That I was sipping my first drink in Baltimore, a housemade honey-infused whiskey, at the last place poet Edgar Allan Poe allegedly imbibed his, somehow seemed appropriate. Sitting on the saddle-shaped bar stools in the Horse You Came In On Saloon, my travel companion and I had just finished up the Haunted Pub Walk in Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood.
Poe's ghost is said to occasionally blow in here, too, through the doors that fling open on perfectly breezeless and warm days, followed by a rush of cold air, according to longtime barkeepers and bouncers. Poe has even been spotted — or at least a ghostly version of a man in a brown felt hat, sitting in a corner.
But tonight the boisterous crowd only includes friendly locals, gawking tourists and loud musicians. If it felt a bit rough around the edges, it was in a good, hardworking way — a lot like the city of Baltimore itself.
Baltimore has been called numerous names in the past, but its nicest by far has to be "Charm City." Famous for its crabcakes, pubs and Poe, this harbor city (Maryland's largest) was once a thriving port town back in the 1700s and 1800s. These days its grittiness is giving way to gentrification, transforming neighborhoods into places where craft cocktails and artisanal ice cream coexist with cool old dive bars, all served up with an easygoing blue-collar, not blue-blood, hospitality.
Baltimore's touristy Inner Harbor area is filled with the typical name-brand hotels, but I was staying in the city's southeastern Fells Point district at the elegant Sagamore Pendry. Opened in 2017, the renovated property was for years the deserted and fenced-off Recreation Pier, built in 1914. Fans of TV's "Homicide" will still recognize the side entrance (it now leads guests upstairs to its ballroom) that was once the show's police station entrance.
When I checked in, my room wasn't ready, but a glass of blackberry lemonade was offered, spiked with a shot of whiskey from the Cannon Room whiskey bar, if I wanted. (I wanted.) "Welcome to Fells Point," said the desk clerk. Indeed.
Stroll among haunted pubs
With its cobblestone streets and row houses, the Fells Point neighborhood is a city, state and national historic district. Nowadays, it's lined with upscale shops, restaurants and taverns. But the notable waterfront, named after the Englishmen who founded a shipbuilding company here in 1726, was once filled with transient sailors, busy brothels and numerous bars — its storied past loaded.
That was one of the reasons I'd booked the Fells Point Haunted Pub Walk for my first night in town. It helped that the meeting point was at Max's Taphouse, a place often cited on "best beer bar" lists and conveniently situated within walking distance of the Pendry.
Besides the Horse You Came In On Saloon, the walk included stops in the popular Cat's Eye Pub, where live music poured forth every time the door swung open, and Bertha's, the legendary restaurant and bar. There, the soup of the day, noted on the chalkboard, was "Whiskey," and Giselle, a long-dead brothel madam who had worked upstairs, was occasionally sighted, said our guide, Cliff.
No one at the bar that night seemed much concerned about an apparition; they were too busy stuffing themselves from big bowls overflowing with the house specialty, mussels.
The place to eat crabcakes
Eating Bertha's mussels (there are bumper stickers with the logo) is almost a tradition in Fells Point, along with oysters and lobster rolls at the popular Thames Street Oyster House and the Sweet Baby Jesus breakfast (layers of hash browns and crabmeat topped with eggs and hollandaise sauce) at the Blue Moon Cafe.
Still, everyone knows that crabcakes are the quintessential Baltimore dish.
If you have time to taste only one, locals almost unanimously recommended the family-owned Faidley's Seafood, founded in 1886, at the historic Lexington Market.
The day I walked in, 82-year-old Nancy Faidley Devine was behind the counter, her hands in an enormous bowl of lump crab meat, shaping the mixture into the huge round "Jumbo lump" cakes, the same size she originated in 1987.
"I started making them this size, because they fit my hand," she said as she showed me one.
