2017-04-20 10:53:03
Frugal Traveler: Exploring Baltimore, a City With Style to Spare, on a Budget

I’m a terrible bowler: I’m lucky to crack 90 on a good day. So when I went with my friend Jared to Patterson Bowling Center, east of downtown Baltimore, to try out duckpin bowling, an idiosyncratic local pastime, I thought my fortunes might change. We walked into the 90-year-old institution, plunked down $15 each for an hour (shoe rental included, and you’re allowed to bring your own beer and wine), then headed upstairs and began to play.

My dreams of joining the pro tour were quickly dashed. The light, grapefruit-size balls were even more difficult to control, and the squat little duckpins, a fraction the size of normal bowling pins, wouldn’t cooperate. Whenever I fired a perfect strike down the middle of the lane, I’d somehow manage to knock down only three or four pins. In my head, I gave the little duckpins Daffy Duck voices. “You’re despicable!” they taunted. I still had a great time.

My visit to Baltimore was filled with quirky fun like this: singular activities that make Maryland’s largest city a creative hotbed and thoroughly worthwhile place to visit. Despite my limited budget, I was able to enjoy excellent food, discover historical landmarks and make the most of a city whose eccentricity led the director John Waters, a native, to say, “you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style.”

Baltimore, sometimes called a city of neighborhoods, is indeed a complicated place; the racial and socioeconomic contrasts are stark, and highly visible. Around Patterson Park, with a gorgeous pagodalike tower on the western side and 2.5-acre recreational lake in the middle (it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area), close to where I stayed with my friends Jared and Emily, the feel of the neighborhood can change within a matter of blocks.

Handsome three-story rowhouses (the classic Baltimore style, usually in brick or formstone) quickly give way to abandoned, boarded-up structures and dice games played against a stoop. Jared, who works in immigration law, said that while he loved Baltimore, it’s a city that’s hurting. “Freddie Gray really traumatized the city,” he said, referring to the 2015 death of a young black man while in police custody. So much so, he added, that the embattled mayor at the time, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, after paying to have polls conducted, decided not to run for re-election.

We were chatting over some delectable encased meats at Snake Hill, a restaurant and tavern in the Highlandtown neighborhood. A snappy Polish sausage cost $5, and a Vietnamese-inspired sandwich called the Pho Real, a pork sausage covered in sliced jalapeños, basil, bean sprouts and hoisin, set me back $10. (Pro tip: Order a salad, like a tangy kale Caesar for $9, and get $2 off any sausage.) The beer selection at Snake Hill is good, too, with local brews from Rar Brewing and Burley Oak Brewing Company. I went with the “Wild Card” option — a mystery beer for only $3. I was happy with my choice, which turned out to be a zingy Lagunitas Marzen.

Snake Hill is a stone’s throw from the Creative Alliance, a multiuse arts and performance space where a friendly worker told me about future concerts and events. While a Django Reinhardt-inspired jazz fest was sold out, I took the opportunity to peruse one of the gallery spaces that was exhibiting works by the artists Jerry Allen Gilmore and Miss Ellen Cameron.

Art flows freely in Baltimore and I more than got my fill, beginning with the Baltimore Museum of Art (free, closed Monday and Tuesday) and its adjacent sculpture garden. I enjoyed Sarah Oppenheimer’s perception-bending piece “W-120301,” designed specifically around the architecture of the museum, as well as more traditional pieces from Degas and Monet. I also visited the free Walters Art Museum: I found some of the religious artifacts particularly interesting, including a set of 16th-century mausoleum doors from Iran.

The American Visionary Art Museum (or AVAM, admission is $15.95 but is by donation after 5:15 p.m.) takes a left turn and steers visitors down a less traditional path. “Brackman’s Botanical Bonanza!” is a strange, wonderful piece by Wendy Brackman — a mesmerizing, rotating mandala of plants and animals that’s made from, among other things, painted paper plates, staples and Ping-Pong balls.

AVAM’s current food-focused exhibit shows off the museum’s best quality: making art fun, current and accessible. A reimagining of Noah’s Ark with different foodstuffs, a bread mosaic and a Pez dispenser collection are all on display, as is more personal work by Bobby Adams, about his struggles with weight gain and overeating. Some of Mr. Adams’s photography is also for sale in the gift shop; he photographed many so-called Dreamlanders, people who helped to make and were featured in John Waters’s films.

