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Car-free family trip idea: Baltimore

If you have young children and don't own a car or just don't like driving, you know what a pain weekend trips can be. With the new weekend MARC service to Baltimore, Charm City can be a fun family car-free trip, especially when the weather calls for indoor activities.

Photo by Kevin Labianco on Flickr.

I've taken my 5-year-old son to Baltimore for car-free weekends about 6 times, and he is always asking to go again. It's easily done without the hassle of a car, because most attractions are within easy walking distance of the Inner Harbor.

Getting there and back

You can take the Amtrak or MARC trains 7 days per week between Union Station and Baltimore's Penn Station. The Amtrak Northeast Regional runs between the two stations with tickets as low as $12 and takes 40 minutes. The MARC Penn Line does the same trip in an hour for only $7.00 and now runs 9 trains each way on Saturdays and 6 on Sundays. You can also spend $70 per ticket on the Acela and arrive in only 28 minutes.

My son and I either take an afternoon train on Friday afternoon in time to get him in bed in a hotel on time, or an early morning Saturday train. Kids love trains, of course, and it's wonderful to arrive without the stress of driving.

When you get to Penn Station, you need to take a bus to the Inner Harbor, which is probably where your hotel and activities are. Baltimore has a Circulator bus just like DC, but theirs is free, which is nice. It's called the Charm City Circulator, and the Purple Line runs between Penn Station and the harbor every 10-15 minutes.

The Circulator will take you down the west side of the Harbor. If you are headed to Harbor East, which is where we usually stay, you can either transfer onto the Orange Line or impress your family by taking the local Maryland Transit Administration bus directly from Penn Station to Harbor East. Check out bus directions on Google Maps on your phone and you'll find the next 11 bus running every 30 minutes between Penn Station and Harbor East. Have $1.60 ready per passenger, including kids.

Where to stay

Inner Harbor accommodations can get pricey, but we've found a fantastic hotel option. The Homewood Suites in Harbor East is situated in between all the kids' activities, and has a kiddie pool inside. A large, good breakfast is included.

It's an all-suite hotel, which is a nice perk allowing parents to relax after kids go to sleep. Advance reservations start at $170/night, while same-week reservations start at $189/night. If you're flexible, they drop prices the day before your trip when the hotel isn't filling up, and I've paid as little as $120 as a result.

What to do

There are three big things for kids to do in the Inner Harbor: the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Port Discovery Children's Museum. Here's our time-tested routine.

We arrive Saturday morning, and after taking the Purple Line Circulator bus to Pratt Street, we walk down to Miss Shirley's for lunch. Your kids will love the kids meals in giant bento boxes, and you'll love the crab cake fried green tomatoes eggs benedict.

It may seem like the only restaurants in the Inner Harbor are chains, but there are fantastic local restaurants as well. You just have to head to the east side of the Harbor to find them.

After lunch, we head to the Port Discovery Children's Museum, which is right behind Miss Shirley's. Port Discovery is awesome, and will help your kids get their wiggles out after sitting on the train and a bus.

After the Children's Museum we walk to the Homewood Suites Harbor East, which is an easy 10 minute walk. If we have time, we stop by Vaccaro's Italian Pastry in Little Italy for ice cream, which is right on the way.

We have a little resting time in the hotel, then walk back into Little Italy to get a pizza at Isabella's Pizza, the best pizza in Little Italy.

After a good night's sleep, we wake up Sunday morning and have breakfast in the hotel before headed to the hotel kiddie pool. The big decision to make is whether to then head to the Aquarium or the Science Museum.

The National Aquarium is a very pleasant walk over a couple wooden bridges from Harbor East, away from the tourists on the west and north sides of the harbor. At $35 for adults and $22 for kids under 12, it's a pricey attraction but worth the money if your kid is old enough to really take it in.

Don't head to the aquarium for dolphin shows, because those ended in 2012. By allowing all visitors to observe dolphins in an interactive space designed for dolphins, the Aquarium was able to ensure everyone can see them.

