Charmed by Charm City: A Weekend Guide to Baltimore
In a 1935 letter, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “Baltimore is warm but pleasant—I love it more than I thought… I belong here.” The five years that the Great Gatsby author spent here in the 1930s may not have been his best, but he still manages to convey the spirit of the city.
Set on the Patapsco River, Baltimore offers a vibrant mix of history, culture and off-beat activities, and given its proximity to other major US cities, it’s the perfect place to drop by for a weekend. After checking out some of the ideas in this weekend guide to Maryland’s biggest city, you might just find you belong here, too.
Friday night: Mount Vernon
Beneath a towering, 178-foot pillar commemorating George Washington is the Mount Vernon Historic District, one of Baltimore’s oldest neighborhoods and home to some of the city’s best cafés and bars. Drop your bags at your hotel (consider staying at boutique waterfront properties like the Pier 5 Hotel or the green luxury Inn at the Black Olive), catch a ride on the free Charm City Circulator bus, and explore this leafy district, which has streets lined with row after row of elegant 19th-century stone houses.
For arguably the best dessert in Baltimore, stop by the Marie Louise Bistro – their irresistible dessert trays holds nearly 15 homemade creations – and end the night with cocktails at City Café. Their “City 75” features a tangy combination of Hendrick’s Gin, prosecco, and fresh lemon juice.
Saturday morning: Federal Hill
It’s no accident that a massive American flag waves from the summit of Federal Hill – not only was it used as an observation post during the War of 1812, but it’s also where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was first penned by Francis Scott Key (who just so happens to be the distant cousin and namesake of F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Today, Federal Hill offers unbeatable views of the city’s skyline and Inner Harbor. Get your Saturday off to a good start with a breezy walk up its slopes, followed by brunch at nearby Spoons Café. Afterwards, check out a quirkier side to the city at the American Visionary Art Museum. Dedicated to exhibiting the work of self-taught, often untrained artists, you’ll find everything from giant whirligigs to miniature embroideries stitched from sock thread. The museum’s mirrored exterior is worth a visit alone.
Saturday afternoon: Charles Village
Head north to Charles Village, where Johns Hopkins University, the Homewood Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art are all located. The unexpected highlight of this neighborhood, however, is The Book Thing, a free book exchange held in a 7,000-square foot building. Founded in the late 1990s by Russell Wattenberg, The Book Thing’s original mission was to provide teachers with much-needed books, but it’s now open to everyone on Saturdays and Sundays from 9am-6pm. Browse an endless number of shelves, holding fiction, history, travel, politics and pretty much everything in between, and see just how many books you can carry – all you have to do is sign them out when you leave. Besides a chance to pick up some free reading for your trip, it’s also an opportunity to see community spirit at work in Baltimore.
Saturday night: Fell’s Point
Only a few steps away from the Inner Harbor is Fell’s Point, another historic area of Baltimore that has nearly all you could ask for – unique shopping, tasty snack shops and restaurants, and buzzing nightlife. Pick up a colorful print from the Robert McClintock Gallery; linger over fair trade gifts at Ten Thousand Villages; and debate between creamy flavors like Bourbon Vanilla and Orange Dark Chocolate at Pitango Gelato.
But it’s after sunset that Fell’s Point truly comes to life, as its cobbled sidewalks teem with al fresco diners, oyster bars, and crooning buskers. You could join the crowds and catch live music at The Horse You Came In On Saloon, or choose a place like Rye, a craft cocktail bar whose narrow, exposed brick walls create a more intimate atmosphere.
Sunday morning: Downtown
Despite its unexpected location – tucked away beneath the Jones Falls Expressway at Holliday and Saratoga streets – the Baltimore Farmers’ Market and Bazaar is a popular gathering spot for locals on Sunday mornings. Currently in its 35th year, the market is open from 7am-noon every Sunday between April and December, and sees over 8,000 people pass through on its busiest days.
Beneath concrete pilings covered in boldly painted murals, producers pile their fresh wares high on tables and in crates, boxes and even round silver washtubs. But there’s more to this market than getting your 5-a-day fill of fruits and veggies – vendors serve up perfect brunch options such as omelets and quiche, while buskers and artists add to the lively mood.
Sunday afternoon: Hampden
There’s no better place to finish off your weekend than in Hampden, the artsy district that led Travel & Leisure to name Baltimore one of America’s Best Cities for Hipsters. An afternoon amble down West 36th Street, otherwise known as “The Avenue,” will take you past such funky establishments as 13.5% Wine Bar, Avenue Antiques, and True Vine Records, where it isn’t too surprising to hear people debate “whether or not a record label is aesthetically and conceptually cohesive.” Finally, it’s over exquisitely poured lattes at Spro Coffee where you’ll start planning your next trip to Baltimore – because just as Fitzgerald himself wrote, you love it more than you thought, right?