The spotlight may be on Washington DC but there’s much more to discover in America’s Capital Region. Laidback Baltimore offers quirky year-round attractions and in June the buzzword is Honfest.
It’s nearly midday and the sun isn’t the only thing that’s rising in the Baltimore sky. Towering beehives and bouffant hair-dos are being backcombed to the pinnacle of perfection and vertiginous stilettos add even more inches to the overall effect.
Leopard print, set off with sweeping cat’s eye glasses and bright blue eye shadow, is the fabric of choice, whilst some girls opt for the more laidback look of floral housecoats and giant curlers. A couple of pampered pooches wearing pink ribbons peek out from a handbag while a poodle with attitude and a feather boa for a collar trots along at her owner’s heels. Welcome to Honfest, the gloriously kitsch celebration of the 60s and tribute to the historically hard-working women who helped shape the largest city in Maryland.
It might not rank along New York, Miami and – in the wake of election fever – Washington DC as one of America’s most obvious holiday spots, but the friendly city on the western coast of Chesapeake Bay has undergone a renaissance in the last 15 years, with the dilapidated Inner Harbor being transformed into a vibrant hub for locals and visitors alike. Often featured in the movies of camp filmmaker and native son John Waters - of Hairspray fame - and more recently in the edgy modern cop show The Wire, Baltimore certainly isn’t as uptight as some American cities. With a tangible vibe that’s laidback and welcoming, it’s also accessible at just over an hour’s drive from the airline hub Washington Dulles.
June is a great month to visit as it coincides with Honfest, which has grown out of a tiny pageant in 1994 to a nationally recognised festival, spread over two days and four blocks. Started by Denise Whiting who owns the retro Café Hon in 36th Street, Hampden, one of Baltimore’s old style neighbourhoods, hon is short for honey. A Baltimore or, to say it like the locals, ‘Bawl’mer’ term of endearment, it embodies the warmth and affection of the gutsy women who used to work in Hampden’s old mills, which have mostly made way for hip galleries, boutiques and cafés.
Before heading for Honfest our first stop was Baltimore’s equally buzzing Inner Harbor, lined with shops, cafes and bars and a logical starting point for getting to know the city. For a novel tour you can get a duck’s eye view, both on land and in the water, aboard a converted wartime amphibious vehicle. Tours start and finish at the harbour and the £13 ticket includes a plastic duck whistle, with obligatory quacking at curious and occasionally bemused onlookers.
At night the Domino Sugar factory’s iconic neon sign, a towering landmark since the 1950s, dominates the waterfront. For the best observation point in town splash out on dinner at Pisces, the Hyatt Regency’s rooftop restaurant that has won awards for both its views and its food. Crab is a Baltimore speciality and whilst the £22 jumbo crab cakes are quite pricey by American standards they’re definitely worth it.
For a very different view, and reasonably priced dining virtually round the clock, Paper Moon on West 29th Street is a funky take on the all-American diner and open from 7am to midnight Sunday to Thursday and until 2am Friday and Saturday. Owner Um Kin works on the theory that one woman’s junk is another woman’s treasure and the bar, dining rooms and even the toilets are adorned with hundreds of old toys, mannequins and rather sinister dolls’ heads. When you manage to tear your eyes away from the surroundings to the menu an equally eclectic mix awaits. Although we visited for breakfast the deadpan waiter asked if we wanted dessert and evidently didn’t see it as an unusual request. So clearly a £4.50 big dipper – French toast topped by a fried egg – followed by a £2 peanut butter blitz pudding - yes there is such a thing - was called for.
In between Baltimore’s obvious tourist attractions, such as the National Aquarium, and the more obscure, like the National Museum of Dentistry, lies a not-to-be-missed gem. The American Visionary Art Museum, partly housed in an old whisky warehouse, opened 12 years ago to showcase the work of untrained artists. The breadth, depth and diversity of the exhibits is variously amusing, innovative and poignant and shown through a rotating display of works from the permanent collection and themed displays,such as a giant ball made with more than 18,000 bras to celebrate breast cancer survivors. If you’re lucky you might bump into the visionary behind it all, museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger.
On our last night we ended up at Mustang Alley’s in Bank Street, which takes one of America’s favourite pastimes to a new level. With 12 bowling lanes, a wine and cocktail list that would not be out of place in any smart bar and a menu featuring delicacies such as lobster with pasta and Baltimore’s ubiquitous crab cakes, this time served in a sandwich, even the initially reluctant soon got into the swing of things and were hankering for another go when the hour was up.
Beehives or bowling, bra balls or big dipper breakfasts and dessert; whatever your taste, life in Baltimore is sweet.
Virgin Atlantic flies twice daily from London Heathrow to Washington Dulles. Return fares start from around £299 economy and £537 premium economy.
Where to stay
Baltimore has a wide range of hotels, ranging from budget B&Bs to historic properties. If you want to push the boat out, the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel
, right on the waterfront, offers rooms from £187 per night.