Maryland Zoo

Maryland Zoo (JEFFERSON JACKSON STEELE / June 17, 2014)

For a city with a soaring murder rate, endemic poverty, and a horribly mismanaged public school system, Baltimore is a surprisingly great place to raise kids. Really! True, city parents have to work a little harder than their counterparts in, say, Bethesda to find safe neighborhoods and good schools—but who the fuck wants to live in Bethesda? Families who stick it out in Baltimore are rewarded with access to a vibrant, endlessly creative arts community, fascinating history, a broad diversity of cultures, languages, neighborhoods, and cuisines, and, for the kids, street credibility that will last them well into their early 20s.

Attractions

The tourist-focused zone around the Inner Harbor has a trio of kid-focused attractions that are genuinely world class. The granddaddy of them all (in age, at least) is the Maryland Science Center (601 Light St., [410] 685-2370, mdsci.org, $13.95-$20.95), which is essentially what every kid wishes science class was really like. It’s filled with cool displays, machines, gadgets, and games that you can play around with, like a light-sensor harp or a tornado generator. Its three floors have discrete sections geared toward different ages, and touring exhibitions mean new things to see every time you go. Admission is also more reasonable than at other downtown attractions, but, as with all of them, membership is a great deal if you go at least two or three times a year.

The National Aquarium (501 E. Pratt St., [410] 576-3800, aqua.org, $21.95-$34.95) is among the biggest and most diverse aquaria in the world, with species from around all four oceans and beyond, plus lots of creative ways to interact with them: Peer down from the spiral of ramps in the main exhibit hall to see the giant sea turtles and manatees swimming below, or walk through the water tubes of Shark Alley to see sharks swimming all around you. The dolphin shows cost extra-which is a bummer given the already-high ticket prices-but are a kid-thrilling must. Perhaps more than any other attraction in town, it’s worth it for local families to get a family membership. At $175, it pays for itself in two trips—and there’s enough here to come back every month and explore something new.

Port Discovery Children’s Museum (35 Market Place, [410] 864-2700, portdiscovery.org, $13.95) is the newest of the downtown trio but has quickly become a city-family highlight with lots of fun, hands-on permanent and traveling exhibits. The genius centerpiece of the place is a giant climbing structure full of tunnels, tubes, walkways, and hatches that, by itself, could occupy kids of a certain age for hours. But it’s surrounded by lots of other exhibits, including a water-play room where kids spray water hoses to play musical instruments, use tubes and connectors to build water pipes, or use the pumps and valves on a giant table with flowing water to construct mini-aqueducts. Great stuff.

It doesn’t quite amount to a full-scale attraction like those above, but another fun stop near the harbor, particularly during summer months, is the Walter Sondheim Fountain, located between the Science Center and Visitor’s Center. In the warmer months, the fountain’s jets shoot water a dozen feet in the air, sometimes in time to music like the 1812 Overture or Etta James’ “At Last.” Let your kids run wild through the fountains, then grab a Swedish Fish Italian ice at the nearby Rita’s stand. The Waterfront Partnership also holds frequent family-friendly events in the adjacent West Shore Park, so check their website for info.

Further uptown, within lovely, leafy Druid Hill Park is the Maryland Zoo ([410] 396-7102, marylandzoo.org, $12.50-$17.50, which has expanded and upgraded in recent years, putting it in league with competitors in D.C. and Philadelphia. Among the highlights are baby elephant Samson (whose birthday is celebrated with a party every year), giraffe-feeding and camel-riding stations, and the enclosed aviary, where you can hang out with beautiful birds from around the world.

Pretty much all of Baltimore’s best museums offer distinct, creative programs for children. The Walters Art Museum (600 N. Charles St., (410) 547-9000, thewalters.org) has weekly drop-in art activities, usually tied to its exhibits, and a basement where toddlers can dress up like medieval knights and put on puppet shows. Exhibits featuring giant insects and reptiles or suits of armor and swords are guaranteed kid favorites. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s (10 Art Museum Drive, (443) 573-1700, artbma.org) hosts Family Sundays, when the BMA has special family projects and tours. The American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway, (410) 244-1900,avam.org) has occasional programs for kids, like the annual sock puppet-making workshop, but its exhibits, wildly creative and often outlandish (like the giant ship made out of toothpicks on the first floor), are inherently kid-friendly. The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum (1601-03 E. North Ave., [410] 563-3404,greatblacksinwax.org, $11-$13) is another inherently kid-friendly place and a mecca for class trips during which students can see an historically accurate, life-sized representation of a slave ship and also pose with lifelike representations of everyone from Jackie Robinson to Barack Obama.

Baltimore is full of sites of historical interest, perhaps none more historically important than Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine (2400 E. Fort Ave., [410] 962-4290, nps.gov/fomc), which is not only the object of the 1812 naval bombardment that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but also a super-cool fort with ramparts (i.e. broad walls) for dashing about. Lots more fun than those Civil War battlefields. The B&O Railroad Museum (901 W. Pratt St., [410] 752-2490, borail.org $10-$16) on the west side is the perfect place to visit during the inevitable “Thomas the Tank Engine” phase and even for years after. Kids love climbing inside the old trains now permanently stationed inside the giant, once-active roundhouse that houses the museum. The wooden-train playground and little train ride are fun for little kids, but the big train ride—essentially a 1-mile trip on an old MARC train into a derelict neighborhood and back—will be a letdown to any kid who’s ever ridden on a real MARC train or the Light Rail. Other family-friendly history museums include the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture (830 E. Pratt St., [443] 263-1800,rflewismuseum.org, $6-$8) and Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum (844 E. Pratt St., [410] 837-1793, flaghouse.org, $6-$8).

Parks and Playgrounds

Baltimore is lucky to have two enormous parks to add necessary greenery to city living. In East Baltimore,Patterson Park (pattersonpark.com) has great park amenities like tennis, hiking, biking, playgrounds, swimming in the summer, and ice skating in the winter, plus fishing in the boat pond and climbing the pagoda, one of Baltimore’s coolest landmarks. West Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park (druidhillpark.org) also has the typical park amenities, plus the aforementioned Maryland Zoo and the beautiful, glass-enclosed Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens.

Massive Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park (1900 Eagle Drive, baltimorecity.gov) is a close third behind the city’s two main parks, with the excellent Carrie Murray Nature Center and possibly the single best attraction for train-loving kids: A fully functional one-eighth-sized steam train that runs on a 3-mile loop around the park. On the second Sunday of every month from April until November, volunteers take kids (and adults) out on rides. There’s also a cool train-themed playground

But all city playgrounds pale in comparison to Our Playground at Stadium Place (900 E. 33rd St.,stadiumplayground.org), a Baltimore-themed wonderland on the site of the old Memorial Stadium.

County nature options include Irvine Nature Center (11201 Garrison Forest Road, Owings Mills, [443] 738-9200, explorenature.org) and Oregon Ridge Park (13401 Beaver Dam Road, Cockeysville, [410] 887-1815,baltimorecountymd.gov).