The Rawlings Botanical Conservatory in Druid Hill Park
West Baltimore is a huge section of the city notorious for violent and other drug-related crime, but also for its unique culture, endless streets of old Baltimore rowhouses with their marble stoops, and sprawling parklands.
Google "West Baltimore," and the bulk of the hits that show up for several pages of search results are regarding crime. This is how the world sees West Baltimore, and, while yes, there is an awful amount of violent crime here, this is not fair and not even close to the whole picture of real-life in an urban area rich with culture and history. While African-American history in Baltimore begins in East Baltimore, it moved to the west at the turn of the twentieth century and stayed there. To put it in symbolic terms, Frederick Douglass was raised in East Baltimore, Thurgood Marshall in West Baltimore. African-American culture found its heart along Pennsylvania and North Avenues, earning its place as one of the East Coast's "Black Broadways," on the music and entertainment circuit between D.C., Philadelphia, and Harlem in New York.
Neighborhood identities are strong throughout Baltimore, and West Baltimore has a profoundly large number of distinct neighborhoods. Good luck getting to know them all, but it's possible to go over a number of the most interesting ones for visitors:
Union Square/Hollins Market, affectionately known as Sowebo (Southwest Baltimore), may well house the most beautiful of the many tree lined streets of West Baltimore rowhouses. Maybe this is because of the buildings and fountain around the square and the covered market itself, or even more likely it's because this is a wealthier area and the lovely architecture has seen better upkeep. Either way, Union Square really does rival Bolton Hill and Fell's Point for the title of Baltimore's "most beautiful neighborhood." This fact has not been lost on Hollywood, which filmed the 1997 adaptation of Washington Square (based on the Henry James Novel) at Union Square itself. This neighborhood was the home of the revered H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, whose acerbic but hilarious wit was unmatched and unstoppable in his times. His extensive writings are memorialized on the fountain in the middle of Union Square, but he remains best known for his coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial (he himself came up with that name) and his inclusion in the play Inherit the Wind. This community is tight-knit, well organized, and very involved with keeping it a great place to live. The Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend is of course the best time to visit, when Sowebohemian Arts Festival is in full force.
Pennsylvania Avenue, consisting of the modern day neighborhoods of Sandtown, Upton, Druid Heights, and Penn North, was the epicenter of the city's African-American culture from the turn of the twentieth century up until the doomsday of the 1968 riots. This corridor predates both Harlem and even D.C.'s U Street as a real center of black wealth and culture. The wild popularity of the area—a product of interest in the local arts and shopping, plus the difficulties for black Baltimoreans to find housing in the white neighborhoods throughout the city—led to overcrowding and a slow exodus of the black middle and upper class. The riots of 1968 sealed the neighborhoods fate, and it never recovered. Today there are several remaining monuments and new memorials to what once was, including the Arch Social Club, the Monument to the Royal Theatre, the Avenue Market, the Billie Holiday Statue (a local, along with Cab Calloway), and more. While the reality is more complex block-to-block, it is nonetheless safe to call this a very rough section of Baltimore (particularly Sandtown) and certainly not one to be walking around off the main streets. The city Visitor Center offers weekly tours, and this can be a great way to really learn about the so called "Outer Harbor"—away from the sheen and wealth of the Inner Harbor.
Reservoir Hill trails only Union Square in terms of architectural beauty, with a real wealth of tall Victorian rowhouses, especially in the Mount Royal Historic District in the southeast section of the neighborhood (by North Ave and the Jones Falls Expy) and the Madison Historic District along Madison Ave. The larger neighborhood, though, is a real patchwork of beautiful blocks next to dilapidated blocks full of boarded up buildings, vacant lots, and the general West Baltimore plague of the drug trade (particularly on the central portion of North Ave at the Madison Park Housing Projects). Just north of the neighborhood is beautiful Druid Hill Park, with its reservoir, the Maryland Zoo, and Botanical Gardens.
Edmonson covers a large swath of mostly residential areas to the south and near east of Gwynns Falls Park. The area to the park's southwest is a nice area, with a few small restaurants/cafes of note.
Pimlico is the neighborhood surrounding the famous Pimlico Racetrack. Despite its proximity to this major attraction, the neighborhood is quite impoverished, and has little else to offer visitors.
While yes, the subway goes to a few places, you really should not plan to visit West Baltimore without a car. It's the only practical way of moving around this side of the city, and it's anyway a lot safer than wandering around on foot, waiting for buses, etc. Edmonson Ave (US-40) and Liberty Heights Ave (MD-26) are the main east-west roads leading out of the city towards Baltimore County and I-70. But North Ave, Reistertown Rd, Baltimore St, Lombard St, and Pratt St are also helpful for getting around. Windsor Mill Rd and Franklintown Rd will also take you to I-70, but these are the slow scenic routes through the woods.
Coming from downtown to the Maryland Zoo or to the racetrack at Pimlico is quickest via McCulloh (MD-129), which will turn into Park Heights Ave.
- Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum, 901 W Pratt St, ☎ +1 410 752 2490, . M-Sa 10AM-4PM, Su 11AM-4PM. Located in a beautiful historic railroad roundhouse is a large collection of locomotives and railcars dating back to the very earliest railroads of America. Train rides are sometimes available. Very kid friendly. Admission $14, discounts for seniors and children available.
- Druid Hill Park.
- Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, 203 Amity St, . An early home of the American author of mystery and the macabre. Located on Amity Street in a rough neighborhood, surrounded by public housing. Small fee.
- The Maryland Zoo, Druid Hill Park (From I-83, exit at Druid Park Lake Drive (exit 7)), ☎ +1 410 366 LION, . Daily 10AM-4PM, closed January, February, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Large zoo set in a classic victorian-era park. If you want to go on a weekend, purchase tickets in advance over the web to get the weekday rate; if purchasing tickets at the gate, you can save a buck by finding a Maryland Zoo flyer at the visitor's center that has a $1 off coupon. Adults $11 weekdays and online ticketing, $15 weekends; discounted for seniors and children.
- Preakness Stakes, 5201 Park Heights (Pimlico Racetrack), ☎ +1 410 542-9400, . Third Saturday of May. The second of the Triple Crown series, following the Kentucky Derby, is one of the single biggest horse racing events in the United States. The crowds are pretty huge, but the numbers are not driven by the family-friendly stands in the outfield, but rather the insane orgy of drunkenness and violence in the infield. If you want a wild experience to remember and have virtually no compunctions of any sort, the infield is the place to be. The Pimlico Special, in mid-May, while not as popular as the Preakness, is the other Grade 1 horse race.
- Gwynns Falls Trail, . An enormous bike trail through Gwynns Falls Park from the edge of the city straight into the Inner Harbor.
This is not the shopping center side of the city. There are but two types of worthwhile shops around—sneaker shops in Mondawmin Mall for the true sneakerhead, and off-the-beaten-path thrift stores (hipsters have definitely not picked these ones dry).
- Downtown Locker Room, 2301 Liberty Heights Ave (Mondawmin Mall), ☎ +1 410 225-9400, . M-Th 10AM-9PM, F-Sa 10AM-10PM, Su 11AM-7PM. This is the place for your limited and rare Jordan's, Nike's, etc. Big selection and unusually low prices.
- Collins Ave Thrift, 211 Collins Ave, ☎ +1 410 242-8111. This is a big thrift store, surprisingly organized to a T by some manager who must be obsessive compulsive. The result, however, is a great thrift shop that is easy to browse, and earned a nod from the City Paper as being the city's best.
- Shoe City Sports, 2401 Liberty Heights Ave (Mondawmin Mall), ☎ +1 410 523-5511. M-Th 10AM-9PM, F-Sa 10AM-10PM, Su 11AM-7PM. While the selection here is not quite up to par with DTLR above, it's in the same mall, so sneakerheads should certainly stop by on the same stop.
- Village Economy Thrift, 790 North Ave. Another big thrift store hidden behind a building on North Ave, with deals and odd finds befitting a grand old city fallen on hard times. Proximity to Bolton Hill does mean that the MICA students have found the place, however. Su-M half off virtually everything.
There are some really tasty hole-in-the-walls scattered throughout West Baltimore, and you'll find some of the city's best soul food and the best Lake Trout. The two things to know, though, are that you'll need cash, not credit, and virtually all places are carryout only—of the following, only Kimmy's and Immeasurable Chicken & Waffles have dine-in service.
- Ashburton Soul Shack Carry Out, 1517 Braddish Ave, ☎ +1 410 624-1430, . M-Sa 8AM-6PM. Chicken box, lake trout, seaofood platters, crab cakes, breakfasts, sweet potato pie, bread pudding, minced BBQ sandwiches—this is a very tasty option, albeit carryout only. $3-15.
- Bay Island Seafood Carryout, 1903 W Pratt St, ☎ +1 410 566-0200. This is another one of those real gems in West Baltimore, with some incredible seafood, boiled, broiled or fried. As is generally the case in this part of town, though, it is carryout only. If you've seen David Simon's The Corner, you might recognize the Sea Pride Crab House across the street (this is a really crabby intersection). DeAndre attempted to work an honest job here, but ultimately had to quit due to crab allergies!
- Fred's Carryout (Big T's), 4708 Gwynn Oak Ave, ☎ +1 410 664-5135. M-Sa 11:30AM-7:30PM. Fred serves up some really fine chicken box, with all chicken made-to-order, ensuring the crucial layer of grease between the chicken proper and the skin fried hard. With all due respect to the NYFC around the corner, this is the place to go. Run by Koreans, naturally. $3-7.
- Immeasurable Chicken and Waffle, 1700 W Pratt St, ☎ +1 410 483-8707. M-Th 7AM-10PM, F 7AM-3AM, Sa 8AM-3AM, Su 8AM-10PM. Chicken and waffles raises its savory sweet head in West Batlimore! Started by a gospel trio, the service is friendly and the ambiance relaxed and casual. Expect a good wait for the chicken, as it is (properly) fried to order. Surprisingly, they have a club upstairs with live DJs! $8-17.
