When I moved from New Jersey to Virginia ten years ago, Baltimore immediately became my family’s annual getaway. Once a year, my daughters and I would drive up to meet my mom for a girls’ weekend. While our first trip involved perhaps the most popular stop – a trip to the National Aquarium – what I’ve discovered from subsequent visits is that there’s so much more to this harbor city. Whether your children are young or old, or your budget is big or small, Baltimore is an ideal destination for a weekend getaway. It offers everything from historic to trendy fun for the family.
Since we typically stay near the Inner Harbor, I like to hit spots on the outskirts of town while arriving and departing. For example, on our most recent trip, we drove directly to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), which is about ten miles north of the Inner Harbor near Johns Hopkins University. The museum is free and houses incredible collections. Since we spent our Friday morning driving the three hours north, we ate lunch at Gertrude’s, the restaurant at BMA, as soon as we got there. It has indoor and outdoor seating adjacent to the sculpture garden. The portions are huge, the food is delicious, and the prices are reasonable.
My children love the free family audio tour at BMA. Everyone gets to hold their own device, move at their own pace, and Raoudi, Henri Matisse’s dog, makes the art accessible to all. Honestly, I wish every museum offered this feature. Another thing that sets this museum apart is how hands-on it is (a lot like Baltimore’s science museum – which we also visited). In the Contemporary Collection, kids are actually encouraged to touch the art by walking through a beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, standing under the Olafur’s “Flower Observatory,” and sitting on “Swimmer” by Franz West. The Cone Collection houses a re-creation of the Cone sisters’ Baltimore apartment as well as their virtual apartment people, accessed via a touch screen, so patrons can see where all the art hung in their home and experience what it might have been like to actually live among such treasured works of art. I’ve never seen anything like it. Major renovations will be completed here this fall, and I’m already looking forward to our next trip.
The Inner Harbor is ideal for walking. So once we parked our car at the Embassy Suites, we relied on our feet, the hotel shuttle, or the taxis to get around. This hotel is conveniently located a few blocks from the harbor, and its large rooms are perfect for families in need of space to spread out. We stayed in a fabulous two-bedroom suite, complete with dining and family rooms. Since the hotel offers free nightly appetizers and cocktails during happy hour, it was the perfect tide-me-over until we dined our first night in Baltimore’s Little Italy. We ate at Café Gia’s, which is the only restaurant in that neighborhood with al fresco dining, and there’s nothing better than eating outdoors when you’re near the water in warm weather.
The next morning, we headed over to the adorable Fells Point neighborhood, where we boarded the Urban Pirates boat. After being outfitted in pirate gear, we headed into the harbor with costumes, temporary tattoos, and painted scars. (I’m now Vicious Victoria to all you landlubbers.) We were schooled in pirate talk, played games – like pass the coconut head – and swabbed the deck to music. Be warned. During this family adventure, you’ll have to help stop Mad Dog Luke from getting the treasure with water cannons, so those of you who don’t like fun better skip this adventure – because it’s truly a blast. The only problem we ran into was the pirate oath, which includes eating dessert before meals. My mother, who took her role as Mean Mug Mimi very seriously, agreed with my daughters, who said our post-pirate stop had to be Maggie Moos for homemade ice cream. However, there are numerous places to eat a traditional lunch along cobblestone Thames Street.
Next, we boarded a water taxi to the Maryland Science Center, our must-see destination each year which is also part of the Science Museum of Virginia reciprocal membership network. Although my girls aren’t interested in the dinosaurs on the first floor anymore, they still can’t get enough of the hands-on physics experiments in Newton’s Alley. The latest science exhibit was on digesting food, complete with a hilarious opportunity to guess the sounds as well as a chance to lie on a bed of nails. (It was so cool even I tried it.) I ended up having to lure my kids away from the cup stacking demonstration with promises of a gift shop stop. Otherwise, we would have been there all day.
Although we’ve enjoyed the Port Discovery Children’s Museum in years past, at the ripe old ages of eight and eleven, my children wanted to check out the newer Ripley’s Believe It or Not. While my little one found some of the oddities unsettling, they both loved crawling around the toothpick city and we all enjoyed navigating our way through the hall of mirrors. If weird isn’t quite your style, however, there are so many other things to do in the Inner Harbor. We’ve also visited the American Visionary Art Museum, which houses some unique pieces by self-taught artists, and the Historic Ships of Baltimore, which includes four ships and a lighthouse. And there’s no shortage of shopping opportunities along the Inner Harbor for tourists interested in browsing or buying.
When we couldn’t take another step, we parked ourselves at a table at one of the harbor’s eateries. We’ve had tapas at La Tasca (my favorite), crab cakes at J. Paul’s, fish and chips at Tirnanoa, and most recently, shrimp at Bubba Gump. The choices are plentiful. You’re sure to find something your whole family will enjoy.
On our last day, we headed to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. I can remember my grandfather telling stories about seeing Babe play ball in the Bronx and I spent many days of my youth at Yankee Stadium, known as “the house that Ruth built,” as my grandfather was a journalist whose newspaper had box seats behind home plate. While my mom and I enjoyed the birthplace museum more than my daughters did, it’s the kind of baseball history that can’t be missed, since it is after all, the house that built Ruth.
From there, we walked to the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards. Fans were lining up for an afternoon game, so if the Orioles are in town definitely make a day of it. We meandered through the exhibits on Maryland sports greats, learning about everyone from Johnny Unitas to Michael Phelps. There’s a locker room display, where kids can get dressed in all different types of sports gear. My older daughter tried on a Ravens uniform since that’s the football team she roots for, and my younger daughter pretended to ride in the Preakness since she’s a horse fan.
At the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, we learned all about how the “Star Spangled Banner” became baseball’s theme song in 1918, so stopping at Fort McHenry on the way out of town made perfect sense. It was here, during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the poem that would become the National Anthem. When Key saw the American flag flying above Fort McHenry amidst the cannon fire, he wrote “Defence of Fort McHenry.” This poem, put to music, became “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was declared the official National Anthem of the United States on March 3, 1931. With both indoor and outdoor exhibits here at this National Park, it’s a wonderful way to end your weekend. My girls loved participating in the Junior Ranger program and earned a badge by finding the answers to various questions. Next month, the site will be celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the “Star-Spangled Banner” with a free festival, including history demonstrations, family activities, food and beverages, and live music. So check out the website before you travel for a list of commemorative events.
Even after all these years, we still haven’t seen everything in Baltimore. Ironically, each time we visit, our list manages to grow instead of shrink. If you have a chance to get away before summer’s a wrap or later this fall, Baltimore has treasures hidden all over town to discover.
photos courtesy: © Visit Baltimore and Baltimore Museum of Art