Downtown Baltimore is Baltimore's central business district and seat of the city government. While home to some iconic Baltimore architecture, and the city's economic heart, visitors, and even locals, tend to keep their distance from this often seedy and decidedly unloved city center, unless they are going to the Baltimore Arena, the Hippodrome Theatre, or visiting Poe's grave at Westminster Hall. Don't make the all-too-frequent mistake of skipping (or fearing) Lexington Market, though, which can be an easy highlight of a visit to the city—on a hungry stomach!
Downtown is nothing if not easy to get to, being just north of the Inner Harbor, off I-395, and on all major public transportation routes.
There are many parking garages downtown, with an especially convenient one just north of Lexington Market on N Paca St. Coming in from I-95, take exit #53 for I-395, which will dump you on northbound Howard St, straight through Downtown. The B-W Pkwy will terminate on the even more useful Paca St. If coming from the north on I-83, take the right turn for Fayette St.
By light rail
The light rail has two very handy stops at Lexington St (for Lexington Market), and Baltimore St (for the Baltimore Arena and Hippodrome Theatre).
Yes, even the rarely used Metro has a few good stops downtown: Lexington Market, Charles Center, and Shot Tower Station.
With the convenience of the light rail, it's unlikely that you would want to catch a slow, semi-reliable local bus, but #7 would take you down Greene St from Lexington Market through the Inner Harbor, on to Fells Point and then on to Canton. If you are going to Federal Hill, or further to Fort McHenry, Bus #1 picks up at Baltimore St & Paca St. The Circulator's Orange route will also traverse Baltimore St eastbound to Fells Point, and its Purple route runs up Charles St through Midtown to Penn Station.
Cognac, roses, and shadowy figures
For 75 years, the famous Poe Toaster, hooded and clothed in black, would slip into the Westminster graveyard on 19 January to leave Edgar Allen Poe a birthday toast of a half bottle of cognac, three roses arranged in a still secret pattern, left at the original grave. Starting in the 1930s, the tradition continued unbroken until 2009, the bicentennial of America's most famous horror writer's birth, when the toasts ended as mysteriously and quietly as they had always been. Several impostors have attempted to revive the tradition, but their clumsy attempts at stealth and ignorance of the signature floral arrangement have given them away. The legend lives on, though, in current works of crime and occult fiction, such as crime novel In a Strange City by Laura Lippman, and the Washington Audio Theater audio play The Poe Toaster Not Cometh.
- Battle Monument, 112 Calvert St (approximately). Far less known than the Monumental City's other memorials, but no lesser in size, is the Battle Monument in the median across from the Baltimore Circuit Courts. Dedicated to the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, it stands on an Egyptian tomb-like base, with Baltimore's fallen soldiers' names engraved. Lady Baltimore stands atop the column, bearing a wreath of victory. It is the oldest structure in this part of the city.
- Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, 21 S Eutaw St, ☎ . This beautiful old landmark clocktower dates to 1911. Recently vacant, the city in 2007 converted the building to artist studios, in addition to a fire station at the bottom. Visitors can come in during the monthly open house, usually held on the first Saturday of March (check ahead to be sure). The Bromo Shop is currently closed indefinitely.
- City Hall, 100 N Holliday St, ☎ . M-F 8AM-4:30PM. A beautiful, huge post-Civil War Baroque Revival building and major city landmark, the seat of the city government is partially open for visitors, who can stop by to see exhibits on Baltimore art and history (but mostly to gawk at the architecture). Free.
- Enoch Pratt Central Library, 400 Cathedral St, ☎ , e-mail: SLRC@prattlibrary.org. M-W 10AM-8PM, Th 10AM-5:30PM, F-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 1PM-5PM. An excellent free library with a one-of-a-kind archive of rare books and documents, including many related to Edgar Allan Poe and H.L. Mencken, and an extensive 16mm film collection including many avant garde rarities. The children's department has a goldfish pond.
- Mother Seton House, 600 N Paca St, ☎ . M-F noon-3:30PM, Sa-Su 1PM-3PM (calling ahead is recommended). A small house museum of America's first native-born saint, beatified by the Vatican for her relief work and founding of Catholic schools, and for three miraculous cures performed towards the end of her life.
