BALTIMORE -- The flag is flying high over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, just as it did nearly two centuries ago during the War of 1812. It was here in 1814 that a tattered battle flag was lowered and a giant battle flag proudly raised aloft after a bruising bombardment. That triumphant act proclaimed that, against all odds, the fort and the city had survived the mighty British fleet. Seeing the stars and stripes emerge from the smoke and fog at dawn is what inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.
Anniversary observances at the historic fort are among many good reasons to plan a trip to Baltimore this summer. Every weekend, the Fort McHenry Guard will be on hand, dressed in replicas of early 19th-century uniforms and conducting drills, barracks activities and artillery and musket firing demonstrations as well as children’s programs.
A special Defenders Day weekend is scheduled for Sept. 7-9, a three-day encampment and extravaganza with over 100 War of 1812 reenactors, parades, military bands, fireworks and a symbolic ship-to-shore bombardment. Many more observances will be on the calendar between now and Sept. 14, 2014, the 200th anniversary of the end of momentous Battle of Baltimore, when a giant celebration is planned.
The best time to visit the fort on any day is at 9:30 a.m. or 4:20 p.m. when the flag is changed and visitors are invited to help unfurl and hoist the new flag, a replica of the 15 stars and stripes banner of 1812.
The fort is just the start of the enticements of Baltimore. The Inner Harbor development, the urban miracle that put the city firmly on the tourist map in the 1980s, has continued to spread and change the face of downtown. Among recent developments, the growing Harbor East complex boasts a host of new hotels and dining places, including a luxurious Four Seasons Hotel that opened this year.
Those who explore beyond the Inner Harbor will discover a big, warm mix of neighborhoods, from ethnic to elegant to Colonial charm, plus an impressive arts scene that catches many visitors by surprise.
The Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art is world famous for its 500 works by Matisse, considered the largest and most significant in the world. The Cone sisters also acquired masterpieces by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.
The Walters Art Museum is a miniature palace filled with treasures, from mummies, medieval art and old master paintings to Art Nouveau jewelry and an outstanding collection of Oriental Art.
Baltimore is a great destination for families, beginning with the Inner Harbor, where crowds line up to gawk and grin at the 10,000 species of fish and mammals at the National Aquarium, to learn about everything from Earth to outer space at the Maryland Science Center, to board a historic, tall ship like the USS Constellation, take a ride on the “pirate ship” Fearless or a glide around the harbor in a family-size “Nessie” dragon boat.
Beyond the harbor, Port Discovery is an excellent and imaginative children’s museum and the American Visionary Art Museum will delight all ages with its whimsical creations by talented artists without formal training. Who can resist the Cabaret Mechanical Theater, with dozens of wooden creations that move with the touch of a button or exhibits such as a giant sailing ship built of thousands of toothpicks?
A new addition to the scene, the National Pinball Museum, featuring a 140-year history of pinball games, will be a nostalgia trip for some and a new experience for those raised on computer games. Admission includes the chance to play on the machines in the Pinhead Gallery upstairs.
Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, is another family lure. The retro look of the stadium celebrating its 20th birthday this year has set the standard for every ballpark since. Fans young and old enjoy the Sports Legends Museum next to the park and a visit to the nearby home where baseball legend Babe Ruth was born.
Baltimore’s neighborhoods can occupy many a pleasant afternoon. For a superb view of the harbor and the busy working port of Baltimore, climb the stairs behind the Science Center to the Colonial streets of Federal Hill. This is where 4,000 citizens celebrated Maryland’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Restored homes and a spate of new shops and cafes make for a pleasant stroll.
Fells Point, the oldest port area of the city, still looks remarkably like the seafaring and shipbuilding community that was laid out in 1763, with cobbled streets and many well-preserved period homes. The restored Robert Long House, circa 1765, is the oldest in the city. Take a walk around the compact area to admire the architecture, the sea views from the landing, the inviting, small shops and the many restaurants and pubs that make this a favorite nightspot for young Baltimoreans. A Water Taxi provides scenic transportation to the Inner Harbor.
For a change of scene, head to the top of hilly Charles Street to Mt. Vernon Place, a square of parks and fountains laid out in 1827 and centered by a 160-foot Washington Monument that predates the one in the nation’s capital. The 22 buildings around the square and in some 40 surrounding blocks are the cream of Baltimore’s late 19th and early 20th century architecture and include the homes of some of the city’s elite early residents including Johns Hopkins and George Peabody. The noted Peabody Conservatory of Music is found on Mt. Vernon Place and next to it, the Peabody Library, a five-tiered, skylighted Victorian beauty maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The Walters Museum is also nearby.
Occupying a full block in this area is the Maryland Historical Society, where the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner is on display, and where an expansive exhibit on the War of 1812 has just opened.
How to see it all? Better plan to stay a while — or start planning to return.