So Much to Do, You Want to Visit Again and Again
By Karen Rubin
I relished an opportunity to return to Baltimore, Maryland. Our first visit five years ago exposed us to a city brimming with interesting attractions, and in the throes of a renaissance where, literally, “everything old is new again.”
This was a trip with a purpose, though, and Baltimore was an all too short stopover on a road trip south, so we were unable to really linger and explore and experience. This was just a sampling, a survey mission-enough to know what we did not know.
And it was frustrating in its way-just another teaser of a plethora of places that I wanted to experience in Baltimore but couldn’t fit in our limited time. My list of “Must Do” items in Baltimore continues to grow, rather than diminish, as I eagerly look forward to another trip back to Baltimore.
And what a time we had: exploring Inner Harbor and seeing the marvelous improvements at Baltimore’s most famous attractions: the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center, and venturing away from the Inner Harbor into Baltimore’s charming districts and neighborhoods.
I was purposeful in trying to expand my horizons beyond what we had seen before-but who could resist returning to the National Aquarium, especially when new exhibits make this an altogether new destination?
What strikes you is how Baltimore’s rich history permeates the landscape-the gorgeous architecture, the scale of the streets. Everywhere you look there is something that catches your eye, makes you think, brings you back.
The other aspect that strikes you is how much fun everything is-even the most sophisticated attractions, like the Walters Art Museum, have child-oriented activities. It is no wonder that Baltimore has been making everyone’s list for Top Family Destinations. Indeed, the end result (and I say this as the highest form of flattery) is that visiting Baltimore is more like going to a theme park than a city: you go from attraction to attraction, taking in “edutainment.”
Part of the “family-friendly” appeal is that so much of what you want to experience is within walking distance, or you can hop on the water taxi ($8). Or if you prefer, ride the Light Rail (it looks more like an old-fashioned electric-powered trolley), the metro, or a local bus. The bottom line: Baltimore is a manageable destination.
The National Aquarium
You may well want to plan your visit to Baltimore around the National Aquarium. Already the most popular attraction in the city, the Aquarium is truly a blockbuster event with the recent opening of “Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes” exhibit, housed in a newly built 64,500-sq. ft. crystal building, with re-created habitats that depict a river gorge typical to Australia’s Northern Territory with native animals, many of which have never been displayed in the U.S. You walk in, crossing a bridge, overseeing a three-story waterfall.
There were marine animals I had never seen before-like the Matan water monitor (that looked like a lizard but swam), and a pig-nosed turtle.
Though the focus is on marine life, there is also discussion of aboriginal culture-a simulated rock painting for example.
Birds fly freely and you come nose-to-nose with crocodiles, flying foxes, rainbow lorikeets, the venomous death adder and other fishes, lizards and snakes. Free-roaming lizards and water dragons bask on the red rocks of the exhibit’s 45-foot tall cliffs.
Australia was selected as the focus of the new exhibit because of the uniqueness of the habitat-it exists in isolation so there are many species that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet. Because it is a desert environment, it teaches the importance of water and the effects of human mismanagement of this vital resource; it complements the Aquarium’s other exhibits; and its river gorge landscape is dramatic and stunning.
The National Aquarium has 11,000 animals on exhibit representing more than 600 species of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and marine mammals presented in various habitats.
A surprise is to realize they offer a really excellent Bottlenose Dolphin show (included in admission). Get there early, because it fills up. We missed out, but we were directed downstairs, to an area that is actually below the water’s surface. Seeing what is happening under the water provided an interesting perspective (it could have been improved if the TV monitors showed what was happening on the surface, and if we could hear).
As we were walking through the exhibit (ramps wind down to the different levels), we came upon scuba divers with the manta rays. In fact, the Aquarium offers a number of fabulous Immersion programs: you can actually enjoy a “Sleep with the Sharks” program where you get to take a nocturnal prowl through the Aquarium’s behind-the-scenes areas,including a visit to the food-prep area to learn how we care for and feed our sharks and rays; walk the catwalk with the sharks swimming just below; sleep in the underwater viewing area (5 p.m.-9 a.m. on select dates, $79 includes dinner, snack and breakfast); a behind-the-scenes tour with the sharks ($35/adult, $23/child); a two-hour Dolphin Discovery (you don’t get to touch the dolphin but you get to join a trainer for a private enrichment session, adults/$64, child/$53). Immersion programs would have to be arranged in advance, check the website at www.aqua.org.
