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Baltimore is a Cinderella story with urban revitalization as its fairy godmother. Once gritty and industrialized, Maryland's largest city has shed its down-at-the-heels reputation and transformed into a gleaming tourist magnet with world-class attractions, restaurants and sports. Its nickname, Charm City, says it all.
Founded in 1729, the city, which was named after Lord Baltimore, established itself as a major seaport on the East Coast. Its most significant moment in history occurred during the War of 1812, after British troops had triumphantly burned Washington D.C. and were heading toward Baltimore to ferret out what they believed were a den of pirates. The attack on Fort McHenry resulted in victory for the Americans and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," now the U.S. national anthem.
To be sure, Key and his contemporaries would never recognize the place now. In 1980, developers turned their attention toward reviving the city, starting with the creation of Harborplace, a lively downtown marketplace jammed with food to eat and souvenirs to snap up. Eventually, other projects began to crop up along the Inner Harbor's waterfront, from the National Aquarium and the American Visionary Art Museum to the Power Plant (a dining and entertainment complex anchored by the Hard Rock Cafe) and Port Discovery Children's Museum.
The waterfront, however, does not illustrate the full picture. For that, you need to sketch in a baseball, a bat and an O. The city is a mecca for baseball aficionados, and any stroll through America's favorite pastime should include Oriole Park at Camden Yards, one of the most fabled ballparks in the country; the adjacent Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards; and the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, which pays homage to the Sultan of Swat.
To really understand Charm City, you also need to take temporary leave of the Inner Harbor and wander around the many distinctive neighborhoods that resemble quaint villages. Such areas as Fell's Point, Canton, Federal Hill, Little Italy and Mount Vernon contain treasures -- historic, culinary and otherwise -- that are ripe for discovery. Most of the neighborhoods are within walking distance of the Inner Harbor. However, if your feet start complaining, the city provides free transportation on the Charm City Circulator and the Water Taxi Harbor Connector, both apropos forms of travel in this major seaport town with landlubber appeal.
As a cruise port, Baltimore has been a bit on the sleepy side -- until now. Cruise lines are steadily moving in. Starting in 2011, two of the majors will operate year-round schedules from the Cruise Maryland Terminal: Carnival Pride, which sails to the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Caribbean, and Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Sea, which visits New England/Canada, the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Celebrity is a seasonal regular, with itineraries to Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Folks cruising out of Baltimore are primarily homeporters originating from such nearby states as Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, New York and New Jersey. In addition, Southwest flies into Baltimore's airport, drawing cruisers from other airline-hub cities. The port also appeals to travelers from Washington D.C., about an hour by car.
Baltimore sits on the Patapsco River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, the outlet to the Atlantic. 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, a half-hour from the port.
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Prove that you've been to Baltimore with a trinket bearing an Orioles logo or a crab -- edible (frozen crab cakes from J.W. Faidley, for example) or not (mugs, T-shirts, magnets, etc.).
English is the official language spoken in Baltimore.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the U.S. dollar. International visitors, as well as American out-of-towners, can access cash at any number of ATM's sprinkled throughout the city. Major banks and specialty stores, such as Travelex at BWI Marshall airport, exchange currencies.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at South Locust Point Terminal, about three miles south of the city and a 10-minute drive from the Inner Harbor. The cruise facility, which opened in 2006 inside a former paper-shredding warehouse, is visible from Interstate 95.
Secured long-term parking is available at the terminal for $15 per cruise night for passenger vehicles. Some lodgings, such as the InterContinental Harbor Court Baltimore and the Harbor Magic Hotels (a collection of properties including the Admiral Fell Inn), offer stay-and-cruise packages that come with transfers to the port and parking for the duration of the cruise.
For shuttles to the embarkation point, Baltimore Tours arranges shared-ride service from the Baltimore airport for $22.95 when booked online and $27.95 by phone (888-848-3822). Carnival passengers can hop a shuttle for $25 one way, $50 roundtrip. Outside the immediate region, Entertainment Tours offers roundtrip transfers via luxury motorcoach to passengers from neighboring states who are booked on select cruises.
You'll find the basics in the terminal -- restrooms, vending machines, an ATM, a bank of pay phones -- but not much else. You'll need a car or a cab for greater exploration.