- National Museum of Dentistry, 31 S Greene St, ☎ . W-Sa 10AM-4PM, Su 1PM-4PM. Almost humorously clean, this is an unusual tourist destination, even by Baltimore standards. The collection is decidedly weird, including the first toothbrush in space, historical dental equipment and exhibits on old (and unpleasant!) procedures, and even George Washington's not-exactly-wooden dentures! Best for those who have a professional interest in dentistry, parents who want to get their kids to see (or be scared into seeing) just how good they actually have it in modern dentistry, or for grizzled veteran tourists who have lost all interest in traditional attractions. $7 adults, $5 seniors, $3 children under 13.
- Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, 519 W Fayette St, ☎ . 8AM-dusk. This early nineteenth century church is a most atmospheric and tortuous place of famous Baltimore residents including, most famously, Edgar Allan Poe, as well as James McHenry (signer of the U.S. Constitution), Samuel Smith, former city mayors, and others. Halloween is the city's favorite time to visit, but any midnight dreary would be most appropriate (although this would involve an attempt of questionable legality to slip past the gates). It is custom to leave a penny behind his grave marker, which in turn pays for its upkeep! There are tours, but they are subect to availability: F 6:30PM, Sa 10AM April–November, minimum fifteen people, with reservations required, $5. Private tours are always an option, but must be set up at least two weeks in advance, and fees will vary. Free.
The big downtown performance venues are the Baltimore Arena and the Hippodrome, but check Current Gallery's website (see #Buy) for some more off-the-wall DIY-ish performances too.
- Baltimore Arena (1st Mariner Arena), 201 W Baltimore St, ☎ . Baltimore city's largest indoor venue is host to frequent sporting and other major performances. It's an old clunker, and they're looking to replace it, but it's still fine to bring your family here.
- Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N Eutaw St, ☎ . This is a beautiful 1914, former vaudeville and early movie theater. It is the biggest performing arts venue downtown, and hosts frequent Broadway productions.
- Current Gallery, 421 N Howard St, ☎ . Sa-Su noon-4PM. Current Gallery is a neat place to see and perhaps purchase some local artists' work, but its best reputation (among locals) is as a DIY indie music venue by night. Check local listings and their website to find out what's going on.
- Sonar Baltimore, 407 E Saratoga St, ☎ . Live music venue with independent, eclectic, and usually very fun acts almost every night. It's a stinking dive, but the drinks are strong, and it's a true city institution with some soul (damned though it may be).
- Dimensions in Music, 233 Park Ave, ☎ . This is Baltimore's premiere record store for vinyl heads, with a huge, disorganized, three storey collection of Baltimore club, other techno, hip-hop, and soul. Staff are helpful in navigating the massive squeeze.
- Guss Woolen, 229 Park Ave, ☎ . M-F 9AM-3PM, Sa 9AM-2PM, Su 11AM-3PM. A 90 year old fabric store for men and women, with a full two floors and very low prices.
- Samuelson's Diamonds, 426 W Baltimore St, ☎ . Tu-F 10AM-5PM, Sa-Su 10AM-4PM. The City Paper gives Samuelson's, another venerable family-run Baltimore shop, the nod for best place in the city to buy an engagement ring.
Baltimore's Downtown business and government district is honestly kind of run down. Crime at night is higher than it should be. Accordingly, high end restaurants are completely missing, and the options are dominated by cheap, quick lunch-focused cafes—you'll need to go north to Midtown or south to the Inner Harbor for a nicer meal. Alewife would be the closest thing to a more fancy spot, and is a great choice for a night at the Hippodrome.
Lexington Market, on the other hand, is honestly a can't miss for anyone with a real interest in Baltimore, as it has several of the best places in the city for some true Baltimore cuisine, as well as history and local color. Don't let the seedy looking surroundings scare you, as you'll be perfectly safe during the day.
- Bouillabaise, 316 Park Ave, ☎ . M-Sa 10AM-7PM. While, somewhat strangely, they do not serve bouillabaise here, the fresh-made soups and big sandwiches are a good reason to come. It's just across the street from Enoch Pratt Library, and is cheap! $3.50-8.
- Dollar Fast Food, 404 W Saratoga St, ☎ . M-Sa 8AM-11PM, Su 8AM-6PM. This place is worth a mention just as a novelty (if not a real recommendation). Everything is one dollar! It actually claims the largest dollar menu in the world. Dollar stores make way for dollar restaurants. Colorful clientele. True Baltimore. $1!.