I’m a fan of those films, and dragged Jared and Emily all over town looking for Waters-related landmarks. After a visit to Atwater’s in Belvedere Square Market (and a $5.75 egg and Cheddar breakfast sandwich) I made them drive by nearby Calvert Hall school, which the director attended. Closer to the center of the city, I also went to Tyson Street, where the infamous final scene of “Pink Flamingos” was filmed.

If Mr. Waters is the “Pope of Trash,” though, Hampden — a neighborhood he helped thrust into prominence by showcasing it in his films — is his diocese. Roland Avenue at West 36th Street serves as the epicenter of a kitschy area with plenty of interesting restaurants and shops. Atomic Books is an independent bookstore that focuses on comics and illustrated novels. It’s also, unofficially, at least, where he picks up his fan mail from time to time.

Nearby is Hampden Junque, a small vintage store whose shelves are packed with Waters movie memorabilia, old photos, postcards, kitsch and dirty old eight-millimeter movies (really). I spent $6 on a small stack of old postcards. Photos of Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine and an actor in a number of Waters movies, were on sale for $10.

Cafe Hon, down the street, which sells beehive wigs and cat-eye glasses, attempts to be the embodiment of Baltimore’s Hon culture — Hon, short for “Honey,” is a common local term of endearment. (The restaurant’s proprietor, Denise Whiting, trademarked the word “Hon” in 2010. She received such blowback from the community that she relinquished it a year later.) I had a decent, oversize slice of blueberry cherry crumb pie for $6.99.

I preferred Rocket to Venus, a casual diner with a rock ’n’ roll atmosphere and local art on the walls (when I visited, the photography of Marybeth Mareski, another local). The breakfast banh mi sandwich, with scrambled eggs and pickled daikon, cost $11.

The arts seem to be flourishing in Baltimore; one effect of affordable real estate is that it encourages a creative community. “Art and music types can afford to stay,” said the artist Amy Boone-McCreesh, whom I met at a party. Ami Dang, a musician and Maryland native, expressed a similar sentiment: Many in the arts can buy houses and rent inexpensive studios, lessening the financial pressure artists frequently face.

Down the street from Ms. Boone-McCreesh’s studio in the Station North neighborhood is Open Works Baltimore, an open-use, membership-based space with nearly every imaginable piece of equipment for welding, drilling, sawing, sewing and even 3-D printing. One-hour crash courses in topics like metalworking start at just $20. Monthly membership, which allows you to spend up to 76 hours a week in the shared work spaces, begins at $70 per month. The space caters to small businesses, too, renting office space on-site for $125 per month.

When I wasn’t digging into Baltimore’s imaginativeness and camp, I was digging its food. Specifically, crab. I would have wasted a trip had I not gone to Faidley Seafood in Lexington Market, which has been slinging seafood from the Chesapeake since 1886. (Its current owner and matriarch, Nancy Devine-Faidley, was there the day I went.) The thing to get is, obviously, the crab cake. There are two options: the meatier, more expensive lump crab cake ($14.95 à la carte) or the smoother, slightly creamier backfin ($8.95). Both are excellent, but the lump is the way to go: Sweet, fat chunks of crab held together by a whisper of breading. Wash it all down with a cup of Natty Boh (National Bohemian beer) for $3.25.

From the market, you’re within walking distance of a couple of important historical landmarks: Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, at North Greene Street and West Fayette, is in the yard of Westminster Hall, a church completed in 1852. The other is the Washington Monument — no, not that Washington Monument. The Baltimore version (and the first to honor the first president), close to the Peabody Institute, was designed Robert Mills, who also did the D.C. structure. For $6, I climbed the 227 marble steps and was treated to an excellent view of the city.

Literary legends and founding fathers are fine and good, but it’s Baltimore’s unique brand of creative strangeness that kept me hooked. I went to the northern part of the city one afternoon to catch a matinee ($9) at the Senator Theater, a beautiful 1939 Art Deco single-screen movie theater. The showing of “Polyester,” John Waters’s 1981 campy comedy that follows the high jinks of Francine Fishpaw (Divine) and her family, was shown in Odorama, a delightfully bizarre way to interact with a movie. Attendees are presented with a card with 10 scratch-and-sniff sections. At various points during the screening, viewers are asked to scratch a given number and sniff the card, the idea being it will further immerse you in the action of the film.

The smells, mostly bad (think glue, flatulence and gasoline) did nothing to redeem what was a fairly tasteless movie — nor, I’m sure, were they intended to. I spent most of the time laughing as I raised the horrid-smelling card to my face while watching the divine Mr. Milstead ham up the screen. It seemed to embody the characteristics of Baltimore I came to admire most: strange, wonderful and not caring what anyone thinks.