Baltimore, Maryland's largest city, is called Charm City because of its multitude and variety of attractions, restaurants, culture, sports and some of the friendliest people you'll meet. It's vibrant and exciting, with all the advantages of a bigger city without the airs.
Founded in 1729, the city was named after Lord Baltimore and established as a major East Coast seaport. Its most significant moment in national history occurred at the battle at Fort McHenry from September 12-15, 1814, which became a turning point in the War of 1812. British troops had triumphantly burned and looted Washington, D.C., and were heading toward Baltimore to ferret out what they believed was a den of pirates and privateers who had been attacking British ships. They first assaulted nearby North Point, which delayed the British Royal Navy enough for defenders to prepare for the skirmish at Fort McHenry. The overnight battle resulted in the British withdrawal and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem, "Defence of Fort McHenry," which became "The Star-Spangled Banner," now the U.S. national anthem.
Baltimore is still a thriving port city, complemented by numerous cultural and sports attractions and a first-class culinary scene. Once full of abandoned and decrepit warehouses, the Inner Harbor is now home to the Maryland Science Center, the Baltimore World Trade Center (an I.M. Pei-designed building that is the tallest equilateral pentagonal building in the world), Harborplace (a festival marketplace with retail outlets and restaurants) and the National Aquarium, as well as the American Visionary Art Museum, the Science Center, Power Plant (a dining and entertainment complex) and Port Discovery Children's Museum.
Just blocks beyond the waterfront sit the Convention Center, baseball stadium Oriole Park at Camden Yards (the name of the original railroad station) and M & T Bank Stadium, home of two-time Super Bowl champions Baltimore Ravens (2000 and 2012).
To really appreciate Charm City, you need to wander the many distinctive neighborhoods. Such areas as Fell's Point, Canton, Federal Hill, Little Italy and Mount Vernon contain treasures -- historic, culinary, cultural and otherwise -- that are ripe for discovery. Some of the neighborhoods are within walking distance of the Inner Harbor. If your feet start complaining, the city provides free transportation on the Charm City Circulator (three routes). The Water Taxi Harbor Connector does what it says -- connects interesting spots along the Inner Harbor. The light-rail system is another option.
The cruise port of Baltimore serves as a homeport, with several ships sailing to Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, New England and the Canadian Maritimes. About 90 percent of passengers embarking at the Port of Baltimore live within easy driving distance. Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is 10 miles away and operates as a major Southwest Airlines hub that brings in cruisers from other states. Additionally, the BWI Amtrak Station is adjacent to the airport and just a shuttle bus away. The historic and architecturally stunning Amtrak Penn Station is conveniently located in Baltimore and worth a visit even if you aren't taking the train.
Baltimore sits on the Patapsco River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay and meets the Atlantic Ocean just past Cape Charles and Virginia Beach. The trip to open ocean can take anywhere from eight to 12 hours. However, gamblers eager to try their luck don't have to wait for international waters: The casinos open once the vessels pass under the Francis Scott Key Bridge, about a half hour from the port.
You'll find the basics in the cruise terminal -- restrooms, vending machines, an ATM, chairs and a bank of pay phones but not much else. You'll need a car or a cab for greater exploration.
For passengers sailing on smaller ships docking at the Inner Harbor piers, restaurants, shops and attractions are within easy walking distance. Almost everything is level in this part of Baltimore, so it's wheelchair accessible.
Inner Harbor: You can spend an entire day here. A good central place to start is Harborplace and the Gallery, a waterfront complex connected by a public plaza that hosts street performers and concerts on weekends.
