Lest the gritty and raw footage of The Wire becomes the primary way America's Charm City maintains a reputation, discouraging visitors from venturing far from the Inner Harbor, use this summer to discover a different side to Baltimore. Eschew the overly touristy destinations — Fort McHenry, the National Aquarium — and instead plan your weekend trip around some of the city's lesser-known neighborhood spots.
Immerse yourself in architectural history by booking a room at the downtown Hotel Monaco (443-692-6170 or monaco-baltimore.com), situated at the corner of North Charles and Baltimore streets. The hotel occupies what was once the headquarters of the famed B&O Railroad, which took up residence in the 13-story structure in 1906, two years after the great fire that consumed large swaths of the city. Elements of the original design are still there, including Tiffany stained-glass windows. Rooms, starting at $199 for Standard Deluxe guest suites, come with fully stocked mini bars, terrycloth robes and "companion goldfish," in case you get lonely.
(Alternatively, household pets are also welcome here.) Larger suites, beginning with the King Premier Spa Rooms, feature Fuji spa soaking tubs. But perhaps the most important piece of this luxury stay is the B&O American Brasserie (443-692-6172 or bandorestaurant.com), directly adjacent to the hotel. The fare offered is typical brasserie with an American twist, but your main focus should be on the bar, tended by mixologist Brendan Dorr. The People's Choice Bartender of the Year at the Cocktail World Cup, Dorr makes the drinks the way they were meant to be enjoyed: with bitters and house-crafted simple syrup. Stop by the bar between 4 and 7 p.m. to take advantage of the $5 happy-hour cocktail price, and order the Morning Dew.
July 15 is the start of Baltimore's annual Artscape (410-752-8632 or artscape.org), the country's largest free arts festival, with more than 350,000 attendees each year and nearly 150 separate fine artists, craftspeople and visual-arts exhibitors. You'll also find three stages showcasing musicians and bands as varied as reggae/hip-hop act Matisyahu and jazz-drumming powerhouse Lee Pearson. Running through July 17, this year's Artscape marks its 30th anniversary, and the Charles Street Bridge stage will re-create the atmosphere of 1982 in all its power-ballading glory: vintage band flyers plastered all over, '80s fashions ready to wear and a crash course in breakdancing.
The Owl Bar (410-347-0888 or theowlbar.com) hearkens back to a time when fedoras were even more fashionable than the actors of Mad Men make them. Tucked away in the lobby floor of what used to be the Belvedere Hotel (the building now holds luxury condominiums and apartments), the bar itself resides in Baltimore's historic Mount Vernon neighborhood. A speakeasy during the Prohibition years, this bar served the wisest of owls: When shipments of alcohol were delivered — and no federal agents were around — the eyes of the owl behind the bar counter would blink. But when the owl wasn't blinking, signaling the feds were near, patrons took their cues from the stained-glass windows above the bar, which say, "The more he saw, the less he spoke." The boozy tradition lives on with specialty spirits and brews, including the OwlTini, a mixture of vodka and pomegranate schnapps topped with champagne, and the Owl Bar Pale Ale, a crisp draft excellent for the lunchtime hour. The menu is similarly themed, with dishes named in homage of the bar's feathered namesake: White Owl Nachos; the Owl Club Sandwich; the Owl Bar Burger. Brick-oven pizzas, handmade and cooked to order, are the real draw. (And the dim glow from the massive brick oven cascading softly over the wooden tables and red-brick walls isn't bad to look at, either.) For a true taste of the Chesapeake, go for the crab-dip pizza, a standard mozzarella-cheese pizza topped with crab dip and Old Bay seasoning.
It was in Baltimore that legendary jazz vocalist Cab Calloway got his start singing; and while Billie Holiday left for New York City before begining her singing career, her independent attitude was formed by her Baltimore upbringing. The two are pillars of the city's jazz heritage, which reached its heyday during the '50s and '60s with the bustling Pennsylvania Avenue club scene, where everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to John Coltrane came to play. While jazz clubs are not quite as abundant today as they were half a century ago, Howard and Marianne Matheny-Katz, a jazz singer herself, keep the tradition alive at Jazzway 6004 (410-624-2222 or jazzway6004.org), their house-turned-concert-venue that puts on shows for local and regional jazz acts and seats roughly 60 audience members. Ticket prices are reasonable, beginning at $15, but space can fill up quickly depending on which act the couple brings in. (In June, hotshot Baltimore percussionist Warren Wolf, who has shared the stage with Wynton Marsalis, took to the stage.) Check the website for concert acts and times.
Baltimore plays host to its own share of world-class museums. The Walters Art Museum (410-547-9000 or thewalters.org) holds more than 28,000 pieces, from medieval and ancient Samurai armor to skeleton keys and intricate door-lock mechanisms. The newest exhibition features elaborate writing instruments from such places as Kyoto and Paris. And the price for such culture — free — is spot on.