You've been to an O's game. You've done the aquarium and the Inner Harbor (and done it and done it and done it). Does that mean you've exhausted Baltimore's potential as a getaway? Not a bit. As partisans of our I-95 neighbor have long insisted, there is good life beyond Camden Yards and the Cheesecake Factory. Baltimore -- as filmmakers John Waters and Barry Levinson keep telling us -- is a hairspray and hamburger kind of town, with a genius for the offbeat and a taste for camp. In short, a perfect escape from oh-so-serious Washington. Info: Baltimore Convention and Visitors Association, 877-225-8466, www.baltimore.org.
-- Steve Hendrix
Fells Point, the trendy Colonial-era neighborhood on the harbor, is a fun base of operations on a visit to Baltimore.
(Juana Arias - The Washington Post)
1. HAMPDEN. As Baltimore -- even Baltimore! -- gentrifies under the bland weight of corporatized stadiums and franchised harbors, here is a neighborhood that still celebrates the bouffant and grilled-cheese charms of Charm City. For a few blocks along "the Avenue" (West 36th Avenue, between Falls Road and Beech Avenue), it's forever 1965. Follow your meatloaf sandwich from Cafe Hon (home of the beehive 'do) with some literate comic book browsing at Atomic Books. And coming in December, Hampden's famous annual billion-light Christmas display along West 34th Street. www.hampdenmerchants.com.
2. LITTLE ITALY. Washington is just a bit too Southern to have any proper ethnic neighborhoods. Not so Baltimore, second only to Ellis Island as a late 19th-century immigration port. You'll get fierce opinions on which of more than 20 restaurants is the best-of-the-moment -- Da Mimmo (217 S. High), Caesar's Den (223 S. High), Chiapparelli's (237 S. High). But there are a few conventional wisdoms: Sabatino's (901 Fawn) is always good for stick-to-the-ribs southern Italian in a Louis Prima atmosphere and Vaccarro's (222 Albemarle) is unbeatable for cannoli and other old-country desserts.
3. PETIT LOUIS. This bistro and wine bar in leafy Roland Park is well worth a detour from the city's downtown diversions. The decor is an art director's Belle Epoque; the food is classic French, from escargot and onion soup to duck confit and crème caramel. Its mood changes through the day, from a casual afternoon treat with pommes frites and a country wine to an evening occasion with cassoulet for two. Entrees from $17 to $22. 4800 Roland Ave., 410-366-9393.
4. PORT DISCOVERY. If your kid has always wanted to jump out of the "boat" and play among the finely staged settings of the Pirates of the Caribbean, here's his chance. Disney "Imagineers" helped create a delightful tomb-raider pyramid setting and other play stations that are -- at least once -- worth the $11-per-adult and $8.50-per-kid sticker shock. Some of the climbing is beyond little kids, and be prepared for sneaky sales pitches and massive weekday school groups. 35 Market Place. 410-727-8120,
5. FORT McHENRY. Even if military history is not your thing, visit on a sunny day and you'll still enjoy the view down the Patapsco River from these 43 waterside acres. Inside the bastions, the story is of that "perilous night" in 1814 when Baltimore remarkably held off the invading British. Within a few months, Francis Scott Key's poem of the battle was fast on its way to becoming the world's most difficult-to-sing national anthem. East Fort Avenue, 410-962-4290, www.nps.gov/fomc.
6. AMERICAN DIME MUSEUM. For some carnival lovers, the fake danger of the roller coaster is nothing to the fake prurience of the sideshow. If you are one who adored the taxidermied pygmy queen, the American Dime Museum will speak to your carny soul. This rowhouse museum is chockablock with huckster oddities, the sort of "Believe It or Not" freak show exhibits that have been titillating the willingly gullible for more than a century. Don't miss the Rangoon Sewer Serpent! The murderer's petrified hand! Step right up! 1808 Maryland Ave., 410-230-0263,www.dimemuseum.com. Wednesday through Friday noon to 3 p.m., weekends noon to 5 p.m. Adults $5, children (7-12) $3.
7. FELLS POINT. There's nothing undiscovered about this Colonial-era neighborhood on the harbor, but it's still a fun base of operations. The worthy Admiral Fell Inn is the cornerstone of the quarter, and its Hamilton's is said to be one of the area's best restaurants. Still, for breakfast it's worth walking across the square to Jimmy's (801 S. Broadway) for a short-order bender. Boutique, antique and specialty shopping holds sway during the day, but at night the neighborhood becomes a pub hub of live music and pool.
8. AMERICAN VISIONARY ART MUSEUM. Here is all the reason you need to visit Ballmer. These are paintings and sculptures not by academy graduates, but by self-taught kooks, compulsives, psychopaths and driven amateurs. And they are, many of them, simply explosive in their power to communicate an individual vision. From matchstick ocean liners to tinfoil altars, the works are sometimes whimsical, sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes just weird. 800 Key Hwy., 410-244-1900, www.avam.org. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Adults $8, students and seniors $6.
9. HELMAND. An Afghan restaurant seems supremely topical these days, of course. But even better is finding one that's interesting on its merits, not just because of the day's headlines. Helmand is both; it's a perennial on Baltimore best-of lists, and it's owned by Qayum Karzai, brother of Afghanistan's head of state, Hamid Karzai. You may have to wait for a table, but the signature sauteed pumpkin alone is worth it and the eggplant will have all those Little Italy chefs gnashing their teeth in jealousy. Entrees range between $8 and $12. 806 N. Charles St., 410-752-0311.
10. MOUNT VERNON NIGHTLIFE. If your designated driver can get you as far as this centrally located, architecturally rich neighborhood, it's not a bad pick for one-stop bar-hopping. After dinner at the Brass Elephant (924 N. Charles), head up the narrow carved stairs to the Tusk Lounge, a calming hideaway with a conversational feel. A few doors up the street is the pretentiously unmarked Red Maple (930 N. Charles), a vanity pageant with an appealing lean decor and inventive "Asian tapas." If you don't meet the CEO of your dreams soon enough, head back down to the Ruby Lounge (802 N. Charles), a more honestly sophisticated jazz bar with local art on the walls.