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Top Five Cities For You and Your Kids: Baltimore, Maryland

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Baltimore is a city of nicknames.  “Monument City” is oft mentioned, and there are, in fact, a great many monuments around town dedicated to the likes of George Washington and Edgar Allan Poe.  “Charm City” is also bandied about and, determined to be worthy of the title, Baltimoreans are unfailingly polite.  “The City of Firsts” and “The City that Reads” are ever more monikers but the one I would choose is “The Big Easy” -- if New Orleans hadn't chosen it first.  Baltimore is nothing if not easy – easy to get around, easy to get to know, easy to like.  And as parents everywhere know, anything that's easy is sure to be a hit with kids!

Where to stay     The Hyatt Regency Baltimore on the Inner Harbor boasts newly refurbished guest rooms with plump-as-can-be beds and a mod chaise lounge for reading or relaxing.  Request a corner king for maximal space and opt for a water view.  While the creature comforts here are considerable, kids will hardly notice as they home in on the glass elevators that whisk the family from the lobby to the room in record time.  Also utterly child-pleasing is a “sky walk” that transports guests from the hotel to the Inner Harbor with nary a “Don't Walk” sign in sight.  A stories-high atrium is home to Perks, a coffee bar serving breakfast treats with a side of harbor view; Bistro 300, also at the atrium level, offers more complete meals.  The snug swimming pool, two tennis courts and proximity to top attractions are icing on the cake.  300 Light Street, (410) 528-1234; baltimore.hyatt.com.  Doubles from $249; Internet specials and package rates available.

Water Water Everywhere     Baltimore's Inner Harbor is a poster child for urban redevelopment.  An active commercial and passenger port through the 1950s, the waterfront was re-imagined by then-Mayor William Schaefer in the late 1970s.  Harborplace, a sprawling shopping/dining mecca that hugs the water's edge, opened in 1980 and paved the way for numerous family-friendly attractions, among them the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center.  Orioles Park at Camden Yards, while not directly on the water, is an easy walk away as is the Port Discovery Children's Museum.  Stick with the water theme, however, and make your first stop the National Aquarium.  Kids will be wide-eyed from the get-go as they are greeted by a 35-foot-tall waterfall encased in glass and teeming with fish.  Walking into a shark's mouth is next – thankfully, only teeth and jaw remain and yes, those teeth are BIG.  Wend your way over to “Animal Planet Australia,” where the snakes, lizards and birds make nice since they are in separate display cases.  Fish and turtles can also be found in the land down under along with swimming lizards.  More swimming, and jumping, is performed by dolphins in their very own show although the real show-stopper may be the Aquarium's new 4-D Theater, where movies of the sea come to thrilling 4-D life.  Exit this excellent facility via a stories-high circular walkway surrounded by the sea life of an Atlantic coral reef.  aqua.org.

If all this water has you ready to get IN the water, make your way around the harbor and over to Ride the Ducks.  This wacky adventure will have the family riding in a re-engineered World War II military duck a.k.a. amphibious vehicle with an erstwhile Captain America as your guide.  Grab a “quacker” from the captain and make your way around town, duck sounds all around (you didn't think the kids would be quiet, now did you?).  Monuments, churches and neighborhoods get equal play and, among other things, you'll be pleased to hear that the Great Fire of Baltimore in 1904 resulted in zero casualties.  The ride ends on a high note with a 20-minute harbor cruise, allowing everyone to ooh and aah the city views.  baltimoreducks.com.

