Baltimore, USA is pretty resistant to pigeonholing. It’s had lots of nicknames, each of which tells at least a part-truth about the city; Mobtown, Smalltimore, Clipper City, The City That Reads, B-more, and my favourite, Charm City. It’s also a misunderstood and overlooked place, something that was made clear by the number of people who blurted out “Why?!” when I mentioned I was planning a trip there.
I had two answers to that question. Firstly, I was born in Baltimore, and my family moved when I was a very little. I have always wanted to get to know my place of birth, as an adult.
Secondly, I always suspected Baltimore was awesome. Turns out, I was right.
Even geographically, Baltimore is a grey area. In David Amsen’s recent feature for Travel and Leisure, he asks, “Is Baltimore the northernmost Southern city? The southernmost Northern city? The easternmost Rust Belt city?” His conclusion is that Baltimore is on its own, unclassifiable, and just fine with that.
For many people the TV show The Wire is the primary cultural reference for Baltimore. Though widely considered one of the best TV shows ever made, its focus on crime, corruption and urban decay hardly increased the city’s appeal as a tourist destination. Yes, Baltimore does have problems, but there is of course more to the story.
For music obsessives like me, Baltimore has long been on my radar as a place with a robust music scene: Beach House, Dan Deacon, Lower Dens, Lungfish, Dope Body – all bands I love that hail from there. Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore; Tori Amos, David Byrne and Billie Holiday spent their formative years there. And for counter-culture types like me, Baltimore is perhaps most significantly the hometown and muse of the inimitable filmmaker John Waters.
That alone was a draw, but, as I found out, it has much more. I found a warm, weird – and yes, charming – place that I could really imagine spending some serious time in. If you’re the kind of person who thinks the measure of a city can be taken by the arts scene there and what it’s like to hang out in its independent shops, cafes and bars, then you will love it too.
IT’S HAMPDEN, HON
The neighbourhood of Hampden (top image) is the alternative and independent hub of Baltimore and a place that felt instantly like home. It’s not without some of the tell-tale signs of gentrification, however, as empty shopfronts rubbed shoulders with high-end homewares stores and long-standing barely-scraping-by businesses. But overall, it’s a still vibey neighbourhood that feels small, friendly and accessibly cool.
Hampden is also the home of ‘hon’ culture, something I’d never heard of before this visit. The classic ‘hon’ look (short for honey, as in the term of endearment) is that which John Waters exaggerated and immortalised in his film Pink Flamingos – big hair, big skirts, cat eye glasses and a broad ‘Balmerese’ accent. It’s a nod to a specific group and culture and way of speaking, of a particular white working class group from the 60s and 70s, and it remains a loved/hated cultural archetype. There is the Hon Cafe and the Hon souvenir shop on ‘The Avenue’, Hampden’s main drag, not to mention the annual 2-day Honfest.
Hon’s aside, The Avenue was one of my favourite stops in the city. A day wandering the Avenue will reward you with vintage shops, record stores, junk stores, friendly shop assistants, street art and one of the coolest bookstores in the world – Atomic Books. Atomic is home of a lovingly curated selection of books, zines, and comics and also features events; it even turns into a bar sometimes. And yes, it’s also the place where John Waters picks up his fan mail.
FELL’S POINT: HISTORY, POE AND NATTY BO
This area is often referred to as ‘Historic Fell’s Point’, and though this struck me as redundant (everything has a history, no?), it does admittedly have a charming old-timey cobblestone vibe. Especially around the waterfront the brick frontages, quirky ale houses and knick-knack stores have the feel of a quaint seaside village in England or Wales – but one populated by young good-looking American people with dogs. One shop in particular, Emporium Collagia, stood out as such a wonderfully idiosyncratic and whimsical reflection of one particular person – collage artist Launa Kaufmann – that I couldn’t help but marvel that it even exists.
Just up the road at the Natty Boh merch shop I learned something new about the city: the connection between Edgar Allan Poe and Baltimore. Natty Boh (National Bohemian) is Baltimore’s beer, and when I noticed a lot of Poe references in the t-shirts, bumper stickers and other Natty Boh paraphernalia onsale I asked the shopkeeper why. He looked at me like I was crazy. “He lived here for awhile, he even died here! Had his last drink at the bar next door! Our football team (The Ravens) are named after his poem! You didn’t know that?” Well, no. But it’s pretty awesome. I tell him that I’m planning to go next door to The Horse You Came In On Saloon, AKA Poe’s Last Stop, to finally try a National Bohemian for myself. My new friend, paid employee of the Natty Boh merch store, tells me that I should definitely check out the saloon but warns me, “I don’t know if you want a Natty Boh, it actually doesn’t taste very good.”
INNER HARBOR: CRAB DECKS AND GLUTTONY
Telling you to go to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore is a bit like telling you to go to Times Square in NYC, Leicester Square in London, or Darling Harbour in Sydney. It’s shiny, it’s soulless and it’s strictly for tourists. And you know what? Sometimes you’ve just gotta see what all the fuss is about.
When the kind people from the Baltimore tourist board organise a crab lunch on the crab deck of Phillips Seafood in the Inner Harbor you do NOT miss this opportunity.