Once downtown, getting around is a breeze. The Inner Harbor and many of the neighborhoods are walkable, and for those that aren't, taxis are plentiful. In addition, the free Charm City Circulator runs frequently along three routes, and the Baltimore Water Taxi is an excursion unto itself, stopping in such hot spots as Harborplace, the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, Fell's Point, Canton Waterfront Park and Fort McHenry.
Watch Out For
The famed Baltimore accent, known as Bawlmorese, 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.
You can spend an entire day and then some around the Inner Harbor. Start with Harborplace & the Gallery, a waterfront complex connected by a public plaza that hosts street performers and concerts on weekends. In addition to shopping (more than 100 stores) and eating (dozens of restaurants and food stands), visitors can test their sea legs and maritime knowledge aboard a trio of warships now at peace.
Alongside Harborplace, the National Aquarium is a splashy institute with dolphin shows, a large ray exhibit, a multistory shark tank and a spooky jellyfish exhibit. Also nearby is Port Discovery, a hands-on children's museum for ages 2 to 10, and Power Plant Live!, a vibrant entertainment and dining compound that recently received an $11 million facelift. The renovation amped up the good times, adding the Baltimore Comedy Factory; PBR Baltimore, a country-western bar; and Luckie's Liquors, a club with live music and the city's largest canned beer selection.
Flanking Harborplace's other side is the Maryland Science Center, which causes mouths to drop with full-size dinos, an IMAX theater and planetarium. Farther along the harbor, the American Visionary Art Museum celebrates the extraordinary creations of self-trained artists who follow their own wacky muses. Innovation also seeps into the museum's restaurant, Mr. Rain's Fun House, which serves artful cocktails and modern American cuisine.
When it's time to play ball, take in a game at the new-but-looks-old Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which recently replaced the old seats, installed viewing platforms on the club level and improved sightlines. Between innings, swing by the new concessions to sample such hometown treats as Berger cookies (vanilla wafers coated in chocolate ganache) and bratwurst cooked in Natty Boh, the local brew. For a triple play of sports attractions, stop by the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum and the Sports Legend Museum, whose equal opportunity exhibits cover baseball, football, college teams and soccer. While you're in the neighborhood, get a pop culture and toy fix at Geppi's Entertainment Museum.
The waterfront neighborhood of Fell's Point, Baltimore's original downtown, oozes character with streets paved in Belgian blocks, colorfully named pubs (i.e., One-Eyed Mike's, Ale Mary's), indie boutiques and restored 18th- and 19th-century row houses.
The once-blue-collar neighborhood of Canton, 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.
Wedged between Fell's Point and the Inner Harbor, the neighborhood of Harbor East is in the midst of a renaissance. Dilapidated warehouses from the early 1900's have been spruced up and are attracting swanky shops and restaurants to roost inside. Leisure takes all forms there, from jogging on wide sidewalks and window-shopping at upscale boutiques to eating up the burgeoning foodie scene.
Baltimore's cultural heart beats in Mount Vernon. Less than a mile north of the Inner Harbor, the neighborhood is home to the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, a music conservatory; and the Walters Art Museum, whose 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. If you are inspired to build your own museum-quality collection, stroll Antiques Row on North Howard Street, the country's oldest antiques district (circa 1840).
The War of 1812's Battle of Baltimore -- fought Sept. 13 and 14, 1814, at Fort McHenry -- 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 McHenry. In the morning's pale light, he was relieved to find "that our flag was still there." (The "there" refers to 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.
Tucked behind the Maryland Science Center, Federal Hill 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, a more modest and less frenzied version of Lexington Market.
Been There, Done That
Just 45 minutes from Baltimore, the enchanting city of Annapolis once served as America's capital and still hangs onto its glory as the state's -- and sailing world's -- capital. 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. The U.S. Naval Academy, established in 1845, offers public walking tours (ID required). One popular stop is the fetching chapel, which features elaborate stained-glass windows, including one designed by Tiffany, and the Beaux Arts crypt of naval hero John Paul Jones. When your head is overstuffed with history, start working on your appetite. Noshing is encouraged at a wide array of establishments, including seedy taverns, waterfront restaurants and chic cafes. Note: You'll need a car to make this trip.
Visit the nation's capital, Washington D.C., about an hour away by car or train. Amtrak and MARC, Maryland's weekday commuter rail, offer service between the cities. The attractions are limitless. To name a few: Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Smithsonian Institution museums and zoo, the U.S. Capitol, and Georgetown and its eponymous university.
