College students Maya Wells, left and Christina Pinder sit on a bench on Federal Hill Park facing the Inner Harbor. (Leah L. Jones/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Forget about Washington. Ask Baltimoreans about the benefits of Baltimore, and many will tell you that it’s the best place to live




That’s what 27-year-old Ken Wong told me when he was cutting my hair the other morning (and doing so for less than any salon I’ve tried in DC).

Yes, Washington’s got great museums on the mall and a better metro, says Ken, who’s tended to women’s hair in both cities. But Baltimore is the better place to be.

Ken’s got a point. And even though Baltimore is not the Nation’s Capital, it has its share of mall-like landmarks: It has an older and more architecturally interesting Washington Monument than Washington; Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner after witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry; and the Enoch Pratt is one of the country’s oldest free public library systems.

But all in all, Baltimore’s not a Very Important Place — which is just what its residents like about it. People go to Washington for opportunity; when they come to Baltimore they find community. The one’s about work, while the other’s about life. And not la-di-da Georgetown-style life.

Baltimore is Charm City because its neighborhoods exude a grubby kind of charm. You’d never find a Pigtown, a Dickeyville or even a Hampden in Washington. And Baltimore’s real estate is way cheaper. I had dinner last week with friends not far from the locovore mecca, Woodberry Kitchen, and their apartment is more than twice as big and cost about $100,000 less than a condo I bought on Capitol Hill.

Washington’s streets have protests about policies and things we all know we ought to care about, but Baltimore has Artscape (America’s “largest free arts festival”), the Hon Fest (a beehive and spikey specs celebration of “the working-women of Baltimore”), the Lantern Parade (including $5 workshops on how to make a day-of-the-dead altar) and the Kinetic Sculpture Race (a crazy contest between custom-built, human-powered amphibious works of art).

That last is the inspiration of the Visionary Art Museum— a one-of-a kind showcase for art by the self-taught, many of whom never imagined that what they were doing was actually creating Art.

Now, how un-Washington is that?

Talking of art, Baltimore boasts the Cone sisters, the Creative Alliance and painted screens.

Sports? Take Babe Ruth, Johnny Unitas and Cal Ripken-- who finished his career at Camden Yards, a ballpark that leaves the Nationals’ new stadium out of the picture. Baltimore’s also home of the Preakness, one of the big three races.

Want food? There’s Rocket to Venus, the Helmand as well as a couple of other eateries owned by Hamid Karzai’s relatives; Charm City has Ostrowski’s polish sausage, Berger cookies and better crab houses

Now it’s true that both cities have wrestled with wretched homicide rates. But Baltimore successfully created fiction from its fatalities in “The Wire.”

And if you’re unlucky enough to face the reality of violent crime, the Johns Hopkins Hospital (ranked No. 1 by U.S. News for two decades) and the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center probably make Baltimore the better place to get shot.

If things get dicey and you really want to get outta town, Baltimore is an easy place to leave — which is something to remember, since the average Washington-area driver spends S-E-V-E-N-T-Y hours a year idling in traffic according to a recent report, making Washington one of the two worst cities in the country for congestion.

A scenic 20-minute drive to the north of Baltimore is some of the finest countryside on the East Coast, good for hiking and other outdoor activities, some involving horses. And believe me, Virginia’s glitzy Gold Cup is nothing compared with the equine antics of the Maryland Hunt Cup — one of a trifecta of timber races run every spring. You can even watch some Sunday afternoon polo out there. And none of it is the least bit pompous or fussy, says my friend Christopher who moved to Baltimore County to raise his family.

What Christopher means is, it’s not the kind of place you’d find a Salahi. Baltimore just doesn’t have what it takes to appeal to people like that, he says.

It’s not that I don't see what Washington has to offer. After doing the daily commute from Baltimore for some 15 years, I have that condo on the Hill and I’m learning to love DC. But the truth is, I bought the apartment because of my work. You see, beyond the museums and the Metro, there is one thing that Washington has to be proud of. As befits a Very Important Place, it has a better newspaper than Baltimore.