Baltimore Won’t Break the Bank

Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Max Hartshorne photo.
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Max Hartshorne photo.
Tourists admire Baltimore's famous Inner Harbor. Photo courtesy of Visit Baltimore.
Tourists admire Baltimore’s famous Inner Harbor. Photo courtesy of Visit Baltimore.

By Emily Grund

For many travelers, Baltimore may be seen as just a city to drive through to get to Washington, D.C.

Many may choose to fly to Baltimore’s Washington International airport instead of Dulles International to save a few dollars, or perhaps even stay in Baltimore for a cheaper hotel outside of D.C.

Red Sox fans have been known to travel to Baltimore to see them play the Orioles because tickets are cheaper and easier to buy than tickets at Fenway, but often see nothing more than the Camden Yards stadium.

The downside of all this is that travelers aren’t spending much time exploring the actual city of Baltimore, and they are missing out on a fun, budget-friendly place.

As a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with limited funds, I completely understand the importance of pinching every penny.

So on my recent trip to Baltimore, I paid close attention to the value of each experience and was pleasantly surprised to find several activities and events that kept me and my wallet happy.

From museums, to attractions, food, transportation, and even festivals, Baltimore is booming with inexpensive and free things to discover

Enjoying the local delicacy-blue crab--at Bo Brooks in Baltimore.
Enjoying the local delicacy-blue crab–at Bo Brooks in Baltimore.

Plus the city has something to offer for everyone, whether you’re a college kid like me interested in art, a family of five crazy about science, or a couple on their 25th wedding anniversary fascinated by culture.

Nicknamed “Smalltimore” by locals, who often run into people they know during outings, Baltimore is a city where great attractions are within walking distance or a short bus ride away.

This alluring characteristic of Baltimore allowed for my three-day trip to be packed full and well worth the hour-and-a-half flight from Boston.

Affordable Attractions

$10.00 or Less

It was decided as soon as I left Baltimore that I would need to go back someday to see more. As a huge fan of museums, I could spend hours looking through every room and exhibit; however, because of time constraints, that was not always possible.

For example, Geppi’s Entertainment Museum is filled with more than 6,000 pop culture artifacts from the past 250 years, meaning you could easily spend an entire day examining each exhibit broken up by decade, but a girl’s gotta eat eventually.

Fortunately, admission is $10.00 for adults and half price on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and game days for the Orioles or the Ravens. So when I return to Baltimore that may be the first museum I return to.

Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore has an extensive collection of original comics.
Geppi’s Entertainment Museum has an extensive collection of original comics. Photo by Emily Grund.

The museum, which is mostly a display from Steve Geppi’s personal collection, includes several original items from comic books to Barbie, movie posters and other pop culture items. Since the museum route goes in chronological order, it is very interesting to see how characters evolve and are often recycled. This museum is particularly family-friendly because everyone can relate to different items of pop culture.

My dad would have loved to see the Popeye collection, while my brother would have appreciated the Star Wars display. As for me, I was nostalgic over Carebears and Pez dispensers. Curator Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg said “People particularly enjoy this museum because it includes their childhood memories. It really gets to people because they have an emotional attachment to a lot of these characters.”

For another kind of cultural experience, check out the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. This modern museum covers the lives of African Americans from Maryland. Both the outside and the inside of this museum have chic architecture with bold lines and colors that make the museum aesthetically pleasing.

The Municipal Building in Baltimore.
The Municipal Building in Baltimore.

Once inside, three permanent exhibits show the strength of body and mind of African Americans throughout Maryland’s history. “Things Hold Lines Connect”, “Building Maryland, Building America”, and “The Strength of the Mind” offer several educational lessons along with artifacts that demonstrate many hardships and accomplishments over the years.

There are also several special exhibitions that change throughout the year. Currently the museum is featuring an exhibit titled “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges” through September 26, 2010 that covers the relationships between Jewish refugees who came to America and taught African American students.

