Photo by Kevin Labianco on Flickr.

If you have young children and don’t own a car or just don’t like driving, you know what a pain weekend trips can be. With the new weekend MARC service to Baltimore, Charm City can be a fun family car-free trip, especially when the weather calls for indoor activities. 

I’ve taken my 5-year-old son to Baltimore for car-free weekends about 6 times, and he is always asking to go again.  It’s easily done without the hassle of a car, because most attractions are within easy walking distance of the Inner Harbor.

Getting there and back

You can take the Amtrak or MARC trains 7 days per week between Union Station and Baltimore’s Penn Station. The Amtrak Northeast Regional runs between the two stations with tickets as low as $12 and takes 40 minutes. The MARC Penn Line does the same trip in an hour for only $7.00 and now runs 9 trains each way on Saturdays and 6 on Sundays. You can also spend $70 per ticket on the Acela and arrive in only 28 minutes.

My son and I either take an afternoon train on Friday afternoon in time to get him in bed in a hotel on time, or an early morning Saturday train. Kids love trains, of course, and it’s wonderful to arrive without the stress of driving.

When you get to Penn Station, you need to take a bus to the Inner Harbor, which is probably where your hotel and activities are. Baltimore has a Circulator bus just like DC, but theirs is free, which is nice. It’s called the Charm City Circulator, and the Purple Line runs between Penn Station and the harbor every 10-15 minutes.

The Circulator will take you down the west side of the Harbor. If you are headed to Harbor East, which is where we usually stay, you can either transfer onto the Orange Line or impress your family by taking the local Maryland Transit Administration bus directly from Penn Station to Harbor East. Check out bus directions on Google Maps on your phone and you’ll find the next 11 bus running every 30 minutes between Penn Station and Harbor East.  Have $1.60 ready per passenger, including kids.

Where to stay

Inner Harbor accommodations can get pricey, but we’ve found a fantastic hotel option.  The Homewood Suites in Harbor East is situated in between all the kids’ activities, and has a kiddie pool inside.  A large, good breakfast is included.

It’s an all-suite hotel, which is a nice perk allowing parents to relax after kids go to sleep. Advance reservations start at $170/night, while same-week reservations start at $189/night. If you’re flexible, they drop prices the day before your trip when the hotel isn’t filling up, and I’ve paid as little as $120 as a result.

What to do

There are three big things for kids to do in the Inner Harbor: the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Port Discovery Children’s Museum.  Here’s our time-tested routine.

We arrive Saturday morning, and after taking the Purple Line Circulator bus to Pratt Street, we walk down to Miss Shirley’s for lunch. Your kids will love the kids meals in giant bento boxes, and you’ll love the crab cake fried green tomatoes eggs benedict.

It may seem like the only restaurants in the Inner Harbor are chains, but there are fantastic local restaurants as well. You just have to head to the east side of the Harbor to find them.

After lunch, we head to the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, which is right behind Miss Shirley’s. Port Discovery is awesome, and will help your kids get their wiggles out after sitting on the train and a bus.

After the Children’s Museum we walk to the Homewood Suites Harbor East, which is an easy 10 minute walk.  If we have time, we stop by Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry in Little Italy for ice cream, which is right on the way.

We have a little resting time in the hotel, then walk back into Little Italy to get a pizza at Isabella’s Pizza, the best pizza in Little Italy. 

After a good night’s sleep, we wake up Sunday morning and have breakfast in the hotel before headed to the hotel kiddie pool. The big decision to make is whether to then head to the Aquarium or the Science Museum.

The National Aquarium is a very pleasant walk over a couple wooden bridges from Harbor East, away from the tourists on the west and north sides of the harbor. At $35 for adults and $22 for kids under 12, it’s a pricey attraction but worth the money if your kid is old enough to really take it in.

Don’t head to the aquarium for dolphin shows, because those ended in 2012. By allowing all visitors to observe dolphins in an interactive space designed for dolphins, the Aquarium was able to ensure everyone can see them.

My son likes the Maryland Science Center more than the Aquarium, so we usually go there, which is nice because it costs just $19 for adults and $16 for kids under 13. He could spend hours in the interactive Kids Room.

And any trip across the harbor, like we take from Harbor East to the Science Center, is better taken on the Baltimore Water Taxi. After a long day at the museum, we hop on the Purple Line Circulator back to Penn Station to take the train back to Union Station.

People often tell me it must be great to raise a kid in DC with so many museums. But I’ve wondered why all neighboring East Coast cities like Philadelphia and Richmond have both a top-tier children’s museum and science museum, and DC has neither. That’s why it’s great to have Baltimore within such an easy reach.

Know any other car-free family trip destinations? Mention them in the comments.  You can also read about Harpers Ferry for a car-free family trip.