I don't often get goose bumps during tourist filmstrips, but the one shown at the Fort McHenry Visitor Center affected many in the audience, some standing with hands over hearts.
I moved to Baltimore five years ago and am still discovering its charms. Whenever I have an out-of-town guest, I eagerly plan outings to the Inner Harbor and museums. With the city celebrating the bicentennial of the Star Spangled Banner, it seemed high time for my first trip to Fort McHenry -- so when my friend Cliff came down from New York, it was first on the agenda.
In case you've forgotten everything you ever knew about American history (you are not alone), let me take you back to the War of 1812, which began in 1793 as a conflict between the British and the French. Though the United States -- there were 18 back then -- was originally neutral, the British had taken to confiscating our ships and forcing our sailors into their military. We declared war on the British in 1812, but with Napoleon distracting them in Europe, it took until 1814 for them to get over here to teach us a lesson.
Having burned Washington, D.C., the Brits proceeded up the Chesapeake to Baltimore, where about 1,000 American troops awaited them at Fort McHenry, situated at the narrow entry to Baltimore's harbor. On Sept. 13, bombardment of the fort began.
Meanwhile, the week before, Washington lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key (a distant cousin of F. Scott Fitzgerald) had gone out to one of the British ships to negotiate the release of a friend who had been taken prisoner. Since Key had gotten wind of the planned attack during his stay onboard, the British insisted Key continue to enjoy their hospitality until the battle was over.
The 25-hour battle took place in stormy conditions and fell apart in darkness and confusion when a secondary attack went up the wrong fork of the river. The British decided to pack it in, recoup in Jamaica, then head down to New Orleans, where they would meet their fate at the hands of Andrew Jackson. As the victorious U.S. troops at Fort McHenry hoisted a 42-by-30-foot flag at dawn on Sept. 14, Key was watching from the deck of the British ship and started jotting in his notebook.
His finished poem was published in the paper a few days later. Set to a popular tune, it took the country by storm, and was declared our national anthem in 1931.
Having taken in the exhibits at the Fort McHenry Visitor Center -- not all rah-rah, they include discussion of conflicts surrounding the flag, such as the protest at the 1968 Olympics -- Cliff and I trekked across the grounds to the star-shaped fort itself. We scaled the ramparts, explored the underground bunkers, the batteries and the ravelin, and helped roll out a replica of the huge battle flag with a ranger ($7, under 16 free, 410-962-4290, nps.gov/fomc).
Though Fort McHenry is easily accessible by car, and has a big parking lot, the water taxi is a great option for tourists. An affordable all-day ticket gives you the option of skipping around among 17 landing spots, among which are many of the top things to do in Baltimore. And since every major hotel chain has a spot on or close to the harbor, it's a short walk to get started. (all-day ticket $12 adults, $6 kids, 410-563-3901 baltimorewatertaxi.com).
Here are my harborfront favorites, many of which have special programs for the bicentennial celebration.
American Visionary Art Museum. This eye-popping small museum houses a collection of outsider art you have to see to believe. The permanent collection includes a reproduction of the Lusitania made of 193,000 matchsticks, sparkly wonders from Paul Darmafall, the "Baltimore Glassman," art cars and a giant winged Icarus that spins above a mirrored sea. Much of it is playful -- don't miss the wacky gift shop, Sideshow -- but also profound and moving, with works by prisoners, mental patients and other outcasts, and major exhibits on serious topics like race, addiction and justice. For the 200th anniversary of the national anthem, AVAM unveils a Star Spangled Sidewalk, with every line of Key's poem illustrated on the blocks surrounding the museum ($15.95, students/children $9.95, 410-244-1900, avam.org).
Maryland Science Center. Three levels of interactive exhibits focus on earth sciences, space and the human body. Life-size dinosaurs, a planetarium and an IMAX theater, now showing "The Star-Spangled Banner," a 3-D depiction of the battle at Fort McHenry and the evolution of the flag. (410-685-5525, mdsci.org, admission plus film $22.95, $19.95 kids).
The National Aquarium. A glass building right on the harbor, the Aquarium is the city's best-known attraction, with a dolphin show, a tankful of sharks and a walk-through rain forest (410-576-3800, aqua.org, "Total Experience" $29.95, $19.95 kids).
Fell's Point. A cobblestone waterfront neighborhood of restaurants, taverns, shops and ships, it is the site of many festivals, fairs and pub crawls, including the celebration of the Star-Spangled Spectacular in September. Among my favorite restaurants are the Heavy Seas Ale House (410-929-7985, heavyseasalehouse.com), serving delicious local beer and food to go with it; Sticky Rice (443-682-8243, bmoresticky.com), an Asian- fusion place with a pub atmosphere and super-creative sushi, strong on vegetarian options; and the outdoor patio at Bond Street Social (443-449-6234, bondstreetsocial.com), where the make-your-own Bloody Mary bar on weekends is phenomenal. We always visit delightful local character Loring Cornish, a mosaic artist whose gallery includes three floors of stunning and affordable pieces for sale (443-622-2869, loringcornish.com).
Little Italy. Here among the touristy restaurants is a garage housing Segs in the City, where you can learn in minutes how to maneuver like a pro. A 90-minute Segway safari glides you past all the major sights of the harbor. ($60 for 90 minutes, 800-734-7393, segsinthecity.com).
Canton Waterfront Park. This water taxi stop is right near Canton Dockside, a fine place to eat Maryland blue crabs. Picnic tables are covered with brown paper and have buckets for the shells. Eating crabs is expensive and time-consuming -- but you really haven't been in Baltimore until you try it (410-276-8900, cantondockside.com).
Star-Spangled Spectacular, Sept. 7-16
This free festival includes living history demonstrations, a family fun zone, live music and Chesapeake-themed food and beverage vendors. Full schedule at StarSpangled200.com.
*Appearances by the Tall Ships and Blue Angels
*Re-enactments and other special events at Fort McHenry,
*Patriotic concert and fireworks extravaganza on Sept. 13
*Nationwide singing of the anthem during the festivities
*Narrated 45-minute boat tours sail the same route as Francis Scott Key in 1814 ($10 adults, $5 children 3-10, 410-962-4290)
An earlier version of this story misstated the family connection of Francis Scott Key and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It also gave an incorrect admission price for students and children at the American Visionary Art Museum.