Beyond Baltimore's Crab Cake Culture, From the Arts to the Sea

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I may be biased of course since I originally hail from the East Coast and spent my childhood summers there, but spending time back East makes my heart skip a beat when the weather is warm, the air balmy and the moon and stars sharp. Her soil, her air, her energy, her vibe, her sunsets, her clouds and her skies all resonate with me more intimately than anywhere else in the country.

In our research and outreach, a few were surprised (more astounded) that we were going to spend around 4-6 days in Maryland, half of that time being in Baltimore. I couldn’t help but thinking “were these folks not proud of their city enough to react with more of a ‘how cool that you want to give Baltimore so much time?'” And, while our evening sunsets may not be the deep rich sunset you might get in the west, bit sure doesn’t disappoint, especially with the harbor in the background. There’s plenty to keep you dive under the hood so to speak and are prepared to wander into known and unheard neighborhoods.

We feel that you need to give a destination time, not just to “see stuff,” but to FEEL what the destination is truly about – for us, that involves talking to a lot of people and hanging out with them in their natural environment as much as possible. While frankly I don’t feel we had enough time, we did get an opportunity to tour off-the-beaten path bars & bistros in the city’s neighborhoods and burbs with Michael Ransom, the chef over at B&O Brasserie, which we reviewed during our stay.

I’m actually astounded when travelers zip through cities without getting a sense of the true essence of a city, docking in a few “tourist” activities, checking them off the list and moving on. For me, the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had over the course of every continent except Antarctica (still on the list), is because of the people or the wildlife in a destination, which boils down to physical interactions with living breathing things. Buildings are just buildings after all, whether they be monuments or a global renowned gem like the brand and impressive Eiffel Tower, which while it continues to move me every time I see it, doesn’t hold a candle to the interactions I’ve had with Parisians over the years.


I don’t want to discount Maryland’s buildings, since frankly, the architecture is worth noting. Be sure to walk through the city, stop locals, ask questions and keep doing so until you learn 5 unusual things you didn’t expect to learn.

I couldn’t help but feel that the landmarks and people of Baltimore were a nice blend of Philly, Providence and the pure South — a little edge and culture saviness from the north combined with the warm generosity and hospitality of the south. We loved the people we met along our journey, from random people we talked to in cafes, stores, shops and on the streets to boat operators, taxi drivers, chefs, waiters, bellmen, concierge and hotel staff. We stayed at two distinctly different properties – modern luxury at the Four Seasons and chic boutique at Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco. Both were treasured stays and true stand-outs (be sure to read my write-ups).

Water Taxi Around the City

Near the Four Seasons (since you’re so close to the harbor), you can grab a Water Taxi, which is a great way to get around, especially in the warmer months. All day passes are around $14 and you can hop on and off  as much as you wish. Like a subway, there are a few different lines – green, red and so on. Not every color goes to all destinations, so it’s important to learn the routes before you jump on the wrong boat, as you could lose an hour of your time that way. We NEARLY made that mistake, so be sure to ask the driver before you assume its going to your preferred destination.

The water taxis cover most of the known tourism spots, like Fort Mc Henry, Canton Waterfront Park, Locus Point, Maritime Park, Captain James Landing, Harborview, Harbor East (the closet point to downtown hotels including the Four Seasons), Pier Five, Rusty Scupper, Science Center and Harborplace.

A bit about some of these known landmarks. Maritime Park is a hands-on experiential museum, which is also a boat building complex. Harbor East is where you’ll find the city’s Italian influences alongside an upscale neighborhood. Harbor East features high-end shopping, a seven-screen art-house movie theatre (how cool is that?) and of course, great views of the marina. Little Italy is nearby, where you’ll come across lots of family owned restaurants and foodie gems.

At the Science Center, you can take in over 170,000 square feet of science, a great place to also take kids if on a family trip. The Aquarium is equally interesting and kids will love it – over 17,000 animals are on-site and you’re closeby for other kinds of local entertainment and restaurants.

The Arts

The Rusty Scupper is the stop we jumped off to visit the American Visionary Art Museum, a true stand-out and must visit. It’s the only museum in the country dedicated to works by untrained artists. The museum specializes in the preservation and display of outsider art (also known as “intuitive art,” “raw art,” or “art brut”). The city agreed to give the museum a piece of land on the south shore of the Inner Harbor under the condition that its organizers would clean up residual pollution from a copper paint factory and a whiskey warehouse that formerly occupied the site. And, what’s even more special is that it has been designated by Congress as America’s national museum for self-taught art.

Across 67,000 square feet, you’ll get a taste of 4,000 pieces. The permanent collection includes works by visionary artists like Ho Baron, Nek Chand, Howard Finster, Ted Gordon, Mr. Imagination (aka Gregory Warmack), Clyde Jones, Leonard Knight, William Kurelek, Mary Proctor, Leo Sewell, Judith Scott, Vollis Simpson, Ben Wilson, and others. It’s creativity extends inside and out. If you have time, try to have lunch or dinner at their inside restaurant called Encantada, which has a lot of interesting items on the menu as well as some healthy veggie options. Read my write-up on Encantada where we sat on the outdoor patio, taking in the creativity around us.