I ordered mine along with a "Natty Boh," Baltimore's National Bohemian beer, and consumed it all while standing up at one of the tall tables (there are no stools) in Faidley's, and making friends with everyone else standing around the tables. "There's nothing else like this," said one local, as the rest of us nodded in agreement, our mouths full.
In the heart of Baltimore, Lexington Market is considered the oldest market in America. It is still at the spot it was established in 1782.
Where Poe lived and died
The market is less than a mile from the Edgar Allan Poe Home and Museum, not far from the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground where the poet is buried. The exact cause of Poe's death remains a mystery; he died under mysterious circumstances, after drinking at the bar now called the Horse You Came In On Saloon.
It had started to rain by the time we got to Poe's small house, now a museum, where he lived with his teenage cousin/bride and her mother in the early 1830s. Candlelight flickered next to his portrait on a fireplace mantel as we perused a telescope (Poe loved astronomy), and a wood traveling writing desk (precursor of the laptop computer?).
In the attic, where Poe was said to have penned some of his works, tall black boots stood next to a narrow bed. He never made much money in his lifetime, "such a crime," one of the guides told us before we ascended the narrow steep stairs to the attic room.
I asked her if she ever felt his presence here. "I would not stay here overnight," she replied. As for living visitors, the little museum had a record 13,000 last year.
If we were interested in Poe, the guides at the museum said, we should visit the Annabel Lee Tavern in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood.
Named for Poe's last poem, it's the only Poe-themed restaurant and bar in the city. We spent two happy hours at the cozy corner neighborhood spot. Surrounded with stuffed ravens, scrawled verses of Poe on the walls, we sipped cocktails with names such as Masque of the Red Death, and chatted with the friendly women tending bar.
Still, Baltimore offers more than Poe-themed cocktails and lore. Another afternoon we whiled away a couple of hours in the Baltimore Museum of Art (it's always free), where I loved seeing some of my favorite Henri Matisse paintings. The museum owns the largest number of works by Matisse in the world.
With sunshine and warmer weather on our final day, we sat outside at Pitango, a stylish Italian-inspired gelato shop, slipping spoons into gelato with a shot of espresso, then took one of the water taxis docked next to the Pendry to Fort McHenry. Now a quiet oasis, the old fort, with its cannons still in place, played a pivotal role in the War of 1812. A huge flag flies, harking to the inspiration for Francis Scott Key's poem "Defence of Fort M'Henry," which provided lyrics for "The Star-Spangled Banner."
That evening clouds blew in, and it began to mist again. Back in Fells Point, we headed to the historic Admiral Fell Inn, where a placard for a free tour of the place had caught my eye the day before. In the lobby, Steven Foote was crafting a handmade rope for a historic sailboat he planned to build. The hotel's resident historian, he reminded me of a sailor from long ago with his old-fashioned cap and lanky build.
He showed us around the place and shared, with a bit of skepticism, I sensed, several stories, including one about guests who called the front desk to complain of noisy parties in adjacent rooms — where, it turned out, no one was staying. Outside, he pointed to a faded sign on a brick wall: "VOTE AGAINST PROHIBITION," it read in ghostly letters. He also showed us the small cemetery where the Fells are buried.
At the Secret Bar downstairs, bartender Steve G. Mavronis served us a free cocktail to end our tour and entertained us with more stories. In his eight years of bartending, he has witnessed several unexplained occurrences, he said. They usually featured a ghostly woman who showed up after hours, once separating all his cocktail shakers, then hiding the tops and bottoms around the room.
By the time we left, rain-washed cobblestones reflected the old-fashioned streetlamps, and we agreed that with the mood we were in, it was a perfect night to pay our respects at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. Did Poe really meander among those ancient gravestones, as we'd been told on our first night in town? In Baltimore, it seems the spirits are real and make-believe.
We didn't go. We had tickets that night to the Illusions Bar and Theater for a different kind of magic show instead.
Donna Tabbert Long (@tabbertlong) of Minneapolis writes about food and travel.