Maryland is famous for crab, and a place with an entire deck dedicated to eating it is an ideal place to do just that. The server sets us up with plastic bibs and small wooden mallets, and starts to bring out piles of food. There’s fried chicken. There’s crab cakes. There’s corn on the cob and potato salad. And then, and then, there’s the crab. Piles of it, to be crushed and destroyed and chewed and sucked into oblivion.
Luckily, I had YouTubed how to do that, so I didn’t make a fool of myself. I recommend you do the same. It was, of course, delicious. And more than that, a visceral and unmissable experience.
Just as I was thinking that I felt fuller than I ever had before, I found myself ordering the Smith Island Cake, with the excuse that it is the official cake of Maryland.
Consisting of countless thin layers of cake and fudge icing, it was up there with the richest desserts I’ve tried and really tipped me over to level comatose. I couldn’t remember having ever been so stuffed since New Orleans. In terms of food at least, I’d say Baltimore feels like a Southern city.
LOCAVORES AND MORE
The Baltimore food scene is not, of course, all about crab cakes and potato salad. In fact the farm-to-table movement has truly made it to the city, and the much-recommended and thoroughly local Woodberry Kitchen seems to be at the forefront. Though we didn’t have time to dine there, we did poke our heads around the thoroughly impressive converted factory and garden. We did, however, have time for a coffee at the utterly charming Artifact Coffee, owned by some of the same people and located in a different gorgeous converted building. I can report that the flat white easily passed the fussy Australian test.
Though there are a few surviving old-school food markets, such as the Lexington Market which could use some TLC, there are also a couple of new kids on the block including R-House in Remington which is the sort of modern-day food court that seems to be popping up everywhere. I’m still not entirely convinced on this model, but it’s hard to argue about a bustling Wednesday night crowd, 12 choices of cuisine (I opted for Venezuelan arepas, excellent) and a well stocked cocktail bar.
Not far away is the Mexican taco and mezcal joint Clavel, which is extraordinarily pretty and delicious, and is the sister restaurant to the much-recommended speakeasy WC Harlan. Owner of both locales, Lane Harlan, has been given credit for kickstarting the Remington revival as well as bringing mezcal, that smokey Mexican agave spirit – which happens to be a personal obsession – to Baltimore.
So many cool people, so many great and delicious things and we haven’t even gotten to my highlight of Baltimore yet.
The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM)
It’s not like I have anything against trained artists and the art that they create, it’s that somehow this museum of outsider art – the first one I’d ever seen – somehow felt more human and intimate than your traditional museum. Perhaps it’s the story-focused curation of the sprawling building and grounds, but I felt fully engaged and engrossed with almost all of the art in a way I rarely do.
No such thing as museum fatigue here – from the larger-than-life Divine statue (John Waters reference), to the pez collection, to the paintings by a guy called Reverend Albert Lee Wagner who had an epiphany over a bit of spilled house paint on his 50th birthday, I was gripped. It’s a Willy-Wonka kind of place I could imagine returning to frequently, with so much quirkiness to take in and so much inspiration to be found. Not to mention the unbelievably eclectic treasure-chest of a gift shop which is a destination in itself. It also doesn’t hurt that the grilled cheese sandwich in the fantastic museum restaurant Encantada was truly memorable.
Later on I found out there are a handful of similar museums in the world, including one in Chicago called Intuit. On the website for Intuit I found this wonderful description of outsider art which, if you replaced the word ‘artist’ for ‘people’ and removed the word ‘art’, could be a life motto and mission statement for myself and all of my kindred outsiders:
“The work of artists who demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world and who instead are motivated by their unique personal visions.”
I love the fact that the AVAM exists in Baltimore, a place that seems to exist happily on the fringes and embraces those who choose to do the same. I know I have no real claim to the city, seeing as I was a baby when I lived here, but screw it – I’m gonna claim it anyway.
Baltimore might not be my place exactly, but it’s definitely my kinda place.
DAY TRIP: Washington DC
While most people would daytrip or short-break to Baltimore from DC, I would recommend the opposite. Baltimore’s more fun. Here’s what you should do while in the capital:
Do: Museums! The Smithsonian Institution is the collective name for the 17 museums and galleries that you can visit for FREE in D.C. And considering there are many more apart from the Smithsonian as well, you will be overwhelmed by choice. Hot tip: do not try to be too ambitious, pick a couple you really want to see and enjoy them properly. We went for Air and Space, as well the American Art Museum but no matter what you choose you will have to learn to live with some serious museum FOMO.
The other non-negotiable is a trip to the National Mall, the 3km stretch of green where you’ll find the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool in between (which you’ll recognise from Forrest Gump).
Eat: You might not know it, but DC is considered one of the country’s hottest and most cosmopolitan food scenes. We went straight-up American diner for breakfast at the famous downtown Lincoln’s Waffle Shop. If you’re looking for something a little more upscale, head to 14th Street near Logan Circle and you will be drowning in options. French bistro Le Diplomate was the perfect choice for what we wanted – buzzy, brisk, good for people watching. Oh, and delicious. Black Whisky just up the road is a perfect after-drink spot but you definitely won’t be going thirsty in this part of town.
Stay: The W Hotel’s claim to fame is that it’s the closest hotel to the White House, take that as you will. Either way the view from the stylish rooftop bar POV is a must-stop in the evening.
Get there: The AMTRAK and the slightly slower but cheaper MARC train both offer frequent service Baltimore-Washington and take less than an hour.