College Visit Guide: Baltimore

Explore the neighborhoods and opportunities for family fun while visiting colleges in Baltimore.

Even though I’m from New York, I’d never been to Baltimore before my son Ian applied to Towson University, a school of 16,000 students that’s part of the Maryland State University System. The Baltimore area is also home to Goucher College, Loyola College, Johns Hopkins University, University of Baltimore, Morgan State University and the city campus of University of Maryland.

The Suburban Side of Baltimore

Goucher College and Towson University have lovely campuses in Towson, a pleasing suburb just eight miles north of Baltimore. The night before our campus tour, we checked in to the Burkshire Marriott Conference Hotel, right on the Towson campus. While serviceable (and offering a parent discount for university students), it was completely uninteresting—yet put us in close proximity to the activities on campus. If there were to be another visit, we decided, we’d find a hotel right in the city where we could see more and do more. Dinner that night was at the Greene Turtle, a restaurant chain and college hangout where the food was surprisingly good. Towson has a few malls and a main drag with clothing stores, a movie theater and a few college-y restaurants. Although downtown Towson is great for students, we knew that Baltimore offered a lot more.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

A New York friend whose daughter attended Towson suggested that on our next visit, we try one of the three hotels run under the aegis of Harbor Magic. One look at the site, and I knew these properties were more up our alley. Our next Towson visit on Accepted Students Day took us to Brookshire Suites, just a block from the Inner Harbor. With its Mondrian-esque façade, spacious rooms and rooftop breakfast room overlooking the harbor, it was surely a cut above the Marriott in Towson. What’s more, the school was a quick 15-minute drive away.

We opted for the aquarium package (the hotel group offers varied packages, depending on the seasons) that included tickets to the National Aquarium, just a short walk away, plus free parking and even a monopoly set with a watery theme. Harbor Magic also has the more expensive Pier 5, right on the water in the Inner Harbor, and the Admiral Fell Inn.

While the Harbor Magic hotels are unique, I do recommend the new Homewood Suites by Hilton in the Inner Harbor. Since touring schools can be tiring, this place gives you a real feeling of home. It’s spanking new, and the rooms are all suites with two flat-screen TVs, full kitchens and nice big bathrooms. Breakfast is included and it’s quite varied with hot and cold offerings way beyond the usual free continental offerings.

Best of all was the gym hotel guests have access to. It’s not right in the hotel, but can be easily reached by elevator—and it’s the most well-equipped, clean, enormous gym I have ever seen anywhere.

The Inner Harbor is well executed, but it’s pretty textbook as renovated city areas go with an ESPN Zone, Borders bookstore, chain restaurants and more. Oriole Park at Camden Yards is right there, if you feel like getting a little game with your college, as is the National Aquarium, which is lovely, but didn’t quite live up to its reputation.

Neighborhoods: Fells Point and Canton

Whether you’re touring a school downtown or out in the suburbs, you might want to check out two distinctive Baltimore neighborhoods when it’s time to discuss the day over dinner.

Fells Point

For lots of local color, head to Fells Point, a short drive or water taxi away from the Inner Harbor. This still-rough-around-the-edges neighborhood has charm, flair, personality—and groups of college kids hanging out in its friendly bars featuring live music and crowds spilling out onto the sidewalk. This waterfront enclave still smacks of Old Baltimore. Outside of a skateboarding shop, a pet supply place and a few other teenage emporiums, there isn’t much shopping, but the strolling is fun and the atmosphere is always interesting.

When hunger strikes, head for Dudas Tavern, a corner bar and restaurant at 1600 Thames Street. A Baltimore institution, Dudas feels a little like Boston’s Cheers neighborhood bar. You’ll be treated like family, whether it’s your first visit or your 50th. Famous for its burgers, the crab cakes also excel.

The Admiral Fell Inn, one of the Harbor Magic hotels, is on a pretty corner in the heart of Fells Point. A beautifully renovated older building, it exudes a cozy charm—with fireplaces and 19th century furnishings. There’s daily tea in the lobby and even a Ghost Tour for those willing have some fun in search of the paranormal.


Canton is yet another older neighborhood filled with restaurants and bars that smack of the real Baltimore. Check out the busy Mama’s on the Half Shell (2901 O’Donnell St., tel. 410-276-3160). Reservations aren’t easy to get, but it’s another spot that’s big on atmosphere.

My hungry son was tired of waiting at Mama’s one evening, so we crossed the green and ended up at the Claddagh Pub (2918 O’Donnell St., tel. 410-522-4220) right across the street. The welcome was warm, the food was outstanding and, as is often the case in Baltimore, the big, baseball-shaped crab cakes were the stars.

Both Sides of the City

Aside from the waterfront neighborhoods, there are swaths of Baltimore that aren’t exactly pretty. Urban blight still resides here in a big way, so watch where you’re going. See the flip side in the absolutely lovely Mount Vernon Cultural District, where glorious architecture, fountains, parks and flowers abound. This neighborhood boasts the campus of University of Baltimore, founded in 1925, along with Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), Lyric Opera House, Centerstage and our favorite: The Walters Art Museum. It has a café and an enticing gift shop, but is also known for its collection of art, from Egyptian to European. Its Art Deco jewelry and medieval ivories are a true source of fascination. Small in scale, the museum almost feels like the private mansion of an eccentric collector, with treasures from all corners of the world.

More Kid-Friendly Options

If you’re coming with younger kids, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore has a 1940s feel and its small scale makes it a nice stop for a few hours. Nearby, on the grounds of Druid Hill Park, be sure to stop in to the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens. The striking Victorian greenhouse is straight out of a storybook with five fascinating exhibit areas, including separate sections for tropical plants, dessert flora and fauna and graceful orchids.

A short drive south of the city takes you to Nick’s Fish House in a warehouse-y district along the water. It has a nautical atmosphere, but not a corny one. With copious indoor and outdoor dining facilities, Nick’s has all the usual seafood specialties, and they’re all just fine.

The end of this story is a happy one.  Ian was accepted at Towson—and he’s happy there. He’d asked for us to bring a few things down for his apartment and after unloading, we all headed for Nick’s on a warm afternoon late in October. As we sat on the sunny deck overlooking the inlet, the clams were divine and the Blue Moon Draft Beer was cold. At that moment, we were thankful he’d chosen Towson over U. Mass or University of Vermont where T-shirts and flip-flops would have already been retired—and snow, rather than seagulls, might have been swirling overhead. 

Destinations: Baltimore

Themes: College Visits, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Eat, Sightseeing, Sleep