Difference between revisions of "Baltimore"
Revision as of 20:01, 17 March 2009
Baltimore is a popular tourist destination in Maryland, in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States of America, near Washington, D.C.. It is perhaps most famously known as the city where Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics for the Star Spangled Banner, and today has become a major center for tourism and travel.
It lies on the juncture of the Chesapeake Bay. With continuous nightlife, temperate climate, and plenty of hospitality, any time of the year is a great time to visit.
Baltimore has a very long and rich history. It is perhaps most well-known for being the site of the historic Battle of Baltimore. During this battle, the British invaders bombed Fort McHenry with rockets as Francis Scott Key wrote what would become the American national anthem. Baltimore was also the site of the first casualty of the American Civil War.
It also has a large African-American population that has played an important role in its history. African Americans have had a major presence in Baltimore since the Revolutionary War. During that time they were brought to Baltimore as slaves from Africa. Baltimore was also one of the hotbeds during the American Civil Rights movement and famous African-Americans such as Thurgood Marshall and Kweisi Mfume have made Baltimore their hometown. R&B artists such as Tupac, Dru Hill and Mario have also emerged from Baltimore. Currently, African-Americans form a majority (within the city limits) at 64%.
Baltimore lies in an arm of the Chesapeake Bay, the third largest estuary in the world. The eastern two-thirds of the metropolitan area lie on the Atlantic Coastal Plain, between 15 and 50 feet above sea level, and contain many peninsulas jutting out into the bay. The western third of the city slowly rises into rolling hills, and leads to the piedmont region. It is located about 40 miles from Washington, D.C., and approximately 100 miles from Philadelphia. The Atlantic Ocean lies about 2 hours to the southeast.
Baltimore lies within the humid subtropical climate zone, and weather is primarily affected by three factors: its proximity to a warm marine estuary, its low elevation, and the wall of mountains to the west and northwest. These factor's make the area's climate milder and less extreme than other U.S. cities at this latitude. Summers are humid and hot, but not extremely so, with highs reaching the high 80s to low 90s Fahrenheit and lows in the 60s to low 70s. Winters are cool to mild and moist, with highs in the upper 40s to low 50s, and lows in the 30s and 40s. Temperatures in the winter will wander into the high 10°F on a rare occasion, and it is almost never below 10°F in the city proper. Light snow can sometimes fall in winter, although some years there is no significant accumulation and once every 4 or 5 years a coastal storm can dump over 8 inches on the city. Spring and fall bring pleasant temperatures in the 50s-70s(°F), and southern breezes.
While weather in the region can vary, Baltimore does not experience the extremes of weather change that occur further north and inland. Visitors will be able to venture outdoors without a jacket from approximately mid-March to late November. The hot humid summers invite the wearing of shorts on many days. The Baltimore area experiences pleasant fall foliage, usually beginning in mid November and ending in early December. The long warm weather season means that swimming pools are very popular for much of the year as well.
Baltimore boasts a surprisingly influential, albeit small-scale, film industry. Self-dubbed the "grandfather of filth" native John Waters is the Baltimore equivalent of New York's Woody Allen—he has directed movie after movie, set and filmed on location in Baltimore, drawing heavily for inspiration from Baltimore's most bizarre subcultures and its strangest neighborhoods. He became famous for his "gore" flicks in the 1970s, which combine the single-minded purpose of grossing-out (or perhaps scarring-for-life) the viewers along with intensely bad acting, outrageous Baltimore accents, subversive humor, general trashy perversion and violence, and one enormous Baltimore drag queen named Divine. Of this era, Pink Flamingos achieved a certain cult-classic status, although it is absolutely not for the faint of heart (or the pure of spirit).
Waters' films post-1970s mellowed out dramatically, albeit still maintaining his signature interest in subversive campiness, culminating in his most famous work, Hairspray, a 1962-fabulous story of a plus-size girl with plus-size hair who wanted to bring a black boy to the locally-televised dance show against the forces of racial segregation and bigotry. He has gained considerable success within the Manhattan art world for his more recent work across all sorts of mediums—but he rails against that same art world in Pecker, a movie soaked in the local colors of Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood. His dogged loyalty to his city has earned him a lot of goodwill here. A recent mayor proposed creating a local John Waters holiday, and the Hampden neighborhood erected a giant pink flamingo statue up on the main street. But don't let all this lull you into a sense of complacency—unless it's Hairspray or perhaps Crybaby and maybe Serial Mom, don't show his films to your kids!
Barry Levinson, is perhaps the most well-known film maker to come out of and make films about Baltimore. His directing career began with Diner, a movie set in the Baltimore of his youth, and a movie that would begin the famous four-movie series of "Baltimore films" along with Tin Men, Avalon, and Liberty Heights.
