People are staying closer to home these days, but there’s still lots to do in the region. 9 ½ Hours is a feature with suggestions for local day trips.

Baltimore in 1839 was kind of a big deal.

It was the second-largest city in the nation, after New York City, with a fast-growing population of about 100,000 people.

It was home to the nation’s first rail line, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which began operations in 1830. Its newspaper, The Sun, in its second year of daily operations, promised fair reporting with no allegiance to any political party or point of view.

Frederick Douglass had successfully escaped his enslavers a year earlier, leaving Baltimore and setting him on a path to become one of history’s most powerful orators and abolitionists.

In 1839, the city opened a public market, named for the wealthy Hollins family that owned the surrounding land. Residents in the growing west and southwest parts of the city could buy vegetables, chickens and grain from vendors on the first floor; the second story was for community gatherings and entertainment.

That handsome two-story brick building still stands, making it the city’s oldest market structure still in use – and the only one that still has a second story.

Baltimore has the oldest continuously operating public market network in the nation. For more than 200 years, the city has owned and managed a changing mix of public markets. At one point, there were as many as 11; now there are six, run since 1995 by the nonprofit Baltimore Public Markets Corporation. They are the Avenue Market, Hollins Market, Cross Street Market, Broadway Market, Northeast Market, and Lexington Market.

A tour of Baltimore’s markets is a great way to spend a day and learn the city’s neighborhoods. In this article, we’ll explore Avenue, Hollins and Cross Street markets. We’ll be back soon to tell you about Broadway and Northeast and Baltimore’s famous Lexington Market, with a history that dates to 1763.

The markets have a few things in common. They have people waiting in line for chicken wings and egg sandwiches and smoothies. They have friendly greetings, and people holding doors open for each other, even in these bundled-up and masked winter days. They sell meats, vegetables, cake slices, frozen pierogis and draft beers.

But perhaps most important, each market has a long history and a distinct mix of vendors that reflects its Baltimore neighborhood.

While the pandemic is still putting limits on these very public spaces, we felt safe while we were there. Mask mandates are enforced, and it was easy to grab a table far from anyone else. We did see people shoulder to shoulder at bars in Cross Street Market, nuff said about that.

Be advised, many of the vendors at these Baltimore markets don’t take credit cards.

Hollins Market

Start at Hollins Market, where you can admire the architecture and artwork of the SoWeBo neighborhood. This is where Baltimore’s famous hand-sign “LOVE” mural is located, created by local artist Michael Owen. The market itself, already an attractive building, jumps to another level of incredible with astonishing mosaics created by middle school students. One shows John Smith Hollins, Baltimore Mayor from 1852-1854; another shows H.L. Mencken glancing up from his Sun paper with a sly smile; a third shows Edgar Allan Poe.

Hollins Market re-opened in October 2020 as a major million-dollar-plus renovation nears completion. The two-story brick structure does not house vendors; they are located in an attached structure and several stalls await new vendors.

At Eddie’s Lunch at the east end of the market, we got a handful of crispy and meaty fried chicken wings and a messy comfort-food fried fish sandwich, with a square of flaky fish overflowing its bun. Total cost: $10. At the west end, the Back Yard bar offers deals on draft beers and nachos.

Avenue Market

In 1867, residents in northwest Baltimore circulated a petition asking the city for a market house. Lafayette Market, which opened in 1871, was named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who fought on the side of the U.S. in the Revolutionary War. It kept that somewhat random name until 1996 when it was renovated and dubbed Avenue Market.

The market, in the Upton Neighborhood of West Baltimore, is at the start of a renovation aimed at providing more local, healthful food to the community. There are several vacant stalls, and limited choices. Still, many neighborhood residents streamed through. Douglas Fried Chicken and Hellen’s Breakfast & Lunch had long lines on a Saturday afternoon.

Cross Street Market

Cross Street Market is one of the landmarks of Federal Hill, and a multi-million dollar renovation was completed in 2019, through a city partnership with Caves Valley Partners.

The renovation created several enclosed store-like spaces at the east end, with a decidedly gentrified feel. Get a flat white, nitro cold brew or espresso at the Ceremony Coffee Roasters kiosk at Cross Street Market. The sunlit space, with a neat row of blond wood tables, serves a breakfasty menu of egg sandwiches, overnight oats and of course avo toast in addition to its single-origin brews. The local chain, which roasts its beans in Annapolis, also has locations in Mount Vernon and Harbor Point.

The Rooster and Hen market, on the other side of the aisle, offers produce, muffins, staples and other grab-and-go items.

Other stalls serve about 25 different kinds of food, including Greek (Annoula’s Greek Kitchen), Hawaiian (Ono Poke), Vietnamese (Phubs), Haitian (Sobeachy) and Vegan (Gangster Vegan) fare, as well as Pizza di Joey, Crepe Crazy and Bullhead Pit Beef.

Two bars, Cans Filling Station and Old Line Cocktail and Wine Bar, seemed popular, especially for a pandemic February afternoon.

Update: An earlier version of this story indicated that Lexington Market was privately owned. It is not. Baltimore Public Markets Corporation and Lexington Market, Inc. are two different nonprofits with separate financials, however, they share the same board of directors and many of the same staff. In addition, Belair Market was removed from the list of Baltimore Public Markets. It is no longer an active public market.