Thanks to low rents and lots of loft buildings, Baltimore has long had a vibrant arts scene. To up the creative ante, city leaders in 2002 designated a section of less-than-gleaming blocks in midtown the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, offering tax breaks and other incentives to artists. Galleries, studios, performance venues, and nightspots have bloomed in response.
Station North isn’t SoHo yet. Much of the surrounding neighborhood remains rough around the edges. But if you follow the crowds and stick to the main areas, you can enjoy the sort of offbeat arts-and-nightlife experience you’ll find only beyond the tourist bubble.
The Charles Theater (1711 N. Charles St.; 410-727-3456), a six-screen art house carved out of a former streetcar barn, is an arts-district anchor. The complex also houses Tapas Teatro (1711 N. Charles St.; 410-332-0110), Baltimore’s busiest place for Spanish small plates, and Sofis Crepes (1723 N. Charles St.; 410-727-7732), a casual creperie. Across the street sits Club Charles (1724 N. Charles St.; 410-727-8815), a Deco-style boho bar where the jukebox selections are eclectic and the martinis bracing. Also along this stretch is Everyman Theatre (1727 N. Charles St.; 410-752-2208), the city’s smallest—though perhaps best—Equity stage, and the Metro Gallery (1700 N. Charles St.), where art shows and musical performances rotate, as does the bar’s list of about 30 beers.
One of the most notable galleries presenting regular shows is Area 405 (405 E. Oliver St.; 410-528-1968), housed in an artist-owned warehouse in the district’s largely residential east end.
The Strand Theater (1823 N. Charles St.; 443-874-4917) focuses on dramatic works by women writers, performers, and directors, while its neighbor the Bohemian Coffee House (1821 N. Charles St.; 410-400-0022) offers light fare and music.
When artists took over a vacant three-story building at 120 West North Avenue, the former tenant’s sign out front read “Lombard Office Furniture.” In a mash-up of frugality and cleverness, they removed and moved letters until it said Load of Fun. The complex houses studios, a gallery, three theater companies, a black-box theater, a tango parlor, and a trapeze-and-aerial-performance ensemble. Former Ace of Cakes reality-TV star Duff Goldman has performed at events here.
The Hexagon Space (1825 N. Charles St.) is another anything-goes venue where art shows bump up against bands such as Bad Banana and Decapitated Head. The Windup Space (12 W. North Ave.; 410-244-8855; thewindupspace.com) is a scenester’s gallery/bar where you might see breakdancing art students one night, burlesque and biker flicks the next.
Arguably Baltimore’s best pizza is turned out in crusty rectangular slabs from the coal-fired oven at Joe Squared (133 W. North Ave.; 410-545-0444). Fresh herbs are grown on the roof, and the bar has rum from almost every island in the Caribbean. It’s also known for its chicken wings and risotto. There’s free live music daily—acoustic during dinner hours, plugged in and turned up after 10.
Getting there: Station North is in the middle of Baltimore, just north of Mount Vernon and a little south of Charles Village, home to the main Johns Hopkins University campus. The city’s main north/south arteries, Charles and Saint Paul streets, slice through the district. There’s a public parking garage across from the Charles Theater. The district’s name refers to nearby Penn Station, where MARC commuter and Amtrak trains call. The free Charm City Circulator bus makes regular loops from Penn Station though the Inner Harbor to Federal Hill and back, running until midnight Friday and Saturday.