This unique exhibition was very moving to see, offering quotes from Jewish professors who were appalled that the same kind of segregation was happening in the United States as in Germany. This dynamic allowed for these professors to respect and stand beside African Americans struggling for their rights. A chilling viewing of a Ku Klux Klan robe demonstrated the extremes that Jewish people witnessed when they arrived in America hoping for peace.

The view from Top of the World Observation Level. Photo by Emily Grund.
The view from Top of the World Observation Level.

Another exhibition that just opened was a tribute to Maryland’s famed singer Billie Holiday, featuring her music and a piano she played. For $8.00 this museum is a bargain if you’re interested in the culture and history of Maryland.

If you’re in need of a break from museums, or have an hour to spare before a dinner reservation, the Top of the World Observation Level is the place for you. Located on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center, the tallest five-sided building in the world, you can see all of Baltimore from every direction.

Millie Beese, a tour guide and long-time resident of Baltimore, had a wealth of information about the building and the city. She said oftentimes schools or groups of children will come to learn about Baltimore and go on scavenger hunts to find certain destinations and information about them on placards, making the experience interactive and fun while also educational. Beese said “We are the most northern southern city and the most southern northern city.”

Located below the Mason-Dixon Line, Beese said that is one of the reasons why their culture and history is so interesting.

“I love Baltimore, not only because I’ve lived here all my life, but the people are congenial and diverse.” The stunning views, and the plethora of information to learn about Baltimore make this a must-see attraction in the inner harbor for only $5 adult admission.

Moving through the city, if you find yourself tight on cash but wanting to see one more fun and interesting attraction, check out the Walters Art Museum for free. Although I was unable to visit the museum because I ran out of time, I was able to see it from the outside and it is an impressively large building, fitting hundreds of year’s worth of art and a notable collection too.

Dinosaur skeletons inside the Maryland Science Center.
Dinosaur skeletons inside the Maryland Science Center.

According to the website the museum “presents an overview of world art from pre-dynastic Egypt to 20th-century Europe, and counts among its many treasures Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi; medieval ivories and Old Master paintings; Art Deco jewelry and 19th-century European and American masterpieces.” This is definitely an attraction I want to see when I return.

Deals Worth Checking Out

Not everything can be budget friendly all the time, but every once in awhile a good deal will come along that you can’t pass up. This goes for the Maryland Science Center “Friday’s After Five” deal where admission is reduced to $8 from $14.95 after five in the afternoon from October to March.

This museum is perfect for the hands-on kind of person, because almost every exhibit offers something interactive to try. Dig for bones amongst dinosaur skeletons, or create a tornado while learning about the weather.

Todd Scott, Director of Media for the Maryland Science Center, said, “Even at private events, there will be a line of fifty-year-old women waiting to try the bed of nails,” which demonstrates the distribution of weight by lifting a person lying on nails.

Sure enough, the line was always too long with kids for me to give it a try, but it looked like a lot of fun.

A popular place for field trips, it was clear to see kids were constantly enjoying themselves and could spend hours exploring while learning. This was another place I could have gotten lost in for awhile, the interactive aspect to the museum drew me in, and made me want to be a little kid again, so I also hope to return here when I have more time.

The National Aquarium  But if you want to see the dolphins, jellyfish, and hundreds of other different kinds of fish and marine life, another deal worth looking into is the Baltimore Harbor Pass which allows you to see five main attractions at a discounted price of $49.95 if you buy three days in advance.  Prices vary depending on day and time you want to go.

The Esplanade in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Esplanade in Baltimore.

Visitors get to choose from the Maryland Science Center, National Aquarium, Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, Top of the World Observation Level, Port Discovery Children’s Museum, or my personal favorite the American Visionary Art Museum. You have four days to see these top attractions, so if any or all are a part of your itinerary this 25% discount deal is more than worth investigating.

Free Festivities

Baltimore puts on several festivals throughout the year, especially during the warmer months, and many of them are free. For example, Flowermart 2010 brought local vendors together to sell flowers, jewelry, bags, and other merchandise. Located in Mt. Vernon Square, Flowermart was a successful and fun attraction for locals and tourists to come together during the first weekend of May. offers a calendar view of all the fun and exciting festivals that go on, so you are bound to find at least one that fits your interest and your budget.