My son likes the Maryland Science Center more than the Aquarium, so we usually go there, which is nice because it costs just $19 for adults and $16 for kids under 13. He could spend hours in the interactive Kids Room.

And any trip across the harbor, like we take from Harbor East to the Science Center, is better taken on the Baltimore Water Taxi. After a long day at the museum, we hop on the Purple Line Circulator back to Penn Station to take the train back to Union Station.

People often tell me it must be great to raise a kid in DC with so many museums. But I've wondered why all neighboring East Coast cities like Philadelphia and Richmond have both a top-tier children's museum and science museum, and DC has neither. That's why it's great to have Baltimore within such an easy reach.

Know any other car-free family trip destinations? Mention them in the comments. You can also read about Harpers Ferry for a car-free family trip.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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Although it's outside the harbor corridor, I highly recommend the B&O Railroad Museum at 901 W Pratt St. for any young (or old) train enthusiast.

by Sondreal on Mar 3, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

Appropo of the recent thread discussing tourists demand to go to neighborhoods in the Circulator to U Street and cultural tourism, the interesting places for adults in Baltimore aren't super easily accessible by transit but way more interesting than Inner Harbor: Canton Square, Federal Hill (is transit accessible), American Visionary Art Museum, other museums like BMA and Walters (are transit accessible), Hampden, Fells Point, in season the farmers market in Waverly (way cooler than just about any farmers market in greater DC), Station North arts district (transit accessible, right next to Penn Station). Belvedere Square lacks the hipster cred of Union Market, but functions more like a public market than the latter.

For meals, at least for breakfast, rather than a hotel buffet, I'd much rather go to Pete's Diner (I lament so much lack of an equivalent place in DC) or even Cafe Hon. I've haven't made it to Woodberry Kitchen yet.

Lexington Market isn't that cool, mostly it's a food court, but it is transit accessible, but in an area that uncultural tourists would consider too gnarley.

So, it's probably easier to drive/rent a car, if you want to go to more interesting places and not spend a lot of time waiting to do so.

The other alternative is to take a bike, but you can only do that via the B30.

by Richard L. Layman on Mar 3, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

You took a 5-year-old to Baltimore's Inner Harbor 6 times and you haven't visited the American Visionary Art Museum yet? Go!

by Charles on Mar 3, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

You took a 5-year-old to Baltimore's Inner Harbor 6 times and you haven't visited the American Visionary Art Museum yet? Go!

I couldn't agree more! We went there once. It's walkable from the Harbor and the Water Taxi goes straight there.

I was more into it than my kid was - he's all about interactive stuff so the Science and Childrens Museums were right up his alley.

by Ken Archer on Mar 3, 2014 2:59 pm • linkreport

Thanks Ken, good tips. What kid doesnt like a train and boat ride?

by Cheryl Cort on Mar 3, 2014 4:46 pm • linkreport

The fare for "seniors" and "handicapped is $3.50.

To be clear the Penn Line dumps you at Penn Station not very close to much. The less-frequent Camden Line goes to Camden Station at the Inner Harbour.

Lexington Market isn't too clean but has Faidley's Crabcakes which are considered the world's best by far. $16 crabcake with more than that worth of lump crab meat in it. Ms. Faidley is usually working.

Also close to Camden Station is Edgar Allen Poe's grave. Very interesting.