Historic Ships in Baltimore: Visitors can test their sea legs and maritime knowledge aboard ancient nautical history. They include the 1854 war frigate USS Constellation(flagship of the U.S. African Squadron 1859-1861) at Pier 1; the lightship LC116 Chesapeakeand the submarine USS Torsk(over 10,000 dives) at Pier 3; the Coast Guard cutter USCGC Taney(the last surviving warship of the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack)and the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse (oldest surviving "screwpile" lighthouse of the Chesapeake Bay) at Pier 5. Let them know whether you (or a relative or someone you know) have a personal connection to one of these ships. (301 E. Pratt Street; 410-539-1797)
National Aquarium: To the east of Harborplace, this world-class aquarium features exhibits showcasing blacktip sharks, large rays, sharks and spooky jellyfish, as well as a Dolphin Discovery display (where visitors can interact with marine mammal experts about dolphin life and care). Sitting atop everything is a rain forest. The interesting part of this aquarium is the tanks wrap around the visitors and walkway instead of the other way around. (501 E. Pratt Street; 410-576-3800).
Near the Aquarium: Port Discovery Children's Museum, a hands-on experience for ages 2 to 10 (35 Market Place; 410-727-8120), and Power Plant Live!, a vibrant entertainment and dining compound at the corner of Market Place and Water Street (410-539-5000). Among your food choices are Aggio. a restaurant from celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio (614 Water Street; 410-528-0200), Ruth's Chris Steak House (600 Water Street; 410-783-0033), PBR Baltimore, a country-western bar open Thursday, Friday and Saturday (2 Market Place; 443-680-9433) and Luckie's Liquors, a club with live music and the city's largest canned beer selection (10 Market Place; 443-909-7578).
Maryland Science Center: With jaw-dropping exhibits about dinosaurs (full-sized dinos) and other scientific explorations, an IMAX theater and planetarium, the complex is located to the south of Harborplace. (601 Light Street; 410-685-2370)
American Visionary Art Museum: Celebrates the extraordinary creations of self-trained artists who follow their own inspirational muses. (800 Key Highway; 410-244-1900)
Oriole Park at Camden Yards: When it's time to play ball, take in a game. Opened in 1993, it was the first "retro" baseball park made to look like the good-ole days. Between innings, savor the aroma and taste of Boog's BBQ, Dempsey's Brew Pub and Restaurant and Stuggy's (crab mac-n-cheese dog). Sample such hometown treats as Berger cookies (vanilla wafers coated in chocolate ganache) and bratwurst cooked in Natty Boh, the local brew. For an inside look, take a 90-minute tour ($6) of the stadium to see the Orioles' dugout, club level suite, press level, scoreboard/Jumbotron control room and tributes to Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Earl Weaver, Cal Ripken Jr., Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray. (333 W. Camden Street; 410-547-6234)
More Sports Attractions: To complete a triple play of sports attractions, stop by the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum (216 Emory Street; 410-727-1539) and the Sports Legend Museum, where exhibits cover baseball, football, college teams and soccer (301 W. Camden Street; 410-727-1539). While you're in the neighborhood, get a pop culture and toy fix at Geppi's Entertainment Museum (upstairs at the Sports Legend Museum; 410-625-7060).
To view another stadium, reserve a tour ($5) through M&T Bank Stadium, home of the 2000 and 2012 Super Bowl Champions Baltimore Ravens. The 90-minute tour takes you on the field, into the locker room, onto the club suite level and into the press box. (1101 Russell Street; 410-768-6158)
Horseshoe Casino: The two-story casino offers table games, World Series of Poker room, Asian gambling area, slots and video games, a 20,000 square foot "Baltimore Marketplace" and restaurants. (1525 Russell Street; 844-777-7463)
Fell's Point: The waterfront neighborhood, Baltimore's original downtown, oozes character -- with streets paved in Belgian blocks, colorfully named pubs, indie boutiques and restored 18th- and 19th-century row houses. If it looks familiar, you probably recognize buildings from the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Streets."
Canton: This former blue-collar neighborhood, about two miles east of downtown, which abuts Fell's Point, showcases row houses, marble stoops and a waterfront park with a Korean War memorial. Much of the action centers on O'Donnell Square and the repurposed Can Company, a repository of restaurants and shops.
Harbor East: Wedged between Fell's Point and the Inner Harbor, this neighborhood had its own renaissance. Dilapidated warehouses from the early 1900s have been filled with posh shops and restaurants. Leisure takes all forms here, from jogging on wide sidewalks and window-shopping at upscale boutiques to eating up the burgeoning foodie scene. Try the smoked crab cakes at Pierpoint (1822 Aliceanna Street; 410-675-2080) or the Mediterranean tapas at Pazo (1425 Aliceanna Street; 410-534-7296).