Below are shots I took outside as we walked around the museum.

Fell’s Point

Fell’s Point is the place to go to explore small streets and listen to stories in fun pubs and bars. There’s a whole lotta authenticity and character in this neighborhood, and not only great for people watching but learning about the city’s rich history and culture. Fell’s Point is the oldest deep water seaport on the harbor, and you’ll find pubs, live music, antiques, collectibles, unique shops, history, theaters and spirits (they note — both spooky and bottled). Speaking of which, don’t miss the Baltimore Tours & Crawls (443.333.4774 for more info) or the Baltimore Ghost Tours, which frankly we wished we had time to do (410.357.1186 for more info).

Creativity also reigns, particularly in the summer when so much of it can be displayed and appreciated outside.

Speaking of culture and history, be sure not to miss the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail –– when the weather is warm enough to take long walks in Baltimore, be sure to do so — on foot, is where you find the best magic.

 VIP Pass Program

You can get a VIP Pass, which gives you entry to more than two dozen Baltimore attractions, museums, tours and historical sites. We used this for a variety of things including the water taxi. Some of the attractions include the American Visionary Art Museum as noted above, the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, Homewood Museum, Jewish Museum of Maryland, Maryland Science Center, Port Discovery Children’s Museum, Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, the Walters Art Museum, the Urban Pirates Cruise and others. For railroad buffs (I run into them everywhere), the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum is on West Pratt Street, and a great place for kids and lovers of history.

Baltimore Museum of Art houses works by Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne and there’s also a scenic sculpture garden and celebrity chef John Shields’ acclaimed Gertrude’s Restaurant. The Jewish Museum is home to the third oldest standing synagogue in the United States. They have immersive exhibits which allows you to walk through more than a century of change in East Baltimore, visiting homes and businesses of people who once lived there. You also learn how Jewish and Roman Catholic congregations that once occupied the space transformed it and the community around it.


The Urban Pirates Cruise as mentioned above is a blast – see below. They’re out and about in and around the harbor for several cruises a day and also do an evening cruise for adults only, where you can bring your own booze. By day, its a delight for kids who get to see a pirate in action and water is a big part of it….it’s very interactive.

You’ll see a ton of great boat energy in the harbor and out to sea depending on how far out the cruise takes you.

American Sailing Tours is behind a boat called Summer Wind who Cap’n Tom is behind. We had a great time on his late afternoon leisurely tour with wine and cheese as part of the experience. He’s a wealth of stories as well if you can get him to share some of them, from Maine to Maryland. Be sure to read my write-up on our experience with Cap’n Tom – he’s about as down-to-earth as it gets.

We took a couple of other short trips across the harbor in addition to the Water Taxi. Other cruises worth noting however are Cruises on the Bay — more info at They offer TGIF, City Lights, Legends of Maritime, Thirsty Thursday cruises and more, ranging from 60-90 minutes. There’s a lovely New Year’s Eve Charm City Dinner and Fireworks cruise as well — you can buy a ticket with open bar all inclusive as well for the evening.

Drinks & Dining

Baltimore has no shortage of restaurants to explore. Here are a few stand-outs:

  • Blue Agave Restaurante Y Tequileria on Federal Hill for casual upscale Mexican.
  • Gertrude’s in Charles Village for American modern cuisine.
  • Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons – this place is a gem; be sure to read our write-up. Two thumbs up!
  • Woodbury Kitchen, an organic eatery on Clipper Park Road, which specializes in getting their food from local growers.
  • Ouzo Bay on Lancaster Street, because we like Greek food and had to mention one.
  • RA Sushi Bar also on Lancaster, because we love sushi – here you can get hip music with chic decor as well.
  • Oceanaire Seafood Room for retro 1940’s style supper club motif.
  • Encantada in the American Visionary Art Museum; Encantada (inside and outside seating) quirky, interesting and artsy. It’s also got a great selection of veggie options – be sure to read my write-up.
  • Fogo de Chao Steakhouse on Pratt Street – it was our first time trying Fogo de Chao, so read up on our experience.
  • Tir Na Nog Irish Bar & Grill, because you’re in Baltimore and should try a local Irish pub.
  • B&O Brasserie is a fun casual place with plenty of oysters adjacent to Hotel Monaco where we stayed. Chef Michael Ransom is a hoot as well – ask him to prepare one of his crab cakes – photo at the bottom of my review.
  • Rusty Scupper Restaurant for fresh seafood and panoramic views of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
  • Magdalena in the Hotel Ivy; classic, elegant, chic with an interesting wine list and creative preparations. Read my restaurant review of Magdalena Restaurant — we also loved the ambiance.
  • Aldo’s in Little Italy – Zagas gives it one of the highest scores in Maryland – they also offer a complimentary shuttle in case you want to drink and not think about parking or driving.
  • French Kitchen in the Lord Baltimore Hotel – when you’re in the mood for French and Versailles historical ambiance.
  • Restaurante Tio Pepe for Spanish food on Franklin Street, its a popular among several we talked to late night.
  • Ambassador Dining Room for Indian food – apparently has romantic ambiance as well which is rare for an Indian restaurant – wished we had time to go there.
  • Petit Louis Bistro – cozy French bistro in Roland Park neighborhood – it’s important to get out of the city center.
  • Miss Shirley’s Cafe in Roland Park – several people told us to go here.
  • Lebanese Taverna for Lebanese food on South President Street.
  • Maggie’s Farm on Harford Road – we like the concept, but didn’t have enough time to explore.
  • Bluegrass Tavern for southern fare on S. Hanover Street.
  • The Land of Kush for vegetarian food on N. Eutaw Street.
  • Canton Dockside Restaurant on Boston Street – a few people told us to try it out.
  • Mo’s Crab & Pasta Factory – as above, perhaps a good choice with a group or kids in tow.
  • Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament – feast on a four course meal while watching pageantry, horsemanship and more.
  • Iron Bridge Wine Company is not based in Baltimore, but in Columbia, about an hour drive. It’s a great spot though if you can take the time — be sure to read my review.

