[Note: The Visitor Center and Star Fort are closed due to COVID, but the rest of Fort McHenry’s grounds and parking lot are open.]
Given the many, many years I’ve lived in DC and the frequency that we visit Baltimore, it’s kind of surprising I’d never been to Fort McHenry until recently. That’s not for lack of talking about going, though. I can’t count the number of times over the years that Levi and I drove nearby or through the tunnel bearing its name and remarked about wanting to go — starting before we even had children.
All that talk finally came to fruition when we made a trip to the national monument with the kids a few week ago. The site of the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812 and birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, Fort McHenry makes for a very interesting, informative, and enjoyable outing for all ages.
There are all kinds of engaging exhibits both in the Visitors Center and throughout the grounds, from historical objects and structures to multimedia displays and interactives. We started at the Visitors Center, where we paid admission ($10/adult) and got a good background about the site from several exhibits. One of the kids’ and my favorites was a video featuring various artists performing the Star Spangled Banner (Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl rendition the best by far, of course.) There is also a 10-minute film depicting the history of Fort McHenry that is a must-see, with a little surprise at the end that I found very moving.
With more knowledge of Fort McHenry, including details about defeating the British in battle in 1814 and the waving American flag that inspired the National Anthem, we headed outside to explore the actual fort. Having more insight into the history undoubtedly enhanced the tour, especially for the kids, since they had a better understanding of the site’s significance and could actually place what they’d just learned where they now were.
Many original structures remain at the fort and are open for exploration. In fact, most of the barracks and officer’s quarters now contain exhibits, some of them recreating what the spaces would have looked like back then, others displaying artifacts, and even more highlighting interesting aspects of the fort’s history. In one of them you can see the cross brace of the flag pole that hoisted the original star spangled banner. Along with the barracks, there are several underground areas, like prison cells and shelters, which the kids enjoyed exploring.
Cannons sit at the forefront of it all, the guns aimed at the Chesapeake. You can walk along the bastion and take in the same view the soldiers did over two hundred years ago. What was once a battle scene is now a nice Baltimore vista. And if you look back at the fort, you’ll see the flag waving in the wind above.
You can explore it all on a self-guided tour or join a Ranger Talk offered at 2:30pm this time of year. Other programs such as drill, musket, and artillery demonstrations by the Fort McHenry Guard occur seasonally, so it’s worth checking the website to see what might be on the schedule before you go. And you can help with the flag changes that take place twice a day.
Fort McHenry is located in the Locust Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. It’s open daily, with exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Park hours are 9am – 5pm, and the fort and Visitors Center close at 4:45pm. Admission is $10/adult, free for children 15 and under. Free parking is available in a lot. You could also make an adventure of getting there and take a Water Taxi from the Inner Harbor.