Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” may have said, “There’s no place like home,” but her travels didn’t include Baltimore, Md.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Charm City – and wanted to stay forever. From the moment I arrived, until the day I left, I felt at home in this laidback, diverse mid-Atlantic city that’s more friendly small-town than cold large metropolis.

Without reservation, I say to everyone: You have to put “Visit Baltimore” on your bucket list of places to experience in this world.

My mid-December stay at the Hampton Inn and Suites Baltimore Inner Harbor (http://hamptoninn.hilton.com) was perfect and I have no hesitation in giving that establishment a big shout-out for its accommodations. Located in a historic building a little more than a block off of the Inner Harbor, the hotel’s staff was always smiling and eager to please. From the festive holiday decorations in the lobby to the full – let me stress, full – continental breakfast every morning, there was nothing more for which I could have asked. The Hampton was my home for the weekend and set the tone for my entire stay.

I love to walk and the Hampton’s location was a great starting point for exploring several of Baltimore’s major neighborhoods: Inner Harbor, Federal Hill and Fell’s Point. Within those three alone were plenty of sights to see and explore, with an ample supply of places to eat and relax.

Baltimore has a great family atmosphere, as evidenced by the people and their children out until quite late in the evening taking in the holiday sights and sounds, especially along Inner Harbor, which stages an annual festival, “It’s a Waterfront Life,” that features a variety of special events. A particular highlight (no pun intended) was an unbelievably fantastic laser-light show displayed on the Power Plant building. Check out the footage at www.itsawaterfrontlife.org.

The holiday festivities in Baltimore didn’t stop with “It’s a Waterfront Life.” Other attractions slated through the end of December included “Miracle on 34th Street” in the Hampden neighborhood. The city’s convention and visitors bureau aptly describes the annual lighted one-block display as one “surely visible from space.” For holiday travelers, it’s a must-not-miss sight that’s lovingly put together by residents and shared with everyone. Check it out online at www.christmasstreet.com and make your plans to see it in person.

Yet another one of Baltimore’s featured holiday attractions is the annual train and toy display at the B&O Railroad Museum. A family attraction with an incredible “wow” to it, the museum is also a can’t-miss sight to see – anytime of the year – in Baltimore.  Although it’s not within walking distance from downtown it is readily accessible via the free Charm City Circulator buses. Visit the museum’s website at www.borail.org.

And did you know Baltimore is the home of the National Aquarium, an incredible, multi-floor facility boasting 11,000 specimens? I was in awe. The aquarium closes its doors at 5 p.m., but those inside can still wander around until 6:30 p.m.  and it was after dark by the time I had made my way up to the rainforest located in the facility’s glassed-in top. It was fascinating to watch and listen as that area’s nocturnal members started moving around in the foliage.

I’m not sure I have the words to describe the eclectic, delightfully fun collection one can see at the American Visionary Art Museum, so I’ll just quote Baltimore.org: “AVAM is the national museum and education center presenting outstanding original works of art created by intuitive, self-taught artists.”

The exhibits range from a 5-foot diameter ball comprised of 18,000 bras dedicated to the fight against breast cancer to the not-so-serious that include a shrine to farting (located by the restrooms, seriously). There’s an exceedingly realistic human sculpture made out of telephone installation wire and a quite thoughtful exhibit dedicated to the Divine Feminine. One of the traveling exhibits in place during my visit was a photographic collection of the mysterious “crop circles,” as-yet unexplained incidents from around the world.

There’s the poignant: a sculpture left anonymously on the museum’s doorsteps chronicling a person’s year of sobriety.

And there’s the whimsical: a very large Pez collection featuring hundreds of the candy dispensers collected from around the world.

One can’t leave the museum except in a state of wonder at the sheer creativity expressed by the artists – and without also visiting the nifty gift shop. It’s not the same – this museum has to be experienced in person – but you can check it out online at www.avam.org.

Although I crammed as much as I could into two days there was no way I could see and visit everything the Charm City has to offer. With that said, I look forward to the day I can return to Baltimore, a beautiful community that can rightfully lay claim to a title also of “a home away from home.”

For those considering a visit, I can’t imagine any time of the year it wouldn’t be fun to travel there as Baltimore has four seasons. In fact, when I was there in mid-December, I enjoyed better weather than was back here in Texas. 

Some tips for a Baltimore stay:

• Sign up for Southwest Airlines’ frequent flyer mileage program to get emails on cut-rate fare specials: The airline recently offered a $118 roundtrip to Baltimore. There may be a stop or two on the way there and back, but hey, saving money on Southwest gives you more to spend on the ground. Bags still fly for free and the attendants remain entertaining.

• Check with your hotel on whether it sells aquarium tickets under a corporate membership (the Hampton does) so you can enter via the express line doors rather than general admission. Depending on the season, the general admission line can be a long one.

• When planning out what you want to see, allow for at least a couple of hours at any of the attractions because they are good enough to warrant that kind of attention.  

• Contact the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Bureau for a complimentary copy of “Visit Baltimore,” a comprehensive guide crammed full of information on what to do and see. You can order a copy at Baltimore.org or pick up information at the CVB’s offices, located conveniently on the Inner Harbor.

• I don’t know that you need a car in Baltimore (I will say the traffic seemed a lot friendlier and way less aggressive than that exhibited by jerk Texans). Check with your hotel on transport (shuttle, cab or limousine) in from the airport. Once you’re in town, the Charm City Circulator is a free bus system that is likely going wherever you want (it did for me). And do check out the Water Taxi, which offers an inexpensive all-day pass – and fun way – to get around to different points on the Inner Harbor.

• Baltimore is planning a huge bicentennial celebration in 2012 celebrating Francis Scott Key’s penning of “The Star Spangled Banner” at historic Fort McHenry. Information is available at www.StarSpangledBaltimore.com, with insiders saying you should look into making plans soon to ensure reservations. 

JoAnn Livingston is a free lance writer whose columns and articles appear frequently in the Daily Light and WNI publications.