Stefan Robinson goes off in search of crabs, culture, cool and camp, and finds there’s more to the city on the Chesapeake than The Wire.
The day starts at Miss Shirley’s Café (750 East Pratt Street, missshirleys.com) with a breakfast that would easily qualify as an evening meal. This gargantuan meal includes the two ingredients for which Baltimore is famed: crab, and Old Bay seasoning. Plus all that the US is infamous for: smoke ham and Swiss cheese, sandwiched in savoury French toast, deep fried until crispy, drizzled with creamy honey, mustard and citrus aioli, dusted with powdered sugar.
Time to walk off the 2,000 calories and the stroll takes us round the renovated harbour which, prior to the eighties’ revitalisation, was home to crack, murder and muggings (think The Wire). Now it is a more sedate affair with the 19th-century sloop sailing ship USS Constellation permanently moored and views out across the city and the Chesapeake Bay. We head into the historic Federal Hill district full of narrow row houses that were homes for the industrial workers of the nearby industrial Locust Point. Today it is full of former frat boys and sorority girls making their first steps in post-college life.
We head up East Fort Avenue from Fed Hill and the rest of the morning is spent at national monument and historic shrine Fort McHenry. (2400 East Fort Avenue, nps.gov/fomc). 2012 is the bicentennial of the War of 1812 when the British sailed up the Patapsco River and shelled the Fort on the edge of the city just out of range of the American cannons. It was whilst held as a prisoner on a British ship and watching the bombardment in 1814 that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” which eventually became the US national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner”. The visitor centre with its rolling video of people emoting what flag and anthem mean to them is as sickly sweet as breakfast was but encapsulates perfectly the American spirit and unquestioning patriotism
With breakfast worked off it’s time to refuel and being such a classy queen it’s a slap-up Big Mac Extra Value Meal (large please) from McDonald’s. After a morning of history we change tack and go on the hunt for Baltimore cool.
The next stop is the gaudy, mirror-clad American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway, www.avam.org). The works here are in the main produced by self-taught artists with little or no formal training. This does not diminish from the power of some of the works and for pure camp don’t miss the papier-mâché statue of the late, great Divine on a rotating base!
With the humidity peaking and the temperature tipping 100F it’s time for art of the liquid kind. We hop on the free bus to the cultural district of Mount Vernon with its grand houses, the Peabody Institute, America’s first academy of music (1 East Mount Vernon Place , peabody.jhu.edu) and hipster hangout Brewers Art (1106 North Charles Street Baltimore, www.thebrewersart.com). Upstairs is fine dining but we opt for the dingy, cool cellar with a plethora of beers on tap and brewed on the premises. At 7% the Resurrection made with five types of barley and a tonne of sugar, coupled with generously heaped plates of bar “snacks” including Mac-n-Cheese, crab dip and signature rosemary fries, certainly lifts our spirits and fortifies us for the night ahead.
It’s time to hit the gay scene which is only a short stagger and sashay away. Whilst small in comparison to that of its neighbour, Washington DC (45 minutes by train), it’s absolutely alive and full of energy and minus the snooty pretension big-city bars seem to ooze. We set up base in Grand Central (1001 North Charles Street, centralstationpub.com) which is a traditional bar in the front and big club-style dance floor in the back, with a ladies’ bar, Sappho’s, upstairs. The great thing about a small scene is that there is no room for segmentation. Here you’ll find club kids, preppy types, bears, trannies, younger and older, all out for a good time. A British accent works wonders and everyone will want to talk with you and know your story and if you’re an attention whore like me you will love every minute of it!
Nowhere in the City can sell alcohol past 2am and all the clubs and bars shut at this time. Well, almost all. 1722 on North Charles Street (1722 North Charles Street, (club1722.com), just the wrong side of the tracks past Penn Station, opens at 2am through till 6am. As the only place left to go it attracts everything from the roughest of the rough to the most glamorous of the glam and everything in-between. It’s everything an afterhours should be: seedy, naughty, banging house music but most of all great fun. This hidden gem has a rough reputation but don’t let the more po-faced locals put you off. If you are the hardcore partying type or the anthropological people-watcher you will love it.
Tourist info: Baltimore.org