Mount Vernon: Baltimore's cultural heart beats here. Less than a mile north of the Inner Harbor, the neighborhood is home to the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, a music conservatory. The Walters Art Museum's (600 N. Charles Street; 410-547-9000) diverse holdings span 55 centuries. Museum highlights include Egyptian sarcophagi, Faberge eggs, Monet paintings and an impressive body of works from the European Old Masters, including Raphael and El Greco. With luck, you'll be there when they have a tour or workshop. Note: There's no admission fee for the Walters, although there are fees for special programs.
Baltimore Museum of Art: Another free major attraction is this museum, with its famed collection of 19th century, modern and contemporary art that includes the largest collection of works by Henri Matisse. Two landscaped sculpture gardens lure you when it's time to rest your feet, and John Shield's restaurant Gertrude's inspires your tasting palate as much as the art satisfies your cultural palate. (Three miles north of the Inner Harbor, 10 Art Museum Drive; 443-573-1700)
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine: The Fort commemorates the events of September 13 and 14, 1814, in the War of 1812's Battle of Baltimore. The indomitable spirit of the defending troops inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poetic words that became America's national anthem. Detained aboard a British ship, the attorney witnessed the foreign power's fierce 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry. In the morning's pale light, he was relieved to find "that our flag was still there" at the battered fort. In March 2011, the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine unveiled its new Visitor and Education Center, an $11 million facility timed for the bicentennial of the War of 1812. At select times in the summer, the park organizes living history programs. (2400 E. Fort Avenue; 410-962-4290)
Federal Hill: Tucked behind the Maryland Science Center, this is another delightful historic neighborhood of refurbished row houses, some adorned with unique marble steps. It's a great destination for dining and bar-hopping; don't miss the charming Cross Street Market (1065 S. Charles Street; 410-685-6169), a more modest and less frenzied version of Lexington Market. Federal Hill Park (300 Warren Avenue) on the south side of the Inner Harbor was once used as a military lookout post during the Civil War and the War of 1812. It now has benches so visitors can enjoy amazing views and photo ops of the Inner Harbor.
World Trade Center: For a 360-degree view of the Inner Harbor area, visit the Top of the World Observation Tower on the building's 27th floor. (401 E. Pratt Street; 410-837-8439; $5 adults; $3 children ages 3 to 12)
Flag House: To complement your Fort McHenry tour, stop by the home of Mary Young Pickersgill, a prominent flag maker. This is where Pickersgill, her daughter, two nieces and an African-American indentured servant constructed the huge flag. No, Betsy Ross did not make the Fort McHenry flag. What remains of the original flag is housed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A new flag was made for the bicentennial celebration of Fort McHenry, and many local individuals added a stitch or two in its construction. Self-guided and docent tours (Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday on the hour) are available. (844 E. Pratt Street; 410-837-1793)
B&O Railroad Museum: Considered the oldest and most comprehensive collection of American railroad history, the museum has locomotives, rolling stock and representations of every day railroad life, including clocks, pocket watches, fabrics, lamps and examples of the fine china and silverware used in dining cars. (901 W. Pratt Street; 410-752-2490)
Annapolis: If you've already seen and done all of Baltimore, head 45 minutes southeast to the enchanting city of Annapolis, the self-proclaimed sailing and boating capital (you'll need a car to make the trip). The Chesapeake Bay destination is steeped in Colonial history and maritime attractions. The Maryland State House, whose construction began in 1772 and spanned 25 years, is the country's oldest state capitol in continuous operation (State Circle; 410-946-5400). The U.S. Naval Academy (410-293-8687), established in 1845, offers public walking tours, starting from the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center, inside Gate 1 at the Annapolis harbor. One popular stop is the chapel, which features elaborate stained-glass windows, including one designed by Tiffany, and the crypt of naval hero John Paul Jones. Often overlooked (there's so much to see) is the U.S Naval Academy Museum (Preble Hall, 118 Maryland Avenue; 410-293-2108), with two floors of exhibits about the role of the Academy in producing officers who led the nation's sea power and the Navy.
