Photograph by Krista Rossow
Often overshadowed by other East Coast metropolises like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York, Baltimore is a city rife with culture. Its rich colonial and African-American influence, combined with its picturesque location on the Chesapeake Bay, make the city a great destination for culture junkies, history buffs, and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Our Free Guide to Baltimore tells you all you need to know about seeing the best of Charm City without spending a dime.
After opening in 1914 with just one painting, today the Baltimore Museum of Art showcases some 90,000 works of 15th- to 19th-century contemporary and modern art. Take one of the many varieties of tours offered, including guided, self-guided, audio, cell phone, and podcast tours. Don't miss Henri Matisse's "Purple Robe and Anemones" (1937), one of the artist's 500 paintings displayed in the museum—the largest Matisse collection in the world. In summer, walk about the Wurtzburger and Levi Sculpture Gardens. The museum is free for all ages and closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
The Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, once Baltimore's tallest building, hosts a state-of-the-art studio space for literary and visual artists. The area is open once a month for guests to visit the studios or purchase artwork (check the website for schedule). The tower itself is unique. Constructed in 1911, it was built by Isaac Emerson and modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. (Emerson was also the inventor of the headache remedy Bromo Seltzer, hence the tower's name.) While the 51-foot revolving blue Bromo Seltzer bottle perched on the top of the tower was removed in 1936, the original clock still displays 12 letters—BROMO SELTZER—instead of numbers.
Near the Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) is the National Electronics Museum, exhibiting telegraph, radar, radio, and satellite equipment. In the Communications Gallery, learn about Morse code and the Bell Telephone. The amateur radio station (K3NEM/W3GR) is fully equipped with both modern and vintage communications systems. See how radar technology from the Cold War was eventually used to develop household microwaves and to map the ground regardless of weather conditions. Learn about SONAR in the interactive Under Seas gallery. The museum is open every day but Sunday and is free to the public.
Learn all the verses of the "Star-Spangled Banner." Francis Scott Key's original manuscript is displayed in the Maryland Historical Society Museum. Also on exhibit are musical scores by ragtime composer Eubie Blake, anti- and pro-slavery propaganda from the Civil War era, and some one million pieces of printed ephemera, including obsolete currency, political material, and tobacco trading cards. Admission to the museum is free on the first Thursday of every month.
Visit one of the many free art exhibits at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Its exhibition halls—including the Pinkard, Decker, and Meyerhoff Galleries, as well as others—showcase a variety of student work throughout the year.
Explore art from pre-dynastic Egypt to 20th-century Europe at the Walters Art Museum in the city's Mount Vernon Cultural District. The permanent collection, which is free to view, includes Art Deco jewelry, medieval ivories, and Greek sculptures. Highlights include six sarcophagi from ancient Rome, Monet's "Springtime," and Manet's "At the Café." The museum hosts several family-oriented activities as well, including Art Tots (for children ages 2-3) and Manuscript Mania! for kids ages 7-10. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
The American Visionary Art Museum sculpture plaza and wildflower gardens are free to the public any time. Located between the main museum and sculpture barn, the sculpture plaza features a 55-foot-tall multicolored, wind-powered structure, aptly titled the "Whirligig." If kinetic sculptures interest you, visit Baltimore during the first weekend of May to see the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race (sponsored by AVAM). Watch as "amphibious, human powered works of art" race their way through 15 miles of Baltimore. Admission to be a spectator is free.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is America's first cathedral. The National Historic Landmark, constructed between 1806-1821, underwent a major restoration in 2004. Stop by during a service, lecture, or concert. A must-see is the museum, which keeps a number of 17th-century artifacts, as well as letters from former presidents to archbishops. The museum also offers guided tours of the entire church, from the museum to the crypt to the Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel (donation suggested).
Baltimore's famous Oriole Park at Camden Yards has been home to the Orioles baseball team since 1992. The stadium was the first one modeled after early 20th-century parks and features an arched brick facade, an asymmetrical field, and natural grass turf. It is located just a couple blocks away from the birthplace of baseball's most famous player, George Herman "Babe" Ruth. Today center field sits on top of what was once Ruth's Café, owned by Ruth's father. You must pay to see a game, but you can still get into Orioles spirit and walk Russell and Camden Streets before a game and take a picture with a statue of Babe Ruth, located just outside the Camden Yards gates, for free.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is perhaps Baltimore's most infamous resident. Those who don't wish to pay the small admission fee to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum (where several stories and poems are believe to be penned) can still get their Poe fix at his gravesite and memorial. Today the grave, originally unmarked and overgrown with weeds, stands 80 inches tall and dates Poe's birthday erroneously as January 20, 1809 (his birthday was the 19th). Keep your eyes peeled for the Poe Toaster, an anonymous stranger who places three roses and a bottle of cognac on the grave each year on the anniversary of Poe's death. Poe fans can also visit a statue of Poe for free at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Monument City is home to several memorials, too. Just a couple blocks from the Inner Harbor at the intersections of Lombard and Gay Streets is the Holocaust Memorial. In Harbor East, the Katyn Memorial honors Polish citizens who were executed in the Katyn Massacre during WWII. Both memorials are free for visitors.