Another big name in Baltimore film-making is undoubtedly David Simon, famous for his Baltimore-centric crime dramas Homicide: Life on the streets (which he co-produced with Barry Levinson), and, of course, The Wire, which has been called by nearly every major journalistic publication in the English language "the best show on television"—although several have contended this doesn't go far enough, calling it the best TV series of all time. The Wire is set principally in the most blighted neighborhoods of West Baltimore, dealing with startlingly realistic, cliché-less portrayals of the life of the city's (and America's) underclass and the drug crime that pervades the neighborhoods and housing projects that underclass lives in. A veteran reporter for the Baltimore Sun and a novelist in his own right, Simon also turns his camera on the city government, the police department, and the public schools, and never in too favorable of a light. For an even starker portrayal of life and drugs in Baltimore's most blighted neighborhoods, check out his documentary-style miniseries, The Corner.
Don't let these crime dramas get you down, though, most city visitors are unlikely to have any encounters with the drug trade or really much anything to do with Baltimore culture for that matter. All the more reason why The Wire is practically required reading for a serious visitor—the show is filmed on location throughout the whole city, and nowhere else will you be so quickly and delightfully introduced to Baltimore in all its local character and sense of place: Baltimore club music, beautiful and dilapidated old row houses with marble stoops, the legendary horse-cart fruit vendor, coddies and pit beef, bottles of rye by the docks, the East-West rivalry, all sorts of local hip hop, a few good corrupt Polish cops, some angry young boys in the projects, and above all that sense of restlessness that keeps this city alive.
Greyhound serves most major cities, and the stop in Baltimore's downtown is a few blocks south of the Inner Harbor
Also check out Apex Bus if you're travelling from New York. They offer pretty competitive rates especially if you are travelling on a shoestring budget.
Megabus Now do a very cheap service to New York for around $8 return (but can be as cheap as $1 each way if you book early)
Car parking is expensive in the inner city, roughly $5/hr around the harbor area. The 395 turn-off from the I95 will take you right into the harbor area, but traffic can be slow in the center of the city at rush hour and on game days.
Amtrak offers frequent services into Baltimore. The main station (Penn Station) is on Charles Street in the center of the city, but a considerable distance from the harbor area. However, a spur of the light rail system connects to the train station, and you can ride it to the convention center, three blocks from the harbor. Some Amtrak trains also stop at the BWI (airport) station which is a few miles south of the main Penn Station.
The MARC train system provides inexpensive service between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (and from Washington to Frederick, Maryland and Martinsburg, West Virginia). It is, however, meant to be a commuter system, and runs only during work days/hours (Monday - Friday). Check to be sure it is available when you need it. MARC trains operate through the Penn Station (designated the "Penn line" on MARC schedules) and through a station at Camden Yards (the "Camden line"), near the Inner Harbor.
The Baltimore-Washington International Airport is located a few miles outside of the city and is accessible by car or light rail. Shuttles connect BWI to an Amtrak train station just off the airport grounds.
BWI has a somewhat unique car rental system. Car rental facilities are located in a centralized facility located away from the airport. Airport shuttle buses must take travelers to and from the facility and it is advisable to plan an extra 10 to 15 minutes to get out of the airport. Also, if heading to Washington DC, the signage from the airport's car rental facility is very poor and confusing, especially to Route 495. However, all roads ultimately lead to highway access in either direction (North or South).
Public transportation in Baltimore is nothing spectacular. Fares to ride light rail, buses and subway are $1.60 each way, and $3.50 buys you a day pass that gets you unlimited rides on all three. However, most sights you'll probably be seeing can be walked to.
The light rail system is far more useful for getting into the city than getting around it. You may wish to park outside the city (for free!) and take the light rail in. The only worthwhile sight the light rail passes is Camden Yards.
There is also a single line subway  which runs from Johns Hopkins hospital, through downtown, and out to the northwest suburbs of Pikesville and Owings Mills. The subway does not pass many tourist destinations and is mostly used by commuters.
Parking is plentiful near all major sights, usually with pay lots and garages charging parking rates commensurate with most major cities. The harbor area and the public transportation systems are safe and patrolled.
One of the most popular (and unique!) modes of transportation in Baltimore is the water taxi system. The water taxi is an especially nice way to get around during the warmer months, and offers unique views of the Baltimore skyline. $9.00 buys you unlimited rides all day long, and you can hop on and off at any of the stops throughout the harbor area (which covers areas like Fort McHenry, Fells Point, Little Italy, the Science Center and Aquarium). Hours of operation vary throughout the year; check the schedule for details.
Cabs can be expensive, but are safe.
A wide variety of dining options can be found in Baltimore, but no visit to Maryland is complete without a sampling of the local favorite: steamed crabs! Though by and large the crabs no longer come from the Chesapeake Bay (they are shipped from North Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas due to overfishing of the Bay), it remains a popular summertime activity to spend the afternoon with family and friends at a crab feast. Often crabs are accompanied by steamed shrimp, corn on the cob, and beer.
If steamed crabs are too adventurous, you should at least sample a crab cake, crab bisque, or vegetable crab soup.
The excellent market place, near the harbor, is full of fresh seafood and great food bars. But for a more local experience, head to the neighborhoods surrounding it: Little Italy, Fells Point, Federal Hill, Canton, Mount Washington, etc. all feature both local and international cuisine.
