WHERE: Mount Vernon in Baltimore.
WHY: Fair-trade coffee, Afghani pudding and a tribute to America's founding father -- all in one neighborhood.
HOW FAR: 45 miles, or an hour from downtown Washington.
A slew of cities light trees for the holidays. Charm City goes a bit further -- setting alight 1,200 white bulbs on its 175-foot Washington Monument. On Thursday, 5,000-plus people will bundle up and clasp their mittens around cups of hot cider while watching the annual lighting in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. Four areas spoke out from the monument to George Washington. To the west is ground central, with a stage, live choral music, and food and crafts booths. The other sides are equally tricked out with holiday bling such as wreaths and greens but are less crowded -- perfect for setting up lawn chairs.
As the sky turns dark, Mayor Martin O'Malley and a celebrity guest -- Baltimore's own John Waters! -- will throw a switch that sets the marble tower aglow, marking the 34th year of the city's tradition. In 1810, denizens established a lottery to raise money to build the Washington Monument. It took almost 20 years to realize their dream. The monument brought panache to this formerly rural area, and stately mansions and elegant townhouses began popping up, making this one of the Gilded Age's most sought-after addresses.
Today, Mount Vernon is an uber-urban corner of town, known for its cultural institutions, such as the Pratt Library, Centerstage and the Contemporary Museum. If you want to make a day of exploring the area, start on Charles Street, where Dreamland has racks of cool vintage clothes. Think sunny Doris Day-era dresses packed with crinoline. Not far away, radical literature and free-flowing ideas abound at Red Emma's, where the coffee is almost as strong as the viewpoints. And on Howard Street, you'll find high-end antique shops peddling all things elegant: Regency tables, sterling and hefty Waterford chandeliers.
After the monument lighting, you can stroll over to the Helmand, an Afghani restaurant owned by the brother of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president. Try the pan-fried pumpkin with a garlicky yogurt sauce to start, and don't skip dessert: You'll fall for the feereny, an egg-less pudding.
When you step outside, look to the top of the monument, where Washington's statue surveys this neighborhood and takes in this very American cacophony of cultures.
Washington Monument, Mount Vernon Place, 600 block of North Charles Street, Baltimore, 410-244-1030, www.godowntownbaltimore.com. Entertainment begins at 5 p.m. with the lighting ceremony at 6 p.m., followed by fireworks. Admission is free, and so is hot cider at the Walters Art Museum.
Road Trip maps are available online at www.washingtonpost.com/roadtrip, as are addresses and hours of operation (be sure to check before you go). Have an idea for a trip? E-mail email@example.com.