One of the original 13 colonies, Maryland has plenty of fascinating history, with many of its sites beautifully preserved. There’s Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, of course, where Francis Scott Key penned the Star-Spangled Banner, plus many more off-the-radar ones linked to the overall American story. Here are some of the best.
Fort McHenry (Baltimore)
When the British attacked Baltimore in September 1814, the fortress became critical to the city’s defense. Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key, retained nearby aboard a truce ship, watched the battle through the night, and was so taken by the sight of the American flag still flying above the fort “by dawn’s early light” that he penned a poem—what would become the U.S. national anthem. Today, visits to the restored fort include a film, reenactments, and interpretation that retell this story, as well as others, including its involvement as a Civil War POW camp, World War I hospital, and World War II training camp.
Antietam National Battlefield (Sharpsburg)
The bloodiest one-day Civil War battle—which remains the bloodiest single day of battle in all of American history—unfolded on these peaceful farm fields near the town of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862. On that day, Confederate General Lee’s army clashed with Union General McClellan’s, with 23,000 men killed or wounded by nighttime and the Confederate’s first invasion into the north averted. A driving tour leads past the Sunken Road, Dunker Church, Burnside Bridge, and other sites associated with the savage fighting, and an observation tower provides a sweeping battlefield overview. Several walking trails provide additional insight.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway (Eastern Shore)
Born enslaved around 1820 near Cambridge, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, Harriet Tubman daringly escaped to Philadelphia along the Underground Railroad. She then returned to the Eastern Shore 13 times, risking her life to help more than 70 family members and friends find freedom as well. Fast forward to today, when the self-guided Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway has been created between Cambridge and the Delaware line near Greensboro to link sites related to the legendary abolitionist’s story, through rural landscapes she would recognize today.
USS Constellation (Baltimore)
Floating on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, this 22-gun sloop, commissioned in 1855, served on the high seas for a century, taking part in several military conflicts, including the Civil War. She also helped end the foreign slave trade off the coast of Africa as the flagship of the African Squadron. Today, uniformed interpreters welcome visitors aboard the last all-sail warship built by the U.S. Navy, where you may pull on some lines, see what’s cooking in the galley, and check out the crew living quarters.
Fort Frederick (Big Pool)
The British built this formidable, star-shaped fort in 1756 in the still-wild lands of the western frontier, protecting the farthest reaches of the colonies. It served in the French and Indian, Revolutionary, and Civil Wars (though never fired a shot). The fort has been impeccably restored to its mid-1700s appearance, with visits taking in a museum visitor center, artillery firings (on summer weekends), two re-created barracks, and 18th-century market fairs. A surrounding 585-acre park has hiking trails along the Potomac River.
Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum (Baltimore County)
Born a free African American in 1731, Benjamin Banneker went on to succeed as a self-taught scientist, astronomer, mathematician, abolitionist, and surveyor (he helped survey Washington, D.C.’s parameters). His family established a tobacco farm where this 138-acre park tells his story. The family cabin, complete with furnishings, is among the re-created buildings; and the museum showcases Banneker’s accomplishments and displays family artifacts, candle molds, and his desk. Hiking trails wander throughout the property (including the Number Nine Trolley Trail, leading to historic Ellicott City), and family-friendly activities include summer jazz concerts, festivals, and nature presentations.
Historic St. Mary’s City
In 1634, just 14 years after the Pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock, a group of English colonists fleeing bloody religious wars landed on the banks of what they called the St. Mary’s River and established Maryland’s first colonial capital. Today, an open-air living history complex, based on ongoing archaeological research, features reconstructions of the capital’s colonial buildings, including the 1676 State House, a printing press, and mercantile; a Native American hamlet; a plantation showing farm life in 1661; and a replica of the 17th-century tall ship, the Maryland Dove, which the colonists sailed across the Atlantic.
Washington Monument State Park (Boonsboro)
The portly stone monument atop South Mountain, built in 1827, is the nation’s first ever monument honoring George Washington (predating the monument on the National Mall by 21 years). During the Civil War, the Union army used this high summit as a Union signal station. Today, you can climb up inside and take in gorgeous views of the surrounding Maryland countryside. A little museum has historical artifacts relating to the monument and the Civil War battle of South Mountain.
Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum (Baltimore)
The famed writer of macabre and horror resided in Baltimore between 1832 and 1835, when he composed poetry and penned some of his earliest short stories (including “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “Berenice”). The small duplex where he lived with his aunt is now a house museum displaying family antiques. You can also visit The Horse You Came In On Saloon in Fell’s Point, where Poe aficionados love to say he had his final drink (it probably was at the long-gone Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls tavern), and his gravesite and memorial.
Casselman River Bridge (Grantsville)
This graceful stone bridge, built 1813 to 1815, harks back to the days of the National Road, the nation’s first major federal highway, connecting the Potomac and Ohio Rivers. At the time, it reigned as the nation’s longest single-span stone bridge. After a new steel-truss bridge replaced it in 1933, it was preserved in Casselman River Bridge State Park. The nearby Spruce Forest Artisan Village has historic houses, inns, and re-created buildings showcasing the National Road’s golden age.
