In this week’s guest post, we travel to Baltimore for a super-fun city tour with Anne Ditmeyer, a graphic designer and travel blogger who runs Prêt à Voyager. After five years in Baltimore, Anne has just relocated to Paris this fall. Despite moving away, Baltimore will always remain near and dear to Anne’s heart, as you’ll clearly see from her article. Don’t miss the Baltimore guide she co-wrote. And now … have a blast in Baltimore!
BALTIMORE: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
Well, hello there, Hon! Dare I ask you what you know or think about Bawlmer (aka Baltimore to most of you)? The city benches may claim it as the “Greatest City in America,” others call it Charm City, USA, to locals it’s Smalltimore but today it’s the Greatest Show on Earth. Sit back and behold some of my favorite wonders of this city that gets cast in the shadows as the ugly step child of DC, New York and Philly. Yes, only a threesome could create a city like this! Just kidding.
The American Visionary Art Museum [AVAM]
You’ll struggle to find any museum in the world quite like the American Visionary Art Museum, a fantasy land of untrained and outsider artists. Once you see the multistory whirligig created by 80+-year-old artist Vollis Simpson, a façade covered by the world’s largest community mosaic project, and a cosmic egg in the plaza of museum grounds, it is pretty much guaranteed that you’ll never look at art the same way again. Just wait until you get inside to the titanic ship created entirely out of toothpicks! The museum is the perfect first stop to the world of Baltimore kitsch and creativity. Don’t forget to check their calendar for great classes – mosaics, bookmaking, LED workshops, sock monkeys and more – and one-of-a-kind parties. The museum’s gift shop, Sideshow, is not to be missed.
The Kinetic Sculpture Race
While Baltimore can’t claim ownership of the Kinetic Sculpture Race (that credit goes to California, and a very special man named Hobart Brown), I’d venture to say that this city embraces the race better than any other. The premise is: anyone can enter their own (wo)man-powered kinetic (sculptural) vehicle. But it’s more than a vehicle – beyond traveling 15 miles across and around the city, each must be able to travel on land, in water, through sand and mud. While the vehicle needs to do each one of these things, the kicker is the fact it need not do it well, for the real winner of this race is the most mediocre – the one that finishes in the dead middle of the pack.
Along the race, pilots and their pit crew bring smiles to those they pass on their journey, with the crazy costumes and antics that ensue. Fifi the pink poodle and Bumpo the elephant are the staples. The 2009 race saw a record number of vehicles, including a personal favorite called “Hot Beef Injection” where burgers and dogs where grilled onboard along the route. Oh yes, bribes (and sock monkeys) are required for the Kinetic Kops who help keep the peace and make sure the race runs smoothly on race day. Mark your calendar now for the first weekend in May 2010.
Charm City Roller Girls
Although not unique to Baltimore either, the Charm City Roller Girls embrace the true spirit of the sport in a way you can’t find just anywhere. I don’t know if it’s the bad-ass tattoos or the fact that many of the participants are actually moms who wear many hats but these girls are hardcore and will make you happy you’re just a spectator and not actually participating in the bout. While the sport is getting bigger and spreading from coast to coast, I’d challenge to say that Baltimore does it bigger and better than anyone. It’s a city where it just fits. And if you can’t make it to Baltimore anytime soon, roller derby is generally not an event to miss in your lifetime. Promise.
Hampden & Hon Fest
Why visit the Inner Harbor (hellllllo, tourists!) when you can visit Hampden, the very Baltimore neighborhood composed of lifers and hipster implants? Over the past several years the neighborhood has really taken shape and is living proof that “going local” has its charms and way more to offer than a strip mall full of chain shops and restaurants. The giant pink flamingo on the exterior of Café Hon, an homage to Baltimore’s own John Waters and his film Pink Flamingos, is the best evidence you’re not in Kansas – or DC for that matter – anymore.
But let’s back up and introduce the “hons.” First picture an old grandmother type – think 60s, hair in a bouffont ‘do (or perhaps curlers still in the hair), sporting cats eye glasses, lots of make-up (mantra: “you can never wear enough blue eye shadow”) and decked out in a patterned housecoat or anything spandex, especially animal print (see Hairspray – the original – as a point of reference). And of course they call you Hon (affectionate, as in honey). So maybe you won’t actually see these “hons” wandering the street if you visit Hampden, but every June they come out in hoards. Literally. Welcome to HonFest. The “Miss Hon” contest is always a highlight where beauty and talent collide; the corresponding “Little Miss Hon” competition is for the young ones with high aspirations. And if you’re feeling left out of the fun, you can always stop by the “Glamour Lounge” for your very own teased hair and lots of hairspray.
The Miracle on 34th Street
If you’ve ever wandered into one of those year-round “Christmas stores” and found yourself completely overwhelmed and thinking: “This is completely over-the-top and unnecessary!”, welcome to 34th Street (aka the Christmas Street) in Hampden. The Hons may be hibernating for the winter but this street goes all out for the holidays.
The first Saturday after Thanksgiving Santa rolls in on the back of his pick-up truck to ring in the season. Lights are strung across the street, Christmas music blares, and bulbs are too many to count (as are random tchotchkes and inflatable holiday paraphernalia). It also may be the only neighborhood where you can find a hubcap Christmas tree (yes, a tree composed completely of, you guessed it: hubcaps). The best part of all: unlike a trip to the mall, this street doesn’t feel commercial at all, just a little tacky. It’s an over-the-top way to ring in the holidays, all the way until New Year’s when a grown man parades the streets wearing only a diaper!
While I don’t know if there’s ever been a study, if I were to guess I’d put Baltimore up on the top of the list of “Most Costumed City in America.” No event makes that clearer than the annual Fluid Movement water ballet that happens late July/early August at the Baltimore City pools.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it (that’s most of you), the best way to describe it is summer camp for adults of various swimming abilities who dress up in wacky, low-budget costumes to perform in a more-or-less synchronized fashion with a mission of spreading joy and laughter. This event is not for anyone who takes life too seriously. Having been both a spectator and performer, I can guarantee there is no better way to celebrate summer – with true Baltimore flair – than with the water ballet.
While every city has their signature treats, Baltimore’s claim to fame is one of the more unique ones. Shaved ice with flavored syrup may sound like your run-of-the-mill summertime snack but in Baltimore they are known as “snow balls”. And they’re not complete until topped off with marshmallow fluff! Note: you are not alone in being skeptical about this snack. It’s the case for all of us. I know it sounds bizarre but I was even able to win over a friend who was schooled at the Culinary Institute of America with an egg custard + fluff snow ball.
It may sound like you need to be “in” to be a part of all the events listed above but in reality that’s not the case at all. The circus sideshow that is Baltimore is everyone-inclusive, the-more-the-merrier, audience-participation-required kind of act. Sitting on the sidelines can still be fun but you’re guaranteed a good time if you let down your guard and dare to do something different – and something you can’t do just anywhere!