Greetings From Baltimore

Eclectic neighborhoods, great eats, cute girls, and only three hours from New York—see where Charm City gets its Name

Recession blues got your travel plans down? Don’t fall for the usual “staycation” advice. Just a three-hour train ride from New York’s Penn Station, Baltimore is the perfect destination for a weekend escape for the thrifty gal with fun on the brain. And, for those with a little more in their pockets, splurges abound, too. This summer, get out of town without breaking the bank and experience a nearby city with enough distinct culture to rival that of any faraway locale. (They even have their own language, Bawlmerese!)

First step away from the Inner Harbor! Sure, the city revolves around Baltimore Harbor (or rather, Baltimore Harbor revolves around it, geographically). But too many tourists spend all their time on the concrete plazas and in the chain hotels and restaurants lining the Inner Harbor, a miniscule section of the body of water that gives much of the city its focus. From fresh seafood to a top-notch aquarium, Baltimore is all about its waterside location, which sprawls far beyond the touristy center. To see it all, you’ll need a car or have to rely on cabs, but if you insist on exploring Baltimore by foot, then you’ll need to make the Downtown area—and the gay-friendly Kimpton chain’s Hotel Monaco (2 N Charles St, 443-692-6170, monaco-baltimore.com, from $169/night)—your home base. Located in the former B&O Railroad station, the hotel delights with its design, juxtaposing the grand marble entry with modern, colorful details within each room (including plush animal-print bathrobes!).

From there, you can reach the picturesque neighborhood of Federal Hill. With its brick row-houses, plentiful restaurants and unique shops all in a compact quarter and a hill-top park overlooking the Harbor, Federal Hill is one of the loveliest sections in all of Baltimore. While there, pick up a treat for yourself at SoBotanicals (1130 S Charles St, 410-234-0333, sobotanical.com), an organic soap shop where the goods are crafted in-house, and a treat for your pooch at Lucky Lucy’s Canine Café (1126 S Charles St, 410-837-2121, luckylucyscaninecafe.com). The gay-owned Scarborough Fair B&B (801 S Charles St, 410-837-0010, scarboroughfairbandb.com, from $199/night) is a winning choice for accommodations in this neighborhood. Try to snag the Poe Suite and you’ll be “raven” about owner Barry Werner’s delectable biscotti all through your trip.

If you walk to the top of Federal Hill to take in sweeping views, descend on the opposite side and you’ll end up at the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Hwy, 410-244-1900, avam.org), founder Rebecca Hoffberger’s ode to outsider (self-taught) art. You can spend all day here learning the stories behind each and every piece in the yearly-changing exhibition. Currently on view is “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The quirky, moving and just plain weird pieces continually outdo one another—and that’s before you discover a sculpture made of 10,000 bras and a massive statue of Divine (a Baltimore native, of course).

Nearby is the Mt. Vernon district, home to Baltimore’s gayborhood. The plenitude of gay bars there does include one lesbian hangout: Sappho’s (1001 N Charles St, 410-752-7133, centralstationpub.com/sapphos.html). Sappho’s is part of Grand Central, a gay dance club, but it’s much more low-key than its masculine counterpart. Ascend a staircase that looks oddly like one in someone’s aunt’s house, and you’ll find a laid-back bar with a pool table, a sequestered dance floor, and a genial rooftop scene. Just around the corner, you can fuel up for a night out at the super gay-friendly City Café (1001 Cathedral St, 410-539-4252, citycafebaltimore.com). Or even better, stop by one of Baltimore’s highlights—historic Lexington Market (400 W Lexington St, 410-685-6169, lexingtonmarket.com) to pick up one of Faidley’s famed crab cakes or a wax-paper bag of Berger’s renowned chocolate glazed cookies. The market is only a five-minute walk from the Hotel Monaco on the way to Mt. Vernon.

