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The Inner Harbor and the skyline of Baltimore, where America's national anthem was penned (Photograph by Hisham Ibrahim, Getty Images)

American Anthem: Baltimore

As America commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it seems more than appropriate to celebrate the events that made that independence real. While Washington, D.C., may be the capital of the U.S., her sister city to the north, Baltimore, is the capital of American patriotism.

A year ago, I packed up my life and drove cross-country from California to North Carolina. But this time it wasn’t on a Curious Traveler assignment, it was to relocate with my new husband while I earned a graduate degree in coastal management at Duke University.

When I heard that 2014 marked the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I decided to take advantage of my new home base on the East Coast, and head north to Charm City–or, as locals call it, B’more–to learn more about the city that inspired our national anthem and helped secure America’s “second independence.” The promise of seeing the Orioles take on the Athletics and sampling some tasty Chesapeake Bay crab didn’t hurt, either. 

My husband and I started by exploring Fort McHenry–the target of an ambitious naval bombardment aimed at securing the vital American seaport of Baltimore on the heels of the burning of Washington just 35 miles southwest.

Then we boarded a boat and watched the Inner Harbor, with its mix of architecture—classic brick-and-mortar to hyper-modern buildings made of glass, concrete, and metal—fade from view as we skimmed toward the very spot where the British had unleashed their attack.

Our captain paused to point out where Francis Scott Key, held hostage on an enemy ship, had famously watched the 25-hour battle ensue, before penning the poem that would become America’s national anthem–and rouse a new era of patriotism in the fledgling, but determined, nation.

I imagined iron cannonballs ripping through an inky sky, the sheer chaos of noise and light, and the helplessness Key must have felt watching the fort and his American comrades take enemy fire. It helped that a full-size replica of the flag that inspired, and eventually leant its name to Key’s poem, the “star-spangled banner,” was flying high over Fort McHenry as we passed.

Once back on dry docks, we headed to Miss Shirley’s Café in Roland Park for our first taste of Maryland’s most famous crustacean in the form of a crab-cake-and-fried-green-tomato Benedict. The restaurant, named after cooking icon Shirley McDowell, who is credited with training a generation of chefs in Baltimore, seemed to draw both locals and visitors like bees to blossoms. The place was popping.

After our decadent brunch, it was time for a short walk to the home of Mary Pickersgill, the woman responsible for making the famous flag, on the corner of Pratt and Albemarle. The compound, which includes a museum exhibit dedicated to Pickersgill’s life and those of the seamstresses who helped her create the giant banner, allowed us to learn more about the flag’s details. We checked out replicas of the two-foot stars that adorn it and flexed our muscles to hoist the equivalent weight of the 30×42 foot flag, which was a hefty 50 pounds.

As we continued exploring, wandering through Jonestown and into colorful Little Italy, it became obvious that the city was revving up for the Orioles game that night.

We headed to the Pratt Street Ale House, home of Oliver Breweries, and sipped a pint of Situation:Awesome outside as fans moved en masse toward the stadium. Not quite ready to join them, we we ordered the special—pan-seared scallops on a bed of Israeli couscous with fresh summer veggies–and watched the sea of orange stream past.

Our introduction to Camden Yards came in the form of a standing crowd scrambling to catch a foul ball popped over the wall by the Oakland A’s. Several bodies piled on top of each other, vying for the prize. The victor, an older man with a ponytail, laid flat on his back on the concrete, arm in the air, ball in hand. He barely had time to stand when chants of “Throw it back! Throw it back!” rippled through the stadium. After a moment’s hesitation, he hurled it back to the opposing team below. The energy only grew as the night went on, culminating in a 6-3 victory for the O’s.

The next morning we decided that, after a drama-filled night under the lights, it was time for some pampering. We walked over to the recently rehabbed posh Harbor East waterfront and stepped into the Spa at the 4 Seasons for a HydraFacial, then continued our indulgence with a smorgasbord brunch buffet at the modern-chic Wit & Wisdom Tavern.

The shitake frittata and étouffée fueled us for the cherry on top of our all-American weekend, and what would be our final pilgrimage: to the house where baseball legend Babe Ruth was born, now memorialized as a museum.

I learned several sobriquets for the athlete who had captured the heart of a nation: Wali of Wallop, Homeric Herman, Behemoth of Biff. The sheer number of nicknames Ruth accumulated over the course of his career is a testament to the larger-than-life man he was.

But my favorite part of the museum was a film recounting the story of how the singing of America’s national anthem became a sporting event tradition.

It dates back to 1918 in the darkest hours of World War I, at the opening game of the World Series, with the Boston Red Sox, Babe’s team, taking on the Cubs in Chicago. A somber crowd kept quiet in the stands even after Ruth managed to shut out Hippo Vaughn. Nothing seemed to rouse them. But during the seventh inning stretch, the military band fired up the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and a steady trickle of voices joined in until the words thundered through the stadium.

That moment occurred 13 years before Congress officially designated the song as America’s national anthem. It was a tradition we’d witnessed the evening before at the O’s game, and one I was leaving Baltimore, and all its gritty charm, knowing a lot more about.

Shannon Switzer is a National Geographic Young Explorer and our sometime Curious Traveler. Follow her adventures on Twitter @GirlChasesGlobe and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer.