Patterson Perk). Positioned on a hill overlooking Fell’s point and the city around the harbor, Patterson Park is a fine place to stroll. At the tippy top of the hill is the observatory (pictured below), an 1890s pagoda open intermittently to the public.
After you’ve worked up a sweat, head to the foot of the park (walk down, towards the onion domes of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church) and cross the street to pick up a frozen treat at BMore Licks, which offers a stunning variety of soft serve flavors and hand-cranked ice cream.
3:00 pm: Get lost in the Baltimore Museum of Art
Because it’s so far from the Harbor, most folks miss the chance to tour one of the country’s preeminent art institutions, The Baltimore Museum of Art
4:30 pm: Watch the sunset at Fort McHenry
When this old Baltimore fort came under siege in the war of 1812, it inspired a young lawyer named Frances Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner. A replica of the gigantic flag flies over the fort by day, and visitors are invited to climb over the battlements.
- The Real Story of Vincent Van Gogh’s Severed Ear, 2019.
- Dorsey, John, The van Gogh legend … The Baltimore Sun, 1998.
- William Thompson Walters, Wikipedia, 2019.