Baltimore's Washington Monument is located in the cobblestone Mount Vernon neighborhood. The 1815 statue was the first architectural monument dedicated to George Washington. After touring the museum at the base of the monument, climb the 228 steps to the top for grand views of the city.
Throughout the year, local art museums partner with Art on Purpose to host free public art events all around town. Popular events include Big Doll House—where the public helps decorate a gigantic doll house—and Concert Draw, where student musicians play and inspire visitors to paint (art supplies provided by Art on Purpose). Events also include lectures, movie screenings, and more, so check the schedule for the latest happenings.
America's largest free public arts festival is held in Baltimore every July. Artscape features three days of performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and other live concerts, some 150 artists, visual arts exhibits, family events and hands-on projects, street theater, children's entertainers, food, and much more. Over 300,000 people attend Artscape each year, so check the schedule beforehand to prioritize the events you want to see.
Attend the free Baltimore Book Festival to hear speeches by famous authors. Speakers have included The Wire writer Rafael Alvarez, poet Pearl Cleage, and BravoTV star Tim Gunn. Visitors have also had their handwriting analyzed by experts, traded books at the book swap, and attended a storybook parade with Curious George, the Berenstain Bears, and Clifford characters. The event is family-friendly and takes place for one weekend each September.
Explore the cobblestone streets of Colonial-era Fell's Point along Baltimore's Inner Harbor. On the first Friday of each month at 5 p.m., the community hosts Art Loop, where galleries display local artwork—from oil paintings to woodwork—and are open to the public for free. Often, neighborhood restaurants will stay open late and offer discounts as well.
Stop by the visitors center in the Inner Harbor between April and November and take a free guided tour along the city's Heritage Walk. The tours last about 90 minutes and wind through 1.5 miles of historic Baltimore. Those who want to go at their own pace can pick up a self-guided tour map at the visitors center.
Between the Inner Harbor and historic Fell's Point district is Baltimore's Little Italy. Grab some cannoli to go at one of the many trattorias and then watch a bocce ball contest or street hockey match. In warmer months, the neighborhood hosts several free festivals, including the St. Anthony and St. Gabby Festivals in summer and the Taste of Little Italy in September. On summer Friday nights, bring a picnic and lawn chairs to enjoy an outdoor movie during Cinema al Fresco.
If you can't afford to attend the Preakness horse race at Pimlico Race Course—the second jewel of the annual Triple Crown—watch the Preakness Celebration Parade. Floats, giant helium balloons, marching bands, and equestrian units all partake in the annual parade down Pratt Street the Saturday before the race. The parade is free and open to the public. That same week, watch the tykes compete for the crown at the PeeWee Preakness for kids, located in Federal Hill Park.
Satisfy your snack-food cravings at the Herr's Foods factory, located just north of Baltimore in Pennsylvania. In 1946, James Herr bought a small potato chip company, and today the family business has grown to become one of the leaders in the snack food industry. The factory has a 15,000-square-foot visitors center, and visitors can watch a short film and take a one-hour guided tour for free. Learn how a tortilla chip gets its seasoning and how a pretzel turns brown. At the snack bar, be sure to test Herr's Old Bay potato chips—influenced by the area's crab industry.
Stop by Diwine Spirits—just north of the Woodholm Country Club in Pikesville—on Saturday afternoons from 1 to 6 p.m. for free wine tastings.
The Enoch Pratt Free Library has tons of weekly free events for kids and their parents. Kids ages 4-12 can learn how to play different gales during Bamboo Bunch. Mother Goose on the Loose—a literacy program that combines music, repetition, rhymes, puppets, movements, and more—premiered in this library in 1998 and has been holding weekly sessions there ever since. Check the library's schedule for other free events.
Singing sensations Dru Hill and Sisqo got their start in Baltimore—not at a club or concert hall, but at The Fudgery. When The Fudgery chain opened in 1980 in North Carolina, owner A.C. Marshall would sing for his customers. The a capella tradition continues today, and workers entertain customers—both by singing and making fudge. Test a few samples and watch how fudge is made for free. The Baltimore Fudgery is located on Light Street in Harbor Place.
Take the kids to Red Canoe, a children's bookstore in Lauraville in northeast Baltimore, for free events like sing-alongs, poetry readings, and games. Or, find a quiet corner for your own story time with your kids. The bookstore is open seven days a week.