Visiting the Aquarium can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you are trying to rush because you only have a limited time. For really helpful information to plan your visit, go to the National Aquarium’s website, www.aqua.org. Tickets to the “Australia” exhibit are timed admission.
Maryland Science Center
On the opposite side of the Inner Harbor “horseshoe” from the National Aquarium is the Maryland Science Center, which really is more of an entertainment center than a museum. There are three floors of hands-on exhibits, an IMAX theater, a planetarium, a kid’s room, an observatory.
The newest exhibit, Dinosaur Mysteries, is way more than a dusty dinosaur hall where you see the bones but you can’t touch them. Here, you can putter around paleontologically beneath life-size replicas and skeletons, getting into the dig pits and even “drill” for fossils, as you peer through a two-story window wall at the Inner Harbor.
Dinosaurs Mysteries is almost entirely hands-on. You can touch full-size dinosaurs, pick up artifacts and fossils, and simulate the sounds that dinosaurs may have made. The exhibit includes 13 full-scale dinosaurs made from fossils and casts of actual specimens recovered in the field–the largest a 45-foot long, 15-foot tall articulation of one of the largest known dinosaurs, a giganotosaurus. This skeletal model is mounted on a platform so that visitors can walk underneath, inspecting the feet and belly of the prehistoric creature. There are more than two dozen interactive activities that simulate a paleontological dig and the discovery process. These activities are placed under tent-like structures to create the feel of working “in the field.”
A 40 foot long Tyrannosaurus Rex is suspended in the museum’s front window, making an extraordinary juxtaposition with the cityscape. This model is the first in the country to feature the lower rib cage. A dramatic setting depicts the Maryland state dinosaur, a 67-foot long, 29-foot tall astrodon johnstoni, being attacked by a smaller acrocanthosaurus, based on fossil evidence found in southern Texas and Maryland. You get to touch a 100-million year-old cryolophosaurus skull that was found in Antarctica, as well as actual dinosaur bones and teeth. There is a 100 million year old dinosaur egg on view that was excavated in China.
Children can sit inside a seven-foot, re-created dinosaur nest. A re-created rock wall with sediment layers is imbedded with family-oriented activities, such as observing ammonite patterns, measuring the size of dinosaur bones, and studying teeth under a magnifying glass
But that is only the beginning. The Science Center is chock full of hands-on activities in all fields of science.
In the astronomy section, we were able to try on actual helmet and gloves that had traveled in space. In the Earth Science section, TerraLink is a high tech, high touch, multi-dimensional environment where visitors learn how diverse systems – the environment, sea, land – work together to affect change throughout the Earth. There is a simulated tornado you can touch.
A new Human Body: The Inside Story exhibit lets you journey through a typical day and explore how many different organs and systems work together in ordinary activities. Experiences here include a 30-foot long tunnel filled with dreamlike sounds, dramatic images and vivid smells recreating the experience of your senses moving from sleep to waking. In another section, you are surrounded by the sounds and vivid imagery of blood flowing through a beating heart, and vibrations in the Heart and Lung room. Senses are tested as visitors lie on a bed with thousands of nails without experiencing pain, and compare cool and warm touches.
At BodyLink, the health sciences update center, we were able to sit in a lounge-like setting and watch really interesting video about medical breakthroughs. Meanwhile, in the WetLab, you can put on a lab coat and goggles and perform science experiments about bacteria and visit stations to learn about genetic
OuterSpacePlace, an exhibit developed in 2000, is the official Hubble Space Telescope National Visitors Center. Through the latest images from Hubble, you get to witness the birth and death of stars, explore distant galaxies as they form, and see planets of the solar system up close. SpaceLink is a state of the art update center utilizes live “links” to space and major space-related institutions to inform visitors of the latest in space science development.
Throughout the center are “explainers” and demonstrations.
One of the most stunning ships on display in the Inner Harbor, which really lends its character, is the USS Constellation Museum-the only surviving Civil War battleship still afloat. This ship captured three slave ships off the coast of Africa, freeing 700 people and delivered famine relief to Ireland. Today it is a maritime museum that you can board.
