Baltimore the Local Way
Tips on the city's best crab cakes, coffee, museums and more, from those who know best.
O say, can you see the historic location where the “Star-Spangled Banner” was first penned? Yep, here in the Baltimore Harbor near Fort McHenry, which stood up to an overnight bombardment by the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812.
Centuries of history have shaped present-day Baltimore — a town that loves its Orioles and Ravens pro sports teams, revels in being a collection of unique neighborhoods, and is a big-city/small-town charmer that’s always down for a beer-infused crab feast. That’d be Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, of course.
Know that “hon” is a time-honored term of endearment, and locals call their city “Bawlmer.” Any way you pronounce it, realize that visitors are always welcome to this friendly, unassuming, blue-collar town.
Meet the Experts
To provide you the inside scoop on what makes Baltimore special, we turned to two local experts.
Jill Yesko has made Baltimore her home for 20-plus years. The author of two Baltimore-based crime fiction novels, “Murder in the Dog Park” and “Dog Spelled Backwards: An Unholy Mystery,” Jill is a contributing writer for the Baltimore Sun. She also directed the documentary “Tainted Blood: The Untold Story of the 1984 Olympic Blood Doping Scandal.” When not writing or directing, Jill walks her basset hounds around Baltimore.
A freelance writer and editor, Rebecca Kirkman arrived in Baltimore in 2012. She freelances for Baltimore Magazine and is the associate editor of BeerAdvocate magazine. When not writing, she’s most likely enjoying the outdoors or seeking out a pint at a local craft brewery.
Here, Rebecca and Jill share their favorite spots to eat, drink and have a grand time in Baltimore.
Tourist Trap to Avoid
Harborplace is a decaying mess of generic stores like Build a Bear and “specialty” food shops selling pretzels and Italian ices, Jill reports. “Harborplace was the place to be in the 1980s and the place to avoid in 2018,” she says.
Rebecca generally concurs. “While I definitely recommend taking a walk around the Inner Harbor, skip the chain restaurants and shops that make up Harborplace and The Gallery. Instead walk a short distance to the many nearby neighborhood shops and restaurants (try Federal Hill, Fells Point or Mount Vernon).”
Tourist Trap That's Actually Really Cool
The Inner Harbor things that are outside of Harborplace are gawk-worthy, Jill believes. Standout sights include ships like theUSS Torsk, one of two 1940s-era Tench-class submarines still located inside the U.S. (bonus: It’s painted to resemble a shark). Grab a water taxi to nearby Fort McHenry and you’re living large.
By land or by sea, Rebecca never passes up a chance to visit the Fort McHenry National Monument. “When the weather’s nice, you’ll find locals jogging and biking around the waterfront path or picnicking on the lawn, which can be accessed without paying park admission,” she says.
Best Live Music Venue
Both Jill and Rebecca picked Ottobar as the place to catch cool bands. It’s a bi-level indie club with the right amount of street cred to attract national acts. “The 40-plus demo can sit in the balcony while the young and young at heart stand and drink cheap beer,” Jill says. Most recently, she saw the Sun Ra Arkestra. Her hero Cheetah Chrome, formally of the Dead Boys, also plays there.
Rebecca loves how intimate a venue Ottobar is, and has caught touring artists like Kurt Vile and Sharon Van Etten, as well as Baltimore-born bands making stops in their hometown, like Lower Dens and Future Islands.
Best Spot for Fancy Dining
Jill gets her fancy on at The Ambassador Dining Room, where the Indian food and ambiance are worthy of Henry VIII. “It’s got dining room in its name and is housed in a Tudor-style building,” she says. “Get a table near the fireplace and prepare to eat your tikka masala and be waited on hand and foot.”
Rebecca’s stand-by special occasion dinner spot is Woodberry Kitchen, home to James Beard award-winning chef Spike Gjerde; her favorite newcomer is Rye Street Tavern, the restaurant at the Sagamore Rye Distillery in Port Covington.
Best Spot for Cheap and Greasy Dining
The Dizz may not be everyone’s idea of cheap and greasy, but it does it for Jill. The iconic restaurant and bar are in the hipper-than-thou Remington neighborhood. The burgers are thick and juicy, and the curly fries are to die for. “I love the upstairs, which is strung with Christmas lights year-round,” she says. “The waitresses unselfconsciously call you ‘hon’ and can’t wait to re-fill your big, red plastic cup of soda.”
Rebecca heads to her local diner, the Paper Moon, for big servings of breakfast dishes ranging from classic to creative. You can’t miss this quirky spot that has been in Remington since the 1990s: “The restaurant itself is a work of art.”
Best Crab Cake Restaurant
Captain James Seafood Palace looks like a ship. “It’s like the Love Boat of seafood; stuck in the 1980s and full of nets and other nautical accouterments,” Jill says. The crab cakes are big and seasoned well. Don’t skimp on the Old Bay seasoning.