- Hollywood Diner, 400 E Saratoga St, ☎ . The Hollywood Diner is closed as of March 2012, as it looks for a new operator, but it is one of Baltimore's most famous culinary landmarks. A classic American diner, it served as the filming location for Barry Levinson's Diner, and has made appearances in both Homicide and The Wire.
- Lexington Market, 400 W Lexington St (Entrances at intersection of Lexington and Paca or Lexington and Eutaw; within a couple blocks of Lexington Market light rail or metro stops), ☎ . M-Sa 8:30AM-6PM, Su closed. Lexington Market is the world's largest and longest running market, operating in the same spot since 1782. It has many eateries and countless stands selling produce, meat, fish, snacks and everything else imaginable. It is a popular lunchtime destination and is considered to be part of the "real" Baltimore rather than the more tourist-oriented places at Inner Harbor. There are standing tables in an open area on the ground floor, as well as a large seating area on the upper level above that
- If you are looking for a deep Baltimore culinary experience, head to standing-room-only Faidley's, where you can get your coddies, some of the world's most acclaimed jumbo lump crab cakes, and even local artifacts like terrapin, raccoon, and muskrat! (Those artifacts are available only seasonally, and only to take home to cook.)
- The best dessert in Lexington Market, if not all of Baltimore, are Bergers Cookies. These sugar cookies hidden under a ridiculous amount of chocolate fudge frosting are sold by the pound from the Berger Bakery stall.
- The Roost, 217 E. Baltimore St, ☎ . M-Th 11AM-9PM, F-Sa 11AM-11:30PM, Su Noon-9PM. Considered one of the best places to get Baltimore's lake trout sandwiches, along with other southern-style cuisine. This is the second location of the West Baltimore institution, opening in Downtown to be better accessible to tourists and businesspeople. $5-$15.
- Tabor Ethiopian Restaurant, 225 W Mullberry St, ☎ . 11AM-9PM daily. Nice atmosphere, great prices, and tasty Ethiopian food downtown. For Ethiopian in Baltimore, it's a toss up between this place and Dukem in Midtown. $7-11.
- Trinacria Macaroni Works, 406 N Paca St, ☎ . Tu-Sa 8AM-4PM. An excellent and easily overlooked Italian grocer and deli, passionately beloved by locals for the high quality meats, cheeses, olive oil, pastas, and wine selection—all with very reasonable prices. While the store might not be of much interest to travelers, the sandwiches at the deli most certainly are. Try the prosciutto, mozzarella and pesto, the Italian roast beef, the muffaletta, or really anything. This easily belongs on any Best of Baltimore survey. $4-7.
- Zhongshan Restaurant, 323 Park Ave, ☎ . Tu-F 5:30PM-9:30PM, Sa-Su 12:30PM-9:30PM. About the only relic of Baltimore's old Park Ave Chinatown is a... brand new dim sum restaurant. There are plenty of Americanized dishes on the menu, but enough authentic ones to make this Baltimore's real Chinese restaurant. $7-22.
- Alewife, 21 N Eutaw St, ☎ . M-Th,Su 11:30AM-1AM, F-Sa 11:30AM-2AM. Gastropub isn't really a well known term in Baltimore, but Alewife fits the bill with a very attractive space and upscale bar food, e.g., duck fat fries, brioche grilled cheese, etc. It's right by the Hippodrome, so make reservations if there is a performance that night. $16-35.
- Mekong Delta Cafe, 105 W Saratoga St, ☎ . Su-Th 10AM-10PM, F-Sa 10AM-10:30PM. Delicious Vietnamese food in one of Downtown's best reasons for a foodie visit. Mekong Delta is a bit more upscale than most Vietnamese restaurants in the D.C.-Baltimore metro area (but still very much casual), and the portions are a bit smaller and more thoughtful. The pho, in particular, is absolutely delicious, and an interesting change of pace from the endless sea of numbered pho places in Maryland. The small staff is exceptionally friendly and enthusiastic in answering questions, providing recommendations, and generally making sure you leave with a great impression. $10-18.
- Mem Sahib Indian Restaurant, 400 W Lexington St, ☎ . Lunch: M-F 11:30AM-2:30PM, dinner: Tu-Sa 6PM-8PM. Right by Lexington Market (and feeling a bit out of place in the run down area around the market), Mem Sahib serves up a fine Indian meal. The lunch buffet gets extremely busy with downtown workers with few other nice options; reservations recommended for dinner. $14-22, $9 lunch buffet.
