Charm City. Smalltimore. There’s a reason these nicknames have stuck with this old harbor town. With a long industrial history stretching back to the Colonial days, Baltimore is a hotbed of cultural change and influence. From Francis Scott Key’s beautiful tribute to our flag to Billie Holiday’s transformation of American music, from H.L. Mencken’s acerbic pen to Edgar Allan Poe’s mysterious death, even the city’s famous residents embody its quirky, sometimes-gritty personality.
These days, Baltimore’s unique character is demonstrated through a new movement toward whole, organic and locally distributed foods. The joint is now hopping with nationally renowned restaurants whose missions include using locally sourced, seasonal and organic ingredients. Local agriculture is a big deal—from small, informal gardens cropping up on abandoned lots to dozens of farmers’ markets selling products produced on family farms throughout the state. The Royal Sonesta Harbor Court hotel hosts a beehive in its seventh-floor courtyard, and Baltimore’s school system runs the Great Kids Farm, a field-to-table initiative that teaches city kids lessons once relegated to rural areas.
Green spaces also shine, with a newly invigorated trail system and well-maintained parks. In fact, there are parts of Baltimore that don’t feel like an urban center, where you can hear birds calling their mates and even find patches of wild raspberries.
Yes, green living has come back to this former factory town, highlighting the role that cities play in our fragile, ecological system. Through a combination of government- and business-driven efforts, Baltimore has emerged as a hotspot of sustainability—if you know where to go.
Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. Hampden, Fells Point, Mount Vernon, Roland Park, the Inner Harbor (or downtown)—each of these regions offers a unique experience and distinct personality. Still, as anyone in Charm City can attest, you can’t go anywhere within the city limits without running into someone you know or experiencing something truly unique.
See the sights
Across the water from the Inner Harbor, the American Visionary Arts Museum literally glitters in the sunlight—thanks to thousands of tiny glass pieces artistically arranged in thought-provoking mosaics along most of the outside walls. Inside, founder Rebecca Hoffberger has amassed a collection of unexpected pieces created by self-taught “visionary” artists from around the world. Many are made from reused materials, and even the museum buildings are reclaimed copper-factory offices and a whiskey warehouse. Several entries of the annual kinetic sculpture race reside in the museum’s tall sculpture barn, including FiFi, a hot-pink, fluffy poodle, and Bumpo, a 15-foot-tall Indian elephant. The on-site restaurant, Mr. Rain’s Fun House, is “seasonal sensitive” and serves local produce and meats.
Each Sunday, locals gather under the Jones Falls Parkway (Interstate 83) for the Baltimore Farmers’ Market and Bazaar. While it can be a bit tricky to get to—it’s located at Holliday and Saratoga streets—the trek is worth the effort. Farmers, musicians and artists eagerly discuss their wares with hungry patrons, and an eclectic variety of food stands sell ready-to-eat goods made from local produce, dairy and meats.
The crown jewel of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is the National Aquarium, an educational showcase of sustainability and ecology. The newly built Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit has an authentic feel, with humid air quality, screeching tropical birds and brightly colored tree frogs. Sharks encircle you as you stroll down into the depths of the museum in the sometimes-terrifying Open Ocean Shark Walk, and local wildlife is highlighted in Maryland: Mountains to the Sea. The Harbor Market eateries inside the aquarium are committed to eco-friendly and humane food production, featuring sustainable seafood and produce from regional farms. Dishes are served in reusable, compostable or recyclable containers.
Get back to nature
Baltimore also offers more up-close-and-personal looks at nature. The city’s trail system includes Gwynns Falls Trail. Rent a bike at Light Street Cycles and head over to Carroll Park to enjoy an 8-mile ride through scenic city parks.
Or head up to Cylburn Arboretum in northwest Baltimore for some outdoor yoga or a guided nature tour. This 207-acre urban park showcases ancient trees, rolling meadows and shaded woodlands. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy under the arboretum’s giant magnolias or paw-paw trees.
North of the city is Irvine Nature Center, an educational facility that plays host to camps and special events. The 116 acres of woodlands, wetlands and meadows are also open to the public each day. Visitors are encouraged to hike trails, watch wildlife from secluded blinds along the path and get to know the 65 captive animals on-site.
Staying put and getting around
Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott is the city’s first green hotel and the official green hotel of the National Aquarium. A 30-foot-tall grain silo in the courtyard now captures rainwater that irrigates the landscaping, and a green roof insulates the building and prevents storm-water runoff. Appliances and fixtures are designed to reduce energy, waste and water usage. The hotel has a zero-carbon footprint, made possible through the purchase of wind-sourced, renewable energy credits.
If you need more than your two feet to get around, Baltimore offers a variety of environmentally friendly transportation options. The light-rail system is an affordable way to move north and south, from the Baltimore Washington International Airport to Hunt Valley in Baltimore County. And the free Charm City Circulator is comprised of 21 hybrid buses that run four routes in downtown, Fells Point, Westside and Federal Hill. Get your own set of wheels from the city’s Zipcar service, with hundreds of available cars in a variety of options.
Laura Laing is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.