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Alex Schechter
December 10, 2017

It’s no accident that Baltimore, Maryland sits along one of the most important mid-Atlantic trading routes. Back in the 1700s and 1800s, the city thrived as a bustling port town. These days, the sprawling city is home to well over 200 distinct neighborhoods, each offering its own distinct sense of place. Start with a visit to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which is packed with fun things to do (riding the water taxis, visiting the National Aquarium), then make your way north to one of Baltimore’s more eclectic neighborhoods, like enchanting Hampden. Once you’ve gotten a sense of how much there is to see and do in this happening city, the trick will be trying to pack it all in during a single vacation.

Where is Baltimore, Maryland?

A crucial Chesapeake Bay trading post in the 18th and 19th centuries, Baltimore was prized for its unique location, about halfway down the eastern coastline, and nestled along the inner crook of the Patapsco River. It’s only an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., and three hours north of Richmond, Virginia.

Baltimore’s Top Attractions

With dozens of points of interest centered around Baltimore’s scenic harbor, travelers won't be at a loss for what to do in Baltimore. Whether you’d like to visit a 19th-century battle site, or see jellyfish up close, travelers of all stripes can enjoy a vacation in Baltimore.

Housed in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood, the Walters Art Museum is a dazzling private art collection that was bequeathed to the city in 1931 — and best of all, it’s free. Beyond the light-filled entry hall (which is modeled after an Italian palazzo, with exquisite marble statues), you’ll find a trove of objects that span the centuries: Egyptian mummies, medieval ivories, Chinese ceramics, and Art Deco jewelry, to name a few.

Just across the harbor, there’s another kind of museum with a rather less formal approach. The eccentric American Visionary Art Museum exclusively features work by self-taught artists, resulting in a colorful and extremely diverse collection of penny arcade windows, portraits made out of bread, and a sculpture garden outside that features a 30-foot-tall whirligig.

Across the harbor, at the patriotic Fort McHenry National Monument, visitors can salute the site where more than 1,000 soldiers bravely fought off a British attack in the War of 1812. The victory was so spectacular, it inspired a poet named Frances Scott Key to write the words to our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. (Fittingly, the park around the fort is shaped like a star, too.)

Baltimore’s historic harbor serves as the backdrop to the National Aquarium, a distinguished, state-of-the-art facility home to nearly 20,000 different animals. From “Shark Alley” to “Tropical Rain Forest” to the eerily silent jellyfish room, the different habitats are full of critters who possess the ability to delight any visitor, regardless of age.

Still in the mood to have your mind blown? Six minutes away is Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, which features a 4-D theater and Odditorium (think: two floors of shrunken heads, torture devices, and a mermaid). It's a madcap spectacle for the whole family.

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Major Events and Festivals in Baltimore

Artscape is a late-July tradition that’s been hailed as the largest free arts festival in America. Taking place in Mount Vernon, the open-air street fest showcases work by 150 artists and makers of all types, plus performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Food vendors show up too, making the whole event a perfect day out in one of Baltimore’s handsomest ‘hoods.

Held every May, the Kinetic Sculpture Race is one of Baltimore’s most endearing traditions, involving a parade of over 30 giant hand-powered vehicles. The event, which requires the zany sculptures to be able to oar across water and drive through mud pits and sand traps, draws around 15,000 spectators.

Heading to Baltimore in September? Show up for the Baltimore Seafood Festival, a fledgling event that honors one of the city’s favorite pastimes: crab picking. Maryland blue crabs are the star of the show, but patrons should also save room for local oysters, crab cakes, and shrimp salad, presented during live cooking demonstrations and served at booths by local seafood restaurants like Captain James Landing and Jimmy’s Famous Seafood.

Fireworks in Baltimore

It’s not Independence Day in Baltimore without fireworks — and you can bet this patriotic port town puts on quite a show. The yearly performance takes place along Inner Harbor, a picture-perfect waterfront setting for a night of live music by the U.S. Navy Band, plus the remarkable fireworks display, which has been called the biggest on the entire Mid-Atlantic coast.

