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The city of Baltimore is located just 11 miles from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) and is a great add-on before or after your trip to Washington DC Since it’s often cheaper to fly into BWI than Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA) or Dulles (IAD), you’ll be perfectly situated to start your exploration of Downtown Baltimore either before or after a trip to our nation’s capital (or visit Baltimore all on its own).

It’s a 15-minute drive (depending on the traffic) to Baltimore from BWI, or a little longer via light rail. There’s even a train station for Amtrak and Maryland Rail Commuter Service (MARC) with trains running between Baltimore and Washington every 10 minutes via free shuttle from the airport.

“Charm City”, as it is known, is a great family destination with something fun, interesting and often educational to do for all ages and almost all interests. Families will love that many of the attractions are free.

Photo courtesy of L. Toshio Kishiyama / Getty Images
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (Photo courtesy of L. Toshio Kishiyama / Getty Images)

Sightsee Aboard the Charm City Circulator Bus

The free Charm City Circulator Bus runs four routes throughout most of the city. (This is in addition to the paid light rail and subway systems.) The Orange Line travels between Hollins Market through Harbor East; the Purple route serves stops between Federal Hill and 33rd Street; the Green route runs between City Hall, Fells Point and through Johns Hopkins; and the Banner route serves the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry.

Check Out Free Museums

A world-class art collection resides in the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and it’s all free except for some special exhibits and events. Programs are geared toward several age groups, including Free Family Sunday, where you may sculpt a silver tea service, build Baltimore furniture, sew American portraits or make a hat. Family activity guides are available in the African, Modern and American galleries. The BMA has more than 500 pieces of work by Matisse, the largest private collection anywhere in the world. The rest of the museum’s collection runs from Byzantine to current contemporary art, with an outdoor sculpture garden.

Baltimore Museum of Art
Baltimore Museum of Art (Photo courtesy of Visit Baltimore)

The Walters Art Museum, home of another of Baltimore’s great art collections, is also free (again, except for some special exhibitions and programs). The museum offers a ton of family art programs that include creating your own art, live performances or dress-up play. Drop-in art activities are scheduled on weekends. Programs are also available for newborns to 23 months and beyond. Download museum activities on your electronic device for self-exploration. If you think art museums are stuffy, you’re right in this case: The Walters has a great taxidermy collection and an annual “stuffing” contest!

The Walters Art Museum
The Walters Art Museum (Photo courtesy of Visit Baltimore)

Perhaps the newest (Spring 2017) free attraction is the Baltimore City Police Museum, so there’s a good chance you and your children haven’t seen it — even if you’re a frequent visitor or a permanent resident. Baltimore has the eighth largest police force in the country, with more than 3,000 civilian and sworn personnel, and has been in existence since 1784. If you’ve ever wanted to learn about the force’s history (beyond “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” TV shows), then this is the place. You can explore the force’s 200+ year history through photos, documents and other ephemera. You can also see an old cell block or stand in front of a line-up.

Visit a Schooner

The Pride of Baltimore II is a boat classified as a wooden topsail schooner. It was built in 1988 to replace the original Pride that sank in a freak microburst storm in 1986. She sails to domestic and international ports as a goodwill ambassador for Baltimore and Maryland. During warm weather, you can visit and walk the deck for free. More detailed tours and rides around Baltimore Harbor charge a fee.

The tall ships of Baltimore
The tall ships of Baltimore (Photo courtesy of Visit Baltimore)

Play Outside in Baltimore

Our Playground at Stadium Place is a terrific place to run off pent-up energy. You can climb, swing, run and slide on dozens of pieces of equipment. Regarding the name, it’s on the land where the Old Memorial Stadium (where the Baltimore Colts and Baltimore Orioles played) used to be, ergo the name. After the stadium was demolished and housing was constructed, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Family Center Y was added. The playground burned in 2008, but was rebuilt in 2009 (by volunteers both times) from recycled plastic “lumber.” Try the built-in xylophone (think Tom Hanks in “Big”). Nearby is the Thanksgiving Place Labyrinth, so bring lunch and grab a nearby table for a picnic.

