Baltimore sprang to life more than 300 years ago as a ship-building town, so little surprise that many of its charms center around the water. Today, its most famous site is the landmark Inner Harbor, a historic seaport that was redeveloped from the late 1960s through the '80s. Ships still dock here, and it's also home to many of its most popular tourist attractions, including an aquarium the Travel Channel this year named one of the nation's best, a world-class science center, and a harborfront mall bustling with dozens of shops and restaurants.
Here's also where you'll find the star-shaped Fort McHenry, which successfully defended the city in 1814 from a 25-hour attack by the British navy, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the words to our national anthem.
Baltimore is an easy, 4 1/2-hour drive from Pittsburgh on fast-moving highway roads. Follow Interstate 76E to Breezewood, then Interstate 70E toward Baltimore to the exit for Interstate 695 (the Baltimore Beltway) heading toward Glen Burnie. Take exit 11A, I-95 North (toward New York) to I-395N to downtown.
If you'd rather fly, Southwest has daily nonstop flights for as little at $79 each way to Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI). SuperShuttle (supershuttle.com; 1-800-258-3826) operates vans between the airport and all major downtown hotels ($22). There's also light-rail service connecting the airport and Amtrak station at BWI, with downtown Baltimore stops at Camden Station and Penn Station. ($1.60; mta.maryland.gov/light-rail).
Once in town, the Charm City Circulator provides free shuttle service on four routes until midnight on weekends, with pickup every 10 minutes (charmcitycirculator.com). Baltimore Water Taxi (baltimorewatertaxi.com; $12 adults for an all-day pass) shuttles riders to more than a dozen tourist spots on the Inner Harbor and Patapsco River.
Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore (radisson.com; $99 and up) in the heart of downtown was once the largest hotel ever built in Maryland (it has more than 400 guestrooms). With reproduction furnishings and an opulent lobby, it's reminiscent of the grand old hotels favored by the rich and famous at the turn of the century, and it's is just a few blocks from the Inner Harbor.
More luxurious digs can be found at Hotel Monaco Baltimore (monaco-baltimore.com; starting at $195), situated in the landmark Beaux-Arts Baltimore & Ohio Railroad headquarters on North Charles Street. It hosts a wine hour every night and offers sleek, modern rooms, some of which have been customized to accommodate tall guests with extra-long beds and taller showerheads (ask for a Monte Carlo room).
Rooms in the recently renovated Days Inn Baltimore Inner Harbor, near the convention center on Hopkins Place (daysinn.com; $103 and up), have microwave ovens and refrigerators, making them ideal for families. The boutique-style Wyndham Peabody Court Hotel on Cathedral Street north of downtown is close to the Mt. Vernon Cultural District (peabodycourthotel.com; $99 and up).
For bed and breakfast types, the 1840s Carrollton Inn on Albemarle Street is a lavish (and romantic) retreat (1840scarrolltoninn.com; $150 and up) with a historic bent. Comprised of a series of turn-of-the-century townhomes, many of its guestrooms boast four-poster beds, fireplaces and whirlpool baths.
This is Maryland, so you have to sample crab. If you prefer it lumped into cakes, some of the best are served until 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, carryout or stand-up dining only, at Faidley Seafood in the famed Lexington Market (lexingtonmarket.com), the world's largest continually operated market (this is its 230th year) and the beating heart of the city's food scene. On the Inner Harbor, Phillips Seafood is a traditional Eastern Shore crab house, serving live Chesapeake Bay blue crabs (in season) as well as oysters and shrimp. In colonial Fell's Point, a cobblestoned waterfront community that was Maryland's first National Historic District (fellspointmainstreet.org), head to Kali's Court, where the crabcakes are served with Old Bay aoili. If you make a side trip to Annapolis, Cantler's Riverside Inn is known for its steamed hardshell crabs.
Rather eat pasta? Baltimore has a thriving Little Italy. Cafe Gia on South High Street is casually homey, serving simple Sicilian dishes; among the Italian delights at nearby Aldo's Ristorante Italiano -- which USA Today called "the place for romance" -- are house-cured pancetta and soppressata, and house-pickled vegetables. Della Notte's contemporary cuisine is equally upscale and served with an extensive wine list. For dessert, get the cannoli at Vaccaro's pastry shop on Albemarle Street.
Other good bets include Wit & Wisdom, a farm-to-table eatery in Harbor East; Woodberry Kitchen, which also emphasizes seasonal food from local farmers (it's housed in a 19th-century foundry known as Clipper Mill); and Regi's American Bistro on Light Street in Federal Hill, where the tater tots come stuffed with brie and bacon. Miss Shirley's Cafe at the Inner Harbor features lip-smackin' Southern cuisine (Benne Seed Chicken 'n' Waffles, anyone?), and it has been a favorite brunch spot for locals for years.
For beer lovers, hop on a water taxi to Max's Taphouse in Fell's Point, where you'll find 140 rotating drafts, five hand-pumped cask ales and a bottled beer collection in the thousands; at Cat's Eye Pub, also in Fell's Point, the 40-plus draft beers are served with live music every day of the week. At Bluegrass Tavern in Federal Hill, it's all about bourbon -- choose from more than two dozen -- all within easy walking distance to the stadium.
Can't decide until you see it? Just a block from the Inner Harbor is Power Point Live, a premier dining and entertainment district that features a variety of restaurants and nightclubs. On weekends through Christmas, there's a spectacular holiday light show with fireworks and snow every hour on the hour from 6 to 9 p.m.
Many of Baltimore's best attractions can be found within walking distance of the Inner Harbor (harborplace.com), which has been welcoming visitors, ships and goods since the 1600s. National Aquarium (aqua.org; $29.95 adults, $20.95 ages 11 and under) boasts more than 16,500 specimens representing 600 species, including a sharks, sea turtles and Australian freshwater crocodiles. Fort McHenry (nps.gov/fomc; $7 adults/children 15 and under free) and its new visitor and education center bring the War of 1812 to life, including the dramatic moment in 1814 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The city has two renowned art museums. Founded in 1914, Baltimore Museum of Art (artbma.org; free, closed Mondays and Tuesdays) boasts more than 90,000 pieces of art, including the world's largest holding of works by Henri Matisse; you'll see masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh. American Visionary Art Museum (avam.org; $15.95 adults) is the only museum in the country dedicated to works created by self-taught artists. Its current exhibition, "The Art of Storytelling," explores lies, enchantment, humor and truth through embroidery, sculpture and graffiti and other mediums. Geppi's Entertainment Museum (geppismuseum.com; $10 adults, $7 kids) takes visitors on an unprecedented journey through American history by focusing on pop culture in media, toys and comic characters.
If sports are more your thing, don't miss the Babe Ruth Museum (baberuthmuseum.org; $6 adults, or $8 with admission to Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards) or the National Pinball Museum (nationalpinballmuseum.org). Founded in 1998, it celebrates 140 years of pinball.
Or maybe you'd rather shop. "The Avenue" in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood (36th Street) is packed with locally owned boutiques and antique shops. There's also a bustling shopping district with unique shops a half-hour away in historic Annapolis (www.visit-annapolis.org).
Todd Conner's in Fell's Point is a known Steelers haven (pierogies and a french fry-topped Pittsburgh salad are on the menu). So is NcDevin's in Canton.
Visit baltimore.org or call 1-877-225-8466.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.