Baltimore’s nickname Charm City is well deserved, but its moniker might just as well be Free Public Transportation City. Listen up, MTA, Baltimore is wowing car-free visitors and residents alike with the Charm City Circulator, four absolutely free bus routes. The Circulator functions like clockwork 365 days per year, so efficiency is its middle name. It takes under three hours to get to Baltimore from New York City, and parents know that when you’re traveling with kids, easy accessibility is charming.
Despite Baltimore’s high walkability factor, it’s a luxury to be able to hop on a bus when the kids get tired, without paying a cent. The following family attractions are all on the Circulator routes, so getting to them couldn’t be simpler.
1. National Aquarium | aqua.org
With more than 16,000 animals calling it home, this is one of the top aquariums in the country. Its mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures is accomplished in a non-preachy yet effective manner. The “Jellies Invasion: Oceans Out of Balance” exhibit features nine species of jellyfish. If you thought these brainless creatures were there only to annoy you during your swim, prepare for a change of heart. Watching these colorful, translucent creatures move in a staccato-like rhythm is a scene straight out of Disney’s Fantasia. The exhibit will deepen your understanding of how climate change is altering the Ocean’s delicate equilibrium. Strollers are not permitted, but they loan free baby backpacks.
2. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum | Now closed
Editors’ note: Closed in 2018… This museum of pop culture is oozing with Americana. Parents can stroll down memory lane as they get up-close with childhood favorites from their toy box. School-aged kids should go nuts for the collection of vintage comic books and super hero memorabilia. There are interactive kiosks and a scavenger hunt that will keep the kids engaged while you play with your long ago favorite rainy day toy, Colorforms. It’s a fun and fascinating look at the influence pop culture has on today’s society.
3. Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum and Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards | baberuthmuseum.org
This sport’s-crazed city is the birthplace of homerun legend Babe Ruth. The Bambino was born in a simple row house that is now a shrine to all things Babe. After you view the bed where Babe was born, walk a few blocks to Camden Yards, the Orioles’ home stadium and the location of the Sports Legends museum. Dozens of interactive exhibits have a distinctly Maryland-focus. Don’t miss the Locker Room, where young visitors can try on authentic professional sports uniforms and dream of the Big League. You can purchase a discounted ticket that gets you into both museums.
4. Urban Pirates Cruise | urbanpirates.com
Baltimore’s Harbor is a glorious spot for a boat ride, but kids might not appreciate the nautical scenery for a few decades yet. That’s where Urban Pirates save the day. This swashbuckling adventure gets the whole family involved as you cruise the high seas with dozens of other passengers. Not only does the crew dress in pirate garb, all passengers are expected to participate, donning eye patches, swords and other Johnny Depp-worthy accessories. The crew should all get Tony nominations, never breaking character as they brilliantly act out pirate-style scenarios for the hour-long ride. Even the most curmudgeon adult may want to join the party and indulge in a removable skull and bones tattoo.
5. American Visionary Art Museum | avam.org
A visit to this thoroughly original museum is inspiring for young and old alike. These intuitive works by self-taught artists have universal appeal. Tweens will blush at the giant Bra Ball, creatively composed of 18,000 undergarments to form one giant sphere. The enchanting miniature fairy houses are made from recycled and natural materials. If the kids want to contemplate something big, the Sculpture Barn’s 45-foot ceilings are the perfect size for the whimsical giant sculptures that it houses. Don’t miss the quirky gift shop.
6. Pedal a Chessie Boat | baltimorepaddleboats.org
The Scottish Highlands have the Loch Ness Monster, but Baltimore is not without its very own mythical sea creature, the Chessie Monster. Named Chessie in honor of its Chesapeake Bay home, you can paddle a whimsical Chessie boat around the harbor, an active Baltimore tradition that kids will love. Each colorful Chessie fits up to four people, so the family can pedal together. You get a great view of the Tall Ships as you pedal along. Boats are rented in 30-minute increments at the Inner Harbor, March-October.
