From cities on the ocean and an island with wild horses to small towns rooted in centuries of American history, Maryland is geographically and culturally diverse. With Washington, D.C., a stone’s throw away, the legacy of the country’s founding fathers can be keenly felt. For example, the state is home to Fort McHenry, where the national anthem was inspired. Maryland’s women have also made their mark on history, with some risking it all to do what was right.
Risk-taking is another quality that defines Maryland, whether it was developing the nation’s first steam-powered railway, forging an important canal system or fostering the art of self-taught artists. When it comes to preserving Maryland’s wildlife and wetlands, no risk is taken: Refuges, parks and protected areas are intended to keep the state’s environmental resources viable and able to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Whatever you’re looking to do in this mid-Atlantic state, Maryland has plenty to keep visitors occupied. The best part? Many of the state’s museums, beaches, parks and institutions are free to the public. Here are the top things to do in Maryland.
American Visionary Art Museum
This Baltimore museum takes the idea of stuffy art and … stuffs it. The American Visionary Art Museum describes itself as the country’s official national museum for self-taught and intuitive artistry. Exhibits vary, but even the permanent collection can be described as colorful, eclectic and unexpected. Mixed mediums will grab your attention from intricate woodcarvings to a collection of robots to a 15-foot-high pink poodle sculpture named “Fifi.” Visitors call the four floors of collections thought-provoking, and some even suggest that the gifts in the museum shop are underpriced, which is a rarity. Timed tickets are required for AVAM’s main exhibition, which recently was “Healing and the Art of Compassion.”
Address: 800 Key Highway, Baltimore, MD 21230
The National Aquarium is an eye-catching building with a neon wave located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. From sharks and jellies to octopuses and an Indo-Pacific coral reef, the aquarium features myriad creatures and habitats to admire and learn about. Award-winning exhibits include faraway lands, such as “Amazon River Forest” and “Maryland: Mountains to Sea,” which stars the state’s own diverse ecosystem. Beyond the real thing, kids can use all their senses to experience aspects of the aquarium at the 4D theater, which brings fun films like “Being a Dolphin” to life. Recent visitors advise to try to avoid peak times as some of the exhibits are small and the aquarium can get crowded. The family-friendly National Aquarium is open every day.
Address: 501 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, MD 21202
B&O Railroad Museum
More than just a space on the Monopoly board, the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) Railroad is the oldest railway in the country, opened in 1827. Discontinued in the 1970s, the Baltimore railroad station called Mount Clare Station and Yard is now a museum containing the oldest and most comprehensive American railroad collection in the world, according to its website. Galleries of the historic locomotives that kick-started American railroading are featured alongside “Thomas the Tank Engine” theme days for the kids and dedicated sensory programming for neurodiverse visitors. Visitors give mixed reviews on the museum’s seasonal offerings, such as its holiday-themed Polar Express event, but appreciate how large the museum is and recommend spending extra time on the exhibits in the roundhouse.
Address: 901 W. Pratt St., Baltimore, MD 21223
Explore the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail
“O say, can you see?” … “The Star-Spangled Banner,” originally a poem, was inspired in Maryland and visitors who want to connect with the proverbial “rocket’s red glare” can do so at a number of the state’s historic sites. The 560-mile Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail stretches across land and water from Virginia into Washington, D.C., and onward into Maryland. The 106-mile scenic route through central Maryland retraces the War of 1812, which gave way to our national anthem. The Maryland route begins at Sotterley Planation in Hollywood and hits numerous sites along the way, taking travelers to Solomons Island, through Baltimore and onward to the Great Chesapeake Bay Loop. Perhaps the most important among these sites is Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore. It was here where 25 hours of a British onslaught were immortalized with the words “bombs bursting in air.” Despite the odds, the defending American flag was raised victoriously the following morning, inspiring author Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Visit a classic American saloon
The Horse You Came In On Saloon originally opened in the Fell’s Point neighborhood of Baltimore in 1775. Still in operation, “The Horse” is considered one of the oldest continuously operating bars in the country. While it’s worth a look-in for this accolade alone, the bar’s history is far more interesting than its age. It inspired the name of mystery writer Martha Grimes’ ’90s best-selling detective novel. It’s also quite famously the last known location of another mystery author, Edgar Allen Poe, before he died. Whatever draws you in — and for many, it’s the sign — grabbing a drink here is a part of Baltimore (and national) history. The daily happy hour specials aren’t too bad either. Recent patrons admit that while drinks can be pricey, the atmosphere — including live music — is worth a visit.
