The Ravens won the Superbowl, construction sites dot the harbor, and a wide range of retro-fit projects are bringing new vitality and confidence to “Charm City.” Welcome to Baltimore, where Martin O’Malley, the recently elected 37-year-old mayor, is helping reinvigorate the 272-year-old town. Fortunately, the new buildings have been complemented by transformations of classic old factories into office, retail, and residential spaces. Aesthetically, though, three distinct Baltimores remain: campy and tattered (the one portrayed in John Waters movies); grand and historical (the one enshrined in private clubs and majestic townhouses); and industrial (the one revealed in the city’s massive ship and rail yards).
B&O Railroad Museum
Completed in 1884, this impressive building once housed the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads’ passenger train repair shop. Today it is home to a museum to the history of railroads and locomotives. One of the largest circular industrial buildings in the world (actually a 22-sided polygon), it was essentially a garage where engines could pull in, rotate on a 60-foot central platform, and park on a series of radial tracks along the building’s perimeter. The structure itself is worth a visit, but the trains are also exquisite, with distinctive lettering and exuberant decoration. Smaller exhibitions present railroad uniforms, china service, and toy trains. 901 W. Pratt St.,  752-2490; daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Mount Vernon Place
This famous square in the center of the downtown arts district has a solidity and sense of enclosure that makes it feel like the city’s spiritual and architectural core. Slightly raised, and capped by the Washington Monument, the surrounding cobblestone streets create a plaza that is wholly 19th century in feeling. just off the square is the extraordinary George Peabody Library, which opened in 1878; its six-story book-lined atrium space, frequently used for ceremonial events, is the epitome of erudite grandeur. Don’t miss the library’s stacks–made of cast-iron columns and railings, they contain over 200,000 volumes. Across the street, the Walters Art Museum has an impressive collection of Renaissance paintings, Egyptian artifacts, antique books, illuminated manuscripts, and armor. At the north end of the square, in a slightly less distinguished setting, is the Museum of incandescent Lighting, a basement-level gallery devoted to the brightest moments in the history of bulbs and filaments, Mount Vernon Place and Washington place.
Cone Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art
The Cone Collection is the legacy of Etta and Claribel Cone, two Baltimore sisters whose regular European sojourns between 1898 and 1949 yielded them over 500 pieces by Matisse alone (as well as numerous works by other Late-19th-and early-20th-century masters, including Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Renoir). The galleries have been recently redesigned and will reopen late this month with a newly installed re-creation and virtual tour of the Cones’ apartment. (For more on the reopening, see Out There, p.31) 10 Art Museum Dr.,  0)396-7100, www.artbma.org; Wed.–Fri. 11 a.m–5 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 11 a.m–6 p.m.
ALSO WORTH A LOOK
Hampden’s “The Avenue”
Lovingly depicted in John Waters’s film Pecker, the Hampden section of Baltimore is famous for its residents’ frenzied and all-consuming approach to outdoor Christmas lights, the most spectacular examples of which are clustered around 34th Street. Over the years, Hampden has developed a concentration of about a dozen used furniture and retro housewares shops (particular favorites are David’s Used Furniture and Fat Elvis). Though Hampden is truly low-budget and dirty, the city seized upon this flicker of commerce, introducing a “Hampden Jitney” for local transport and adding “The Avenue” as a kind of distinguishing suffix to each of the street signs. The Avenue (W. 36th St.), Hampden.
American Visionary Art Museum
Under the term “visionary art,” this eccentric museum gathers together the work of self-taught individuals, including “outsider” artists, mental health patients, and folk artists. Its 35,000-square-foot space combines a historic elliptical three-story industrial building with new architecture and lots of appropriately quirky details, like inventive ironwork. Exhibitions revolve around distinct themes, such as the Apocalypse or love, and the earnest interpretive material represents “visionaries” as cultural heroes, often at odds with the values of mainstream society. Situated on Federal Hill overlooking the harbor, the museum–and especially its Joy America Cafe, which faces directly onto the city’s iconic Domino Sugar sign–is one of the best places to watch passing ships. 800 Key Hwy.,  244-1900; Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
WHERE TO STAY
With elaborate themes like the Print Room or the Explorer Suite, Mr. Mole, a bed-and-breakfast in a rowhouse on Bolton Hill (1601 Bolton St.,  728-1179, doubles from $115) holds Maryland’s only Mobil 4-star award for a B & B. But you have to appreciate the “bed-and-breakfast” scenario in the first place to really enjoy a stay. / Less intimate options include Henderson’s Wharf(1000 Fell St.,  522-7777, doubles from $179), which is also a B & B but one that feels more like a traditional hotel. Located on the water in Fell’s Point, the hotel offers all rooms at ground level, and guests look directly out to the harbor. In the same neighborhood, Admiral Fell Inn (888 South Broadway,  522-7377, doubles from $215) features historically minded hunter-green walls, brass lamps, and antique four-poster beds.
WHERE TO EAT
A swinging interior by local architect Brian Swanson makes Atlantic (2400 Boston St.,  675-4565) one of Baltimore’s most appealing destinations for fresh seafood. The dramatic loftlike space, a former tin can factory, attracts a youngish set undeterred by the high noise levels. Swanson used a wide palette of trendy materials, shapes, and colors, and the stylishness is gratifying in a city so consumed with its historical legacy. / Stepping through the doors of Werner’s Restaurant (231 E. Redwood St.,  752-3335), a gem of a diner in the financial district, you are transported to Baltimore circa 1940. Its original wooden banquettes and brushed aluminum fixtures are virtually untouched. The food is okay, too, but the place is open only for lunch on weekdays. / The Woman’s Industrial Exchange (333 N. Charles St.,  685-4388), another authentically Baltimore eatery that can be appreciated more for its atmosphere than its culinary majesty, is located on the city’s cultural axis. The restaurant is staff ed exclusively by women, and both the food preparation and service (breakfast and lunch in a tearoom/diner atmosphere) tend toward the pre-service era. It’s friendly, but it’s not Friendly’s.
One of Baltimore’s best shopping assets is a row of antique stores that run along the 800 block of North Howard Street, and while the vitality of these stores has diminished over the past five years, they’re still worth a visit. / Around the corner, on Read Street, is a well-stocked collection of drawer pulls and other bathroom niceties at Designers Hardware. The range and quality make the store a haven for the difficult-to-please bath and shower set. / For contemporary housewares and excellent modernist jewelry, visit The Store Limited, located in the suburban-feeling Cross Keys shopping center (24 Village Sq.  323-2350) An excellent “gifting” destination, The Store stocks toys and books as well as all kinds of design porn objets. Less familiar to design-shop aficionados will be the modernist jewelry designs of Baltimore favorite Betty Cook. / A few blocks up Key Highway from the harbor are two very good sources for antiques: The Antique Warehouse (1300 Jackson St., 410] 659-0663), where 35 dealers clus ter in a warehouse-like space, and The Antique Center at Federal (1220 Key Hwy.,  625-0182), with 10,000 square feet of independent dealers. Practically adjacent, these two complexes specialize in historic pieces, though there are flickers of postwar modernism in both. But gone are the days when Baltimore was filled with Eames chairs for $20!