Baltimore/West Baltimore

West Baltimore is a huge section of the city notorious for violent and other drug-related crime, but also for its unique culture, endless streets of old Baltimore rowhouses with their marble stoops, and sprawling parklands.


The Rawlings Botanical Conservatory in Druid Hill Park

Google "West Baltimore," and the bulk of the hits that show up for several pages of search results are regarding crime. This is how the world sees West Baltimore, and, while yes, there is an awful amount of violent crime here, this is not fair and not even close to the whole picture of real-life in an urban area rich with culture and history. While African-American history in Baltimore begins in East Baltimore, it moved to the west at the turn of the twentieth century and stayed there. To put it in symbolic terms, Frederick Douglass was raised in East Baltimore, Thurgood Marshall in West Baltimore. African-American culture found its heart along Pennsylvania and North Avenues, earning its place as one of the East Coast's "Black Broadways," on the music and entertainment circuit between D.C., Philadelphia, and Harlem in New York.

Neighborhood identities are strong throughout Baltimore, and West Baltimore has a profoundly large number of distinct neighborhoods. Good luck getting to know them all, but it's possible to go over a number of the most interesting ones for visitors:

Union Square/Hollins Market, affectionately known as Sowebo (Southwest Baltimore), may well house the most beautiful of the many tree lined streets of West Baltimore rowhouses. Maybe this is because of the buildings and fountain around the square and the covered market itself, or even more likely it's because this is a wealthier area and the lovely architecture has seen better upkeep. Either way, Union Square really does rival Bolton Hill and Fell's Point for the title of Baltimore's "most beautiful neighborhood." This fact has not been lost on Hollywood, which filmed the 1997 adaptation of Washington Square (based on the Henry James Novel) at Union Square itself. This neighborhood was the home of the revered H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, whose acerbic but hilarious wit was unmatched and unstoppable in his times. His extensive writings are memorialized on the fountain in the middle of Union Square, but he remains best known for his coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial (he himself came up with that name) and his inclusion in the play Inherit the Wind. This community is tight-knit, well organized, and very involved with keeping it a great place to live. The Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend is of course the best time to visit, when Sowebohemian Arts Festival is in full force.

Pennsylvania Avenue, consisting of the modern day neighborhoods of Sandtown, Upton, Druid Heights, and Penn North, was the epicenter of the city's African-American culture from the turn of the twentieth century up until the doomsday of the 1968 riots. This corridor predates both Harlem and even D.C.'s U Street as a real center of black wealth and culture. The wild popularity of the area—a product of interest in the local arts and shopping, plus the difficulties for black Baltimoreans to find housing in the white neighborhoods throughout the city—led to overcrowding and a slow exodus of the black middle and upper class. The riots of 1968 sealed the neighborhoods fate, and it never recovered. Today there are several remaining monuments and new memorials to what once was, including the Arch Social Club, the Monument to the Royal Theatre, the Avenue Market, the Billie Holiday Statue (a local, along with Cab Calloway), and more. While the reality is more complex block-to-block, it is nonetheless safe to call this a very rough section of Baltimore (particularly Sandtown) and certainly not one to be walking around off the main streets. The city Visitor Center offers weekly tours, and this can be a great way to really learn about the so-called "Outer Harbor"—away from the sheen and wealth of the Inner Harbor.

Reservoir Hill trails only Union Square in terms of architectural beauty, with a real wealth of tall Victorian rowhouses, especially in the Mount Royal Historic District in the southeast section of the neighborhood (by North Ave and the Jones Falls Expy) and the Madison Historic District along Madison Ave. The larger neighborhood, though, is a real patchwork of beautiful blocks next to dilapidated blocks full of boarded up buildings, vacant lots, and the general West Baltimore plague of the drug trade (particularly on the central portion of North Ave at the Madison Park Housing Projects). Just north of the neighborhood is beautiful Druid Hill Park, with its reservoir, the Maryland Zoo, and Botanical Gardens.

Edmonson covers a large swath of mostly residential areas to the south and near east of Gwynns Falls Park. The area to the park's southwest is a nice area, with a few small restaurants/cafes of note.

Pimlico is the neighborhood surrounding the famous Pimlico Racetrack. Despite its proximity to this major attraction, the neighborhood is quite impoverished, and has little else to offer visitors.

Get in

While yes, the subway goes to a few places, you really should not plan to visit West Baltimore without a car. It's the only practical way of moving around this side of the city, and it's anyway a lot safer than wandering around on foot, waiting for buses, etc. Edmonson Ave (US-40) and Liberty Heights Ave (MD-26) are the main east-west roads leading out of the city towards Baltimore County and I-70. But North Ave, Reistertown Rd, Baltimore St, Lombard St, and Pratt St are also helpful for getting around. Windsor Mill Rd and Franklintown Rd will also take you to I-70, but these are the slow scenic routes through the woods.

Coming from downtown to the Maryland Zoo or to the racetrack at Pimlico is quickest via McCulloh (MD-129), which will turn into Park Heights Ave.




This is not the shopping center side of the city. There are but two types of worthwhile shops around—sneaker shops in Mondawmin Mall for the true sneakerhead, and off-the-beaten-path thrift stores (hipsters have definitely not picked these ones dry).


There are some really tasty hole-in-the-walls scattered throughout West Baltimore, and you'll find some of the city's best soul food and the best Lake Trout. The two things to know, though, are that you'll need cash, not credit, and virtually all places are carryout only—of the following, only Kimmy's and Immeasurable Chicken & Waffles have dine-in service.

Polar bear wandering through Druid Hill Park





Edmondson Ave rowhouses

With good reason, West Baltimore is not a popular overnight section of the city. Much of the area is fairly unsafe after dark, and it is far from the center, requiring a car.

Stay safe

West Baltimore, as should be evident from any quick perusal of this guide, is home to very serious problems with violence often relating to the drug trade (which should not be a problem for visitors), but stranger robbery and assault are very much a reality when walking rougher neighborhoods on foot.

Go next

Routes through West Baltimore

Owings Mills Lochearn  NW  SE  Midtown Downtown
Hunt Valley North Baltimore  N  S  Midtown Downtown
Timonium North Baltimore  N  S  Midtown Downtown

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, March 12, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.