Address: 1626 Thames St., Baltimore, MD 21231
Summon a Slurpee at the Ouija 7-Eleven
Elijah Bond lived in Baltimore in the late 19th century and first patented the Ouija board. If you channeled Bond today, you might be led to his one-of-a-kind gravesite in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery. The reverse side of his headstone is, itself, a Ouija board. So what does this have to do with a 7-Eleven? After more than a century, the origins of the mysterious board have scattered about the city, and the location of where the name “Ouija” was coined (once a boarding house where Bond lived) is now a convenience store on 529 N. Charles St. See it for yourself: a plaque to the right just inside of the entrance marks the occult milestone.
Address: 529 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21201
Port Discovery Children’s Museum
Parents can find a haven for kids at the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, which is located near the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor. Interactive and engaging play areas and exhibits invite babies, toddlers and preschoolers to take part in this maritime-themed venue with 80,000 square feet of space. Parents say the facilities are clean and well-supervised and the Egyptian area is a standout. Popular attractions include the four-story SkyClimber (best for kids ages 5 and older); a giant pretend cargo ship, perfect for tiny role-playing; plentiful puzzles; occasional theater performances; and a water activity room for those little ones who like to splash. If rain washes out your plans, shore up to Port Discovery, which includes all-day entry plus any special events in the price of admission. According to recent visiting families, 6 is an ideal age for kids spending a day here. Tickets must be purchased online in advance.
Address: 35 Market Place, Baltimore, MD 21202
Catch a baseball game at Camden Yards
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is the home of Charm City’s Major League Baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore is also the birthplace of Babe Ruth, one of the game’s greatest players, and a bronze statue of his likeness greets fans at the entrance to the stadium. Signed to the then-Orioles in 1914, Ruth reportedly got his “Babe” nickname in his brief time playing for the team. Even more of a fitting tie-in, Ruth’s father once owned a building that housed a saloon on the first floor and the family on the second floor; it was located on what is now center field of Oriole Park, which opened in 1992. Be part of Baltimore’s growing baseball legacy with tickets to a game at Camden Yards. Even recent visitors who are admittedly not huge baseball fans said the ballpark is beautiful and the hot dogs exceed expectations.
Address: 333 W. Camden St., Baltimore, MD 21201
Get lost in the George Peabody Library
George Peabody found success as an investment banker after a modest childhood and is considered a father of modern philanthropy, due to his generous charitable donations of millions throughout his life in the mid-1800s. One of his largest donations was to The Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where a stylish library was constructed. Sometimes called “a cathedral of books,” the library is located in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood and is part of Johns Hopkins University. It contains about 300,000 volumes, from the 18th and 19th centuries, across five floors of ornamental cast iron balconies. The library is free to visit and open to the public during select hours.
Note: The library was closed to visitors at the time of publication, only open to Johns Hopkins University students, faculty and staff. It is expected to reopen to visitors later in 2022.
Address: 17 E. Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, MD 21202
Worship craft beer at the Ministry of Brewing
The Ministry of Brewing has a unique take on houses of worship. The minds behind the now-taproom (once St. Michael’s Church in Baltimore) envisioned it as a community meeting place once again — except the drink of the day is an IPA or a brown ale, not Communion wine. This brewery offers in-house sodas and hard ciders in addition to plenty of beer brewed on-site. Visitors to the Ministry of Brewing can enjoy an inventive rotating tap list from a restored pew. The charitable surroundings aren’t all surface-level, though: The brewery’s founding members have a focus on education, with the intention to host Baltimore City high school students to teach them lab skills, and philanthropy via fundraising for Baltimore’s public school system.