7. Fort McHenry | nps.gov
This was the site of the battle of the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the Star-Spangled Banner. If your kid thinks the national anthem is something only sung at sporting events, time spent here will get the entire family pondering its true significance. Visitors can explore the fort and numerous cannons, but the big draw is the 30 x 42 foot flag. You are invited to participate in the flag changing ceremony each morning. In fact, your assistance is needed, as it takes several dozen volunteers to hoist it up. You can take the Circulator’s Banner route here, or hop on a Water Taxi from the Inner Harbor.
8. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum | borail.org
Train enthusiasts can examine the world’s largest collection of 19th century locomotives displayed in the original roundhouse. A visit here will get the family thinking how the railroad industry helped to build this nation. It’s packed with assorted railroad memorabilia. There’s an elaborate miniature train display, plus a sweet merry-go-round that little kids can take a spin on.
9. Maryland Science Center | mdsci.org
With dozens of galleries, a planetarium, IMAX Theater and a rooftop observatory, you could easily spend an entire day here. At the Newton’s Alley exhibit, kids can explore the principles of physics through active experiments. Children aged eight and under have their own Kid’s Room where everything is colorful and just the right size for tiny hands to manipulate. Don’t miss the Energy Efficient Car exhibit, where alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles are pondered.
10. Port Discovery Children’s Museum | portdiscovery.org
This kid’s museum is the perfect destination for the tiniest members of your family, who learn best through hands-on play. Three spacious floors include a water exhibit and an interactive Egyptian display. Little foodies will love “cooking” at the retro 50’s style diner, and parents will enjoy listening to tunes on the classic jukebox while junior prepares your order. Recommended for kids ages eight and under.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Monaco is a boutique property housed in the former B & O Railroad headquarters. The kids may ignore the Beaux-Arts style architecture, original Tiffany windows and grand chandeliers, but they will notice little-people amenities such as pint-sized animal print bathrobes, complimentary in-room goldfish and a toy-filled welcome gift bag. Its business district location is super-central, a few minutes walk to the Inner Harbor and right on the Circulator’s purple line.
Where to Eat
Who says pizza has to be round? Joe Squared is re-configuring this classic and no one is complaining. It’s located next door to Port Discovery, so it’s packed with hungry families who need to refuel after a busy afternoon of play. These delicious pizzas come in individual and family-sizes. Go for a classic topping of pepperoni, or a more adventurous pesto-laced creation. The over-21 members of your family should rejoice in the thirst-quenching selection of Maryland-brewed beers on tap.
Philips Seafood is a Baltimore institution. The Inner Harbor location of this local chain couldn’t be more convenient. There’s a standard children’s menu, so the kids can stick to tried-and-true favorites like chicken fingers and pasta, while you savor briny local fare like rockfish and Baltimore crab cakes.
Eco-friendly Circulator buses spend a significant portion of the operating day in “zero” emission mode, running on pure battery power. The Circulator routes are Orange, Purple, Green and Banner. Download the free mobile app and you’ll see exactly when the next bus is arriving.
Getting to Baltimore
Consider purchasing a Baltimore Harbor Pass, which includes one-time admission to five top attractions at a discounted price. For more information on the pass and Baltimore, go to baltimore.org.
Allison is a native New Yorker, who has lived in Rome, Tuscany, Melbourne, Toronto and Los Angeles. She frequently contributes travel pieces to Family Travel Forum, using her own children as guinea pigs as they travel the globe. She is fluent in Italian and Spanish and laughably adequate in French. Her background as an Early Childhood Educator gives her an added understanding of what it takes to travel with kids in tow. She firmly believes that the most important part of education takes place outside of the classroom, on the road, around the world. She never misses a chance to sample local delicacies, as her love for travel goes hand-in-hand with her love for food and wine. Follow Allison at @gourmetrav.