A FRENCHMAN (Pierre L’Enfant) designed D.C.’s avenues and circles to mimic Paris. But the most old-school European patch of the mid-Atlantic may be Baltimore’s Mount Vernon, a townhouse-lined zone filled with so many statues, historic buildings and cobblestones that it often stands in for the City of Light in costume dramas.

Storied institutions such as the Peabody and the Walters Art Museum established the downtown ‘hood as the city’s cultural center in the 19th century. But the area isn’t just for history buffs and architecture fiends: Its eclectic restaurant scene and boutiques mean it’s loaded with modern pleasures, too.

Start at the MARC Train’s Penn Station, a short trot north of the area’s nexus. “Walking this area is a way of going back in time,” says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters. “Mount Vernon is a wonderful flying ember of 19th-century upper-class living. If cars weren’t parked here, I can imagine horses and me dressed in a top hat.”

From the MARC Station, the Station North District’s theaters and galleries cluster around the indie Charles Theatre movie house, while Mount Vernon stretches south along North Charles Street.

Swing by City Cafe (1001 Cathedral St.) a hip local hangout that’s half coffee house, half mod bistro. Large corner windows hark back to the building’s former life as a 1920s auto showroom; now you can fuel up with a cappuccino or a bakery treat. To sate your inner history geek, go down Cathedral to the Maryland Historical Society (201 W. Monument St.) to peek at Francis Scott Key‘s first draft of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

For a dose of free, open-air history, just stroll around the area and gawk at the architectural eye candy, in particular the stooped Victorian mansions radiating from Mount Vernon Place. Many were built for the upper crust in the 1830s, when fashionable folks flocked to the area after the 1827 chartering of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. “People wanted to get in on this new technology and became fabulously wealthy,” says Lisa Keir, spokeswoman for the Maryland Humanities Council.

The area’s moneybags were also do-gooders who heaped cash into establishing a core class of cultural institutions such as the Walters Art Museum (600 N. Charles St.). Think of it as B-more’s mini-Louvre (but free!), crammed with 55 centuries’ worth of artwork, including a second-century Roman sarcophagus said to look like Elvis. Down the street, the Contemporary Museum (100 W. Centre St.) counters with modern exhibits.

No Parisian promenade would be complete without a crêpe. Mount Vernon’s version: Darling Sofi’s Crêpes (333 N. Charles St.) just around the corner from the Women’s Industrial Exchange, a shop selling handmade sock monkeys, kid’s clothes and beaded jewelry whose profits support disadvantaged women.

After feasting and shopping, stroll the manicured pockets of green space hugging the nearby Washington Monument, Mount Vernon’s take on the Eiffel Tower, both in role as icon and in-the-clouds cityscape vantage point if you’re up for the winding 228-step vertical trek to the terrace.

From the ground level or a window on high, marvel at the square’s Gothic Mount
Vernon Place United Methodist Church
(10 E. Mount Vernon Place) with a rose window much like the one you’d find at Notre Dame. For another wormhole to a bygone era, slip into the 1878 George Peabody Library (17 E. Mount Vernon Place) with its cast-iron balconies and stacks of hard-covered tomes.

A couple blocks east, underground Red Emma (800 St. Paul St.) fills a void as Left Bank-esque bookshop collective and vegetarian cafe. Peruse the stash of radical literature and zines, split in sections by you’re-not-in-D.C. topics such as anarchy and Marxism/communism. Dissident fashion rules at the Doll House (525 N. Charles St.; 443-874-7900), where edgy offerings of local designers share space with slashed-price couture.

Come happy hour, hightail it to Brewer’s Art (1106 N. Charles St.) and order a $3.25 pint of the flavor-rich Resurrection Ale. For dinner, The Helmand (806 N. Charles St.; 410-752-0311) is a white-tableclothed Afghan restaurant owned by Hamid Karzai‘s brother.

For a nightcap that marries Paris and Mount Vernon elegance, end your jaunt at the Belvedere Hotel‘s tucked-away Owl Bar (1 E. Chase St.), a brick-walled den and ex-speakeasy where F. Scott Fitzgerald often drank. Toast to Mount Vernon, Baltimore’s side of paradise.

Written by Express’ Katie Knorovsky
Photo by Marge Ely/Express