Hampton National Historic Site (north of the city) is part of the National Park Service and includes a Georgian mansion and gardens from the 1700s. Originally an estate of 25,000 acres, the NPS offers a variety of programs across the now 63-acre property. They offer guided tours of the mansion, lower house and grounds. Or, take your own self-guided tours of the gardens and buildings via your electronic device. Beyond the architecture and décor, you can play with toys from the 18th and 19th centuries, including marbles, jacks, Game of Graces, hoop and stick, and more.

Sherwood Gardens is a delightfully photogenic park in the middle of a lovely residential area. A serene location for weddings, picnics, family reunions and other activities, it’s most known for the spectacularly beautiful 80,000 tulips planted throughout the 6 acres that bloom every spring. John W. Sherwood (local petroleum pioneer and conservationist) created the gardens in the 1920s. When he died in 1965, he left the garden and funds that would last a year to continue the operation. The Guilford Association purchased the gardens the following year. While it’s gorgeous all year, with azaleas, dogwoods, flowering cherries, wisteria and magnolias, you want to see it when the tulips are in bloom. The tulips are dug up each spring and sold, and then 80,000+ new bulbs are planted in October for next year’s enjoyment.

Many years ago, cemeteries were rural and parklike and people would visit for an afternoon picnic or a stroll. Green Mount Cemetery was Baltimore’s first rural or garden cemetery, set on rolling hills, with plenty of nature, lovely gardens, shady avenues (tall maples, walnuts, sycamores, chestnuts and beach) and fine architecture. Actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth is among the famous and infamous who are buried here. His tombstone is easy to spot because people put Lincoln head pennies on top of it. Two conspirators, Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, are also here. Famed philanthropist Johns Hopkins, poet Sidney Lanier, congressmen, governors, mayors, business leaders, military personnel and others are among the 65,000+ interred here. During the winter, reach the spot that’s 190 feet above sea level and you can see the skyline of Downtown Baltimore. Admission is free, but there’s a small fee for a map to the 75 most visited graves.

Almost any time you see a view of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, it’s a picture taken from the top of Federal Hill. There’s more there than a location for a photo op though. Federal Hill Park, the big green hillside, has park bench seating and picnicking; a basketball court (renovated by local business Under Armour); Flag Staff Plaza (dedicated by then-Maryland governor Martin O’Malley on June 14, 2012, or Flag Day); cannons that once protected Fort McHenry during the War of 1812; and a playground with miniature “historic icons” of the Federalist ship, the Signal Hill Tower, a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad engine and roundhouse.

Federal Hill in Baltimore
Federal Hill (Photo courtesy of Visit Baltimore)

Take a break that includes a little hiking through flora and fauna surrounding a 19th-century mansion and gardens. Cylburn Arboretum is a nature preserve spanning more than 200 acres with numerous hiking trails peppered with Japanese maples, paperback maples, sugar maples, wildflowers, lilies and more. The on-site mansion was built in 1863 as a summer home by 37-year-old Quaker businessman Jesse Tyson and has some 19th-century tapestries and furnishings. Check the schedule for guided garden walks, a bonsai lecture, concerts, fairs and even a nighttime firefly walk. The Vollmer Visitor and Education Center demonstrates green building practices and is home for workshops and special events.

Bottom Line

Baltimore stands on its own as a family vacation destination or can certainly serve as a nice add-on when traveling to Washington DC. If you spend a night or more in Baltimore, consider staying at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Baltimore Inner Harbor (pets welcome), Hyatt Place Baltimore/Inner Harbor (across Light Street from Baltimore’s Harborplace), Holiday Inn Baltimore-Inner Harbor, Hyatt Regency Baltimore Inner Harbor, Baltimore Marriott Waterfront or Sheraton Inner Harbor — all family-friendly points properties. If you don’t have enough points in any of those programs, remember that you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt, IHG and Marriott/SPG. Or, pick up the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card, the World of Hyatt Credit Card or the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card to add to your point totals or start working towards earning anniversary award nights that will come in handy.

If you’d prefer to stay in the nation’s capital instead of Baltimore, check out these Washington, D.C. Airbnbs as well as reviews of the Park Hyatt Washington DC and the JW Marriott Washington DC . And if free is your very favorite price, read on to learn 6 Ways to Find Free (or Cheap) Things to Do on Vacation.

Featured image courtesy of Visit Baltimore

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