Just a 90-minute flight from Toronto, the Charm City has independent dining, drinks, shopping and art in spades
Best known as being the home of the Ravens (or John Waters, depending on who you ask), Baltimore is just a 90-minute flight away from Toronto, or a reasonably road-trippable eight hours.
The city is home to a thriving tourism industry, with a picturesque waterfront dotted with attractions like the National Aquarium and Old Bay-branded everything. (Sidenote: Why is Old Bay so hard to find in Toronto supermarkets? Honestly, it’s worth the trip just to stock up.)
But if you travel off the beaten path, you’ll find a thriving independent art and food scene, with distilleries, food halls and breweries all experiencing a rising tide.
Here’s our roundup of the best things to do in Baltimore.
Seafood dumplings at Dooby’s.
Part Korean fusion, part comfort food, this minimalist Mount Vernon lunch spot from chef Phil Han is full of personality (right down to the array of Pride flags on the table numbers). Go for breakfast, lunch or dinner wash it down with a house negroni or a miso-caramel latte.
This is the kind of artsy, funky lunch-and-dinner spot beloved by the artsy crowd in every town (think Java House but actually good). Golden West, with its array of mismatched vintage furniture, taxidermied wall hangings and rows of string lights, is a cheap and cheerful Tex-Mex joint that’s open for brunch, lunch, dinner and cocktails. At night, expect drag bingo and a spooky horror night called Shocktail Hour. (Pro tip: They make a mean chili verde.)
This modern food hall, located in the low-key neighbourhood of Remington, doubles as an incubator for up-and-coming food businesses. House faves include the chicken sandwiches at BRD and Morelos-style tacos and aguas frescas at Amano pull up a stool and grab a local beer or a cocktail at the central R. Bar. (Fun fact for all you Food Network heads circa 2007: the food hall is also a couple blocks away from Charm City Cakes, of Ace of Cakes fame.)
Coffee nerds should make an immediate beeline for this Hampden cafe, which offers carefully-sourced beans and blends from all corners of the globe, complete with ultra-detailed tasting notes, and pairs them with the perfect brewing method. (Pick your poison: Chemex, pourover, vacuum pot, Aeropress, French press, Eva Solo coffee brewer, Clever coffee dripper, and cold brew drip tower.)
Magret of duck at Cinghiale.
For a splashier night out (pun only slightly intended), this waterside spot in Harbour East provides plenty of old-world glamour, ultra-charming service, and sky-high windows with harbour views. The space is divided into a low-key wine bar and a more formal dining room everything on the southern Italian-inspired menu is smashing, but the pastas and grilled duck breast are glorious.
The long-running market’s north building was revamped in early 2019 into a food hall featuring a mix of local vendors. Inside the modern, white-tiled space, long-running Baltimore classics like Sophia’s Place European Deli sit alongside recent faves like Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, socially-minded creamery Taharka Bros., and two concepts from Dooby’s chef Phil Han, Old Boy and Fat Tiger.
Bold, colourful murals adorn the exterior of Union Collective.
A fascinating amalgam of local businesses all housed in a decommissioned Sears warehouse, Union Collective is anchored by Union Craft Brewing, a 7,500-square-foot brewery producing a rotating lineup of suds (recent releases include coffee-infused ale AM Gold and a barrel-aged oatmeal stout dubbed Snow Pants). While you’re there, you can grab a wood-fired pizza off the back of Well Crafted Pizza‘s 1949 Dodge, sip samples at Baltimore Spirits Co. distillery, climb the rock wall at Earth Treks, and grab a scoop of Old Bay caramel – or tributes to famous folks like Post Malone’s Toast Melón – at The Creamery.
Baltimore Museum Of Art
Free to enter since 2007, the city’s premier art museum – housed in a striking neoclassical building in the Remington area – spans from classic to contemporary art. Of particular note is the Matisse collection (the largest in the world at 1,000 pieces), thanks to early-20th Baltimore society figures Claribel and Etta Cone, who visited Matisse and Picasso in their studios and amassed a large collection of pieces from both artists, plus figures like Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin.
In recent years, the museum has trained its efforts on acquiring and showcasing works from female artists and artists of colour, selling off existing pieces to fund the acquisition of new works by Amy Sherald and Carrie Mae Weems. In November, the museum announced it would only purchase works from female artists in 2020.
Johanna Burke’s “Green Monkeys”, on display at the American Visionary Art Museum.
American Visionary Art Museum
Odds are very good that you haven’t heard of anyone in the AVAM collection, which is all the more reason to go. Specializing in what some might consider “outsider art”, AVAM curates its sprawling, multi-floor collection with the caveat that none of its artists must have had formal art training.
The result spans from the delightfully specific (Wayne Kusy‘s 16-foot scale rendering of the Lusitania made exclusively from toothpicks) to the eye-poppingly inventive (Johanna Burke’s exquisitely detailed life-size mandrills and chimps made entirely from feathers and beads), to the genuinely heartbreaking (embroidered tapestries depicting the real-life Holocaust experiences of survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz).
Under no circumstances should you miss the gift shop, which is exactly as bonkers as you’d expect: Card catalogs stocked with tiny plastic babies and vintage zodiac-themed cocktail stirrers, beaded earrings, spooky masks, vintage packaging and ephemera, and untold other novelties.
Waters’ moustachioed face is omnipresent in Baltimore – it’s on billboards, T-shirts, novelty ornaments and throw pillows. But no place in the city maintains a connection with the legendary director quite like Atomic Books, which the legendary director uses as something of a P.O. box for his fan mail. Even if the Pope of Trash doesn’t grace the shop with his presence during your visit, the shop’s edgy, eclectic selection means there’s something for everyone: New releases, art books, single-issue comics, zines.
Baby’s On Fire
Buy 78s and caffeinate at this Mount Vernon cafe/record shop. Owned and operated by a married couple, Baby’s serves tasty housemade snacks plus Stumptown beans, and it’s a popular hangout for Mount Vernon locals – but the small cluster of vinyl shelves stocked with the latest and greatest in indie are also a draw.
We’ve seemingly managed to kill off our punk record shops in Toronto – but down in Baltimore, this shop (named for a Husker Du tune) is still supplying the city with Melvins and Buzzcocks 12-inches. There’s also a healthy selection of indie and jazz, local stuff, books and memorabilia.
Bottle of Bread
Nestled into a quiet stretch of Mount Vernon, this sunlit vintage shop is stocked with carefully colour-coded tees, dresses and Levi’s, plus glorious vintage silver jewelry, a whack of vintage Coach handbags, hanging planters from local company Lucky Mud, and even some handmade ceramic pipes.
A must-visit in Hampden, Trohv is the kind of store you can walk into blithely and walk out an hour later with a severe case of whiplash and 200 fewer dollars to your name. The two-floor shop is crammed with artistic and adorable home goods, cookware, clothing, accessories and gifts, much of it locally-made.
Products run the gamut from touristy Etsy-core to brashly irreverent – crab-shaped bottle openers sit next to coffee table books about the history of queer design. (I, personally, got one of both!)
The writer was a guest of Visit Maryland all opinions are her own.