Weekend in Baltimore’s Fells Point

This friendly metropolis has several hip, gay-friendly neighborhoods

Baltimore’s transformation from a rough, workaday city into a dynamic vacation destination has revolved largely around the renaissance of the city’s Inner Harbor, where museums and shops have replaced wharf-side factories and boatyards. But this friendly metropolis has several hip, gay-friendly neighborhoods that beg exploring, the most charming of which is Fells Point, one of America’s best-preserved colonial waterfront neighborhoods. If you’re looking for a low-keyed yet romantic weekend getaway, Fells Point has all the right ingredients.

Perfectly maintained Federal town houses, which date to an era when 16 shipbuilders bustled nearby, line the neighborhood’s cobbled thoroughfares. Fells Point has long been among the city’s most diverse enclaves, home to a cross section of older Italian and Eastern European immigrants (Little Italy is just a few blocks north), artsy slackers and GenXers, and well-to-do professionals – lesbians and gays are pronounced part of the mix, even though Baltimore’s most gay-identified neighborhood is Mt. Vernon, a couple of miles away.

If you want to fully immerse yourself in Fells Point, consider staying at one of the neighborhood’s highly gay-friendly accommodations. There’s the historic Admiral Fell Inn, which was once a YMCA for the neighborhood’s transient sailors (if only those walls could talk). Today this stately inn serves a more refined clientele and contains elegant rooms with four-poster beds and Federal-period furnishings; deluxe two-story suites have sleeping lofts, fireplaces, and whirlpool tubs.

There are also a few larger and more modern properties on the east side of the Inner Harbor area that are a short if uninteresting stroll from Fells Point. These are great if you prefer being closer to the Inner Harbor attractions. A super-hip boutique hotel right on the eastern end of the harbor, the elegant Harbor Inn Pier 5 has three excellent restaurants, including a branch of the exceptional seafood chain McCormick and Schmick’s.

The rooms have decadent bathrooms, plush beds with high-quality linens, and urbane, postmodern furnishings in bold colors. A bit closer to Fells Point, the high-end Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel is a gracious 32-story hotel with a sumptuous lobby; rooms have contemporary yet classic oak furniture, luxurious duvets, and marble baths – those on the upper floors have fantastic views either of the Inner Harbor and city skyline or Fells Point. You can save a few bucks staying at the Courtyard Marriott Downtown/Inner Harbor, which is just around the corner. Rooms here have little in the way of a view, but this is the closest of the eastern Inner Harbor hotels to Fells Point.

Assuming you arrive in town late in the afternoon, perhaps the first thing you’ll do after checking into your hotel is grab a bite to eat. If it’s tasty sustenance in a casual setting you’re after, try John Steven’s tavern, which offers consistently excellent comfort fare plus more elaborate dishes like seafood cassoulet and filet mignon. A showier scene awaits you at Atlantic, a dramatic restaurant with soaring ceilings that occupies part of an old factory in Canton, the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood just east of Fells Point. Atlantic serves stellar contemporary seafood like a lobster pan-roast with polenta and summer vegetables in a tomato broth. The first Friday of every month, the restaurant hosts an informal DJ’d party that draws an eclectic, good-looking crowd of both gays and straights for dancing and schmoozing.

After dinner you might stroll along Fells Point’s brick sidewalks, perhaps as far west as the Inner Harbor – note the Domino Sugar factory across the water, where the East Coast’s largest neon sign glows into the wee hours. Until 11 p.m. on weekends, you can finish off your evening ramble with a dish of homemade ice cream at the legendary Maggie Moo’s at Thames and Broadway.

If you’re in the mood to bar-hop, make the trip to the city’s queer-entertainment hub, Mt. Vernon, a 10-minute cab ride from Fells Point and the eastern Inner Harbor. You can also take the Downtown Area Shuttle – the Blue Line runs directly to Mt. Vernon. The most famous queer hangout here is the Hippo, which is half dance club, half video bar. Lower-keyed options include Coconuts, the city’s best-attended lesbian bar, and Central Station, a three-level stand-and-model bar with a well-coiffed, mostly male clientele. Stagecoach is a favorite with the country-western set, the Eagle caters to leather-and-Levi’s fans, and Club Bunns draws a primarily African-American crowd.

Fells Point is a perfect spot for whiling away a Saturday morning. You might start by grabbing a latte or espresso at the Daily Grind, which sits directly across the street from the police headquarters in which the television show Homicide was filmed from 1993 through 1999. Quite of few of the show’s scenes were actually shot along this block, and many of the actors and crew hung out at this convivial coffeehouse.

Shopping is a favorite neighborhood pastime, a highlight being Ten Thousand Villages, which carries handcrafted gifts, pottery, textiles, and jewelry produced largely in developing nations, from El Salvador to Nepal. The shop’s mission is to support and nurture artisans in these countries by providing a nonexploitative venue for the sales of their goods. Along the same block, Su Casa sells a quirky and intriguing array of mod housewares, and Amuse offers a decidedly offbeat selection of toys and games, some that delight kids and others that bring out the youthful spirit of adults.

Of course, many people know Baltimore as the hometown of eccentric gay filmmaker John Waters – if you’re a fan of his work, be sure to check out the Baltimore Exchange, which claims to be the “pink flamingo headquarters of Baltimore.” Apart from having a nice selection of those infamous plastic lawn ornaments, Baltimore Exchange overflows with peculiar gifts and keepsakes.

Consider breaking for lunch with a meal at Kawasaki, which serves fresh sushi and Japanese fare in a bright dining room or at sidewalk tables overlooking the Fells Point water-taxi dock. Or stroll through the Broadway Market, the nation’s oldest produce and food market still operating on its original site (it was established in 1776) – there are several eateries and stalls here that make for great noshing. Spend the rest of your Saturday admiring more of Fells Point’s shops and courtly Federal-era buildings. Or take the water taxi over to the Inner Harbor – it’s just a short ride. At the Inner Harbor you’ll find the Maryland Science Center, the National Aquarium, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Harborplace Pavilion and Gallery Mall shopping centers, and legions of tourists.

Fells Point has several top-flight dinner options. Maybe the best two on Saturday night are Black Olive, an old-world town house whose kitchen turns out expertly prepared char-grilled seafood and steaks with an emphasis on Greek ingredients and recipes; and Charleston, which occupies the ground-floor of an office building between Fells Point and the Inner Harbor. Here you can try some of the finest Low Country fare outside South Carolina: the grilled pork rib chop slow cooked with roasted-garlic white beans and Savannah-style mustard-barbecue sauce is signature dish. These are the sorts of restaurants that are ideal for enjoying a long, leisurely meal.

Sundays are a laid-back time in Baltimore. You could plan a relaxing champagne brunch at the Hamilton Room, the elegant restaurant at the Admiral Fell Inn. Or opt for a less formal meal at the gay-popular Blue Moon Cafe, a Fells Point institution known for its fine coffees and such delicious breakfast fare as Maryland-crab eggs Benedict. Of course, whatever attractions or shopping adventures you weren’t able to cram into Saturday’s explorations you can try tackling today.

For a city that few visitors considered worthy of a weekend getaway a decade or two ago, Baltimore has come a long way. Specifically, Fells Point makes an enchanting, gay-friendly urban retreat in this city whose star is rising rapidly.

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