Baltimore has developed into a welcoming gay and lesbian destination
If you haven’t been to Baltimore in a while, you owe yourself a visit. This friendly, unassuming city has experienced a virtual rebirth over the past 15 years, rehabilitating its handsome Inner Harbor by converting dilapidated piers and wharves into museums, shops, restaurants, hotels, and condominiums. Often featured in the movies of camp filmmaker and native son John Waters, Baltimore has also developed increased cachet as a welcoming gay and lesbian destination, with its many LGBT-friendly businesses.
Fortunately, the city’s success hasn’t gone to its head. It’s hard to find a more genuine and down-to-earth breed of urbanites than the residents of Baltimore, who retain a special affection for their hometown. You may be lured to Baltimore by the many highly publicized attractions set around downtown’s Inner Harbor, and indeed most of these museums and entertainment centers live up to their billing. But be sure to save time to explore the many quirky residential neighborhoods, a few of which – Mount Vernon, Federal Hill, Fells Point – are within easy walking distance of downtown.
The Inner Harbor thrived for years as a shipping crossroads before falling into a state of blight. Its conversion into an entertainment and museum district has made it one of the most engaging and picturesque harbors in America. Popular attractions include the glass-enclosed Harborplace pavilions, where you can browse through dozens of shops. Also check out the Baltimore Maritime Museum, National Aquarium, and World Trade Center (which offers fine views from its 27th-floor observation deck).
A regal grassy knoll south of the harbor, Federal Hill Park rises majestically above downtown and the Inner Harbor. It’s an ideal spot to laze under the sun on warm afternoons. The surrounding eponymous neighborhood has loads of inviting cafes and bars, and the neighborhood’s American Visionary Art Museum ingeniously blends two historic warehouses within a striking contemporary structure. East of the Inner Harbor, Fells Point may be America’s best-preserved Colonial waterfront, with its perfectly maintained Federal-style town houses.
Baltimore’s gay epicenter lies north of downtown in historic Mount Vernon, which you reach by strolling north from the Inner Harbor up the city’s backbone, Charles Street. The neighborhood is anchored by Mount Vernon Square and its 178-foot-high Washington Monument. Nearby are the outstanding Walters Art Museum and the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the oldest and one of the most prestigious classical music schools in the country.
You’ll need to drive or take a bus up Charles Street to reach the leafy 140-acre campus of Johns Hopkins University, which is ideal for strolling and is next to the state’s largest museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art. West of Johns Hopkins, Hampden is a good old-fashioned “Bawl’mer” neighborhood, a former mill-workers’ community that has more recently developed a bounty of hip boutiques, galleries, and cafes. (John Waters, who lives nearby, occasionally strolls these parts and set his movie Pecker here.)
When you’re craving a memorable meal, remember that Baltimore’s cooking is full of flavor – the city even has its own spice, Old Bay Seasoning, a feisty concoction of 16 seasonings sprinkled mostly on shellfish but required by some locals on seemingly everything but ice cream. If you’re on the run, just wander through the copious food stalls in the Harborplace pavilions. It may look like a zoo of tourists, but you’d be surprised how many locals graze here. Many of these places offer top-notch local seafood – particularly oysters, clams, and Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. Walk a bit south to Federal Hill, along South Charles or Light streets, and you’ll find dozens of appealing eateries, including one of the best little restaurants in the city, the Bicycle Bistro, where you might dine on grilled rack of lamb with a pineapple-poblano-pepper chutney, or porcini-crusted sea scallops.
East of the harbor, there’s superb dining in the city’s Little Italy (Boccaccio, with such seasonal delights as local clams and mussels in a pernod-tomato broth, is a particular standout), and in nearby Fells Point, talented chef Nancy Longo helms the kitchen at Pierpoint, which is known for such inventive contemporary regional fare as smoked crab cakes, and fried Maryland chicken breast with parmesan grits.