United States Naval Academy (Annapolis)
The U.S. Naval Academy has lorded over Annapolis’ north side since 1845. Today, its 338-acre campus remains an undergraduate service school for future U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officers. It’s also a National Historic Landmark, with noteworthy beaux-arts buildings including the USNA Chapel (with John Paul Jones’ crypt beneath), and Bancroft Hall, where 1,700 rooms house 4,400 midshipmen. Guided and self-guided tours are available, beginning from the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center.
Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center (Highland Beach)
The legendary speaker, thinker, and civil rights activists may never have actually spent a summer at his holiday cottage, built by his son, but it has been turned into a museum honoring him. The younger Douglass, Charles, established the town of Highland Beach in the 1890s as an African-American resort community, where he built a house for his own family, and one for his father, called Twin Oaks. The senior Douglass died before he could enjoy it, but today the house interprets Douglass’ life and work, and tells the story of “The Beach.”
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (Georgetown to Cumberland)
George Washington dreamed of building a canal to connect the Potomac River (and therefore the Atlantic via Chesapeake Bay) with the Ohio Valley. It finally happened in 1828 with construction beginning on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Except, soon after, the railroad era dawned, and the canal became obsolete before completion. The terminus was changed to Cumberland, and the 184.5-mile route worked until 1924, primarily transporting coal, until a series of floods washed it out. Today, the reconstructed canal towpath, meandering through towns, wilderness corners, and original canal structures (including toll houses where you can stay), is popular with cyclists, hikers, runners, and campers.
B&O Railroad Museum (Ellicott City)
This small building is the nation’s oldest surviving railroad station. Dating from 1830, it was the B&O Main Line’s first stop out of Baltimore, 13 miles distant. According to local lore, it also was the finishing line for a dramatic 1830 race between a horse-drawn railroad car and a steam locomotive. The horse won due to a slipped pulley, but naysayers came to understand that machine power was viable; steam locomotives replaced all horses within the year. Today, the restored station is a museum devoted to transport in early America, with exhibits including a 40-foot HO-gauge model depicting the route from Baltimore.
Annapolis Historic District
Established in 1694 on the Severn River, Annapolis soon became one of the colonies’ most cosmopolitan seaport cities. Today, stately 18th-century buildings still line narrow cobbled streets leading down to City Dock (where the Kunta Kunte-Alex Haley Memorial is dedicated to Africans forced into bondage in the New World). Several historic houses are open for tours, including the William Paca House, built by the governor of Maryland, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; the Hammond-Harwood House, said to have America’s most beautiful doorway; and the Chase-Lloyd House, adorned with woodwork by architect William Buckland. The Maryland State House, rising above State Circle, remains the nation’s oldest capitol building in continuous use (and the only to serve as the nation’s capitol).
Surratt House Museum (Clinton)
After assassinating President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth fled to the Eastern Shore, where he had stashed weapons and supplies at the plantation/tavern/hostel of widow Mary Surratt. She went on to be tried and hanged—the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government—for her role in a plot to first kidnap, then assassinate, the President, which allegedly had been schemed out of her D.C. boardinghouse. Today the house serves as a museum detailing the Lincoln conspiracy and general mid-19th-century rural life.
Historic Sotterley Plantation (Hollywood)
Dating back to the turn of the 18th century, this one-time tobacco plantation includes 20 historic buildings on more than 100 acres overlooking the Patuxent River. Among them are the 1703 manor house, an 1830s-era slave cabin, and a working farm. Over its long history, only four families have owned the estate, including George Plater III, who served as Maryland governor in the early 1790s. Today, the historic site interprets the lives of the wealthy owners, domestic workers, tenant farmers, craftsmen, and enslaved people who resided and worked here. Tours, programming, and special events are offered, and trails wind through the scenic property.
Frederick Historic District
Frederick’s beautifully preserved historic core has a few places of note. You’ll discover the law offices of brothers-in-law Brooke Taney and Francis Scott Key; Key, of course, went on to pen the “Star-Spangled Banner,” while Taney became the U.S. chief justice overseeing the controversial Dred Scott decision. There’s also the Barbara Fritchie House and Museum, remembering the 95-year-old Fritchie who famously waved a Union flag as Confederate troops marched by during the Civil War; school kids might recall Whittier’s poem describing her defiance. And the National Museum of Civil War Medicine provides insight into the dreadful suffering endured from battle and disease.
St. Mary’s Spiritual Center and Historic Site (Baltimore)
Steps from the Inner Harbor, the nation’s first Catholic seminary was established in 1791. Not only that, this is where Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton—who eventually would become the first American-born saint—came in 1808 from NYC. After converting to Catholicism and becoming a Daughter of Charity, Mother Seton went on to found the nation’s first free school for girls in America, in Emmitsburg, Maryland (part of today’s Seton Shrine, which also can be visited). Guided tours of the center take in her period-furniture-filled house, along with the historic chapel, sharing insight into 19th-century Roman Catholics, women, and African Americans.
Fort Washington Park (Fort Washington)
A fort called Fort Warburton was built in 1809 south of Washington, D.C., the only defense protecting the capital. It never was shot upon, though its soldiers blew it up during the War of 1812 ahead of the British advance on the capital city. A new fort replaced the old—the current-day Fort Washington, built in 1824. Today the historic site, overseen by the National Park Service, is surrounded by a popular, family-friendly park. Visits are self-guided, though rangers are on hand.