Address: 1900 E. Lombard St., Baltimore, MD 21231
Assateague State Park
Maryland’s only oceanfront park is on Assateague Island, located between the Atlantic Ocean and Sinepuxent Bay in Berlin. Assateague is best known for its population of feral horses, and seeing wild ponies running along the shoreline is a special sight. Other wildlife here include Sitka deer and more than 200 species of birds, such as snowy owls and eagles. Visitors to this unique place can enjoy 2 miles of ocean beaches with swimming or fishing, while the bayside offers plenty of great coves to explore via kayak or canoe. Along with its natural and unbridled beauty, Assateague gives day-trippers a window into what Colonial life was like on Maryland’s coasts courtesy of the restored 18th-century Rackliffe House. Located a half-mile from the island’s visitor center, Rackliffe House offers trails and regular museum visiting hours between mid-May and October, which is also camping season on the island. Access to the island is limited to preserve its wildlife; reservations can be competitive and are available up to a year in advance.
Rocky Gap State Park
Allegany County in western Maryland is home to Rocky Gap State Park, which boasts 3,000 acres of land with rugged mountains on all sides. A mile-long gorge feeds the 243-acre Lake Habeeb and, according to the park’s website, it contains the bluest water in the state. Other natural features of this state park include a hemlock forest and a population of black bears. Rocky Gap Casino and Resort is the place to stay if you want to be near the woods but also partake in a round of golf or a trip to the spa. Recent visitors to the park enjoyed swimming in the lake, fishing and visiting the small on-site aviary.
Address: 12900 Lake Shore Drive, Flintstone, MD 21530
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park
The land where Harriet Tubman lived — and worked — as an enslaved child in Maryland is now a national historic site dedicated to her heroic freedom-fighting legacy. The visitor center houses permanent exhibits about the Underground Railroad network she operated to help free slaves, a research library, a film about Harriet Tubman and more. Visitors describe the museum as a labor of love from the community and a beautiful tribute to Tubman, particularly the mural on the side of the building. The park in Church Creek is open Tuesday through Sunday. For a much fuller picture of Tubman’s early life and work, the Harriet Tubman Byway is a self-guided scenic road trip of more than 30 sites — including the park — that also features murals, gardens and the farm where she once lived.
Address: 4068 Golden Hill Road, Church Creek, MD 21622
Ocean City Boardwalk
The nostalgia of boardwalk amusements is in full effect in Ocean City, a well-regarded beach resort town on the coast of northeast Maryland. The 3 miles of Ocean City’s boardwalk are packed with entertainment, day and night, during the spring and summer seasons. With music, arcade games, rides, souvenir shops and the wafting smell of funnel cake, Fisher’s Popcorn and Thrasher’s French fries, a stay in Ocean City has all the hallmarks of a family beach vacation, plus unexpected sites like the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum, dedicated to a predecessor of today’s Coast Guard. Be sure to peek inside the Trimper’s Rides pavilion where you’ll find a carousel more than a century old. Handcarved in 1912, the carousel’s twin went to New York’s Coney Island but was destroyed in a fire, leaving just this one. Have a ride — if you dare: The carousel is supposedly haunted by Joanne Trimper, who was married to the manager of the amusement park until his death in 2008.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Along the Miles River in St. Michaels, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum maintains a dozen exhibition buildings, a fleet of floating historic boats and a peaceful waterfront setting for guests to learn about the Chesapeake Bay. Interactive exhibits include shipyard tours, as well as art and object collections. A visit wouldn’t be complete without a scenic boat ride on the bay in a vessel from 1920. What’s more, festivals featuring sea glass, antiques or oysters are held here throughout the year. Recent visitors to the museum mused that the exhibits weren’t boring, and many appreciated the information on how to build a boat, the chance to climb a lighthouse and the nautical gift shop.
