1-2-3 Weekend: Baltimore

by  Elissa Garay | Sep 12, 2011
Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore, Maryland / Sean Pavone/iStock

Hot off the heels of the buzz-worthy inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, which transformed this port city’s streets into an action-packed, high-speed racetrack, dynamic Baltimore has been infusing such shots of adrenaline into its tourism infrastructure at almost equally breakneck speed of late. Upcoming highlights include fall’s Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore (www.fourseasons.com/baltimore) debut in the burgeoning Harbor East district, while 2012 will see a smorgasbord of special events cooked up in honor of the War of 1812 bicentennial (www.starspangled200.org).

Weekend visitors will have a hard time narrowing down their “must-do” checklist, which extends far beyond downing Baltimore's world-famous crabs these days: Expect brushes with a booming arts and cultural scene (more than 20 museums and galleries unfold in the city center), history-rich sights (the “Star-Bangled Banner,” B&O Railroad, and first U.S. flag were all birthed here), and storied sporting events (catch some baseball with the Orioles, football with the Ravens, or horse races at the Preakness). Plus, a pleasant patchwork of culturally diverse neighborhoods marked by colonial, immigrant, and African-American influences invite exploration, as does the bustling waterfront on the picturesque Chesapeake Bay that’s been revitalized practically beyond recognition over the last decade.

Perfectly poised for a quick weekend getaway from such neighboring Northeast metros as DC, Philadelphia, and NYC, we’ve put together the perfect 1-2-3 Weekend: 1 hotel, 2 restaurants, and 3 things to do that mark the best of Baltimore’s new and tried-and-true.

1 – Hotel

Set within a breezy 5-minute stroll of Baltimore’s lively harborfront, the Fairfield Inn & Suites Baltimore Downtown/Inner Harbor opened its doors in the summer of 2009 as the city’s first LEED-certified hotel, showcasing a surprising amount of personality, considering its rather humdrum branding as part of an otherwise largely cookie-cutter Marriott franchise. Eco-friendly initiatives include a power supply entirely supported by wind and solar energy, an insulating green roof, a rainwater landscaping system (repurposed from an old grain silo/beer brewing tank), and a trio of free bicycles on loan to guests (as well as a more limited service for Smart car drop-offs in the local vicinity), while value-minded guests will particularly appreciate the competitive rates (starting from $179/night in fall) and added value like a hearty continental breakfast (including a waffle station and egg and sausage breakfast sandwiches), free coffee throughout the day, and comped Internet service. The spacious 154 rooms come decked out in vibrant earth tones and outfitted with 42-inch LCD TVs and work stations; special environmental suites also offer HEPA water filtration systems.

Enjoy some downtime in the courtyard patio, featuring “grass” made from recycled tires, an herb garden (the source of fresh mint for the on-site restaurant’s mojitos), and a soon-to-debut fire pit, and stop in for some casual pub grub and a pint at the Tavern 101, where you can toast to the history-rich building’s original function as a brewery, its original incarnation dating back to the late 18th century (history buffs will also dig this tidbit: The hotel lobby marks the site where the first American flag was sewn). Two words of caution: Elevator service is slow (the eco-friendly models are run on kinetic rather than hydraulic technologies), so be prepared to use the stairs if you’re in a hurry, and parking is pricey, as is the norm in the city center – leave the wheels behind or face having to dole out $30 for overnight privileges. 101 President St.; 410-837-9900; www.marriott.com

2 – Restaurants

Choosing the city’s best spot for crab cakes is a topic of fierce debate, but after chomping down on several contenders, our vote goes to the legendary Faidley’s Seafood

Baltimore (445) / John Garay

at the mammoth Lexington Market food pavilion. Doling out delectable seafood since 1886, this casual eatery, marked by standing-only, high-top tables and seafood counters, is worth veering slightly off the tourist track for (it’s about a 5-minute cab ride from the Inner Harbor area). Be sure to upgrade your crab cake order to the jumbo lump version, prepared with Old Bay spices and mayonnaise, to get in on what all the fuss is about; the shucked oysters, shrimp, and other goodies dredged up from the Chesapeake Bay are worth a go, as well, if there's still room left. Just keep in mind that local crab is in season roughly from May to September; orders at other times of year will likely feature imported crab meat. Note that Faidley’s shuts down at 5pm every day, and is closed on Sundays. 203 North Paca St. at Lexington Market; 410-727-4898; www.faidleyscrabcakes.com

