Cobblestone streets and older-than-America row houses make it easy to imagine a bunch of pirates wandering the streets of Baltimore’s Fells Point. After all, privateers and shipbuilders plied their trades in this harbor town in the early 19th century. And somehow, that spirit of commerce and cool survives here in spades, making it my favorite place to spend a day away from D.C.
My pal Anne and I arrive on a sunny Saturday morning to shop, feast on local seafood and experience another one of Charm City’s many charms: its thriving art museum scene.
In typical B’more fashion, the culture here veers between haute and hipster. We start with the refined, heading to The Walters Art Museum, where 18th- and 19th-century paintings and sculptures are displayed old-fashioned gallery style, with landscapes hung next to stuffed crocodiles and other curiosities. “It’s like wandering into some fabulous old aunt’s house,” says Anne.
Before a brunch break, we power through another downtown art show place, the quirky American Visionary Art Museum. One of the country’s only display spaces for so-called “outsider” pieces, AVAM’s like a gritty Guggenheim, with works by untrained-yet-fantastic talents like Howard Finster (folksy paintings) and Flaming Lips’ singer Wayne Coyne (a Gummy Bear self-portrait).
The gift shop sells both affordable art by folks in the collection and materials to make your own masterpieces; Anne and I both pick up a few stickers and postcards for later projects.
For brunch, we’re off to native son/ filmmaker John Waters’ funky ’hood, Hampden, where we meet up with my Baltimore friends, photographer E. Brady Robinson and stylist Rose DiFerdinando. Like everyone here, they’re groovy and artsy. We corral ourselves at Golden West Cafe, a longtime diner, where paint-by-number portraits line the walls and comfort chow crowds the menu. “I swear, this breakfast burrito can cure any hangover,” says Brady. I tuck into spicy banh mi tacos that also do the trick.
Besides eclectic restaurants that could star in a Waters flick, Hampden is also ground zero for a wealth of indie shops, especially ones selling both cool vintage and new clothing. “I think it comes from the ‘hon’ culture up here,” says Rose, referring to the beehive-sporting, retro- dress wearing women immortalized in Waters’ “Hairspray.”
Rose leads us on a spree through some of her favorite fashion-y spots in Hampden, including Doubledutch, where new floral maxi dresses mix with jewelry and bags made by local designers. Located in an old church, Hunting Ground stocks men’s and women’s vintage pieces like a 1930s velvet Dior robe Rose recently snapped up for $30.
Anne and I also like Changed My Mind Vintage, where I score a 1970s black disco dress for $20 and she picks up a pretty pink wool coat for only $30.
Other stores in Hampden trade in an assortment of things like greeting cards, bath oils and cookbooks (In Watermelon Sugar) and locally made sweet treats (Charm City Chocolates). At the latter, don’t miss the Chesapeake Crunch, chocolate bark studded with peanuts and locally made Old Bay spice.
Fueled up, we decide it’s time to think about those long-ago pirates, shipbuilders and naval heroes. We swing by the Inner Harbor, the redeveloped hub of the city, where the Pride of Baltimore, a replica of an 1812-style clipper, is open for tours and day sails. It’s a graceful reminder of the tumultuous early years of the 19th century, when the city functioned both as a shipbuilding power and a key site in the War of 1812.
Not far away, Fort McHenry, where American soldiers held off the Brits during the War of 1812, proves an even more stirring chapter from the past. A massive replica Star-Spangled Banner flies over the star-shaped stronghold, a reminder that events years ago inspired Francis Scott Key to pen lyrics that became the country’s national anthem.
All that shopping and history makes us famished, so before heading back to Washington, Anne and I decide to indulge in an early dinner. Like many places in this old-meets-edgy city, Gunther & Co. in Brewer’s Hill dishes up modern food in historic surroundings.
“It’s in the boiler room of an old brewery, and it’s got a great vibe,” says local food blogger Amy Langrehr. She’s a friend of Brady’s, and her recommendation turns out to be a good one. In the two-level, dramatic space with soaring, exposed red brick walls and mod blue banquettes, we tuck into roasted local oysters spiked with chili and a rich dish of red wine-infused lamb. It’s satisfying and soulful, just like Baltimore itself.