Mount Vernon has dozens of excellent, gay-popular restaurants. At the high end, opulently decorated Ixia scores high marks for its well-chosen wine list and superbly rendered cuisine, including grilled baby octopus with lemon-fennel confit, and lobster-crab mac-and-cheese with a creamy Fontina sauce. Across the street, Sacha’s is a great spot for toothsome grazing – the many “small plates” include crisp french fries in a cone with Old Bay-seasoned creme fraiche, and fried green tomatoes topped with lump crab meat. Continue up Charles Street and you’ll come to trendy Donna’s, a cheerful and modern space where an artsy crowd mingles over light salads, roasted veggie sandwiches, fresh coffee, and fantastic tiramisu. The Helmand has become renowned for its spicy, well-prepared Afghan food (it’s owned by the brother of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Kharzai), and Mount Vernon Stable and Saloon is a perfect late-night venue for chicken wings, sandwiches, burgers, ribs, and similarly comforting pub standards. Finally, don’t miss City Cafe, an airy and inviting java joint that also serves food and wine.
Make the trip a bit north toward Johns Hopkins to reach Ixia’s sister restaurant, the lovably kitschy Paper Moon Diner, which is open 24 hours many nights, making it a perfect post-clubbing choice. Near here in the Hampden neighborhood is the famous Cafe Hon, notable for the massive pink flamingo dangling from the front of the building (not to mention tasty comfort fare like Belgian waffles topped with fresh berries, and famously good meatloaf). There’s also great coffee to be sipped nearby at Common Ground coffeehouse, and delicious Mexican food served within the funky confines of Holy Frijoles.
Baltimore gay-bar-goers congregate mostly at a handful of mainstays. Yuppies and stand-and-model types flock almost religiously to Grand Central, a large, multi-level complex that consists of a video lounge, dance bar, billiards room, and outdoor deck. Also on-site is the swanky lesbian bar, Sapphos, with its comfy living-room-esque decor and soft lighting. The other major club in the neighborhood is Club Hippo, whose reputation for great music draws a wide mix of revelers, gay, straight, old, and young. It’s a great place to cut loose, especially on Thursday and Saturday nights. When it gets late, the party moves to Club 1722, an 18-and-over after-hours club open on Fridays and Saturdays into the wee hours.
The tiki-themed Coconuts Cafe is another Mt. Vernon hangout that’s popular with lesbians, while Club Bunns caters heavily to Baltimore’s sizable African-American gay community and has a legendary happy hour. Leather aficionados head a few blocks up Charles to the Eagle, which, though lacking any serious back-room action, nevertheless cultivates as racy an atmosphere as any bar in town. A classic dive that’s been serving the gay community for more than 60 years (longer, say some, than any bar in America), Leon’s is especially popular late on weekend evenings. Nearby Jay’s on Read is a classy piano bar, and Club Phoenix is a laid-back neighborhood hangout with a small dance area and some highly entertaining drag shows. In Federal Hill, the Rowan Tree is a friendly neighborhood spot with an eclectic crowd, and over in the up-and-coming Canton section of Baltimore, The Quest caters to fans of go-go dancers.
Baltimore hotels have become slightly more expensive over the years, as the city has become a serious tourist and convention destination, but rates are still much lower than in nearby Washington, D.C. Most visitors choose properties near the Inner Harbor, close to great restaurants and attractions. An excellent option here is the Pier 5 Hotel, a hip and lively boutique property with whimsically decorated, spacious rooms, many directly facing the Inner Harbor. The same owners run the elegant, historic (and allegedly haunted) Admiral Fell Inn in nearby Fells Harbor – this charming old-world property earns kudos for its helpful service, romantically decorated rooms, and afternoon tea and refreshments.
You’ll also find some impressive smaller properties around town. The six-room Scarborough Fair B&B, in historic Federal Hill just steps from the Inner Harbor, and the gay-owned Inn at 2920, near the waterfront in Canton. This stunner with exposed brick walls and high ceilings has posh rooms with tasteful, sleek furnishings and contemporary bathrooms. These cozy properties offer visitors a great chance to get to know Baltimore’s distinctive, close-knit neighborhoods and appreciate one of the city’s best assets: its people.