Annapolis contains two main sections: the city, where you'll find the Naval Academy and the politics, and Eastport, across Spa Creek, where you typically find the sailors. Different restaurants, shops and people in each location. In either case, the architecture tells the history of the city, with Eastport being where construction workers who built the Naval Academy lived and where the condos are going now.
For a history-in-a-nutshell tour led by Colonial-attired guides, check with Annapolis Tours by Watermark for its "Four Centuries Walking Tour." The company also offers a ghost walk and a boat cruise. (410-268-7601)
From the Airport: For shuttles to the embarkation point, Baltimore Tours arranges shared-ride service from the Baltimore airport for $17.95 when booked online and $19.95 by phone (888-848-3822). Carnival passengers can hop a Carnival shuttle for $25 one way, $50 roundtrip. Royal Caribbean is $37 one way and $74 roundtrip.
On Foot: The Inner Harbor and many of the neighborhoods are walkable..
By Bus: The free Charm City Circulator (410-350-0456) runs frequently along three routes.
By Water Taxi: The Baltimore Water Taxi (410-563-3900) is an excursion itself, stopping in such hot spots as Harborplace, the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, Fell's Point, Harbor East, Canton Waterfront Park and Fort McHenry.
By Car: Taxis are plentiful around the Inner Harbor, but not at the cruise terminal. Major car rental companies, including Budget, Enterprise and Hertz, have offices near the Inner Harbor.
You'll find just about every cuisine from fast food to food trucks to fine dining, along with family saloons downtown, at the Inner Harbor and in the neighborhoods. Note: Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are seasonal (basically Memorial Day through October). You can find crabs all year, but they may be from the Carolinas or the Gulf of Mexico. You want crabs that are "fat" and have a dirty-looking belly. A white underside means it's a new shell and it won't be full of meat.
In Inner Harbor: For a great breakfast or brunch before you board your ship, Miss Shirley's has three locations, including one at the Inner Harbor. (750 E. Pratt Street; 410-528-5373; open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekends)
At Fell's Point: Arguably the best all-around destination for foodies, it provides visitors with lots of tough decisions to make. The Point in Fells has crab dishes, bar food and outdoor dining when weather permits. (1738 Thames Street; 410-327-7264; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
Don't miss the steamed mussels Bertha's Mussels. Try the mussels with plain butter, garlic butter, Spanish sauce, Lancaster creamy mustard sauce or assorted sauces. (734 S. Broadway; 410-327-5795; open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday)
The buzz floats about Barcocina (formerly Shuckers), which owns a great view of Fell's Point. The restaurants serves food with a Mexican touch -- with guacamole specialties, salsa, tacos, soups, salads and sides of yucca frites, crispy Brussels sprouts and elotes. (1629 Thames Street; 410-563-8800; open 4 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Wednesday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to midnight, Sunday.
The Thames Street Oyster House has an extensive raw bar, along with octopus, calamari, mussels, lobster mac and cheese, scallops and wahoo. Meats, salads and other menu options are available. (1728 Thames Street; 443-449-7726; open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, last seating 2 p.m. Dinner is served Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 9 :30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.)
In Little Italy: This Italian-American enclave lies between the Inner Harbor and Fell's Point. Cafe Gia is an intimate Italian trattoria. (410 S. High Street; 410-685-6727; opens 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Dalesio's of Little Italy has lots of lunch choices, from marinara or pesto with your gnocchi or veal, chicken or penne parmesan. The eatery features what it calls an "eclectic wine list." (829 Eastern Avenue; 410-539-1965; opens 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
In Mount Vernon: Try Sotto Sopra for contemporary Italian cuisine, with a recommendation to save room for dessert that includes tiramisu and a creme brulee of the day. (405 N. Charles Street; 410-625-0534; open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
In Harbor East: Wit & Wisdom, a tavern by Michael Mina in the Four Seasons Hotel, specializes in East Coast seafood, salads, sandwiches and tavern food. The express lunch is available when your whole table orders it. Great harbor views, seasonally. (200 International Drive; 410-576-5800; open for breakfast 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Sunday. Lunch hours are 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Weekend brunch buffet, Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Open for dinner 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 5:30 pm. to 10:30 pm. Friday and Saturday.