The submarine at the Inner Harbor is worth a visit to see how small sub quarters were in WWII.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 3, 2014 5:39 pm • linkreport

Fun fact. I slept on that submarine when I was a boy scout. Spent the day at the aquarium and then stayed that night on the sub. We ate on the coast guard cutter that's also there.

by drumz on Mar 3, 2014 5:56 pm • linkreport

Why not take the Light Rail between Penn Station and Inner Harbor? Might not be the most direct but it stops at Camden Yards just a few blocks west.

by Reza on Mar 3, 2014 5:57 pm • linkreport

If you're going to take MTA buses in Baltimore (in addition to the free Circulators), you can use your WMATA SmarTrip card just like you would on DC buses.

by John McDonald on Mar 3, 2014 6:00 pm • linkreport

I'd rather sleep on Edgar Allen Poe's grave than on that sub. Much less spooky.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 3, 2014 6:49 pm • linkreport

How can you forget Fort McHenry! A must see stop anytime in Baltimore, and the last stop on the Charm City Circulator Banner Route. This will also get you to the AVAM and the Museum of Industry.

by Chris on Mar 3, 2014 6:52 pm • linkreport

Re: Reza

Because there are 30-minute headways on that portion of the light rail line, even during weekday rush hours.

Not making that mistake again.

by jms on Mar 3, 2014 7:51 pm • linkreport

To be clear the Penn Line dumps you at Penn Station not very close to much. The less-frequent Camden Line goes to Camden Station at the Inner Harbour.

Very good point. Camden Line doesn't run on weekends, though, only Penn Line does.

You could take Camden Line Friday afternoon - the first one runs from Union Station at 4:13 to Camden Station at 5:25. You could walk to hotels west and north of the Harbor, or take the Orange Circulator line from Pratt and Howard to Harbor East.

by Ken Archer on Mar 3, 2014 8:01 pm • linkreport

For a short walk, and kids a bit older to appreciate, I'd also suggest the visionary arts museum, with a lunch stop at or around Cross Street market.

by Greenbelt on Mar 3, 2014 10:32 pm • linkreport

Edgar Allan Poe's middle name is spelled with 2 "a"s and no "e."

Other places to visit near Harbor East include the Reginald Lewis African-American Museum, Flag House, President Street Station, and Jewish Museum of Maryland.

by Fred on Mar 3, 2014 10:45 pm • linkreport

@Reza, jms:

Yes, MTA light rail headways directly to Penn Station are terrible, but they are quite reasonable (at least on weekdays) at Mount Royal station, about a 10 minute walk from Penn.

by A Streeter on Mar 3, 2014 11:36 pm • linkreport

I've been planning a day trip to Baltimore for a while, and you've all got some good suggestions here! (Any others for grownups?)

But this discussion leads me to a question: does any transit in Baltimore run frequently? With headways of <10 minutes? Already sounds trickier to get around than I'd imagined.

by LowHeadways on Mar 4, 2014 11:31 am • linkreport

The Aquarium is $8 after 5pm on Fridays. Need not be that pricey.

The Walters Art Museum isn't the Smithsonian, in some ways it's better though. A priceless collection that doesn't overwhelm.

Baltimore is food heaven, whole websites could(and are) be devoted to Baltimore's great food scene.
That said, Lexington Market is only really good for Faideleys and Triacnia. Triacnia isn't even in the market building. Still it is worth a trip or two.

The Cathedral, on Cathedral Street, is one of the most significant churches in the United States. The first Catholic Cathedral and Bishop in the US were installed here. The architecture is an interesting blend of puritan simplicity and Italian baroque. They have great free tours. It might not suit 8 year olds, but it is more than enough for adults.

by Richard on Mar 4, 2014 11:39 am • linkreport

It won't save time, but you can also change from MARC to light rail at BWI, taking the free bus between the rail stations.

If you can get over the idea of paying to get into a zoo, the Baltimore Zoo is a pretty interesting place with a number of features for kids that you won't see at the National Zoo.

by JimT on Mar 4, 2014 12:20 pm • linkreport

So for a family of four you pay $56 round trip for the train after your $12 for the bus to the train station, or you could just drive assuming you have one car, and pay about $15?

by Michael Perkins on Mar 4, 2014 1:25 pm • linkreport

So for a family of four you pay $56 round trip for the train after your $12 for the bus to the train station, or you could just drive assuming you have one car, and pay about $15?

The true cost of driving, of course, is higher - $0.78/mile according to AAA. It's 40 miles each way between DC and Baltimore (even further from your house), so you're paying $62 for the round trip by car.

