To escape the humdrum of Jamestown, explorer Captain John Smith headed to the Chesapeake Bay area and mapped nearly 3,000 miles of new territory in 1608. Among the parcels of land was the large mound of red clay now known as Federal Hill. The grassy slope was the original Baltimore Harbor landmark. Since then, the hill has hosted celebrations for the ratification of the Constitution and was occupied by Union forces in the Civil War. It also contained a labyrinth of tunnels created during a 19th century mining operation for silica. Some say the tunnels were used by Union troops for storing beer and ammunition during the Civil War.
Proposals have been made to raze the hill, using the clay to fill the section of the harbor between Light and President streets resulting in heated exchanges stressing the historical value of the hill. There is a $2 million project currently underway to repair the drainage system near Convington Street in an attempt to keep the hill from sinking.
The surrounding neighborhood, named after the hill, is a cozy community, which in the past few decades has seen tremendous renovation and growth in population as well as property value.
A good starting point for your exploration is the hill itself, where park benches offer a view of the harbor traffic. Overlooking the water and facing central downtown, the hill provides the perfect picnic spot and a playground to keep children (or young friends) occupied while you relax. This is also a great spot to catch the Fourth of July fireworks over the harbor, but get there early, as it becomes crowded quickly. After the fireworks, the party spills out into the neighborhood.
As you look to the base of the hill on the east side, you will see Baltimore's homage to self-taught artists, the American Visionary Art Museum (opened in 1995). To identify the museum, look for the 40-foot-tall, multicolored, wind-powered sculpture called the "Whirligig" -- you can't miss it. The museum buildings include the former Baltimore Copper Paint Company, an historic landmark. Once inside, visitors will find mesmerizing works impossible to take in during a single visit.
Remember life before the cell phone and laptop? Farther south on Key Highway you can find the hands-on Baltimore Museum of Industry to see how urban existence has evolved. Closer to downtown Baltimore, on the harbor's southwest corner, is the Maryland Science Center, which boasts an IMAX theater as well as running exhibits. The Science Center is a great place for children and adults, but I may be biased as I grew up taking field trips to the tourist trap. The museum features interactive attractions.. The Market is now indoors and has a wide array of offerings at the various stalls, including fresh produce and cheese, sandwiches, a barbecue stand, pig knuckles and even flowers and plants. This is also a great hangout for Ravens and Orioles day games.
Also on South Charles Street you will find Ken-zo's Yogi Magic Mart, a spacious magic shop run by Ken and Bernadette Horsman. The couple met while working as clowns for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The shop stocks clown gear, masks, magic how-to manuals, and magic tricks, which range from "pick a card, any card" to specially ordered cabinets where you cut your lovely assistant into six pieces -- a bargain for a few thousand dollars. Ask Ken to perform his levitating a match above a pair of cards trick -- whoa.
Across the street, you can drop by Klein's Hardware, where proprietor Anne Klein holds court. She loves to talk, and having been in the neighborhood since 1916, is an endless resource of historical knowledge. Did I mention she loves to talk? Just a block away, there's Singer's Hardware Store which can match replacement parts to practically any broken home fixture. Between Singer's and Klein's, the neighborhood offers an antidote to the vast anonymity of chain stores such as Home Depot.
Technically not a part of the Federal Hill neighborhood, Fort McHenry is important enough (and close enough) to warrant a mention. The fort is famous for being the site of the Battle of 1814, when British forces were repelled from harbor waters and Francis Scott Key penned the Star Spangled Banner. The fort offers a wealth of historical data from various periods in the life of the city, and hosts reenactments of guard routines from the days the fort was a strategic point of defense for the city. Even non-history buffs can enjoy the park (surrounded on three sides by water) and its one-mile jogging path.
Once you finish exploring the rich history and culture of the area, it's time to chow. The neighborhood has a great selection of restaurants with an impressive range of specialties. Drop by Sisson's for some decent Cajun and Creole fare and choice locally brewed beers. If it is in season, try the blueberry wheat, with a subtle hint of blueberry and a great finish. Corks has an enormous selection of wines to accompany your meal, but don't be intimidated if you're not a wine brat -- the wait staff will be happy to suggest an appropriate bottle to accompany your roulade or beef. Corks also holds occasional wine tastings -- make sure you don't swallow!
Try Nichiban and Matsuri for some world-class sushi, or head to Mother's Federal Hill Grille for straight Americana with a Budweiser. For some real south-of-the-border taste, visit Little Havana Restaurante y Cantina. When the weather is nice, two large garage doors that make up the eastern wall are opened, and you are able to sit right on the water. The eatery serves inventive Cuban cuisine, so get your Castro on. An after-dinner cigar is highly recommended.
A number of the restaurants in the area feature bars as well, open until 1 or 2 a.m. Mum's holds occasional musical events, and is always a good scene for former punksters too old to mosh. Make sure to wear your black leather jacket. Even if you're not an aging rebel, take advantage of free pool all day Saturday and Tuesday nights.
On most nights right outside the now-closed 8 x 10, there are pit beef grills where you can get some great grub to avoid drinking on an empty stomach. A little farther along Cross Street you can take your pick from the basic bar scene at a string of small bars, including Deja vu, Turner's, and Lushes.
No matter the time of day, whether you're looking for a fast, cheap way to stuff your gullet, a leisurely stroll through an artist's imagination, or a date off the beaten path, Federal Hill is a neighborhood worth exploring.