Crab Cakes and More:
Inside the centuries-old Lexington Market (since 1782), J.W. Faidley cooks up some of the city's best fried crab cakes. For adventurous eaters, the market has stall after stall of regional foods, plus picnic tables scattered around the huge hall. (400 W. Lexington Street; 410-837-6325; open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
G & M Restaurant & Lounge is a broiled crab cake favorite, seven miles from the Inner Harbor. Crab cakes weigh in a half-pound each, and some say they're held together with imagination (OK, there's a little filler). (804 Hammonds Ferry Road, Linthicum; 410-636-1777; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday)
For hard crabs, try Canton Dockside, (3301 Boston Street; 410-276-8900; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday), Bo Brooks Restaurant and Catering, (2780 Lighthouse Point; 410-558-0202; open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday) or L.P. Steamers (1100 E. Fort Avenue; 410-576-9294; open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday).
Baltimore Cruise Port Address:
2001 East McComas Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230
Major cruise ships dock at Cruise Maryland Terminal, about three miles south of the city and a 10-minute drive from the Inner Harbor. The cruise terminal, which opened in 2006 inside a former paper-shredding warehouse, is visible from Interstate 95.
Secured long-term parking is available for more than 1,500 cars at the terminal for $15 per cruise night for passenger vehicles.
Smaller ships from Pearl Seas Cruises, American Cruise Lines and Blount Small Ship Adventures, sail out of Baltimore periodically or seasonally, from the Inner Harbor, not the cruise port terminal. They travel the East Coast down to Norfolk, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Miami, Florida; and the Bahamas, or they may tour the Chesapeake Bay, visiting Annapolis, St. Michael's, Oxford, Cambridge, Crisfield, Tangier Island, Solomons Island and Williamsburg/Yorktown. Depending on the size of the ship and other vessels visiting the harbor and other activities, the cruise ships usually dock at Pier 4 or Constellation Pier. Both are within easy walking distance of city parking lots.
The famed Baltimore accent, known as Bawlmerese, will be highly recognizable. A quick guide: "Warder" means water, "Doncha no?" translates to "Don't you know?" and Maryland is often pronounced as "Murlin." If you are called "hon," flash your sweetest smile because you're now considered part of the community. For a primer, watch some of the early John Waters films, including "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray," and Barry Levinson's film, "Tin Man."
Two telephone area codes overlap in Baltimore, 410 and 443 (and 240 and 301 in other parts of the state), so two buildings standing shoulder to shoulder may have different area codes. You must dial the area code even to reach someone at the building next to you.
The currency is the U.S. dollar. International visitors, as well as American out-of-towners, can access cash at any number of ATMs located throughout the city (including the cruise terminal). Major banks and specialty stores, such as Travelex at BWI Marshall Airport (pre-security check-in by the main Terminal C and international Terminal E) exchange currencies.
English is the official language spoken in Baltimore, but check the Watch Out For section below for some Bawlmerese definitions.
Look for anything shaped like a Chesapeake Bay blue crab (they turn red when they're cooked) or that has a crab on it. You'll find T-shirts, bibs (baby and adult), hats, ashtrays, magnets, wall-hangings, or whatever other category you collect. Alternatives are anything to do with the Ravens or the Orioles.
Baltimore has plenty of places with exotic and classic cocktails, some Orioles- or Ravens-themed drinks, and a fine wine selection, but it's really a beer town. Several craft breweries have opened, but the nostalgic favorite is Natty Boh's (really National Bohemian beer); while it's not brewed in Baltimore anymore, it's still the "hometown" beer.
On the Web: Visit Baltimore
Cruise Critic Message Boards: North American Homeports
IndependentTraveler.com: United States Travel Guide
--By Judy Colbert, Cruise Critic contributor
All photos, except Oriole Park, appear courtesy of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.