Baltimore Delights Travelers
Photo: The National Aquarium and World Trade Center at the Inner Harbor © Jon Bilous | Dreamstime.com
Like the heroine of Baltimore native John Waters’ hit film Hairspray, Baltimore is plucky, brash, buoyant and unstoppable. It’s a city with character — and an attitude. Its gritty past as America’s second-largest immigration port and its history as a manufacturing and transportation hub left Baltimore with an ethnic and cultural diversity still apparent in its distinct neighborhoods, some so different they seem like separate towns.
One of the nation’s busiest, the Port of Baltimore remains an important economic driver, one of the closest Atlantic ports to the Midwest and responsible for about 150,000 jobs. This was facilitated by the completion of a $1.3 billion project allowing Baltimore to handle super post-Panamax ships, the world’s largest cargo vessels.
Today the port ranks 11th in the country for total tonnage and ninth in dollar value, with more than $50 billion annually. Baltimore ranks highest among all U.S. ports in both cars and roll-on/roll-off equipment and is in the top five largest cruise ports on the East Coast. Baltimore’s Foreign Trade Zone is one of the largest and most active in the United States, and fDi Magazine ranks it the fourth best in the world.
Maritime activity in both war and peacetime played an important role since the War of 1812, when Baltimore native Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as he watched Fort McHenry withstand bombardment by British ships.
For the business — or even the casual — traveler, Baltimore still revolves around the harbor. In the past few decades the city resolutely transformed what was an untidy, run-down waterfront into an eye-catching vista of multi-use developments that mix hotels, residences, dining, shopping, commercial offices, museums and attractions. Adding more interest to the Inner Harbor are historic vessels including the 18th-century war sloop USS Constellation, a World War II submarine, a Coast Guard cutter and a light ship, all open to visitors.
The major player in the transformation of the harbor area is Harbor East, a mixed-use development where visitors and locals mix and interact. Adjoining the Inner Harbor and overlooking it with spectacular views, Harbor East is still evolving but has already become one of Baltimore’s most vibrant epicenters. Locally owned boutiques, name-brand stores, hotels, restaurants and event spaces enjoy the added attraction of being only a few steps from the Baltimore Convention Center.
This 1.2-million-square-foot trade show venue includes 300,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space, which meeting planners can see virtually using the online brochure’s 360-degree tours and floor plans. Unique off-site event venues circle the Inner Harbor: the National Aquarium, a science museum, the World Trade Center observation level and the colorful and conversation-provoking outsider art of the American Visionary Art Museum.
A total of 9,000 hotel rooms in the Inner Harbor/Convention Center area add to Baltimore’s attraction as a meeting place. Harbor East alone includes five hotels: the luxury Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, Courtyard by Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites and Marriott Waterfront.
Away from the harbor but still within an easy walk of the convention center and major corporate headquarters are two hotels that opened in 2015. Hotel Indigo Baltimore – Mt. Vernon repurposes an original downtown building into 162 guestrooms, 23 suites and 5,100 square feet of flexible meeting space. Also opening late last year in the Mount Vernon Historic District, The Ivy Hotel is a boutique in a former private mansion. In a third historic building closer to Inner Harbor sits the edgy Hotel RL with its free-flowing lobby/lounge/café and 130 guestrooms.
On the horizon for a 2016 opening is the restoration of a landmark building vacant for nearly two decades in Fell’s Point, adjacent to Harbor East. This former dockland neighborhood experienced a regeneration in the past several years with restaurants, shops and a lively market scene; the transformation of the derelict Recreation Pier into a 128-room hotel will add another dimension to its historic streets of brick townhouses. Taking advantage of its pier location, the hotel will feature its own boat launch. Fell’s Point is connected to the Inner Harbor and other waterside points by the popular Baltimore Water Taxi.
Maryland Route 25 follows the historic Falls Road north of Baltimore through a series of attractive towns that grew around grist and cotton mills powered by falls along the valley. Alesia is a good starting point, near the sprawling Prettyboy Reservoir and its surrounding park. Falls Road drops south through Butler, with its antique shops, and past the historic country estates of Green Spring Valley. Amid more grand homes find The Cloisters, a Medieval-style castle built in 1932. Rockland’s Historic District is on the National Register for its stone buildings and Gothic Revival homes, and the Cylburn Arboretum is a garden park with outdoor sculptures. Route 25 brings you into the heart of Baltimore’s most distinctive quarter, Hampden. Stop to stroll along 36th Street for a look at the cheeky Baltimore neighborhood that inspired Hairspray. And expect the greeting, “Welcome to Bal’mer, hon.”