Question: What do you get when you cross a historic downtown with a scenic river with the oldest remaining passenger train station in the United States?
Answer: Ellicott City, Maryland.
Ellicott City is the sixth largest city in Maryland. Located in Howard County, it’s about 15 miles west of Baltimore just off the Baltimore National Pike and about 35 miles from Washington, D.C.
The downtown area is called “Historic Ellicott City” or “Old Ellicott City.” It has a lot to offer. The area where Frederick Road turns into Main Street is very walkable and exudes charm and distinction at every turn. Here are some of the reasons we loved our visit to this special place.
1. Walk The Historic Downtown District
Ellicott City is a river town with a story. From its early beginnings as a mill town, it built up along the Patapsco River because most machinery needed water for production. Being on the river has given the city some trials. It has had four major floods, including one from 1972’s tropical storm Agnes.
Today, you might see a water level marker on a business that acknowledges the floods, but our stroll along Main Street showed no other signs of it. The downtown area is a wonderful place to explore and linger.
2. Step Into Unique Shops, Art Galleries, And More
A stroll along Main Street features everything from unique shops like EC Pops, which has an eclectic mix and gourmet popcorn, to art galleries, to eating and drinking establishments like the Ellicott Distilling Company. While the storefronts look small, we were often surprised at how deep the stores were when we went inside.
3. Learn How Ellicott’s Mills Became Ellicott City
In 1772, three brothers named John, Andrew, and Joseph Ellicott built Ellicott’s Mills, one of the largest flour milling and manufacturing towns at that time. When the Civil War began in 1861, the town’s population was about 2,000. A few years later, in 1867, the “Ellicott’s Mills” name was changed to “Ellicott City.” In 1973, it earned the historic district designation, and today, it’s home to about 78,000 people.
4. Note The Tiny Thomas Isaac Log Cabin
At the corner of Main Street and Ellicott Mills Drive sits the historic Thomas Isaac log cabin. Constructed around 1780, the cabin displays the early European influence on the area. Thomas Isaac purchased the structure in 1858 and the cabin remained in the family until 1933.
Pro Tip: The cabin is available to tour for limited hours on weekends, May through mid-December. Check the website for the latest details.
5. See The National Road
The National Road, also called the Cumberland Road, was built in segments through city, state, and federal efforts, in addition to private means. The commemorative sign marks this first great commercial and travel route from Baltimore to the West.
6. Visit The B&O Ellicott City Station Museum
The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Ellicott City Station Museum is the oldest remaining passenger train station in the United States and one of the oldest in the world. Built in 1831, the B&O Railroad originally ran 13 miles from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills (now Ellicott City), Maryland. The railroad got its name “B&O” to represent the starting point in Baltimore and the planned destination of the Ohio River.
Pro Tip: There’s no elevator between the two levels at the museum, but you can use an outdoor ramp. Admission is free.
7. Appreciate The Building Murals
The large murals painted on some of the buildings are a striking feature of the city. The Ford dealership mural at 8289 Main Street is a great example. This building originally housed the first Ford dealership in Ellicott City. I liked the cutaway approach that allowed us to “see through the wall” into the history of the original Ford showroom. A second cutaway shows a mechanic working on one of the cars.
8. Check Out The Big Boulder
One of the most natural features of Main Street is a large boulder right off the sidewalk. You can’t miss it! It’s remarkable that this was allowed to stay as the city built up, but it really adds to the unique atmosphere.
Pro Tip: As you stroll by, look for a small owl and rabbit that are artistically drawn onto the rock. This is rock graffiti, but it uses a subtle “find it” approach rather than an “in your face” one.
9. Hear The Sounds Of The Patapsco River
There’s something about the sound of a river rushing over rock. Ellicott City has a beautiful bridge over the river as you head east from the downtown area. During our September visit, it was hard to imagine that this meandering stream could flood, but we knew it to be true.
10. Hike Patapsco Valley State Park
We took a great hike in the very popular Patapsco Valley State Park, which runs 32 miles along the Patapsco River. The park’s more than 16,000 acres are made for hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, horseback riding, and more. We hiked to Cascade Falls to see the waterfall and hiked the Ridge Trail, too.
Pro Tip: The hiking trails are well-maintained but still rugged, with roots and rocks and a few shallow stream crossings.
11. Try Wild Boar Pizza At The Manor Hill Tavern
For good food and great atmosphere, we liked the Manor Hill Tavern. Our party tried three kinds of pizza: the “Boar to be Wild” (with wild boar), the “Honey Blue Crab” (with lump crab and honey habanero), and a traditional with pepperoni. Manor Hill is fun because it has multi-level seating, lots of cozy nooks and crannies, and an outdoor beer garden.
12. Indulge At The Crazy Mason
If you’re in the mood for a milkshake, look no further than The Crazy Mason. These delectable delights are served up in, you guessed it, Mason jars, and each one is a work of art. Choose from 25+ creations with toppings like an entire slice of cheesecake, an entire brownie, etc.
As a salute to all things Maryland, the O’Crab Mason is topped with Old Bay-dusted crabs (Old Bay seasoning goes on everything!), a Berger cookie, whipped icing, and EC Pops chocolate-coated popcorn, all in a souvenir Maryland Mason jar. These are hearty portions; Dean and I split the banana split version, and it was plenty!
Pro Tip: For the faint of heart (or purists), they do sell smaller sizes of ice cream, ice cream cookies, and the like.
13. Dine At The Trolley Stop
Today’s Trolley Stop started as a tavern and country inn in 1833, then became a general store and boarding house, then turned back into a tavern in the mid-1940s. The name is another example of the railroad influence in this town. Our group had good sandwiches, salads, and burgers here.
14. Gaze Up At The Castle Angelo
After dinner at the Trolley Stop, we walked west toward the downtown area, and our eyes were drawn up to a castle high on the hill facing the Patapsco River. Web research told us it was Castle Angelo, built in 1830 and located on a little over an acre of land.
15. Take A Stroll Through Tonge Row
On Old Columbia Pike, you’ll see quaint row houses from the 1800s. These were originally homes for the millworkers of Ellicott City. Today, they are specialty shops, including Little Market Café which serves up breakfast and lunch options.
16. Visit Award-Winning Centennial Park
Although we didn’t get a chance to visit, Centennial Park has won awards and is very popular. The 337-acre park has a large 54-acre man-made lake, stocked by the State Department of Fisheries, and a 2.6-mile paved path around it for walking, running, or biking. Another 7.3 miles of paved paths link to surrounding neighborhoods.
17. Enjoy Breakfast At First Watch In Nearby Columbia
We had a delicious breakfast at First Watch Columbia. They specialize in fresh ingredients, fresh-squeezed juices, and plenty of Columbian coffee. Our group enjoyed a power breakfast quinoa bowl, a chili chorizo omelet, and a traditional breakfast, and were tempted by many other delicious options.
There’s a lot to love about Ellicott City, an easy drive from Baltimore. I’ve just scratched the surface of this charming town. There’s natural beauty, history, quaint shops, great eateries and drinking establishments, and it all adds up to a unique experience that I think you’ll enjoy.
Pro Tip: If you’re looking for more ideas, check the “Visit Old Ellicott City” website.