In fact, you step outside the National Aquarium and into the Baltimore Maritime Museum, a collection of interesting ships including the USCCC Taney, the last surviving warship from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US submarine Torsk, which sank the last two Japanese combatant ships of World War II (student groups can arrange overnight stays on the submarine), and the Lightship Chesapeake, a floating navigational lighthouse.
Next door to the National Aquarium is Passport: Voyages of Discovery which uses film, motion seats and special effects to let you experience the ocean and American history. This is conceived as the first location of Passport.
A short walk from the Inner Harbor is Port Discovery, appropriately dubbed a “Kid-Powered Museum” in a building that was once the Baltimore Fishmarket. Designed in collaboration with Walt Disney Imagineering, Port Discovery is the third-largest children’s museum in the nation and offers an amazing array of hands-on activities that make science, art, and even adventure child’s play. It is so much fun, it seems more like an urban theme park than a museum, but there is real educational stuff going on. The centerpiece is a three-story climbing playground (you can get off at different floors to explore different areas, if you like). During our visit, members of the Center Stage Theater Group put on workshops in theater arts; a man from NASA was demonstrating how a space suit works (you climb into a big plastic bag and he uses a vacuum cleaner to suck out air to demonstrate the pressure of the atmosphere; in another experiment, you take a straw and pierce a potato, to show how the speed of an object gives it force). My favorite area was the Adventure Expeditions, where you walk through a Pharaoh’s tomb, and even climb into a Mummy case (be careful, there is a voice!). There is a Mystery House which teaches about perception and problem-solving, an R&D Dream Lab where visitors become stars of a gameshow in a TV studio, and a special Sensation Station section for toddlers. There are even overnight adventures. (Best for children up to 12. Plan to stay at least two hours; 35 Market Place, 410-727-8120, www.portdiscovery.org.)
There are a variety ways of experiencing the Harbor-from fishing trips to yachts to dinner cruises to sailing trips on a topsail schooner or an overnight sail on a tall ship, to a sightseeing trip on a World War II amphibious “duck”.
Also in the Inner Harbor, the new ESPN Zone, developed jointly by ESPN cable network and Disney Regional Entertainment. It has a second-floor Sports Arena-a playground for kids of all ages, with virtual reality and other interactive sports games filling a 10,000 sq. foot high-tech arcade; a screening room (13 screens), a grill-style restaurant (410-685-3776). Also for entertainment and dining, there is Harborplace, a kind of indoor mall, and the Power Plant, a building dating from the early 1900s that now houses a Hard Rock Caf� and Barnes & Noble superstore.
The Baltimore Visitor Center, located right between the Science Center and HarborPlace along the Inner Harbor, is a great resource for visitors, especially families. An 11-minute orientation film provides great information about getting around town and about Baltimore’s interesting neighborhoods. While there, you can purchase tickets to attractions, and avoid waiting on lines.
Take advantage of the Harbor Pass. It is available at the Visitor Center or through www.baltimore.org and it includes admission to the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, Port Discovery Children’s Museum, the Top of the World Observation Deck and the Baltimore Water Taxi at one low price, saving you a bunch over buying the admission tickets individually (http://www.baltimore.org/visitors/v_reservations_hp.html).
Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore
Our base of operations was, appropriately enough, a grand and historic hotel that best epitomizes Baltimore: the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore, named for Sir George Calvert, Secretary of State for King James I, the founder of the Maryland colony. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, the 23-story Lord Baltimore was the largest hotel in the state when it was built in 1928.
Though the hotel has been extensively renovated and restored to its grand style, it has preserved its heritage with a kind of playfulness: there is 1940s swing music playing as you enter the two-story lobby, which is graced with giant velvet banquettes, bronze lion statutes, stately columns, ringed by a mezzanine, all conveying an Art Deco look. You may well think you had stepped back into a bygone era.
We continued the fantasy when we took the elevator up to our floor. Literally, our room was our floor. We had one of the tower suites-a full penthouse apartment with a giant master bedroom (the Sleep Number Bed was amazing), a full second bedroom, two bathrooms and a separate room for the whirlpool bath, a living room-dining room, full kitchen, and gorgeous views of the lighted buildings just outside the windows.
There is a fully-equipped fitness center. Other convenient amenities at the Hotel Baltimore include same-day dry cleaning, valet parking and concierge service.
