Downtown Bel Air has fallen on temporary hard times. The construction of a new streetscape, begun in 2006, has been disruptive for the businesses on Main Street, but once the project is completed, it will make the area much more inviting. But with many of the storefronts vacant, downtown Bel Air now looks more like a business park filled with insurance companies and financial services than a charming collection of retail shops.
Don't let appearances fool you. There are upscale boutiques and gift shops along Main Street, and it's well worth the effort to seek them out. (Not that you'll have to look too hard.) With two exceptions (see the list), the shops are conveniently clustered together.
There are several excellent places to eat, including a couple of Irish pubs. And parking couldn't be easier (or cheaper). The dog days of summer are a hot time to be taking a walking tour of downtown Bel Air, but you'll be rewarded with attentive salespeople and lots of good buys.
Here's a route to follow once you've parked your car just off Main Street in one of the several lots.
10 A.M. HEARTBEAT
Start shopping here for clothes in the fashionable-but-comfortable category. The target audience, says owner Susan Rodriguez, is "very active women 25 and up." Heartbeat carries lines such as Nic + Zoe, Joseph Ribhoff, Cole Haan footwear and Brighton jewelry and accessories.
Take a moment to drool over the new bubble-hem trench coat by Joseph Ribhoff ($325).
13 N. Main St., 410-420-0425
10:30 a.m Pink Silhouette
Turn right off Main at Lee Street and you'll see a tiny Cape Cod-style house, very beachy looking, sitting on a bank's parking lot. Inside is a cute-as-a-button boutique run by mother Susan and daughter Christina Patti. It's decorated in Lilly Pulitzer pinks and greens. Here, you'll find lots of fun play clothes -- Lilly Pulitzer, of course, as well as lines such as Seven Jeans and LaCoste.
Susan Patti is particularly proud of being the No. 1 retailer for Chamilia jewelry in the Mid-Atlantic. (You design a piece by selecting your bracelet, say, and then adding beads.)
20 E. Lee St., 410-420-6372
11:00 a.m Dust Bunny Antiques & Uniques
The next shop is a bit of a hike, but worth the trouble. Walk north on Main for several long blocks and cross the street to get to Dust Bunny. (You have to love the name.) It's a small shop absolutely packed full of interesting odds and ends. Some are very fine and old, like china from the 1800s, but there's also, for instance, an old Getty gas sign. A limited amount of antique furniture acts as display pieces.
The majority of items are from the '20s to the '50s. Costume jewelry is a specialty.
"Collectibles sell better in this area" than serious antiques, owner Susan Young says.
302 N. Main St., 410-588-5828
11:45 a.m. Natural Gatherings
Backtrack to the center of town to get to Natural Gatherings. This unusual shop is a good example of a hobby that turned into a business. Rick Barger liked to garden; his wife, Jane, enjoyed creating interesting wreaths and arrangements out of dried flowers and found objects. Eventually, they opened a charming shop filled with her creations.
Natural Gatherings also sells rustic furniture and country-chic gifts and home accessories such as handcrafted bird houses and the mirrors Rick has made from old window frames. The furnishings are shown off to their best advantage in a couple of showrooms that are fragrant with candles and potpourri.
106 N. Main St., 410-838-0031
12:15 p.m. Pamella & Rose
This store, formerly the Bel Air Country Store, has just changed its name after major renovations. Owner Pamela Peacher (one "L" in spite of how the store's name is spelled) felt the old name didn't convey the sophistication of the home accessories, unusual gifts and European country furnishings she sells. In other words, the store is country, but upscale country.
This is one of Main Street's oldest shops. (It's all of 17 years old.) Peacher says these days her focus is on American artisans.
If you buy nothing else, at least pick up one of the wonderful candles to take home.
100 N. Main St., 410-638-1181
12:45 p.m Bel Air Antiques etc.
From the sublime to the fun and funky, this small antiques co-op is filled with the wares of four dealers. (One of them is usually around to help out.) There are several rooms to browse through. While the offerings are mostly collectibles, who knows? You might come up with a serious treasure.
54 N. Main St., 410-838-9230
1:15 p.m Tiger Lily
You have time for one more stop before a late lunch. Tiger Lily is as close to cutting edge as you'll find on Main Street, and at the same time fun with a touch of preppy. The clothes appeal to everyone from young high school girls to their moms.
Tiger Lily carries Eliza B., Free People, Kensie Girl and !iT Jeans, as well as Pandora jewelry and Troll beads. (Not to worry. If you're young enough to wear them, you know what they are. Otherwise, buy them for your favorite niece.)
52 N. Main St., 410-420-9784, tigerlilybelair.com
1:30 p.m Savona Fine Italian Food & Wine
Everyone loves eating at Savona, so it's best not to hit it at peak lunch hour. By now, the wait for a yummy panino shouldn't be too long. Perhaps try the Roma: turkey, provolone, pesto mayonnaise, marinated artichoke salad and tomato on bread baked daily in Baltimore's Little Italy. You can also get cheese and other Italian deli foods and a bottle of wine to take home.
2 N. Main St., 410-803-0000
2 p.m. Bel Air Court House
Take a few minutes to sit in the shade of the big trees near the fountain in front of the historic courthouse. You can also wander in and take a look around; it's a very handsome building. Then you're ready for the long walk south on Main to our last stop.
South Main and Courtland streets
2:30 p.m. Two Sisters
Don't be put off by the strip-mall exterior of this contemporary gallery; you've come too far to turn away now. Inside are some stunning examples of American and Canadian crafts. Two Sisters (yes, the owners are two sisters) represents more than 125 artists in all mediums.
You'll love the Tsunami Glassworks vases that are on display above the counter; they are only the beginning of the jewelry, ceramics, lighting, accessories and much more.
328 S. Main St., 410-420-9496, two-sisters.com
Got more time? Here's more to do
*Tiny Toes, 4 N. Main St., 410-420-6727, shoptinytoes .com, a children's boutique
* Moore's Candies, 138 N. Bond St., 410-877-1787, moorescandiesmaryland.com, nationally recognized great chocolate
* Hays House Museum, 324 Kenmore Ave., 410-838-7691, harfordhistory.net, a living-history museum
* Buy the Cup, 104 S. Main St., specialty coffee drinks, teas and goodies
* Carried Away Gourmet, 101 S. Main St., 410-877-9020, carriedawaygourmet.com, breakfast, lunch and on Thursdays and Fridays, a wine bar at happy hour
* Bel Air farmers markets, Tuesday and Saturday mornings, Thomas and South Bond streets, belairfarmersmarket.com
See an interactive map of Bel Air's shopping venues at baltimoresun.com/destination