For a great crab cake and local character, Rebecca heads to Dudas Tavern in Fells Point. For something a bit more upscale, she walks a few blocks from there to Thames Street Oyster House.
Local Team to Root For
Jill is an O’s girl. “Camden Yards is the best stadium in the country, and even though the Orioles are probably going to have another losing season, it won’t deter me from going out to the ballpark,” she says. While she doesn’t hate the Washington Redskins, the less said, the better.
“While I’m not a big sports fan, I’ve definitely become an Orioles fan from my time living in Federal Hill,” Rebecca adds. “We’re spoiled in Baltimore with one of the nation’s most beautiful ballparks in Camden Yards.”
Best Place to Nerd Out At
The George Peabody Library is a 19th century “cathedral of books” that will wow everyone from hardcore book nuts to the Kindle set, Jill says. The five-story atrium is lined with rare books, ornate iron work and soaring columns. Be on the lookout for free events, including exciting concerts. And keep your voice down…it’s a library.
“Just last weekend, I found myself with some time to kill and ended up at the (free admission) Walters Art Museum,” admits Rebecca, “where I was engrossed with the truly impressive collection of ancient Greek art — think pottery dating back to the 6th and 7th century B.C.”
For something quirkier, Rebecca suggests independent bookstore Atomic Books in Hampden, known for its collection of graphic novels and for being the mailing location for cult director John Waters’ fan mail.
Best Cup of Joe
Artifact Coffee perks up Jill. It’s a farm-to-table setting featuring “homemade masala chai and cappuccinos made by artful baristas who wouldn’t be caught dead making a triple vente, double pump no-fat, salted caramel calorie bomb.”
When Rebecca wants high-end coffee (think ice coffees mixed like a cocktail) she heads to Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Mount Vernon or Harborpoint. The local roastery is based in Annapolis.
Jill tipples at The Bluebird Cocktail Room, an eclectic upstairs lounge where the seasonal cocktails are meant to be sipped and savored. This spring’s special is the Chrysanthemum No. 2, a smooth operator of a drink that mixes dry vermouth with Yellow Chartreuse.
At Happy Hour, also look for Rebecca turning the pages of the seasonal menu at Hampden’s Bluebird Cocktail Room, where the creative cocktails are mostly made with local spirits.
Best Spot for Local Art
A great place to see new and established artists is The Alchemy of Art, which hosts monthly open receptions. Jill says the gallery is decidedly unstuffy, nor does it have that “just out of art school” shabby-chic vibe. Bonus: The first floor is a converted convent.
Rebecca’s favorite art museum in Baltimore is the American Visionary Art Museum, which showcases self-taught, intuitive artists from all over.
Another must-visit is America’s largest free arts festival, Artscape, which takes over the city each year in July.
Best Event for Meeting Locals
The Sunday Farmers Market & Bazaar under the Jones Falls Expressway is always a great place to see all of Baltimore turn out to buy food, art and clothes.
Rebecca also gives the Sunday Farmers Market a thumbs-up, as well as other free outdoor festivals like the WTMD First Thursday Festival held at Canton Waterfront Park during the summer, and outdoor movie screenings at the American Visionary Arts Museum Flicks From the Hill.
Best Place for Families
Especially if kids are involved, duckpin bowling at the Patterson Bowling Center is a crowd pleaser. It’s believed that the sport — which involves smaller balls with no finger holes, and three rolls per frame — began in Baltimore around 1900.
When Rebecca’s family visits, they eat and drink their way through the city’s most historic neighborhoods, like Fells Point and Mount Vernon.
What to Buy Before Heading Home
Bring home anything from a postcard to a print from the Robert McClintock Gallery in Fells Point, Jill advises. McClintock is one of Baltimore’s best-known digital artists, and has been photographing Baltimore for years. His prints of the Domino Sugars and Natty Boh beer signs are excellent Baltimore keepsakes that won’t look cheesy once you bring them home.
Speaking of beer, Rebecca heartily recommends picking up a few bottles of the local craft variety.
Why Baltimore is Objectively the Best City on Planet Earth
“Baltimore never, ever takes itself too seriously,” Jill assesses. “You can run into John Waters at a bus stop, take in an indie movie at the newly-renovated Parkway Theatre, eat homemade grits at the Station Arts North Café and guzzle a Natty Boh as a night cap—all for under $30.”
"Baltimore is real — sometimes too real (re: The Wire),” she adds. “It may not dazzle, but Charm City is charming in a very Baltimore way, hon.”
“I love Baltimore for its many distinct neighborhoods, because each one has a different vibe and experiences to offer, from the upscale shopping of Harbor East to the historic homes of Fells Point,” Rebecca concludes.