Many businesses and organizations also do something special for the First Thursdays series, celebrating the first Thursday of the month May through October. For example, I was there for the first Thursday of May and caught the MTA Corporate Karaoke Challenge in Hopkins Plaza.

The free event allowed me to capture the fun and friendly culture of the city, where corporate workers let loose during their lunch break and performed karaoke to try and win a prize.

July through August, the American Visionary Art Museum offers free viewings of movies on Thursday nights that can be seen from Federal Hill. AVAM presents movies related to the current exhibition, which this summer is “Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness”, and offers free admission to the museum from 5-9 before the film starts.

Charm City Circulator offers free bus rides to popular destinations. Photo courtesy of Charm City Circulator.
Charm City Circulator offers free bus rides to popular destinations. Photo courtesy of Charm City Circulator.

With a beautiful view of the harbor, this event would be perfect for a date, or a great way to relax after the hot sun goes down. And of course, the free admission to this funky museum, is a deal that shouldn’t be passed up.

Affordable Transportation and Lodging

Now that I’ve convinced you to go to Baltimore, I guess you need to know where to stay and how to get around too.

To get to Baltimore by plane, Baltimore Washington International Airport often offers great deals with a variety of airlines. The Light Rail train can bring you from BWI to downtown Baltimore for a small fare of $1.60 or $3.50 if you need to use the Light Rail for the day. This mode of transportation is also useful for getting around the city if you need to get from one end to the other quickly.

For a budget hotel, the most conveniently located chain is the Holiday Inn Inner Harbor. Just a short walking distance to downtown or the inner harbor, you can’t lose with this location. It’s also a short ride to the airport, so travelers can enjoy the most of their time in Baltimore instead of traveling to and from it. Just keep in mind that standard rooms do not have refrigerators, which can be a bummer if you have leftovers from your awesome meals!

If you’re a young traveler like me and don’t mind sharing a room to save a few bucks, there is also a Hostelling International Baltimore which is also conveniently located in downtown Baltimore. They offer a guest kitchen, lounge, free wi-fi and free breakfast, making this a very budget friendly choice.

There is so much to see in Baltimore so it’s easy for your feet to get tired from all the walking around. If your dogs are barking, the Charm City Circulator is a free bus service that hits all the hot spots of the city. Keep in mind that the Circulator is a new development, so scheduling issues are still being worked out. As of this writing, the circulator stops running at 9 at night, so be sure to check with the driver before you get on if you’ll make it to your stop by 9.

 A mother and daughter play in the fountains by the Baltimore Visitor Center. Photo by Emily Grund.
A mother and daughter play in the fountains by the Baltimore Visitor Center. Photo by Emily Grund.

Or after a hot day of exploring the harbor, you can take Ed Kane’s Water Taxi for $10 if you want to get from one side to the other while enjoying the cool breeze.

Baltimore is very accommodating when it comes to budget travel, especially with transportation and lodging so that you have more money to spend on the fabulous attractions the city has to offer.

When in Doubt Walk Around

Upon my arrival to Baltimore, I had some time to kill before my first activity, so I decided to get a feel for my surroundings. What I noticed almost immediately was the abundant amount of sculptures and fountains.

Around every corner was an artistic and beautiful display, ranging from a mosaic blue crab, to a multicolored structure with built in benches to sit on. Children could be found playing in a fountain by the harbor, and dancing waterfalls complemented the inner harbor entrance.

So even if you are on the tightest budget, walking around for free in this city is just as entertaining as going to a museum. Many attractions and hot spots are centralized, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost, and if you do they have maps around downtown Baltimore that help locate where you are and where you need to go.

A recent resident of Baltimore, Nick Houhoulis, was quick to say good words about his new home. “There is a lot of creative buzz in this city. All I knew of Baltimore before I moved here was the inner harbor, but there is so much more.” As an opera singer, he said he has felt that he fits right in with the community. “The art community is just bursting right now, it’s a great city with a lot to offer.”

Emily Grund

Emily Grund writes about business travel in New York City, a former intern with GoNOMAD.

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