Downtown nightlife suffers from the same plight of nice restaurants—no one really likes being downtown after dark, unless for a performance or game at the Hippodrome or Baltimore Arena. Options are few, unless you are looking for the packed, neon-soaked row of strip clubs on The Block: E Baltimore St between Holliday/Commerce St and Gay St. The infamous block began as a premiere destination for burlesque shows in the early twentieth century, but by the mid-century had transformed into a seedy stretch of low-rent strip clubs and sex shops. This, ah, turned on the criminal element to the locale, introducing drugs and violence. The city has never successfully shut down the craziness, but instead put the new Baltimore Police Department Headquarters right next door, which has helped reduce violent crime on The Block in a big way. The strip clubs are getting a little less seedy too. If this is your thing, Norma Jean's would be the most upscale.
- Downtown Sports Exchange, 102 N Liberty St, ☎ . It's not the most memorable sports bar/pub of all time, but a perfectly acceptable downtown location for watching the game. It may be the only one, as a matter of fact! Cheap beer and bar food—much cheaper than places near the ballparks or the Harbor.
- Select Lounge, 415 N Paca St, ☎ . Th-Sa 5PM-2AM. One of Baltimore's classier and sexier clubs (more of a lounge, really), despite the somewhat worrisome neighborhood surrounding. The dress code is fairly strict, so leave sneakers at home, and come looking nice. DJs mostly spin hip-hop. Covers up to $20.
- Sidebar Tavern, 218 E Lexington St, ☎ . Shows start 9-9:30PM. The last great punk/hardcore venue downtown, almost always 18+ for shows. The bookings remain very solid, the patrons weird, the venue appropriately dingy, and the Natty Boh dirt cheap.
- Hostelling International Baltimore, 17 W Mulberry St, ☎ , fax: +1 410 230-4590, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 3PM to 11PM, check-out: 11AM. 49 bed hostel located two blocks south of the Washington Monument just off of Charles Street. Voted third best hostel in North America HOSCARS 2008. Free breakfast, WiFi, and events. Full use kitchen, dining room, large parlor with free books and grand piano, TV room with cable and lots of movies, laundry, back deck and patio. Lots of information about the city and friendly staff. Private rooms available. Beds start at $22 per night.
- Quality Inn Downtown, 110 Saint Paul St, ☎ , fax: +1 410 230-4590, e-mail: email@example.com. Free breakfast and fitness center. $50+.
- Home2 Suites, 8 E Pleasant St, ☎ . A modern, extended stay hotel located near Mercy Hospital and the Inner Harbor. Hilton's newest hotel brand. $110-180.
- Sheraton Baltimore City Center, 101 W Fayette St, ☎ , fax: +1 410 752-0832. Another option right in the center of the business district, directly across from the Baltimore Arena and 2.5 blocks from the Baltimore Convention Center.
- SpringHill Suites, 120 E Redwood St, ☎ . Suites with microwave, mini-fridge, large work area, free internet, flat screen TV. Guests have access to lobby bar, self-coin-operated laundry, free hot breakfast, and fitness center. $170-230.
- Tremont Plaza Hotel, 222 St Paul Pl, ☎ . This 37-story all-suite hotel is 1 block from Charles Street; the Inner Harbor is within 8 blocks. The Tremont Plaza also has five on-site restaurants.
- Hotel Monaco, 2 North Charles St, ☎ . A Kimpton property with a ton of local and historical character—located in the historic B&O Railroad building. This is easily one of the classiest hotel options in the city. $190-350.
Short on coffeeshops, you'll want to head to Enoch Pratt Library, dodging the crowds of homeless inside, to either use the public terminals or free WiFi.
Sadly, Downtown is one of those parts of Baltimore that is not safe by any standards. Sandwiched between pleasant Midtown and the tourist hub of the Inner Harbor, housing the principal businesses in the city and a major university, this should not be the case, but it's Baltimore, folks. Don't run in fear and cowardice—definitely check out Lexington Market, see Poe's Grave, attend a performance at the Hippodrome, or a game at the Baltimore Arena, and bring your family, but be safe. Minimize walking, avoid lonely streets, and park in a well lit area, with no valuables (or really anything) visible.