Address: 213 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels, MD 21663
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge has many important distinctions. Among them, it has been named a priority wetland in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. In addition to an abundance of birdlife, including the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast north of Florida, Blackwater is also home to the largest natural population of the formerly endangered Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrels. Visitors can access 20,000 of the refuge’s 32,000 acres. Hiking, biking and paddling are great ways to experience Blackwater, as well as a 3.6-mile paved wildlife drive popular with cyclists, birders and photographers. While many of these activities may be best experienced in spring or fall, winter offers its own perks: The best time for viewing waterfowl at Blackwater is between mid-October and mid-March.
Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, is home to more than just the U.S. Naval Academy. The city of about 40,000 residents offers attractions ranging from an opera house to escape rooms. Gorgeous waterfront walkways highlight its population of yachts, and tourists can get out on the water for great views of the city on any number of boat tours. But 8 miles from downtown, across the South River, tourists will find Historic London Town and Gardens, a 23-acre park featuring a home from 1760 as well as an ongoing archaeological excavation. A mile-long trail takes visitors through the Woodland Garden, which boasts a variety of native and exotic plants. Back in the heart of Annapolis, there is more history to be found with the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial. This sculpture pays homage to the author of the story “Roots” and recognizes the role of Annapolis in slavery. The completed memorial has stood along the water off of Main Street, not too far from the Asbury United Methodist Church, since 2006.
Indulge in a steamed crab feast
It might be impossible to think of Maryland and not think of crabs. And here, crabs aren’t anything without Old Bay seasoning, an 18-spice recipe purchased by Baltimore-based McCormick & Co. in 1990. The Maryland blue crab (which turns a red-orange when steamed) is the state crustacean, and half of the country’s blue crabs hail from the Chesapeake Bay. Crab comes in many forms — cakes, bisques, claws — but the traditional way is to enjoy this seafood is with a steamed crab feast. A number of restaurants offer steamed crabs, which are often served outside in the summer and early fall, although many eateries allow indoor dining as well. In Baltimore, try L.P. Steamers in Locus Point or Bo Brooks in Canton, both with views of the Inner Harbor. Other popular spots to find steamed crabs around the state include Ocean Pride Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore County, Cantler’s Riverside Inn in Annapolis, Kentmorr Restaurant & Crab House in Stevensville, Schultz’s Crab House in Essex and Crab Bag in Ocean City.
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Like the B&O, the C&O — Chesapeake and Ohio Canal — contributed to early industrial and transportation efforts along the Potomac River Valley. It’s come a long way from being known as the “Grand Old Ditch,” first opened in 1831. Nowadays, pleasure-seekers can explore 184.5 miles of the canal with bike trails and notable sights like Williamsport’s Conococheague Aqueduct or the Great Falls, which offers views of Virginia for an entrance fee. The Maryland side of the falls has a gorgeous visitor center called the Great Falls Tavern, where historic canal boat rides depart. Pass through a lock and listen to the stories from crew in period clothing of what life was like living and working along the canal in the 1870s. Boat rides are seasonal; check the C&O website for additional details and schedules.
The city (and county) of Frederick is situated less than 60 miles from both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Along scenic byways, travelers will find quirky museums, such as the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, several golf courses and a few art galleries. The parched can take their pick of wineries, breweries or distilleries — there are numerous options in and around Frederick. Restaurants specializing in comfort food, such as Brewer’s Alley, complement specialty shops making chocolate truffles from scratch or selling local fruit products like jams and jellies. This small city is off the charts with charm any time of year, but Frederick’s annual events attract lots of attention and include the country’s only high-wheel (aka penny-farthing) bike race each July, as well as a nine-day fair and carnival each September.