Then you have to pay for parking - which is $23/day without valet at the Homewood Suites in Harbor East. Now you're up to $85 assuming a one-night trip.

by Ken Archer on Mar 4, 2014 2:30 pm • linkreport

@Ken Archer

This is something I'm quite interested in. I think that AAA's estimates are somewhat of a worst case scenario. They are considering the depreciation from a brand new car to five years old. They are also assuming you have financed the car. I also think counting insurance and registration fees is questionable for a per mile cost. These are fixed fees that don't go up with greater mileage and are only valid when considering the option of not owning a car at all.

I have run the calculations myself on my car and come up with around $0.28 cents per mile, for a 2005 Honda Accord. Running the Baltimore numbers that would come to $22.40

In summary, I think the AAA numbers are valid when comparing the cost of using a brand new car vs not buying one at all. They are not valid when you already own a car and are deciding for one trip.

by alex on Mar 4, 2014 3:24 pm • linkreport

Just to add: I certainly enjoyed your article though, and would generally prefer to take the train myself. Not included in those costs are the stress of driving and time that needs to be spent concentrating on the road instead of doing something else. Also, perhaps the risk of a collision, though I'm not sure how that would be quantified.

Incidentally I calculated the depreciation per mile for my car by using and determining current value if sold, then the sell value for the same car + 10,000 miles and dividing by 10,000.

by alex on Mar 4, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

Also important to note for DC-ers having a car-free weekend in Baltimore that Smartrip Cards can be used on any city bus or light rail in Baltimore - interchangeably with MTA's Charm Cards! If you're around on Sunday mornings, the downtown Baltimore farmers markets runs from April-November I think, and is walking distance from Harbor East near City Hall ( Lots of foods to eat and sample, and usually hula hoops to play with. I used to see lots of kids having a blast there.

by Bonnie on Mar 4, 2014 4:13 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this! I agree that the Visionary Arts Museum, right near the Inner Harbor, is wonderful for kids--there are two parts to the museum, so be sure to visit both. The aquarium can get nasty crowded--try to go either late Friday, when it's cheap, or early in the AM on weekends, out by lunch.
The Baltimore Zoo is incredible. It's also incredibly expensive. Two adults and two kids cost 60 bucks--and that's just the price of admission. So you've got to "get over" paying for a zoo--you've got to "get over" paying more to see giraffes than you'd pay to go to the Kennedy Center to see The Lion King. But the zoo (technically The Maryland Zoo at Baltimore--they changed their name from the Baltimore Zoo to be eligible for state funding, I think) is quite special, as a once-in-a-budget kind of event. Note that it has been closed lately due to the weather, so check before you go and consider the aquarium as a cheaper (!), if more crowded, alternative.
I agree that it's sad that DC has neither science museum nor Children's Museum--the building at the National Harbor doesn't count as a children's museum unless you consider IKEA to be a children's museum.

by Wendy, a Walker in Bethesda on Mar 4, 2014 4:55 pm • linkreport

We just did a kids-free overnight in Baltimore, and found it worthwhile to visit the small Jewish Museum in the neighborhood adjacent to Little Italy. The kids would have enjoyed it also. Nearby is Attman's Deli, which is legendary in the neighborhood, and seems better than most Jewish delis in the DC area. We stayed at the 1840s Carrollton Inn, which was reasonably priced and well-managed, so that's a good option for adults.

by Kelly Hand on Mar 5, 2014 2:16 pm • linkreport

Great article! The Aquarium, Port Discovery, and Science Center are good options. There are a lot of additional options within circulator/water taxi distance. Visit the Baltimore Visitors Center near Harbor Place to find out about other choices. When the weather is good, Ft. McHenry is great if you like history and a good story (Battle of Baltimore and the penning of the National Anthem). Consider a picnic on the water for that one.

by JL on Mar 5, 2014 3:36 pm • linkreport

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