As the U.S. National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday this year, we invite you to Find Your Park in Baltimore. Most people know that the National Park Service designations reach far and wide—but did you know that Baltimore has nearly 70 neighborhoods that are designated as historic districts? The city also has more than 56,000 buildings listed in 52 National Register historic districts, a number only surpassed by New York City. Designations in the city and nearby include a national monument, national historic site, national historic trails, national heritage area, and more.
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
The most well-known site is Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, a star-shaped fort near the Inner Harbor. It is the only site to carry the “national monument and historic shrine” title. The fort played a critical role in the War of 1812, when it was successfully defended from attack by the British Navy. That battle also inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Today, visitors can tour the fort year-round and enjoy ranger talks and living history demonstrations in the summer, "Fort! Flag! Freedom!"
Hampton National Historic Site
Hampton National Historic Site, just north of Baltimore, is an 18th-century estate that was once the largest private home in the United States. It is lauded as one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the country. Interestingly, it was the first site selected as a National Historic Site. Tour guides in period attire can guide you through the mansion, overseer’s house and slave quarters. Don’t miss a stroll through the elaborate formal gardens on the property.
A number of trails administered by the National Park Service pass through Baltimore. The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail traces War of 1812 troop movements. Important sites in Baltimore, in addition to Fort McHenry, include the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, where Mary Pickersgill sewed the garrison flag that flew over Fort McHenry, and the Maryland Historical Society, home of the Key’s original document, among others.
The Captain John Smith National Historic Trail is a series of water routes along the Chesapeake Bay that follow the 1607-1609 voyages of the explorer and settler it is named after. It is the only water trail that claims the national historic trail designation, and in total it spans some 3,000 miles. To put that in context: The 600-mile Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail passes through nine states and Washington, D.C. as it follows the largest troop movement of the American Revolution. It, too, passes through Baltimore. All of the trails converge at Baltimore’s famed Inner Harbor.
Baltimore Visitors Center
Given the area’s historical and cultural significance, it’s no surprise that in 2009 Congress created the Baltimore National Heritage Area, which includes the central portion of the city, the waterfront, historic neighborhoods, and portions of the city’s park systems. The Inner Harbor, where the Baltimore Visitors Center and world-famous attractions like the National Aquarium are located, is the heart of the heritage area. Children will love splashing around in the Sondheim Fountain at West Shore Park, while history buffs will want to check out the historic ships, including a World War II submarine, the Torsk, and the last all-sail ship that served with the U.S. Navy, the USS Constellation, that are permanently docked there.
Around the Inner Harbor are several neighborhoods included in the national heritage area distinction: Grab dinner in Little Italy, walk in the steps of the courageous privateers in Fell's Point, or take in a great view of the city skyline from Federal Hill. The waterfront neighborhood Canton is also included; a Maryland Korean War Memorial can be found at Canton Waterfront Park, which is also a nice place to look out onto the ships in the harbor.
Baltimore Museum of Art Sculpture Garden
Two other can’t-miss neighborhoods in the designated heritage area are Mount Vernon and Charles Village. Mount Vernon is home of the Walters Museum of Art, the Maryland Historical Society, the Peabody Library and the Washington Monument, which is surrounded by a beautiful park. The monument – the first built to honor George Washington – was recently restored by the Mount Vernon Conservancy. Charles Village is home to the Baltimore Museum of Art and serene Wyman Park. Both neighborhoods are intersected by the Historic Charles National Street Scenic Byway, an artery that runs south to north through the downtown. Along the way, it passes through many more of the city’s cultural, residential, and commercial areas. The Charm CIty Circulator’s Purple Route can take you through much of it (it’s free).
The Maryland Zoo
There are parks throughout Baltimore, and several of them are also included in the heritage area and they are celebrating this summer, too. The 745-acre Druid Hill Park is one of the oldest landscaped public parks in the United States and has both the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Maryland Zoo within its bounds. Patterson Park is famous for its wide-open spaces and ornate pagoda, offering amazing views of the city. In southwest Baltimore, Carroll Park has the Federal-style Mt. Clare Mansion, a 9-hole golf course, several athletic fields, skate board park and nature playground.
The Cylburn Mansion
For hiking and biking, you’ll want to check out the 11 mile paved Jones Falls Trail that runs from the Inner Harbor to lush Cylburn Arboretum, home to Cylburn Mansion, various display gardens and a multitude of natural surface hiking trails. Enjoy beautiful Druid Hill Park as you travel along the Jones Falls as it loops around the Druid Hill Reservoir and takes you through the cool forest of the back hills of the park. The 22-mile paved Gwynns Falls Trail can also be accessed from the Inner Harbor, and runs from Middlebranch Park north to Gwynns Falls Leakin Park (the largest urban wilderness park on the East Coast!), There you’ll find Carrie Murray Nature Center, which has a hawk house where you can meet rehabilitated raptors. The park also has a miniature steam-powered railroad, the Chesapeake & Allegheny Live Steamers, which offers free rides every second Sunday from April through November.