Urban renewal sometimes gets a bad rap, but the redevelopment of Baltimore's Inner Harbor is a singular success story. Maryland's largest city (pop. 651,000) lies along the Patapsco River, a waterway that leads to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Baltimore's natural harbor made the city a prime port in the 18th century, but by the 1970s, the downtown waterfront was a neglected neighborhood of rotting wharves and seedy warehouses. During the next two decades, the city cleared block after block, banishing blight with bright new restaurants, shops, hotels, and entertainment venues, and in the process, jump-starting a citywide renaissance.
EXPLORING THE INNER HARBOR A glassy, sail-like triangle (illuminated at night like a pyramidal lighthouse) tops the internationally acclaimed National Aquarium in Baltimore, the showpiece of the Inner Harbor. Come early to avoid the long lines of families eager to see the sinister shark tank and the dazzling dolphin show (Pier 3, 501 E. Pratt St., 410.576.3800; www.aqua.org).
Two other Inner Harbor favorites have recently expanded. The American Visionary Art Museum, home to the exuberant works of self-taught or “outsider” artists, now displays its colorful collection in a connected complex of three buildings, two sculpture plazas, and a garden (800 Key Highway, 410.244.1900; www.avam.org). Three floors of hands-on exhibits about dinosaurs, the human body, and more, enthrall kids and grown-ups at the Mary-land Science Center (601 Light St., 410.685.5225; www.mdsci.org).
Encounter the city's maritime history close up with a Maritime Pass, available at the Inner Harbor ticket kiosk. The pass gets you on board a half-dozen ships, ranging from an 1854 all-sail warship to a World War II submarine (410.783.1490; www.natlhistoricseaport.org).
The harbor is also the place to make a little maritime history of your own. Zip to another waterfront location by water taxi — buy your $8 adult ($4 for kids) ride-all-day ticket onboard —(410.563.3901; www.thewatertaxi.com), take a land and water tour on the amphibious Ride the Ducks (410.727.DUCK; www.baltimoreducks.com), or opt for a leisurely dinner or brunch cruise with Harbor Cruises (410.727.3113; www.harborcruises.com).
You can browse more than 100 shops at Harbor-place — the two European-style pavilions that hug the water's edge — or eat indoors or out at one of its dozen-plus restaurants. Try Phillips (410.685.6600), celebrated for its crab cakes and all-you-can-eat seafood bar, or J. Paul's (410.659.1889), with a late-night menu of burgers and steaks accompanied by great harbor views.
Along the eastern edge of the harbor is the brawny Power Plant. With a rooftop crowned with four strutting smokestacks and a 60-foot neon guitar, this former utilities generator is a proud emblem of the area's revitalization. Check out the Barnes & Noble bookstore (410.385.1709), where the mammoth smokestacks' bases have been cleverly converted into individual rooms. Flanking the bookstore are a Hard Rock Café (410.347.7625) and the first-ever ESPN Zone (410.685.3776).
There's more nighttime entertainment just north in the casual bars along lively Market Street where the Cuban food at Babalu Grill gets high marks (32 Market Place, 410.234.9898).
CITY OF NEIGHBORHOODS Baltimore wiped the slate clean and created a new reality at the Inner Harbor. To experience authentic Baltimore, head to the neighborhoods. Admire the tall, shoulder-to-shoulder row houses, explore the one-of-a-kind shops, look for a bar or a restaurant filled with locals —and join them.
Rehabbed Revolutionary War-era row houses line the narrow streets of leafy Federal Hill, just south of the Inner Harbor. Many homes display the white marble front steps (or stoop) that are a Baltimore trademark. At the corner of Cross and Charles streets, step into the hubbub of the block-long Cross Street Market and belly up to the sushi bar.