Camden Yards, Past and Present     The first of the downtown, retro-style ballparks for a major league team was Orioles Park at Camden Yards, which opened in1992 on the site of a former rail yard (since that time, nearly a dozen major league teams have christened their own city-center retro ballparks).  Home to the Baltimore Orioles and known simply as “Camden Yards” to its fans, the ballpark is evocative of the city's past.  The old B&O Warehouse lords over right field while the Bromo Seltzer Tower, all curlicues and flourishes, glistens in the distance; the scoreboard sign advertising The Baltimore Sun is a neon treat.  A game here is a treat for the entire family as the ballpark is cozier than you'd imagine and awash in the team's signature orange and black – think Halloween in July!  If little ones get bored with the game's slow pace, there's a large climbing structure within the confines of the park.  Expect standard ballpark fare and numerous requests for the psychedelically-colored cotton candy.  Visit baltimore.orioles for detailed information on games as well as ballpark tours.

Just outside the ballpark is another blast from the past, though this one has more to do with pop culture than pop flies.  Geppi's Entertainment Museum is an ode to the toys and games of yore and taps into their zeitgeist.  While most kids won't recognize the playthings and pop icons of their parents' generation, they'll still be eager to accompany Mom and Dad on the stroll down memory lane.  The museum's galleries correspond to a particular era, making it easy for everyone to find their favorite period.  In “Revolution,” the 1960s are brought back to life via The Beatles, Bewitched, Bozo the Clown and Pez dispensers (aha! The kids will get the latter one.).  “Expanding Universe” focuses on the 1970s and 80s and their penchant for smart gals like Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman and Miss Piggy while keeping in mind that this was also the era of Miami Vice, Cabbage Patch Kids, Gremlins and E.T.  “Out of the Box” is an exhibit that allows kids to touch and play with the toys of today, while a display of antique mechanical toy banks will keep kids clanging away.  The unique, whimsical and downright irresistible nature of this museum make it a must visit.  geppismuseum.com.

It's No Mystery, It's History!     Only true historians, and Baltimoreans, are likely to know the back story of Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.  The original fort dates to the Battle of Baltimore, September 13-14, 1814, a seminal battle in the War of 1812 (which went on until 1815).  The star-shaped fort, which juts out into the Patapsco River and is eight miles upstream from the Chesapeake Bay, is where brave locals took on a far larger British fighting force.  Cannon and gun fire streaked across the sky and when the battle was over 25 hours later, Francis Scott Key witnessed the American flag being hoisted as he sailed back to the fort.  This moment of victory moved him to pen “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America's national anthem.  The fort is filled with informative and interactive exhibits
but the true highlight is the flag lowering ceremony held at 4:20 p.m. daily.  Kids can assist park rangers in folding the Stars and Stripes and the feeling of patriotism is priceless.  nps.gov/fomc/.

History of a more benign sort can be witnessed at the B&O Railroad Museum, site of the first full-service railroad in
the U.S.  The B&O line dates back to the early 1800s and served both commercial and residential customers.   Children will enjoy running around a roundhouse that dates to 1884 and climbing aboard old passenger cars with names like “Allegheny” and “President Washington.”  A C&O passenger rail car is a great place to play engineer while an expansive HO-gauge train layout brings early Baltimore back to life, replete with Bromo Seltzer Tower and the originalCamden Yards.  Surprisingly, this museum will prove captivating for both boys and girls.  borail.org.

Kids Only Need Apply     At the Port Discovery Children's Museum, voted one of the top five children's museums in the U.S., kids are encouraged to learn through play.  Make that physical play, as the museum will prove a delightful workout for kids.  Begin at “Kidworks,” a three-story urban tree house filled with slides, rope bridges, zip lines and the like.  Good luck getting your kids out of this maze but if you do, proceed to “Miss Perception's Mystery House,” where the Baffeld Family has left plentiful clues for you to solve a mystery.  The new “Wonders of Water” exhibit is filled with aqua-play while infants and toddlers will happily pad around the “Sensation Station.”  The museum's indoor soccer field should be your last stop – the inflatable soccer ball is pitch perfect.  portdiscovery.org.  Catch your breath at the Top of the World Observatory atop Baltimore's World Trade Center, the tallest pentagonal building in the world.  The views in every direction are far-reaching and aided by the detailed maps placed nearby.  Kids will provide a continuous chorus of “I found it!” while parents interject a few “Baltimore Firsts.”  The Observatory's gift shop is one of the best in town so be sure to purchase a few crabby souvenirs.  viewbaltimore.org.