- Kimmy's Soul Food, 4426 Edmonson Ave, ☎ +1 410 566-4400. This much loved Soul Food buffet prices by the pound, and has especially good breakfast and vegetable dishes. Don't let the Korean ownership put you off the scent—Koreans seem to be the main purveyors of soul food in this city, and they've mastered the craft. $6-14.
- The Lake Trout, 4652 Edmonson Ave, ☎ +1 410 947-3223. Edmonson Village is a long trek from the center of Baltimore, but you'll find some excellent Lake Trout here, unkown to people like Anthony Bourdain or the various hipsters you might run into at The Roost. Distance has "saved" it from fame, despite it's write up in the City Paper as having the city's best trout. $4-10.
- The Roost (Lakeout or The Lake), 5275 Reisterstown Rd, ☎ +1 410 578-0232, . 7AM-3AM usually. The Roost. Any visitor interested in trying Lake Trout should come here, as it is arguably the best in the city, and in the most inviting eatery. A giant portion of fish comes for $5, but the rest of the menu is hard to ignore—each entry is named after a prominent African-Americans (with the exception of "The Wire" and "John Waters"), and the long soul food menu makes few errors. $3-7.
- Silvermoon 1 Carryout, 764 W Baltimore St, ☎ +1 410 547-2638, . M-Th 10AM-midnight, F-Sa 10AM-3AM, Su noon-8PM. This is a very easy one to reach—you can even just walk across MLK from the university. Huge portions of cheap food (that university crowd is being kept in mind)—look for the subs/cheesesteaks in particular. It's best to call ahead with your order. $5-14.
- Sunny's Chick 'n' Trout, 1141 W Baltimore St, ☎ +1 410 528-1339. West Baltimore really is the side of the city to be on for your chicken box and lake trout, and it's hard to do better than Sunny's. $3-8.
- Supreme Oasis Bakery & Deli, 3223 Garrison Blvd, ☎ +1 410 466-7212. 8AM-6PM daily. The inside is lovely, in contrast with the fairly scary surroundings! A halal menu with high quality homemade baked goods (bean pies, naturally, show up), good fish sandwiches, and tasty soul food sides. Carryout only. $3-8.
- World Wide Wings, 3020 Liberty Heights Ave, ☎ +1 410 578-0400. Su-Th 11AM-midnight, F-Sa 11AM-2AM. Pizza too, but the wings are the reason to come. Lots of flavors and lots of flavor. While they do deliver, they tend to mess that up—best to pick up in person. Halal!
Polar bear wandering through Druid Hill Park
- Caton Castle, 20 S Caton Ave, ☎ +1 410 566-7086, . 6PM-10PM, music is generally only on Saturdays—call or check the online calendar.. This is one of Baltimore's best, if not the best, jazz clubs, and you will not find a single other tourist given the out-of-the-way location! Kick it with the locals, hang out in the lounge, and listen to some great local players. You won't go hungry either, with large servings of traditional American/Southern food. Usually $10 cover.
- Loop Lounge & Grill, 4238 Frederick Ave (Entrance on the side), ☎ +1 410. M 7PM-midnight, Th-Sa 7PM-2AM, Su 4PM-midnight. A friendly little hard-to-find sports bar in a nice area right by Mt St Joseph College.
- Gerry's Goodes, 1500 Presstman St, ☎ +1 443 759-4253, . M-F 8AM-6PM, Sa 9AM-6PM. A very rare establishment in Sandtown, where you can get some fine coffee and food off the limited breakfast (pastries) and lunch (soups) menu, and have a seat at their tables. This section of Sandtown is in better shape than surrounding areas, having benefited from a major urban renewal project in the 90s. The owners see the enterprise as more than a place to have a coffee—former neighborhood drug dealers, they are hoping that a much loved and legitimate business/community gathering spot might inspire change for the better in Sandtown.
With good reason, West Baltimore is not a popular overnight section of the city. Much of the area is fairly unsafe after dark, and it is far from the center, requiring a car.
- Wilson House B&B, 2100 Mt Royal Terrace, ☎ +1 410 383-6267, . Here's an exception to the above advice—Wilson House has an unorthodox location northwest of Bolton Hill, but it's a beautiful Queen-Anne mansion in a beautiful section of the Reservoir Hill neighborhood, and it's easy to park on street. The decorations, books, etc. that adorn the house are from all over the world, providing a small museum's worth of intriguing wandering around. The North Ave light rail stop is a block away, making this—surprisingly!—a convenient place to stay even for the downtown and Inner Harbor attractions. It's also probably the nicest and most convenient option for anyone visiting MICA. $100-150.
West Baltimore, as should be evident from any quick perusal of this guide, is home to very serious problems with violence often relating to the drug trade (which should not be a problem for visitors), but stranger robbery and assault are very much a reality when walking rougher neighborhoods on foot.
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