Dining at the Lord Baltimore Grill provided the perfect atmosphere and a memorable dinner, filled with new interpretations of Maryland traditions. The Lord Baltimore Grill also features sumptuous breakfast and lunch buffets as well as a la carte items. The Lobby Bar at the Hotel Baltimore offers cocktails and light dishes served in an atmosphere of old-fashioned elegance.
The Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore offers bed-and-breakfast, romance and Aquarium packages, priced from $109 to $199 per room, based on availability and time of year (20 West Baltimore Street, Baltimore Maryland 21201, 800-333-3333, 410-539-8400, www.radisson.com/lordbaltimore ).
Located just a few short blocks from the Inner Harbor, the Lord Baltimore is perfectly situated to enjoy the many Inner Harbor attractions by day or by night.
At night, there are innumerable eating, entertainment and shopping places ringing the Harbor (as well as dining cruises you can take). The Power Plant, next to the National Aquarium, houses the Hard Rock CAF�, ESPN Zone, Gold’s gym and Barnes & Noble; also, Harborplace and the Gallery at Harborplace feature more than 100 shops, 16 sit-down restaurants and 40 other eateries as well as live entertainment on the waterfront; and Harbor East is yet another waterfront entertainment destination with restaurants.
A short stroll from the Lord Baltimore put us on historic Charles Street. We soon found ourselves in Mount Vernon, a neighborhood designed in 1831 that became the most fashionable residential district in Baltimore for wealthy merchants and shipbuilders. The architecture is just magnificent, with much restoration going on.
The focal point of Mount Vernon is Baltimore’s own Washington Monument. In fact, this was the nation’s first public monument honoring George Washington-a 178-foot tall, white marble column that you can climb 228 steps to the top for a view of the city-designed by Robert Mills beginning in 1815 who also created the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.
Just across the street from the monument is the Walters Art Museum, internationally renowned for its collection of some 30,000 objects spanning 55 centuries of art, amassed mainly by William and Henry Walters, who made their money in railroads. Like a mini (or not so mini) Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can see Egyptian sarcafoci, Tiffany jewel, ancient documents, medieval ivories, Old Master paintings, Renaissance art, Art Deco jewelry and 19th century masterpieces (www.thewalters.org).
Continuing on our way up Charles Street, soon we come upon a fascinating gigantic sculpture that stands in the middle of traffic in front of Baltimore’s Penn Station. You look at it from one perspective and it is takes the form of a woman; from another, it is the form of a man.
This is an example of a program of public art. Baltimore is one of the first cities in the country to assess developers one percent of the project cost toward public art.
If you walk the full stretch, perhaps three miles or so (which we did, taking a cab back to the Inner Harbor), you find yourself in the Arts & Entertainment District, and finally, at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore is quite the college town, with Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, University of Baltimore and others-you may find yourself in Baltimore to visit a campus or to visit your student).
On one side of the Johns Hopkins campus, is the Baltimore Museum of Art, ranked as one of top 10 in the country, which grew from the collection of the Cone sisters, Clarabelle and Etta. The collection showcases works by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, van Gogh and Renoir as well as textiles, furniture, jewelry and African, Asian and Near Eastern art. The museum’s newly renovated Cone Wing displays more of the art than ever before. Spanning three floors, the BMA’s historic John Russell Pope Building features elegant installations of 18th- through 20th-century American painting and sculpture, decorative arts and period rooms from six Maryland historic houses. The West Wing for Contemporary Art includes works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Through April 16, the BMA is displaying “Picasso: The Final Years”, an exploration of his post-war creativity from 1945 until 1968 (10 Art Museum Drive, 410-396-7100).
Fell’s Point (which you can reach from the Inner Harbor with a delightful water taxi), or simply walk, is a charming National Historic District, in fact, one of the nation’s oldest maritime communities, founded by William Fell in 1730. Indeed, it has survived progress, urban renewal and development to become Baltimore’s oldest and architecturally most historically significant district. Just as it has for more than two centuries, it bustles with activity at night, with tourists as well as locals flocking to cafes, restaurants and saloons, just as the merchant sailors did in Colonial times.
Today there are antique shops, galleries, pubs and restaurants.. On our prior visit, we stayed at the historic Admiral Fell’s Inn (which is affiliated with the Lord Baltimore, and also is a member of Historic Hotels of America) and delighted in seeing the sun rise on cobblestone streets.