Great Nabes     Baltimore is filled with charming city-center neighborhoods, calling to mind the “Charm City” moniker once again.  While Mt. Vernon, Canton and Hampden should be visited if time permits, best bets are Fells Point and Federal Hill.  Located east of the Inner Harbor, Fells Point is a former maritime colony where shipbuilding was king and tired workers repaired to their favorite pub at the end of the day.  There are still over a hundred pubs in this cozy neighborhood but its cobbled streets are now populated by shops, restaurants and cafes tucked into the elegant brick buildings.  Expect your kids to pull you in to Maggie Moo's Ice Cream and Treatery (821 South Broadway, 410/342-8399; maggiemoos.com), where the ice cream is served with toppings ranging from Twix and cookies to gummy bears and Reese's Pieces.  Enjoy your treats in the adjacent open-air square, then amble over to scenic Thames Street, where A Muse (1623 Thames Street, 410/342-5000; amusetoys.com) will prove plenty amusing.  This whimsical, education-based toy store is stocked with things “that have a purpose, not necessarily best sellers,” according to owner Claudia Towles.

Due south of the downtown district is Federal Hill, a dense commercial/residential area crowned by its eponymous hill, which looks out over the Inner Harbor.  The large greensward that makes up the hill is ideally suited to energetic kids in need of some running.  Bisected by busy Light Street, Federal Hill is home to countless shops and cafes as well as the Cross Street Market (1065 S. Charles Street; closed on Sundays), a newly-renovated historic marketplace where the whirl of flowers, baked goods and delicious seafood is sure to please.  Also a surefire hit and close by is Dangerously Delicious Pies (1036 Light Street, 410/522-PIES; dangerouspies.com).  Don't let the dangerous décor (skull and crossbones motif, anyone?) fool you – these are seriously good pies.  Over forty kinds of pies are on sale daily and each and every crust is rolled by hand.  Think key lime pie or chess pie to satisfy a sweet tooth or savory steak and mushroom pie for heartier appetites.

Where to eat     The Oceanaire Seafood Room is reminiscent of a luxury liner of the 1940s – deco touches abound and the bustling dining room will drown out your kids.  Only fresh seafood is served and the crab cakes are arguably the best in town.  With an extensive wine list and milk and cookies available for dessert, the whole family will walk away pleased.  801 Aliceanna Street, 443/872-0000; theoceanaire.com.  Around the corner at Enoteca Cingiale, it's the eat-in bar that's a family draw.  Yet another member of the resurgent Harbor East dining scene, the Enoteca (Italian for “wine bar”) is a high-ceilinged, dark wood space where singles and couples line the bar and families make a bee-line for a cosseting booth.  Order an array of appetizers as a grazing meal – selections like the creamy risotto balls, fried squash and orecchiette (“little ears”) pasta will go down easy with even the pickiest eaters.  822 Lancaster Street, 410/547-8282; cinghiale-osteria.com.  Over at L.P. Steamers, one word says it all:  crabs.  Big Maryland blue crabs are the house specialty and the helpful wait staff is happy to show you how to get the most out of each shell.  Fried and steamed seafood and shellfish are also available and it can all be washed down with a drink on the rooftop deck.  1100 E. Fort Avenue, 410/576-9294; lpsteamers.com.  While L.P. Steamers boasts a panoramic city view, the M&S Grill looks out over the Inner Harbor from its dockside perch.  Snag an outdoor table, the better to enjoy the musician busking steps away.  The menu at the M&S is a mix of meat and seafood and the popcorn shrimp will surely win over the kids.  Daily specials are a great way for parents to appreciate the chef's talents.  201 E. Pratt Street, #1, 410/547-9333; mandsgrill.com.

Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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