Lexington Market is an especially popular lunchtime destination, with countless vendors selling all kinds of food imaginable. There are standing tables in an open area on the ground floor, as well as a large seating area on the upper level above that.
Canton Square offers a diverse selection of good restaurants, but one of the standouts is Nacho Mama's (2907 O'Donnell St). Fun atmosphere, good Mexican food, and many "priceless artifacts" representing everything Baltimore.
Vaccaro's in Baltimore's Little Italy is a place to die for when it comes to desserts. This intimate Italian bakery is a little on the high side but features a wide variety of traditional Italian pastries. Located two blocks from the inner harbor area at the corner of Albemarle and Stiles street. They also have a location in Canton Square.
Don't miss the Helmand Restaurant in Mt. Vernon. The cuisine here is from Afghanistan and delicious! The prices are inexpensive (around $15.00 for an entree), and they boast 4 star quality service. Try the pumpkin appetizer.
In Hampden, there are several dining options, including Suzie's Soba (Asian fusion), Cafe Hon (featuring kitschy retro decor and a blue plate special menu), Loco Hombre (a dark, hip margarita-and-burritos place) and Golden West (featuring eclectic Southwestern cuisine in equally eclectic surroundings, known for excellent food, a laid-back bar scene, and family-friendly seating. Be warned: it's nicknamed "Golden Wait" by locals for the lacksadaisical service.)
Baltimore recently passed a smoke-free ordinance, so be aware that all restaurants and bars are completely non-smoking.
The two neighborhoods with the largest concentrations of drinking establishments and clubs are Fells Point and Powerplant Live!/Inner Harbor. Other areas are Canton Square, Mt. Vernon, Federal Hill, Hampden, and the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Baltimore is also the home of the oldest Irish pub in the United States, Patrick's of Pratt Street, established in 1847.
A highlight for beer lovers is Mahaffey's pub in Canton. The owner is almost always there to answer questions and rotates his taps weekly with hard to find beers from around the country and from around the world. The atmosphere is cozy and the people are all friendly, it is truly Baltimore's version of "Cheers"
Fells Point has dozens of options for both eating and drinking, it is located about a 15 min walk from downtown, or a short cab ride. Many bars in this area feature live music and most have excellent selections of Maryland and imported craft beers. The Full Moon Saloon on Aliceanna Street brings outstanding blues artists to the stage, while the Cat's Eye pub on Thames has jazz and blues. Also be sure to visit Bertha's on Broadway, John Steven Ltd. on Thames, and Max's Taphouse for the widest beer and shooter selection plus Quiz-a-ma-jig trivia every Thursday night.
The DuClaw Brewing Company has an excellent selection of locally made craft beers, with rotating styles depending on the season. The Greene Turtle is an acceptable sports bar. Max's on Broadway has one of the best selection of beers from around the world. Dozens of beers on tap and even more in bottles. If you are looking for a hard to find beer, Max's is your place in Baltimore.
Powerplant Live! is an area just off of the harbor in downtown that has two blocks of nothing but bars, clubs and restaurants. It has an outdoor area that has music and other events during good weather.
Brewer's Art on Charles Street specializes in Belgian ales. Cross Street Market in Federal Hill has a sushi and raw bar, and an excellent happy hour on Friday.
Please note that all bars in Baltimore are completely non-smoking.
Baltimore has lots of great independent coffee shops to choose from:
Run by an anarchist collective, this coffeehouse features lots of radical literature and vegan menu options.
Baltimore has quite the reputation for crime. Its nickname the "Charm City" has been updated by local cynics as the "Harm City," and you can probably find an I *heart* Baltimore t-shirt for sale in which the heart is made of guns and knives. An even less inviting nickname of recent years is the grisly "Bodymore." This reputation is in no small part due to its very high murder rate and its prominent, nationally-acclaimed crime dramas. The reputation is warranted, but the average traveler should not get overly concerned. The high murder rate needs to be informed by the awful (albeit not awful for travelers) context that nearly all the homicides in the city are of young black men—most of them just in their teens—located in parts of the city that few travelers have ever laid eyes upon. Most crime occur between individuals that know each other. Muggings are the violent crime to be concerned with for tourists, and they very rarely occur in any of the popular tourist areas.
Those areas of Baltimore that attract tourists are very safe. You are simply not in danger when going to the opera, museums, aquarium, etc. The popular waterfront areas in particular are saturated with police day and night, as the city government relies heavily on these areas to generate much needed tax revenues. Some areas just north of the waterfront (Downtown above the Inner Harbor and big public housing projects just northeast of Little Italy) can get a little too quiet after dark. If parking your car on street in the Charles Street entertainment district or even in Fells Point, don't leave anything (even trash) visible in your car, in order to deter smash-and-grab robberies.
Above all, though, just exercise the usual precautions for urban America: know where you are going and how you are getting there, at night walk in groups and do not carry large amounts of money, avoid poorly lit streets, and call a cab if the trip back at night seems beyond your comfort zone.