In February, 2014, I had the opportunity to drive to Baltimore for a weekend. Sarah had signed up for a conference, and while she was workshopping it up, I had the whole town to myself. Overall impression? There’s a huge chunk of the city that’s not really accessible to tourists, but I’d like to go back when the weather is better.
If you recall, winter 2013-14 was brutal and didn’t stop until late into March/April. Given that fact, I was pretty lucky. I wouldn’t say the weather was nice in February in Baltimore, but it wasn’t as horrible as it had been that season.
Following our usual pattern for weekend getaways, we left on Friday after work and headed down I-95 to the unofficial gateway to the South. We stopped for dinner in Chesapeake City, MD for what would be the first of our great seafood feasts. Our eyes might have been a little bigger than our stomachs, but we happily managed to get it all down. When we arrived in Baltimore a few hours later and checked into our Holiday Inn, we could have had a nightcap at the bars around the hotel, but instead, we called it a night. Sarah was getting up early to confer, and I was getting up early to explore.
I’d never spent much time in Baltimore, so I did my research before arriving. I learned that the city is proud of its greatest historical resident: Edgar Allan Poe. Embarrassingly enough for an English teacher, I had never put the facts together to realize that Baltimore’s NFL team is named after Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.” Nevertheless, I was looking forward to checking in to a few literary sites and getting a feel for the whole city at the same time.
Things Started Off Rough…
My first stop was the world famous Lexington Market. Since 1782, this cavernous bazaar full of local vendors has sold food and wares to tourists and locals alike. Far from the harbor, though, you’re more likely to find people grocery shopping than souvenir shopping. When I arrived, most folks were getting breakfast before work. I stopped, myself, for the “Super Sandwich” — $2 for the whole she-bang of toasted buttered bread, eggs, cheese, and a sausage patty. Awesome. I have to admit, though, I don’t have many photos of the inside of the market because, honestly, I didn’t feel comfortable waving an iPhone around the place. Over breakfast at my standing table, I eavesdropped on a conversation where this guy fondly recalled the details of how he had robbed one of the vendors here as a teenager. I finished up my sandwich and left. I had at first thought of bringing Sarah back here to try the famous crab cakes at Faidley’s Seafood when they opened in the afternoon, but I scratched those plans. It was just too sketchy. We’d find someplace else.
My next stop was Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore home which has been converted into a museum. At least, that’s what I’d read. Walking deeper and deeper into East Baltimore, I gradually sensed a change in the neighborhood until, sure enough, I had made it to the Poe Project Housing Complex. This particular project was popularized on HBO’s hit series, “The Wire,” that gritty drama about drugs and politics in deep Baltimore. Anyhow, I found the museum by noticing a police car parked on the corner, and realized that the officer was there for the benefit of tourists like me, crazed enough to try to find this place. The museum, whose historical structure had been preserved, yet also simultaneously attached at the seams to the project housing, was closed, and there were no hours posted. It was around 9 A.M., so I guess I was too early. I left the neighborhood along a different route, just to change things up, and noticed several large, black ravens watching me from the trees. I was officially creeped out.
The route I took brought me past the church graveyard where Poe and other notable residents are buried. I thought it would be great to walk through a creepy old cemetery on a gloomy winter morning in honor of the macabre poet and storyteller, but, lo and behold, the yard was gated and locked, too. At least I could see the grave through the iron bars of the fence.
This was turning out to be a bummer. I figured it was finally time to head down to the waterfront, but first, I decided to take a detour through the notorious, historical red-light district in West Baltimore known simply as “The Block,” a string of streets situated outside the doorstep of the Baltimore Police Headquarters. Prostitution wasn’t ever legal in B-More, but it was tolerated on The Block to some extent so that it wouldn’t spread to the rest of the city, and close enough to the PD so they could keep an eye on the goings-on there. Nowadays, it’s not a tourist spot like I’d imagined and even seen elsewhere, but instead just a short, run down row of seedy strip clubs, peep shows, and adult novelty DVD and toy stores. Ugh. I left. Baltimore was not what I thought it would be so far.
But They Got Better…
Baltimore has deeply divided neighborhoods, and I’d seen a good cross section of the city that morning. However, those places were “real” — perhaps a little too real for a weekend getaway — and not generally geared toward visitors in early February. The Harbor and Fells Point, however, are two completely different stories. If you’re planning to visit Baltimore and you want to let your guard down a little bit, these are the spots for you. After returning from the conference, these were the only places Sarah and I visited together. You could stay here and never leave the area and all the while wonder what people mean when they talk about the poverty in Baltimore.
From the 7 Foot Knoll Lighthouse to an excellent collection of historical ships — including the Lightship Chesapeake, which regular readers know were both special treats for me — to a range of Civil War museums and interpretive markers, to Revolutionary Era pirate and privateer collections in and near the Fells Point Visitor’s Center, to that whole War of 1812 thing when the city was bombed by the British, Baltimore has A LOT of American history, and it’s fun to peek around corners and wander down side street alleys, finding hidden surprises along the way.
There’s a Little Italy which, unfortunately, I didn’t get to check out, as well as a ton of great beer bars like Max’s Taphouse, full of local brews (which was the reason why I didn’t get to check out Little Italy), plus several great seafood restaurants. Sarah and I headed down to Bertha’s for their famous mussels, then spent a night on the town. We enjoyed Natty Boh Shooters at Thames Street Oyster House, which were raw oysters in a shot glass full of National Bohemian beer with a rim of Old Bay seasoning, the true pride of Maryland. It was the dictionary definition of terrible and awesome, combined. We ended up taking a cab to and from the hotel, even though it was just a 15 or 20 minute walk back and forth.
The next day, before driving back home, we took a trip to Fort McHenry, birthplace of the National Anthem and home to a huge American flag. The ‘Old Glory’ museum and interpretive center was interactive, engaging and entertaining, and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours in and around the visitor’s center and the old barracks. Exiting through the gift shop, we finally bought one of the National Parks Passports we’d seen so many times and stamped our first cancellations into the book onto the appropriate pages. Now it looks like we’ll have to go back and visit all of the places we’ve been before, but didn’t stamp, in the past!
No trip to Baltimore would be complete without a rest-stop at Chap’s Pit Beef, a road side stand famous for serving Baltimore’s unique take on the barbeque beef sandwich. I opted for a plain beef without adding horseradish, but I’m thinking now that might have been a mistake. I think I’ll go back and correct the error, but maybe next time the weather will be warmer!
What do you think?
Is Baltimore for tourists?
What did I miss?
Is Edgar Allan Poe Baltimore’s truly most famous resident?