Harborplace: This great family dining destination features many familiar options, such as M&S Grill, the Cheesecake Factory and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. J.Paul's, a spawn of the classic Georgetown establishment, and Lenny's Deli, where breakfast is always a la mode, recently set down stakes there. For a quick bite, graze the numerous "stalls," selling a range of easy-snacking specialties, such as fried dough, raw oysters and pizza.
Fell's Point: Arguably the best all-around destination for foodies, with lots of tough decisions to make, is Fell's Point. Go casual at Peter's Inn or The Point in Fells. Try the smoked crab cakes at Pierpoint or the Mediterranean tapas at Pazo. The steamed mussels are great at Bertha's. You can also make it easy on yourself and grab a table at the Greek-influenced Black Olive, known for serving the best seafood in town.
Little Italy: This Italian-American enclave lies between the Inner Harbor and Fell's Point. Sabatino's and Aldo's Ristorante Italiano are classics.
Mount Vernon: Try Sotto Sopra for nouvelle Northern Italian or The Helmand for Afghan cuisine. At the latter, order the kabuli, which blends pallow (an Afghan-style rice) with chunks of lamb tenderloin, raisins and glazed julienne of carrots.
Harbor East: Chazz: A Bronx Original, which was developed by actor Chazz Palminteri ("Bullets Over Broadway," "A Bronx Tale"), brings the New York City borough south with Italian-American dishes and pizza baked in a coal-fire oven. Cinghiale finds its culinary inspiration across the Atlantic, in the Milan and Bologna of La Dolce Vita. Sidle up to the seviche bar at Talara, which specializes in small Latin American plates.
Crab Cakes and More: Inside the centuries-old Lexington Market, J.W. Faidley cooks up some of the city's best crab cakes. For adventurous eaters, the market has stall after stall of regional foods, plus picnic tables scattered around the huge hall. Dig into a tasty mess of steamed crabs at Gunning's Seafood Restaurant, 15 miles south of Baltimore in Hanover. For a closer option, Miss Shirley's has three "locations," including one that rolls around the streets in a food truck.
Best Restaurant for Dinner: Charleston, near the water in Harbor East, is renowned for its nouvelle Southern cuisine, A-list wine list and top-notch service.
Harbor Area on a Budget: You don't have to pay the big bucks for location, location, location. The 365-room Holiday Inn Inner Harbor is an affordable option three blocks from the Inner Harbor.
For Families: The Renaissance Harborplace Hotel scores big points for its central location -- across the street from Harborplace and the Inner Harbor attractions. Plus, it's connected to the Gallery, an indoor mall.
Inner Harbor/Harbor East: There are a number of chain hotels on and around the waterfront, but for the most upmarket experience, book a harborview room at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. Another chic option is Pier 5 Hotel, a boutique property on the water's edge whose guest rooms are as bright as a box of Magic Markers. There's also a swanky Four Seasons, the first in the city.
For Style and Charm: The Admiral Fell Inn, a collection of restored buildings in Fell's Point, has 80 rooms, all different in personality. (Each one is named after a local character.) However, a main thread runs through the former vinegar factory: comfy-elegance. Scarborough Fair, a gorgeous B&B in Federal Hill, exudes intimacy with six bedrooms, four of which come with working fireplaces and two with whirlpool tubs. The Inn at the Black Olive is as green as, well, a Martini garnish. The Spiliadis family, which also run the Fell's Point restaurant of the same name, has eco-fied the 12 luxury suites. Free yoga is offered on the rooftop (reservations required), and organic breakfast is included in the rates.
Staying in Touch
Most area lodgings provide high-speed Internet and/or business centers for free or a surcharge. A number of hipster hangouts, such as Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse and Teavolve Cafe and Lounge, offer complimentary Wi-Fi. And, of course, there's always McDonald's.
The cruise lines do not offer organized shore excursions in Baltimore. However, travelers can fill the hours before or after their trips on city tours (by foot, Segway or trolley) or a seasonal boat tour of the Inner Harbor.
For More Information
By phone: 877-BALTIMORE
On the Web: Visit Baltimore
Cruise Critic Message Boards: United States
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Maryland
--by Andrea Sachs, Cruise Critic contributor
All photos, except Oriole Park, appear courtesy of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.