Explore the Crystal Grottoes Caverns
If you find yourself near Boonsboro, about 20 miles northwest of Frederick, you are in the vicinity of Maryland’s only known natural caverns. The Crystal Grottoes is in its third generation of business and first opened to the public in 1922. The must-see caverns boast impressive rock formations and are worth a tour to witness yourself. Tours run about 40 minutes long and are available Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Visitors to the caverns say that while the cave is relatively small, it has enough stellar formations in a natural setting that make a stop here worth it.
Address: 19821 Shepherdstown Pike, Boonsboro, MD 21713
Find morbid memorabilia at the National Museum of Health and Medicine
If you’re not too squeamish, consider a visit to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring for an unusual day at the museum. Founded in 1862 to study the effects of war wounds and diseases on the body, the institute has a historic collection of human remains, including the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, along with shards of his skull. Other medical and historical oddities are on display in rotation, with focus on American military medicine, from wax molds and replications to the real thing — in jars. If it’s any incentive to brave the bodily displays, the National Museum of Health and Medicine is free to the public.
Address: 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring, MD 20910
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
There are objectively not many things cooler than NASA, so if you find yourself in Greenbelt, about 10 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., make a stop at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The James Webb telescope — essentially a modern, improved version of the Hubble Telescope, with more clarity — was built in Maryland at the Goddard, which means it’s a site burgeoning with active space exploration. Self-guided tours of the collections and exhibits will keep your attention; they include a full-size rocket garden with replicas of rockets from various missions. Free monthly experiments and model rocket launches are fun events for kids. A visit here may spark an interest in a career in engineering, astrophysics or earth science. The Goddard Space Flight Center is free to visit. Even the landscaping is out of this world; the sycamore in front of the visitor center flew as a seed on Apollo 14 and is known as a “moon tree.”
Address: 8800 Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt, MD 20771
Calvert Cliffs State Park
Formed 10 to 20 million years ago, the Calvert Cliffs of southern Maryland today reveal fossils of prehistoric sharks, whales and “seabirds the size of airplanes,” according to the park’s website. These cliffs trace the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County (around 50 miles south of Annapolis) for 24 miles and provide a stunning backdrop to sandy beaches and a recycled tire playground. A freshwater and tidal marshland provides fishing opportunities, plus there are 13 miles of scenic hiking trails for visitors to traverse. There is a designated area to hunt for fossils on the beach, and more than 600 species have been identified so far.
Address: 10540 H.G. Trueman Road, Lusby, MD 20657
Tour Maryland’s covered bridges
Maryland was home to more than 120 covered bridges at one time. Only six are left in the state, but they are worth a road trip. Half of the bridges are located in Frederick County: the Roddy Road Covered Bridge, circa 1856; the Loy’s Station Covered Bridge, built in 1848 (with some original timber); and the Utica Mills Covered Bridge, originally built in 1843. This bold red bridge had to be rebuilt after it was washed out by the 1889 Johnstown Flood and it stands out among the surrounding green fields. Maryland’s longest covered bridge is Gilpin’s Falls in Cecil County: It’s 119 feet long and was restored in 2010 after 150 years. The second covered bridge in Cecil County is Foxcatcher Farms, built in 1860. Little Gunpowder Falls is where you’ll find the Jericho Covered Bridge in Kingsville in Baltimore County. People believe the bridge is haunted today based on legends from the Civil War era.
Glen Echo Park
Looking to expand your artistic skill set? Glen Echo Park (located near Bethesda and 8 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.) offers a wide range of hands-on classes from glassblowing and pottery to puppetry, drawing and dance. If you’re not quite looking to get your hands dirty, the cultural center also offers art galleries, performances, dances and a carousel for the kids (and young at heart). A supporter of arts of all kinds, Glen Echo hosts 13 resident artists and organizations as well as a nature and aquatic life program. There is always something happening, whether it’s a folklore festival or outdoor marketplace.
Address: 7300 Macarthur Blvd., Glen Echo, MD 20812
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