Stylist’s editorial assistant Moya Lothian-McLean finds there’s far more to Baltimore than you’ve seen in TV shows
Until going to Baltimore, I did not know how much I had missed out on by not previously witnessing the sight of 30 women, hair teased into towering beehives and bedecked in feather boas, perform a mass conga line to Love Train.
The conga line is part of the ‘talent’ section of a unique beauty pageant; HonFest, an event that, despite marking its 25th year in 2018, is not something many in Baltimore seem to be aware of. “Never heard of it,” said the man at customs when I ran him through the plans for my stay in Charm City.
His loss. HonFest, a festival held in the historic neighbourhood of Hampden, is the most bonkers event I’ve ever been to. Attracting around 5,000 people every year, it was founded to commemorate the ‘Hons’ (single matriarchs who kept working-class families in post-war Baltimore going and so named because of their trademark greeting: “How you doin’ hon?”).
It’s technically a celebration of female strength in the face of adversity, but it’s also very much an excuse to wear cat-eye sunglasses, Barbie-pink rockabilly dresses and leopard-print headwraps all at the same time and attract zero raised eyebrows.
This offbeat streak perfectly defines Baltimore, famously the home of gritty TV shows such as The Wire, as well as eccentric visionary filmmaker John Waters (whose larger-than-life female leads in Hairspray and Serial Mom were heavily inspired by the Hons).
Everything has a twist here. I’m blown away by the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), an institution dedicated to preserving ‘outsider art’. Its 4,000-strong permanent collection includes a colossal copper nest protruding from the museum building, 3D paintings and a series of wry Victorian drawings that make me cackle with laughter (“E is for Edward who died of ennui”). Stopping for lunch in Encantada, AVAM’s gorgeously spacious sustainable restaurant, I’m surrounded by mirrored, winking walls as I munch down on a shroom burger. There is nothing else like this place.
Even the more traditional cultural destinations surprise me; I’m shocked by the solidly A-list roster of artists on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), having never heard of it before. Rubbing shoulders are iconic works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe and Vincent Van Gogh. It also lays claim to the largest public collection of Henri Matisse paintings on the planet. Refreshingly, BMA galleries also showcase art by overlooked minority artists too, so you can’t miss something as special as Stephen Towns’ sumptuous quilt rendering of the story of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.
Locals call the city ‘Smalltimore’, thanks to the big-city attractions that contrast with the small-town feel (Baltimore’s population is only around 600,000). I’m grateful; it makes navigating easy. My base is the newly opened Hotel Revival, an art deco dream located right in the middle of the cultural hub that is downtown Baltimore. On my doorstep are five of Baltimore’s most famous historical landmarks, including the Walters Art Museum (here be Fabergé), the Peabody Institute (a Hogwarts-esque library) and the Washington Monument (a monument of George Washington, obviously).
For a quickfire introduction to the city, a Light Street Cycles bike tour (lightstcycles.com) can’t be beaten. I spend an exhilarating afternoon zooming around south Baltimore with barely an incline in sight. The sea air (the city lies on the vast Chesapeake Bay) also whips up an appetite – thankfully, Baltimore is stuffed with restaurants and gastronomic boltholes to satisfy an appetite.
Top picks include La Cuchara, a sophisticated South American-inspired restaurant located in a beautifully repurposed former warehouse (Baltimore doesn’t rebuild properties, it re-uses them). Chef Ben Lefenfeld, who co-owns La Cuchara with brother Jake, changes the menu nightly, meaning punters can dine there each day – and I would, to experience those cod croquettes again. Baltimore’s famed for its seafood so there are plenty of options for those cravinga taste of the ocean. Gertrude’s at the BMA, run by celebrity chef John Shields, is a standout. Plump for the crab cakes to have your palate blown. And definitely make time for Alma Cocina Latina, which offers incredible Venezuelan bites inside a beautifully airy space.
Its reputation as a hothouse for young creatives and easy transport links (three hours by train to New York) is also establishing Baltimore as a millennial playground. Forbes designated it one of the coolest US cities to visit in 2018, a reputation bolstered by projects like Union Collective, a 138,000 square-foot complex opening this year. Housing independent businesses and restaurants, it’s led by brewers Union Craft, a runaway success over the last seven years. A similar story is brewing across town (or sea – it’s a 30-minute boat ride away) at whiskey-makers Sagamore Spirit, whose hugely fun distillery tours are a great way to while away an afternoon.
This is my last stop before heading to the airport and nearly takes the hairs off my neck with an 80%-proof whiskey tasting; a fitting end to my time in a city that has a hard-nosed reputation (unlike me in my review, I wouldn’t mention The Wire), but actually feels more like the world of John Waters: a kitsch, camp, cultural riot. Head here while it’s still a delicious secret.