Inner Harbor is the centrepiece of downtown Baltimore
TV viewers may remember its gritty depiction in gripping Noughties crime drama The Wire but, a decade on, Maryland’s largest city has undergone a surprising transformation. Traditional blue collar neighbourhoods are now hipster epicentres, with vintage clothes shops, retro diners and quirky art galleries. Historic mansions and industrial buildings have been turned into boutique hotels, there’s a shiny waterfront area – and a packed calendar of festivals. Throw in a healthy dollop of kitsch and eccentricity and it has all the qualities loved by trendy weekend breakers keen to “experience” a destination by embracing its history, culture and spirit.
To get an immediate sense of the surroundings, we checked in to Hotel Revival, a historic building that housed Baltimore Museum of Art’s inaugural exhibition in 1923. True to its roots, the walls now act as gallery space for local artists, plus there’s a buzzing rooftop restaurant.
My room – a cosy double with beautiful curved furniture, a low coffee table and soft lighting – had views over Washington Monument, a famous landmark in the Mount Vernon district. Tourists can climb the 227 marble steps that spiral to the top for a breezy view of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
If you fancy a true taste of the city before hitting the sights, check out Miss Shirley’s Café, a Baltimore institution with branches at Roland Park and the Inner Harbour. Named after Miss Shirley McDowell, who for more than 30 years educated a generation of food professionals, the dishes here are created with pure sass.
Start like you mean business with “mornin’ cocktail” (try a That’s My Jam! Crush with vodka and strawberry lemonade) then move on to one of the house favourites such as chicken ‘n’ cheddar green onion waffles.
Of Baltimore’s many museums and art galleries, one of the best is the American Visionary Art Museum, or AVAM (avam.org).
Back in 1814, US soldiers at Fort McHenry raised a huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces during theWar of 1812. It was this sight that inspired Francis Scott Key to write Star Spangled Banner, which eventually became the US national anthem.
American Visionary Art Museum
Mount Vernon and Washington Monument
It’s fitting that the lyric “O Say Can You See” is in big colourful letters on the wall of the museum.
The work itself here, crammed into every nook of the space, really grabs the imagination with pieces by intuitive artists, usually without formal training, each with a compelling story.
In sharp contrast is the airy Baltimore Museum of Art (artbma.org) which hosts an impressive 95,000 modern and contemporary works, as well as paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin,Van Gogh and the world’s largest collection of Matisse masterpieces. There is also The Walters Art Museum in Mount Vernon which displays centuries of art as well as world-class touring exhibitions (thewalters.org).
Getting around Baltimore is all part of the fun if you travel by water taxi. We jumped aboard for a trip across the harbour before stopping for a beautiful seafood lunch at Loch Bar, a classic Maryland oyster house in the Four Seasons hotel. Lobster roll, crab cakes and a wide variety of west coast oysters never tasted sweeter as we looked out over the Harbor East Marina.
Alternatively, have a go at shelling your own at Phillips Seafood. Perched on an over-water dock, it has a menu of Eastern shore favourites, including steaming hot hard shells, and promises to have customers covered with the best catch from its community of fishermen, with waiters on hand to demonstrate how to shell and eat them.
Water taxi in Baltimore
Should you find yourself craving an after-lunch drink, head for Sagamore Spirit’s whiskey distillery on the waterfront at Port Covington. On the fun and informative tour, we discovered the distilling process of all-American rye whiskey, then enjoyed a tasting session of three of their award-winning varieties (sagamorespirit.com).
It’s easy to develop a taste for a decent tipple here and Baltimore now has Guinness’s first ever purpose-built brewery on American soil.
Baltimore also loves its food market halls and R House in Remington Village is considered an important launch pad for creative cuisine. At each of the 10 stalls there’s a team of passionate chefs whipping up everything from nourishing poke bowls to fried chicken with maple butter.
With so many neighbourhoods to explore, each with its own personality, we made our way to Hampden, an uber hip area full of cool shops, bars, diners and galleries as well as the Union Collective, a hub of independent artisans, including a brewery, a distillery and an ice-cream factory.
It also hosts the fabulous Hon Fest, based on the word “hon” which is short for “honey”, a classic Baltimore term of endearment. Embodying the warm heart of the working classes – as well as a larger-than-life look – the annual two-day celebration attracts ever-increasing crowds sporting 1960s-style cat-eye sunglasses, feather boas and beehives in a bid to be crowned “Miss Hon”.
Stylish Bar Vasquez
In Charles Village you’ll find the wonderful “Painted Ladies” – a row of brightly-painted houses decorated by residents for a yearly competition.
Fell’s Point is a historic waterfront neighbourhood, its cobblestone streets bursting with taverns, live music venues, small galleries and restaurants.
At the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park museum you can learn about African-American nautical history with interactive activities.
Broadway Market, one of the first public markets in Baltimore, houses kitchens cooking up Thai, Korean, Indian and American food.
If you fancy a steak, head for Bar Vasquez. From the outside it still looks like an old machine shop, but inside it’s like an elegant corner of Buenos Aires, with plush booths, a veranda and meat sizzling on an open grill.
Pancakes at Miss Shirley’s Cafe
While you’re in the area, join the party, sampling the 102 beers and 1,200 bottles on offer at the American-style Max’s Taphouse.
The Sagamore Pendry hotel on Baltimore’s historic Recreation Pier, or “Rec Pier” as it’s known to locals, is a beautiful boutique bolthole, should you wish to stay down on the waterfront.
Proud of its history, forward-thinking residents and generous hospitality, there’s a warm welcome waiting in America’s “Charm City”. So what are you waiting for, “hon”?
British Airways (ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Baltimore from £623.