Though most museums in Baltimore charge admission, most offer free or cheap admission to young children (like the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the USS Constellation Historic Ships Museum). Check the museums' websites for child admission information before you visit.
Stroll along N. Howard Street, home to the oldest antique district in the United States. Some must-sees include the Anne Smith Antique and Toy Museum, with children's toys dating from 1800-1940, and the Imperial Half Bushel, which specializes in antique Maryland silver.
Escape the city and explore the 100-acre Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary, located just outside the city and home to 1,000-year-old bald cypress trees. The 100-acre nature sanctuary has a free nature center (which sometimes hosts events for a small fee) and picnic tables, so pack a picnic and some binoculars to look out for bluebirds or orioles, the Maryland state bird. The park is closed on Mondays.
Wander among Japanese maples, wildflowers, and lilies at the 207-acre Cylburn Arboretum. The arboretum's mansion, built in 1863, also houses original 19th-century tapestries and furnishings. The mansion is closed on weekends, though the grounds remain open from dawn to dusk year-round. The Arboretum also hosts free concerts and fairs, including Market Day each May, with plant sales, arts and crafts, and plenty of food.
Go on a ghost hunt at the Druid Hill Park, Baltimore's first large municipal park. In 1652, the Susquehannock Indians ceded the land to Lord Baltimore, and today the area features "the three sisters" (a trio of man-made ponds), fountains, and the "stairs to nowhere." If ghost hunts aren't your thing, explore some of the many monuments that exist throughout the park, including George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and Scottsman William Wallace. On a clear day, climb to the top of the Turkish Tower (located on the southeastern edge of the park's reservoir) for some of the best views of Baltimore.
For fantastic views of Charm City, head to Federal Hill Park. The Park—opened in 1879 and free to visitors—is named for the celebration of the ratification of the Constitution.
Discover where the Battle of Baltimore (1814) took place at Fort McHenry, often called the "birthplace of the National Anthem." It was this battle and the 1,000 men who defended the city that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the "Star-Spangled Banner." Watch the daily flag change at 9:30 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.; listen to living history interpreters; stop by the visitors center to pick up an activity worksheet for kids. Fort McHenry is open until 4:45 p.m. every day (7:45 p.m. in summer). Visiting the grounds is free to the public, but there is an admission charge to enter the fort.
Baltimore has several historic public markets that have been operating for over 100 years. Stroll Broadway Market for fresh seafood and pastries. Established in 1786, it's the oldest of the still-existing markets in the city. Or, walk from the Inner Harbor to Cross Street Market (1846) and admire the 19th-century homes in the Federal Hill neighborhood.
Patapsco Valley State Park offers 14,000 acres of recreational area along 32 miles of the Patapsco River. Go hiking, canoeing, camping, or take a picnic. Walk along a 300-foot suspension bridge, hike to Bloede's Dam (the world's first internally housed hydroelectric dam), and visit the Thomas Viaduct, the world's longest multiple-arched stone railroad bridge. Kids will also enjoy the two-acre tire playground. Stop by the visitors center—located in a 19th-century stone dwelling—which details 300 years of Patapsco River history and includes a replica of a 1930s forest warden's office.
Baltimore's picturesque Inner Harbor attracts hundreds of acclaimed street performers—from magicians to musicians—in warm weather throughout the year. Take a break from site-seeing, grab lunch to go, and find a seat in the Harborplace Amphitheater (between the Pratt Street and Light Street Pavilions) to watch a variety of performances.
Three-hundred-year-old Patterson Park is perhaps one of the oldest in Baltimore, one time serving as an encampment for Union Troops during the Civil War. Today the park has playgrounds, a marble fountain, an ice-skating rink, and a pagoda built in 1890. In summer, the park is host to free music—from jazz and salsa to bluegrass and Irish folk—on Pagoda Hill. Concerts are held on various days throughout the summer, so check the schedule before attending.
Browse the gourmet market at Belvedere Square before attending "Summer Sounds at the Square," a free Friday night concert series held at the market from May to September. Concerts take place from 6-9 p.m. and feature various artists like the Crawdaddies, Sons of Pirates, and Junkyard Saints.
In summer months, parks across Baltimore come alive in the evenings with free movie screenings. The American Visionary Art Museum sponsors movies on Federal Hill on Thursdays at 9 p.m.; Little Italy on Fridays at 7 p.m.; and Fells Point on Wednesdays at 8:45 p.m. For family-friendly movies, stop by the Bel Air Outdoor Movie Nights at Shamrock Park (every other Saturday) and Johns Hopkins University (in Keyser Quadrangle on Fridays).
During October, the city hosts Free Fall Baltimore, when many museums and attractions offer free admission or events throughout the month. Check out the website before you visit in October for the complete list of free events.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
Browse photos of nature, cities, and people and share your favorite photos.