Transition from legendary to trendy in the revitalized Harbor East district, a former industrial zone that’s since been converted to house some of the city’s hottest new hotels, restaurants, and boutiques. Chazz: A Bronx Original debuted in June and has been garnering quite a bit of buzz for its Hollywood connection to Oscar-nominated actor Chazz Palminteri, who opened the restaurant in collaboration with the Vitale family of Baltimore, purveyors of the heralded local Little Italy eatery, Aldo Ristorante (the actor was reportedly so hooked on Aldo’s cuisine, he dined there for 10 nights straight during a run of his production show in the city, hence giving birth to the joint enterprise). Expect respectable Italian fare, with a specialty in coal-fired oven pizza (we liked the Funghi variation, with wild mushrooms, smoked gouda, goat cheese, garlic oil, red onion, and aged balsamic), as well as homemade mozzarella, pastas, and pastries. The casual setting is meant to invoke scenes from Palminteri’s Bronx hometown and 1993 film A Bronx Tale: Murals and décor mimic Bronx streets and subway stations, while flat screens run footage from the actor’s films or of New York cityscapes. Meant to serve as a prototype for what the partners are hoping to be the first in a franchise of restaurants in other cities like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the jury’s still out on whether the expansion plans will come to fruition. 1415 Aliceanna St.; 410-522-5511; www.chazzbronxoriginal.com

3 – Things to Do

With a storied history as a port and shipbuilding town, and a picturesque setting on the Chesapeake Bay, it’s only fitting to give a nod to Baltimore’s rich maritime heritage while boat-hopping out on the harbor. Plan to use the Baltimore Water Taxi (410-563-3900; www.thewatertaxi.com) as a fun, fresh-air means of hopping between more than a dozen harbor-fronted attractions and neighborhoods, including Harborplace, Fell’s Point, and Little Italy; a $10 pass ($5 for kids ages 10 and under) allows for unlimited rides for the day. Also set aside a couple of hours to check out the Historic Ships in Baltimore (410-539-1797; www.historicships.org), a quartet of historic vessels that line the harborfront; the show-stealer is the triple-masted USS Constellation, which is the only Civil War vessel still afloat and the last sail-powered warship commissioned by the US Navy, dating back to 1854. A submarine dating back to World War II, a Coast Guard cutter that witnessed the attacks in Pearl Harbor, a 1930s Chesapeake Bay lightship, and lighthouse dating to 1856 round out the offerings.

After skimming the surface of the harbor above, check out what lies beneath at Maryland’s star attraction – the

Baltimore (335) / John Garay

National Aquarium, celebrating it 30th anniversary in 2011. One of the best in the nation, the massive aquarium reaches as high as seven stories in height and stretches out over two piers in order to house the numerous themed exhibits, which showcase some 16,000 fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and marine mammals (including a tank of patrolling sharks and a technicolor jellyfish display). Special attractions include the dolphin show at the Marine Mammal Pavilion; a recreated Australian river gorge ecosystem set in a 120-foot-tall glass cube at Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes; and the 4-D Immersion Theatre, featuring special sensory effects like mist and wind (note admission to the 4-D theater and dolphin show is extra). Arrive before 11am or after 3pm for the shortest lines; better yet, purchase timed tickets on their website ahead of time for a nominal fee. 501 E. Pratt St.; 410-576-3800; www.aqua.org

Finally, make your way across the harbor to the foot of Federal Hill, where the fantastically executed American Visionary Art Museum serves as the only museum in the country to showcase works by “outsider”  or “visionary” (or, more simply, self-taught) artists. In its 16th year, the lighthearted and refreshingly unpretentious museum houses close to 5,000 pieces in its permanent collection, which are shown on a rotating basis (and usually accompanied by compelling bios about the artists themselves), and features an annual large-scale thematic exhibition that rotate out every 11 months. The most recent installation, What Makes Us Smile?, closed shop on September 4 to give way to All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs & Karma, billed as “a celebration and call to awareness of the circular and voluptuous nature of life.” All Things Round opens on October 7 and is scheduled to run through September of next year; note that during this brief window between installations (through October 6), the museum is offering reduced admission to its permanent collection. Three renovated industrial buildings (including a former whiskey warehouse) comprise the airy museum space, including the the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, where kinetic sculptures, a cabaret mechanical theater, and traditional Baltimore-style painted window screens are on permanent display. Don’t overlook the outdoor sculptures in the plazas in between, including Vollis Simpson's 55-foot wind-powered Whirligig and Andrew Logan's Cosmic Egg. 800 Key Hwy.; 410-244-1900; www.avam.org

Getting There

Within easy weekend getaway reach of major Northeast metros like DC (39 miles), Philadelphia (99 miles), and NYC (187 miles), Baltimore’s central location makes it extremely accessible, either by car, rail through Penn Station Baltimore (on Amtrak or the Maryland Transit Administration), bus (Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus Lines offer frequent routes), or via Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), set 10 miles south of the city center and serviced by most domestic carriers with nonstop routes to nearly 70 U.S. cities.

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