BALTIMORE — We felt a little conspicuous on our last visit here: two adults sprawled on the bed of nails at the Maryland Science Center, surrounded by a group of impatient schoolchildren. But, hey! We had waited a long time (and traveled all the way from Boston) for the chance to try out this popular interactive exhibit, and we weren’t going to be intimidated by a bunch of fourth-graders. And if they thought we would let them cut in front of us at the walk-in beating heart, they had another think coming.
That is how terrific this three-level science museum is. Even if you are a grown-up, you will want to touch and try everything. And that is how we felt about Baltimore itself. We had road-tripped there to see the Red Sox play at Camden Yards, like so many other Bostonians, but a Sox victory turned out to be the least surprising element of our visit.
“Visitors tell me they are shocked and amazed by how much there is to do here,” said Sassanova boutique manager Carolyn Warner, a Yarmouth Port native who relocated here. “It’s like a baby Boston,” Warner added, noting that her shop’s neighborhood, Harbor East, is home to a Four Seasons Hotel, and stores are sprouting (hello, Anthropologie!) in this now-happening zone. “Baltimore has charm, character, and a true sense of community,” Warner raved, noting that the city is often underrated. We heard similar sentiments from other Baltimoreans, who say that TV shows such as HBO’s “The Wire” give their city a bad rap.
Whether you bring the kids (as we did on our second visit), or come to catch a ballgame and eat some crab, you will be delighted by this quirky charmer. Here is what we loved most.
■ There’s plenty of free entertainment. The Inner Harbor, on the Chesapeake Bay, is the lively heart of the action. Shops, restaurants, and museums ring the busy harbor where the USS Constellation is berthed, and there is nearly always something happening at the open-air Harborplace Amphitheater. On a weekday afternoon during our visit, a street performer was drawing a crowd with his “crooner with an attitude” singing style, kind of a mash-up of Barry White and James Brown. His most enthusiastic fan was a toddler boy, who danced with abandon to “Try a Little Tenderness.” On any given day, you can plop down on a bench and take in a free performance of singing, dancing, magic, or whatever. On Friday through Sunday nights, bands perform free concerts at the amphitheater, the humid night air enhanced by the aromas emanating from nearby restaurants. On a game day it is a festive setting, with lots of local color.
Another fun freebie: the Baltimore Museum of Art, with its Matisse works and lavish sculpture garden.
■ You could take one of those fancy dinner cruise boats, but we had a swell time sightseeing in more modest vessels. If you are a swan boat fan, you will love Baltimore’s entry in the cute boat category, the “Chessie” paddle boats. Big enough for four passengers, these colorful, dragon-like boats ($18 per half-hour) offer a fun way to explore the Inner Harbor and get some exercise. Another way to tour on the cheap: on a water taxi (baltimore
watertaxi.com; all-day pass $12, ages 3-10 $6). The water taxi hits hot spots like Fells Point and Fort McHenry, and it is a pleasant way to go, even if you are just along for the ride.
■ Another happy discovery: You can get around by foot quite easily. We had taken advantage of introductory rates at the new Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore and found we could walk from our hotel to the ballpark (that one was a long walk!) as well as to the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture, the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, and nearby neighborhoods such as Little Italy. Those who do not like to hoof it can hop on and off the Charm City Circulator, a free bus that hits all the hot spots.
■ With a lineup that includes the National Museum of Dentistry, the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, and the Baltimore Tattoo Museum, this city has some intriguing museums. The National Aquarium of Baltimore and the Maryland Science Center are reliable kid-pleasers, but our top pick is the American Visionary Art Museum, a wonderland of work by self-taught artists. “People who identify themselves as artists are the least creative people I have met,” said founder Rebecca Hoffberger, by way of introduction to the AVAM. There is nothing remotely stuffy about this madly-mosaicked museum, but every work seems to have a story; one sculpture took 38 years to make, for example. In another room, viewers look at paintings wearing 3-D glasses. After a visit here, you will never look at art the same way again. We also like the offbeat, family-owned Geppi’s Entertainment Museum; based on a private collection, it’s full of nostalgia-inducing toys and comic books.
■ Baltimore’s neighborhoods are worth exploring. On our own, just by wandering around, we discovered Fells Point and the Broadway Market, an old-school public market filled with butchers and fishmongers. Not inclined to DIY? Free guided Heritage Walks leave from the visitors center at the Inner Harbor daily at 10 a.m., with added 1 p.m. tours on Saturday and Sunday. These off-the-beaten-path tours take you into Little Italy and Jonestown, with a bit of Inner Harbor lore thrown in.
■ Of course you will eat lots of crab. We found crab-flavored everything, including Wye River Crab Popcorn and Utz’s crab-flavored potato chips, but for a killer crab cake, you can’t beat Faidley’s. It is the classic joint to partake of the city’s ultimate meal: a golden, chunky, lump crab cake, washed down with a Natty Boh (a local beer). Don’t expect fancy — Faidley’s is located at Lexington Market, a collection of indoor food stalls in downtown’s West Baltimore, off the tourist track — and there is stand-up dining only. But you will get a true local experience, especially if you add a couple of oysters from Faidley’s raw bar, and a chocolate-covered cookie from Berger’s stall.