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Shopping in Baltimore, Maryland

Hoping to leave Baltimore with a few worthy souvenirs? Spend a leisurely afternoon strolling West 36th Street in Hampden, which is just 15 minutes north of downtown. Dubbed “The Avenue” by locals, the quirky neighborhood is a prime spot for themed gift shops like Ma Petite Shoe (artisan chocolate and designer shoes) to Trohv (Southern-style home decor). The half-mile strip also contains several antique stores, a vintage bookshop, and a cafe.

Related: The Best Christmas Markets in Baltimore

Closer to the waterfront, you’ll find a pleasant mix of boutiques and restaurants in Fell’s Point, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the state. Alongside numerous pubs, ice cream shops, and a charming waterfront bakery, you’ll be able to browse locally-made canvas backpacks at Treason Toting Co., as well as unique trinkets at Emporium Collagia and edible goodies at Modern Cook Shop.

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Baltimore’s Best Restaurants

Baltimore has suddenly emerged as one of the east coast’s most vibrant — and rapidly evolving — food scenes. With a superb selection of international cuisine found at the city’s two modern food halls, plus a core of established, classic seafood eateries honoring the city’s specialty (blue crab) you’ll have a ball exploring all of Baltimore's best places to eat.

Most Romantic Restaurant: La Cuchara

Cheap Eats: Magurk’s Pub & Grill

Best Seafood Restaurant: Philip’s Crab Deck

Best Italian Restaurant: Rec Pier Chop House

Best Taco Restaurant: Amano Taco

Courtesy of La Cuchara

Best Bars in Baltimore

A focus on pristine waterfront views and locally-brewed ales keeps Baltimore’s bar scene fresh and exciting. You’ll find more bars than you can count in charming Fell’s Point, though Wharf Rat remains a haven for locals, with its 12-foot fireplace and authentic English-style fish ‘n chips. For something fancier, try a cocktail at Cannon Room: a whiskey bar inside the new Sagamore Pendry hotel. And if it’s beer at the source you’re after, show up in the tasting room (Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays) at Union Craft Brewing to sample the brewery’s acclaimed Duckpin pale ale.

Courtesy of Sagamore Pendry Baltimore

Easy Day Trips from Baltimore

If you’re after a fun-filled getaway outside Baltimore, why not head to Washington, D.C.? The nation’s capital is only an hour south of Baltimore, and provides endless attractions, from the Smithsonian museums (all of which are free) to the National Mall, and even the famous cherry blossom trees in springtime.

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Where to Stay in Baltimore

While many visitors prefer to stay on Baltimore’s iconic Inner Harbor, the city has multiple hotels spread across its various neighborhoods. From chic lodging in swanky Mount Vernon to more budget-conscious digs downtown, Baltimore caters to a wide range of tastes when it comes to places to bed down.

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Luxury Hotels

At the Four Seasons Baltimore, high-design suites and a scene-y ground-floor restaurant keep discerning guests satisfied. Meanwhile, The Ivy is housed in a stunningly renovated 19th-century mansion complete with a conservatory and a billiards room.

Boutique Hotels

For boutique hotels, you won’t do better than the newly opened Sagamore Pendry. This landmark property sits on a pier that once housed a recreation center for immigrants in the early 1900s. Now, there’s an outdoor pool facing the harbor, a Botero sculpture, and a direct pick-up point for riding Baltimore’s famous water taxis.

Affordable Hotels

Among Baltimore’s more affordable hotels, you’ll have your pick from Radisson Hotel BaltimoreHoliday Inn Baltimore-Inner Harbor, or the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, all of which start at under $150 per night.

Christopher Testani

Vacation Rentals in Baltimore, Maryland

Looking for something even cheaper? Be sure to check out sites like Airbnb and Homeaway, which offer cost-effective ways to spend a vacation in privately rented homes, from a stylish downtown apartment to a family home in one of Baltimore’s leafy suburbs.

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