Why Not Frederick? This artsy, indie-minded city is closer—and cooler—than you think!

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Downtown Frederick boasts quaint beauty, quality shopping and a chance to get away without driving very far.
Downtown Frederick boasts quaint beauty, quality shopping and a chance to get away without driving very far.

It isn’t so much that my husband, Ben, and I are drinking a bottle of wine (OK, a second bottle of wine). Or that we’ve sprung for an expense-account array of appetizers, shareable entrees and sides. Or even that we’ve been bogarting this corner of the patio for more than an hour already.

It’s that it’s 1 p.m. on a Tuesday.

See what Frederick can do to a person? Give a pair of beleaguered local parents—that would be us—a day off, and we immediately lapse into tourist mode in our own town. This clandestine lunch at an upscale foodie fave feels positively European, but we didn’t need passports to get here. We didn’t even need to change ZIP codes.

Downtown Frederick is one of those places that can feel as homey and comfortable as it does highfalutin’—it all depends on where you’re coming from. And if you’re coming from Baltimore, you may think of it like you do those obscure vacation spots your friends are always going on about: Sure, it sounds great, but it’s so far away, and getting there is probably a hassle.

Frederick is about a 45-minute drive west on I-70 in traffic that’s usually manageable even during rush hour. But full disclosure: If you’re coming up I-270 from Washington, D.C., during rush hour, it’ll take you, um, a wee bit longer, so plan accordingly.

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The intimate parlor of Hollerstown Hill B&B
The intimate parlor of Hollerstown Hill B&B

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Fall color along Carrol Creek
Fall color along Carrol Creek

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The popular Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium.
The popular Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium.

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And despite what you may have heard, Frederick isn’t the God-guts-and-guns stronghold it’s often portrayed as during election season. (But do me a favor and don’t tune in to local talk-radio when you get here. Just. Don’t.) Instead, this dynamic red-state/blue-state county of more than 243,000 people—65,000+ of them residing in the city proper—grows more purple by the day.

Meanwhile, Ben and I grow buzzier as we drink up, settle up and then get up to stroll along Carroll Creek Park and walk off the damage. The chichi restaurant- and condo-lined promenade running along both sides of a contoured stream is full of happy diners (did everyone ditch work today?) and lots of Baby Bjorn-sporting parents on their way to the public library, a handsome brick building as good-looking as the park it anchors.

We run the gauntlet of amblers and strollers and head out to Market Street, one of downtown’s main drags. On a hunt for caffeine, we’re happy that Starbucks isn’t the only option. Because of its serious chain-aversion, downtown Frederick boasts plenty of unique spots to grab coffee or tea.

Yet we end up at Starbucks anyway. (Don’t judge. I have a gift card.) The java behemoth didn’t get the warmest welcome when it was granted a berth in the heart of the city in 2007, but it settled nicely into an 1800s-era brownstone and more resembles an indie than an overlord.

Cups in hand, we head down the sidewalk and window-shop. While we don’t need any boutiquey couture, Irish cheddar, healing crystals, organic soap, Argentinean Malbec, New York Times bestsellers or amoxicillin (there’s an independent pharmacy here, too), it’s nice to know we can get them if we want.

If we had a dog with us—if we had a dog, period—we could bring him inside at nearly every stop. Many merchants here are exceedingly puppy-friendly, even keeping bowls of water by their front doors and gratis Milk Bones behind the counter.

A little more pavement-pounding and we make the rounds of the downtown’s free artsy draws, including peeks into the many gallery windows and a perusal of the lovely murals peppering the sides of buildings. Making our way back to Carroll Creek and our expired parking meter, we spend a few minutes on the beautiful Community Bridge, a brook-spanning work of art in its own right.

Too soon, it’s time to wrap up our impromptu afternoon staycation. School is almost over, and that’s our cue to head home and punch back in to parenting. But it’s been a terrific few hours of food and fun, and we’re already wondering when we’ll make our next tourist-worthy escape to one of the region’s finest cities.

Maybe tomorrow night for dinner. We do live here, after all.

COME FOR DINNER. STAY FOR DRINKS.
Bryan Voltaggio’s stellar Volt gets all the press, but it’s hardly Frederick’s only gush-worthy dining option. From the Tasting Room and Ayşe Meze to Il Porto, the Orchard and the Wine Kitchen, you’ll find a palate-pleaser at every turn. And toast your night out with an infused-vodka concoction at Café Nola, a cool—not cold—Black and Tan at Bushwaller’s, or a snifter of Spanish brandy at Isabella’s or Cacique.

WHAT TO BUY. WHERE TO BUY IT.
Scratch your clotheshorse itch at independent outposts like Molly’s Meanderings, the Velvet Lounge and Venus on the Half Shell, but don’t stop there. Quench your thirst with a frosty Leninade or Grape Nehi at the fizzy throwback North Market Pop Shop ; score some killer gouda at Crisafulli’s Cheese Shop; stock up on chocolate balsamic at Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium; snag a “What Would Jesus Wear?” magnet at uber-snarky Retro-Metro, a quirky gift shop like no other; and pick up the latest Jonathan Franzen masterpiece at Curious Iguana, Frederick’s premier bookstore.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR.
There’s never a bad time to come to Frederick, but if you’d like to experience the downtown in all its glory, visit on a First Saturday (downtownfrederick.org). During the monthly extravaganza, merchants stay open late, offer lots of freebies and generally welcome the hordes with open arms. Wine-tastings, street musicians and kid-friendly draws add to the standing-room-only fun.

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