Travel: Quick Weekend Getaways: Baltimore, MD

By the end of this month, assuming all of the stars align properly, Suchita (that’s my wife) and I will have made settlement on our first house. We’ve been a bit frazzled, which is why we decided recently to get away from it all and head to Baltimore.

In a way reminiscent of Philadelphia’s relationship with New York, Baltimore tends to cower in the shadows of Washington. Sure, D.C. is more glamorous; Baltimore, on the other hand, and similarly to Philadelphia, might need some TLC, but it can be truly cozy and charming—its nickname is Charm City. Besides, Baltimore is a more frugal choice for us mortgage-seekers. As our car flew past the outer edge of Philadelphia on 95, we got into a discussion about the Cingular bill and why I paid it late (I’ve always paid it late—it was only important now because we were buying a house); before we made it through Chester, we made a pact to ban all discussion of home-buying—a pact I was sure we would break within four hours.

Things looked up as we checked into the 85-room Admiral Fell Inn in Fell’s Point, a bustling old port neighborhood 15 minutes by foot from both Little Italy and the Inner Harbor. As if the Admiral himself knew we needed romance and relaxation, a chilled bottle of cava and gerbera daisies, Suchita’s favorite, awaited us in our suite. Of course, none of this was actually coincidental. It was the doing of Diana, our “experience specialist.” Everyone who stays at the inn gets one, and they will do whatever they can to help you “create magic,” a phrase I heard more than a few times during our stay.

Cheesy, yes, but effective.

One Jacuzzi immersion later, we realized it was almost time for dinner. I also realized that four hours had passed and our pact remained unbroken. We decided to check out the hotel’s new restaurant, True, which focuses on organic and locally purveyed ingredients—unusual in Baltimore. We started with a pair of impeccable Sapphire martinis and followed that up with a surprisingly pleasing organic Barnwood cab, day boat scallops in a seafood ragout, and Chesapeake striped bass with a sweet-smoky raspberry-chipotle marinade.

The next day, after a quick breakfast at Jimmy’s, a local greasy spoon popular with judges and politicians, we drove out to the American Visionary Art Museum, AVAM, across the harbor from the inn. Suchita loves museums. I could usually care less, but I was trying not to be selfish, and as it turns out, AVAM was different. The museum, named one of the country’s best by Travel Holiday magazine, celebrates the works of self-taught, little-known artists. One room is filled entirely with paintings and sculptures by artists diagnosed with mental illness. The just-opened annex was our favorite: a huge warehouse space filled with kinetic sculptures from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in England. Lots of buttons to push and cranks to turn—great for kids, which we fortunately are devoid of, for now. A trip to AVAM alone is worth the two-hour drive, especially if you take a breather at the museum’s Joy America Cafe with a cerveza michelada (freshly squeezed lime juice, salt and Negra Modelo, on the rocks).

We dashed back to the hotel for high tea, but were a few minutes late, and there was no coddled cream or Darjeeling in sight. So we walked a couple of blocks to join the friendly neighborhood crowd at Crabby Dick’s, where beer and seafood rule. If you want to sound like a Baltimorean, ask for “Natty Bo,” local slang for National Bohemian, Maryland’s Yuengling Lager. Since dinner was only a few hours away, we decided to stick with one round and an order of steamed shrimp.

Then we got another round of beers. Suddenly, we were back in that Jacuzzi. Twenty-four hours and still no house-speak.

For dinner at Aldo’s in Little Italy, Diana had arranged for a private table in the wine cellar. Again, cheesy, but then, most romance is. If you’ve eaten dinner at other Little Italy restaurants, you might not want to go back; Aldo’s, a Food Network favorite, is different. Try the porcini agnolotti and shiitakes in black truffle butter, and the decadent tournedos Rossini—grilled filet mignon wrapped around seared Hudson Valley foie gras and black truffles. We stopped in briefly at the nearby Explorer’s Club, a gentlemanly lounge for the cigar-and-single-malt crowd of Charm City, for a Montecristo and a glass of Macallan each.

The next morning, we headed to the Baltimore Museum of Art, breezed through its Impressionist exhibit, and decided that after AVAM, BAM just wasn’t going to hold our interest. We did enjoy breakfast at the museum’s restaurant, Gertrude’s, the most popular Sunday brunch in Baltimore. A few hours later, we were back in Philadelphia, faced with a pile of mortgage paperwork that needed to be completed by Tuesday, wishing we were in that Jacuzzi instead.

Admiral Fell Inn, 888 South Broadway, 410-522-7377; Rooms from $149. “Experience specialist” services are extra.

True, 888 South Broadway, 410-522-2195; Dinner for two, with wine, about $125.

Jimmy’s, 801 South Broadway; 410-327-3273. Breakfast for two, about $12.

Petticoat Tea Room, 814 South Broadway; 410-342-7883. Tea is $19.95 per person, including sandwiches and pastries.

Crabby Dick’s, 606 South Broadway; 410-327-7900. Lunch for two, about $25 with a few beers.

American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, 410-244-1900; $7 to $11.

Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, 410-396-7101; $5 to $7.