The Baltimore Banner wants to help its readers discover the joys that lie beyond the region. Our “Discover” travel series will shine a light on some of the hidden gems in and outside Maryland that residents can explore in a day or a weekend. We’ll tell you where to stay, what to do and the best places to eat. Whether you’re a single person who wants to get out of Charm City for the weekend, a couple looking for an entertaining day trip or a family willing to cross state lines to maintain your sanity, we’ll have something for you.
Just about an hour west of Baltimore, right before Central Maryland turns into Western Maryland, is Frederick. The seat of Frederick County is home to a charming and walkable historic downtown that makes a perfect day trip for anyone who can make the drive along I-70.
But before we go any further, a disclaimer: I grew up in Frederick. In high school, I spent countless hours at a small pizza joint on Market Street with my friends. For my 21st birthday, my family met at a classy restaurant downtown and then I spent the rest of the night bar-hopping with my siblings and now-fiancee. I’m constantly telling people to take the drive and check it out, whether it’s for a brewery or favorite hiking path.
So, depending on your point of view, I am either impossibly biased or an expert. With that in mind, I drove to Frederick from my home in North Baltimore earlier this month to scope out some of the best activities and places to eat and drink if you’re looking for a day trip.
Know before you go
When I refer to Frederick in this piece, I mean the city, not the county. (Frederick is the largest city in Frederick County, and is right in the middle of it.)
When you go, be sure to wear comfy shoes. There’s a lot to do in downtown Frederick, and while you could drive and look for parking over and over again, it makes more sense in most cases to walk. The sidewalks are wide, and the area is relatively far, but you can easily put in three or four miles depending on what you choose to do.
If you are going to park, I suggest parking downtown. There is plenty of street parking, though keep an eye out for meters and signs that restrict hours. There are a few garages that are relatively cheap, but they can fill up fast.
And you might want to avoid going on a Monday. A lot of shops and restaurants downtown are closed or have limited hours.
What to do
One of the best things to do in Frederick is to walk up and down Market Street, the heart of historic downtown, and pop into any shop that catches your interest. My favorite is Curious Iguana, an independent bookstore that opened in September 2013. It has a dedicated room for children’s books, plus staff-curated picks in just about any genre. They also have a frequent buyers club — you get $10 off for every $100 spent. I like to think of it as a permanent 10% discount.
I’m also a big fan of Brainstorm Comics & Gaming, which is a bit further north. It has countless comic books and graphic novels for sale, plus a wide variety of board games and tabletop games. Every time I’ve gone in, the staff have been knowledgeable and friendly.
Market Street also has a few art galleries and stores, including DISTRICT Arts. It’s free to enter, thankfully, because the art that was on display — some from locals, some not — was not cheap. The staff had a strict no photos rule, but I was impressed by some glasswork on display; my aunt who came with me was taken with some mixed-medium digital work.
If you have kids with you, make sure you stop by the North Market Pop Shop, which claims to have the East Coast’s largest collection of soda. Inside, you’ll find shelves full of all kinds of soda, from the delicious Ale-8-One (a regional ginger ale that I purchased a few bottles of) to more dubious bottles purporting to taste like freshly mowed grass. You can also grab ice cream or browse shelves full of novelty candy.
If you feel like venturing away from Market Street (which to be clear, I think you should), check out Emporium Antiques, a gigantic warehouse filled with antique vendors that has everything from estate jewelry to Fiesta dinnerware to furniture to old maps. I’m not normally into antiquing, but even I can have a good time browsing the different corrals.
Not far from Emporium Antiques is Vintage MC, a store that specializes in vintage mid-century modern furniture and decor. I’ve yet to actually purchase anything from here, but I am tempted every time I walk in. If you’re sensitive to smells, though, I’d suggest passing on the clothing section in the back — I can’t visit without getting a quick headache.
If you’re not so much into shopping (or even window browsing), just walking around in the downtown area is pleasant — there are a few public gardens, and the Carroll Creek Promenade is a really pretty waterfront with fountains and bridges.
You should also take the time to walk through Baker Park — which has a few large playgrounds, a bandshell, a picturesque clock tower and public courts for tennis and bocce — or around Culler Lake, which has a boardwalk that clocks in at just about three-quarters of a mile, according to my fitness tracker. If you’re looking for an outdoor excursion that’s a bit more challenging than a walking path, there are some great hiking trails in Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park if you’re willing to take another drive.
If you’re more of a history buff, Frederick should whet your appetite: The city was an important location during the Civil War, including during the 1862 Antietam campaign. It is also home to the Barbara Fritchie House, a site where Fritchie, who was then in her 90s, was said to defiantly wave the Union flag as confederate soldiers marched through the city streets in 1862. The history of Frederick, though, is present not only in the city’s museums and designated markers, but in the fine architectural details on its buildings.
Where to eat and drink
My number one recommendation for anyone going to Frederick is to visit Hootch & Banter and grab a seat at the bar. If you’re lucky, head bartender Jeff Naylor will be working. The drinks he’s curated for the restaurant are all delicious, and while you could order a beer or wine, I think it’s a mistake to not order from the house cocktail menu.
The food there is also delicious. The menu shifts occasionally, but I’ve never had a bad meal, from the 21st birthday dinner with my family a few years ago to weekend brunches with friends. When I visited earlier this month, I enjoyed a wahoo fish over Spanish-style rice and a cocktail made with gin from the local McClintock Distilling. My dining partner enjoyed a fancy spin on a cheesesteak and a cold glass of Heineken.
Earlier that same day, I stopped at Isabella’s Taverna & Tapas Bar and munched on their signature fried asparagus, a delicious tomato bread served with ham, and slow-cooked chicken thighs that were so tender I thought they’d melt in my mouth. I could take or leave the sangria I had with my tapas, though.
Be sure to also check out Ibiza Cafe, where I got a gigantic iced coffee for cheaper than Starbucks.
Other places downtown I would highly recommend include: Frederick Coffee Co. for coffee and breakfast sandwiches; The Tasting Room for (very) special occasions; Cafe Nola for a late-night option; and Pretzel & Pizza Creations for delicious pizza made with pretzel dough, or a pretzel stuffed with cheese and covered in Old Bay (this is still Maryland, after all).
And while I didn’t make it to any of them during my latest trip, Frederick is also home to distilleries and breweries. I’m an especially big fan of the gin and bourbon from McClintock (which offers really fun tours) and the specialty cocktails from Tenth Ward Distilling Company. Top breweries downtown include Idiom Brewing Co. and Olde Mother Brewing Co.
If you make the trip to Frederick — or are planning to — let me know! I’d love to hear about it, or help you figure out what to do and what you can skip.