Nature, Family Fun & Sports

A few call outs include the following:

  • Carroll Park Bike & Skate Facility – this is particularly useful for family travel; they have extreme sports to experience every day.
  • Carroll Park – has athletic fields, a neighborhood playground, outdoor skating rink and a 9 hole golf course. Sweet!
  • Clifton Park – there’s an 18 hole golf course here, clay tennis courts (wish we had our rackets) and an English landscape garden.
  • Cylburn Arboretum – has 200 acres of public garden flowers and nature preserve. There are 3 miles of nature trails for walks as well.
  • Baltimore Zoo on Druit Hill Road – houses more than 1,500 exotic mammals, birds and reptiles.
  • Family Skating Center – this is inside of course, but great for the kids — there are ice hockey and skating lessons from October to March.


There are plenty of places to get antiques, including at the nearby (under an hour drive) Ellicott City, which is a charming little town that boasts a lot of history. Read my write-up on Ellicott City as it makes for a great day trip. That said, we happened to be in Baltimore during their Summer Antiques Show at the Baltimore Convention Center so went for a few hours one afternoon.

They had antique and estate jewelry, furniture, porcelin, sculpture, glass, silver, decorative arts, textiles, Asian antiquities, fine books and manuscripts and more. While the prices were hefty for most, I found a great pearl ring that was reasonable and some prints. The people were also amazing and as always, had great stories of yesteryear. Worth attending if you’re in Baltimore during August.

Baltimore Basilica

We didn’t have time to take this in, but I read up on the basilica and we walked past it one day. It’s apparently the first metropolitan cathedral constructed in America after the adoption of the constitution, so also a great stop for history buffs. It is a symbol of religious freedom and an historical treasure.

Photo credit: LewisContractors.

During the last 200 years, visitors to the Basilica have included dignitaries from around the world, including Pope John Paul II, Teresa of Calcutta, President Andrew Johnson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Chief Whitefeather of the Sioux Tribe (how cool is that?). Another interesting factoid is that apparently at least 15 saints or potential saints have prayed here.

In 2008, the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden was opened up at the corner of North Charles and Franklin Streets, just around the corner from the Basilica. Try to visit the garden if you get a chance. You can also go to mass at the cathedral as well.

Events & Festivals

In the greater Baltimore area, you’ll find some fun cultural festivals and events throughout the year.

  • Hot August Music Festival at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville.
  • Maryland State Fair in August/September.
  • Festival Latino de Maryland in August.
  • African American Cultural Festival in September.
  • Kennedy Krieger Institute Festival of Trees is a Thanksgiving weekend tradition.
  • Star Spangled Spectacular in July takes over Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville.

Outside the Center

  • Piedmont Wine Trail – there are 9 wineries along Piedmont Wine Trail in Baltimore and Harford counties –
  • Horseracing – steeplechase and timber racing can be found in the outskirts — they have the My Lady’s Manor Grand National in April, the Legacy Chase in September and the Timonium Race Track where you have horseracing every August and September during the Maryland State Fair.
  • Baltimore County Sailing Center – more info at
  • Dog Parks – the county has four dog parks so if you’re a dog lover, be sure to check them out.
  • Golfing: ones worth noting include Greystone, The Woodlands, Diamond Ridge, Rocky Point and Fox Hollow Golf and Training Center. Of course, there’s Turf Valley in Elliott City as well where we stayed and hit the driving range one afternoon.

Hotels & Spas 

We only stayed at two hotels in the center of Baltimore and one about 20 miles outside of town — listed below including links to my hotel reviews.



Note: we had assistance including some hosts via the Maryland and Baltimore Tourism Board but all opinions expressed are entirely my own.

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