The Inn, itself, has played an important part in Baltimore’s seafaring heritage. It was built by the Port Mission Women’s Auxiliary as a boardinghouse for merchant seamen and became the Seamen’s YMCA in 1929 until 1955. The rules of the house were sailors had to be good Christians, had to bathe, and were subject to delousing if necessary.
After serving for some 30 years as a vinegar bottling plant, the Inn, which consists of some eight adjoining buildings (some dating back to the late 1770s) was restored to a hotel in 1985. Guests today enjoy European-style comfort and intimate elegance of the 80-room hotel, literally at the cross-walk of the district, and a water taxi ride away from Baltimore’s acclaimed Inner Harbor attractions.
Walking around the Fell’s Point district was a delight-boutiques, some 39 antique shops, colorful cafes and saloons, and some 31 historic buildings and sites (listed in a self-guided walking tour). At the Fell’s Point Maritime Museum, a satellite site of the Maryland Historical Society, discover the stories of the people who built, profited from and sailed the world’s fastest ships (1724 Thames St., 410-732-0278).
There is also the Captain Pitt House, circa 1790-1800; the Captain Steele House, circa 1788-1792; the Robert Long House and Garden, circa 1765 (Baltimore’s oldest surviving urban residence); and the London Coffee House, built in 1771 and operated until 1804 as a gathering place for locals, it was a center of political foment during the Revolution as well as the War of 1812.
Indeed, one of the long list of fascinating historic attractions in Baltimore is tied to the War of 1812: The Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum is dedicated to the story of Mary Young Pickersgill, who made the enormous 30 x 42-foot Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became our National Anthem. (Mary Pickersgill’s flag still survives and now hangs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History). Founded in 1927, the Flag House is one of Baltimore’s oldest museums. The museum. Visitors tour the 1793 home of Mary Pickersgill, which is furnished with Federal antiques including pieces from the Pickersgill family. Guides describe how the Star-Spangled Banner was made and what life was like for a widowed flag maker in the early years of our nation’s history. A visit also includes a stop at the War of 1812 Museum with its interesting displays of military and domestic artifacts and acclaimed video presentation. (Plan for at least 45 min.; $7/adults, $5/child; 844 East Pratt Street.)
The historic sites speak about Baltimore’s diversity and pivotal role: there is the Baltimore Civil War Museum, housed in one of the oldest surviving big railroad stations(and a site on the Underground Railroad); the Baltimore Streetcar Museum; the Fire Museum of Maryland, with one of the East’s largest collections of antique firefighting equipment; the Irish Shrine and Railroad Workers Museum, the Jewish Museum, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, and the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, the city’s oldest cemetery where Edgar Allan Poe rests, along with generals from the American Revolution and the War of 1812. ($4/adults; $3/children 13-17; 601 President St., 410-385-5188, www.mdhs.org/explore/baltcivilwar.html).
Another historic attraction which really conveys a sense of place is the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum, home to the oldest, most comprehensive collection of railroad artifacts in the Western Hemisphere. The museum recently reopened bigger and better after being nearly destroyed by a record breaking snowstorm in February 2003; the curators initiated a restoration process of more than 150,000 damaged pieces of the collection, ranging from rail cars to an original B&O tea bag. Now you can ride a train for the first mile of passenger track ever laid in the US. Since its reopening, the museum now features a new 27.500 sq. ft. restoration facility which will be used to restore and service locomotive and rolling stock in perpetuity. A new living history center and family activity area are now also included (901 West Pratt St., 410-752-2490).
Baltimore is famous for its sports and a new attraction is the Sports Legends at historic Camden Station, located on the north end of the Camden Yards complex. The 22,000-sq. ft. attraction houses exhibits related to Babe Ruth, Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Orioles, Colts and Ravens, the Maryland Terrapins and college athletics, and Baltimore’s Negro Leagues. The original Babe Ruth museum site at the nearby Babe Ruth Birthplace house remains open in its original historic condition for public tours.
My test for a destination is when you simply cannot do all the things on a list, which, in Baltimore’s case, keeps getting bigger and bigger. It is a place I can’t wait to return to.
For further information, contact the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association, 100 Light Street, 12th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202, 410-659-7300, 888-BALTIMORE,www.baltimore.org.
© 2006 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com .