Inner Harbor: Tourists, chains, crowds and a few top attractions

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor draws millions of visitors a year, but the place can feel like a dizzying hodgepodge of chain restaurants (Bubba Gump, anyone?), long lines and pricey souvenirs. If it’s a must-do for you, skip the shopping and the dining, and be selective about your destinations.

The National Aquarium, which receives about 1.3 million visitors yearly, is the jewel in the Inner Harbor’s crown. It’s well worth visiting, with planning. Timed tickets — which should be bought at least a few days in advance — help visitors avoid long lines, and they allow time to enjoy the tropical rainforest and see sharks up close. Try to visit on weekdays or go later in the day. Or take one of the many tours, such as the daily behind-the-scenes reef tour or the weekends-only tour of the animal care and rescue center.

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Another worthy tour site is the USS Constellation, a 19th-century Navy sloop-of-war that captured slave ships off the coast of Africa during efforts to stop the Atlantic slave trade. If you want to captain your own ship, rent one of the Chessie Dragon paddle boats, shaped like bright green and purple dragons, or the electric-powered miniature pirate ships.

On a more somber note, Inner Harbor is also the site of the memorial dedicated to the 69 Marylanders who died in the 9/11 attacks. The memorial includes three long, twisted columns from New York’s twin towers.

Location: The approximate boundaries of the Inner Harbor are President Street to the east, Lombard Street to the north, Greene Street to the west and Key Highway to the south.

Fells Point: A historic neighborhood with character to spare

For a more authentic sense of Baltimore’s historic roots, however, you should board a water taxi and head to the colonial-era maritime neighborhood of Fells Point, just a mile or so east of the Inner Harbor crowds.

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Wander cobblestoned streets and take in the charming rowhouses. Fells Point is the site of the Robert Long House, built in 1765 and said to be the oldest known surviving home in the city of Baltimore. (With a reservation, tour the first floor.) Next, say hello to a giant bronze likeness of Frederick Douglass, who as an enslaved young man worked in the shipyard at Fells Point docks. Inside a nearby brick building, a small museum’s exhibits celebrate Douglass and Isaac Myers, a free African American who was influential in the 19th-century labor movement.

Fells Point also hosts an ongoing series of community-friendly events. Each week from May through December, there’s a Saturday farmers market, and an annual favorite is the Christmas eggnog-tasting contest (Dec. 7 this year).

Fells Point abounds with tasty local food. Grab lunch — maybe fried calamari at Sal & Sons Seafood or a pierogi at Sophia’s Place — at the newly reopened Broadway Market. Or try a nearby hidden gem, Papi’s Tacos. The shopping also features more fun and quirky places, including antiques shops and imaginative home-goods stores.

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Check out the new Sagamore Pendry Baltimore hotel in a beautifully refurbished Beaux-Arts warehouse. Consider grabbing a drink at the outdoor poolside bar overlooking the harbor, where you can sip a Monument City Penchant Pilsener ($7) and watch the Urban Pirates’ boats, water taxis and pleasure yachts bob along. In cooler weather, grab a window-side table at the Rec Pier Chop House for similar views.

Location: Fells Points is bounded by the waterfront to the south, Aliceanna Street to the north, Dallas Street to the west and Wolfe Street to the east.

Bruno is a writer based in Washington. Her website is debrabruno.com. Find her on Twitter: @brunodebbie.

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