If you’ve got wheels at your disposal, use them to get to the cobblestone streets of historic Fell’s Point. Though this beautiful Harborside neighborhood certainly isn’t tourist-free, it is devoid of characterless glass-and-concrete structures found more readily Downtown. Instead, you’ll see two-and-three-story rowhouses crawling with ivy and decorated with colorful doors and window boxes, and meandering streets of cafes, galleries, and boutiques. Simply stroll along the waterfront, find yourself a pair of glamorous dangly earrings at Party Dress (723 S Broadway, 410-675-5105), or imbibe over a jazz brunch at Meli Patisserie & Bistro (1636 Thames St, 410-534-6354, kalismeli.com), where if you’re lucky, you’ll be served by the cute, crop-haired waitress that we were. If you’re over-nighting in Fell’s Point, check in to the Admiral Fell Inn (888 S Broadway, 410-522-7377, sterlinghotels.com, from $135/night), an 80-room hotel outfitted with 18th-century antiques.
Travel another ten minutes east and you’ll hit Canton, a largely industrial neighborhood where hip, sprawling restaurants and clubs are on the rise. The outskirts of Canton are also home to Baltimore’s oldest lesbian bar, Port in a Storm (4330 E Lombard St, 410-534-0014), a friendly dive where the butches kick butt at billiards, then treat you to a beer. Swing by Blue Hill Tavern (938 S Conkling St, 443-388-9363, bluehilltavern.com) for dinner before hitting up Port in a Storm. It’s one of Baltimore’s hottest new restaurants, and one bite of the mac ‘n’ cheese confirms that.

Ten minutes north of the city center, you’ll find lesbian ground zero: the neighborhood of Hampden. This traditionally working class enclave has become gentrified in recent years by increasing numbers of hipsters, queers and hipster queers who have carved an indelible mark on the strip of West 36th Street known as “The Avenue,” beginning at Ma Petite Shoe (832 W 36th St, 410-235-3442, mapetiteshoe.com). This combined shoe and chocolate boutique hits all the right spots for PMSers, and is presided over by owner Susannah Siger and her partner Amanda Pellarin. The couple is active in Baltimore’s performance scene, and Susannah and Amanda have plenty of recommendations for lesbian travelers who wander in to their shop, whether they’re looking for the perfect bacon-chocolate bar, eco-friendly sneaker, or burlesque show. They love burlesque dive Ottobar (2549 N Howard St, 410-662-0069, theottobar.com) and Charm City Kitty Club (3134 Eastern Ave, 410-276-1651, charmcitykittyclub.com), a girl- and trans-oriented cabaret near Canton that recently saw the likes of Bitch and Novice Theory on its stage.

Other lesbian-owned shops along the Avenue in Hampden include two salons: Flaunt (803 W 36th St, 410-235-1001, flauntontheavenue.com), where owner Lindsay Hall offers an unofficial “gay discount”; and NV Salon Collective (861 W 36th St, 410-467-1754, nvsaloncollective.com). Also “family”-owned is sex-toy shop Sugar (927 W 36th St, 410-467-2632, sugartheshop.com), where you can pick up vibrators and harnesses, or take classes on anal sex, fellatio, and sex at menopause. Not lesbian-owned but most certainly lesbian-friendly are the scores of vintage and antique shops along the Avenue, including Junque (1006 W 36th St, 410-889-6453, hampdenjunque.com), as well as knitting shop Lovely Yarns (846 W 36th St, 410-662-9276, lovelyyarns.com), which invites passersby to “Come stitch ‘n’ bitch, hon.”

Speaking of “Hon,” Hampden is traditionally the home of a very special Baltimore icon: the working-class woman who comes home from a day at the factory and prepares for a night out, donning her leopard-print stretch pants, cat-eye glasses and boa and putting her hair up in a bouffant to rival Snooki’s. The Hon, as she has come to be known for the term of endearment she bestows on just about everyone, including friendly visitors,  speaks Bawlmerese and defines local fabulousness in all its tacky glory. In her honor, Hampden institution Café Hon (1002 W 36th St, 410-243-1230, cafehon.com) hosts the annual street party Honfest (honfest.net). The festivities, which include a pageant to find Baltimore’s Best Hon, take place every June. Festival organizer and Café Hon owner Denise Whiting offered a tip to help a contestant snag the title: "The higher the hair the closer to God!" We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.