Last month, we spent three days visiting Baltimore, Maryland and I will be covering our experiences in a series of three blog posts. Today, I am highlighting our time spent at the National Aquarium, Little Italy, and will also be sharing a recipe for Cannoli Dip. In case you missed it, here are my first two posts: Port Discovery, Inner Harbor, and Chocolate Covered Pretzel Hot Chocolate and Maryland Science Center, Fells Point, and Old Bay Doughnuts.
Disclosure: I was provided tickets to the National Aquarium by Visit Baltimore in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own.
On our third day, we visited the National Aquarium. It was pouring rain that morning, so we drove to the Harbor Park Garage after checking out of our hotel. It was a short quarter mile walk, but the Lockwood Place Garage is slightly closer.
The National Aquarium is located in two connected buildings on Piers 3 and 4 on the Inner Harbor. The location in DC was first established in 1873, but closed in 2013 due to renovations. This one in Baltimore opened on August 8th, 1981.
The two buildings house 700 species, about 20,000 animals in total. Check out the hours and ticket prices here. To avoid the lines, timed entry tickets can be purchased online in advance. On Friday evenings, tickets are half-priced after 5 pm.
The exhibits are wheelchair accessible, but strollers are not allowed due to the configuration of the floor plan. They can be checked near the lockers and staff are able to provide a back or front carrier if needed. Locker rentals are also available. We used a small one to hold our backpack.
We downloaded the National Aquarium’s free app ahead of time and it was so helpful in exploring the exhibits with a guide map, daily event and feeding schedules, visitor tips, fun facts, and more. The kids were also able to locate their favorite animals in advance (or the location of all the turtles for Claire- every time she sees any body of water, she asks if there are turtles).
Our first stop was the Blacktip Reef. Claire was immediately enamored by Calypso, the Green Sea Turtle. Found stranded in 2000 in Long Island Sound, the young turtle weighted only 6 pounds and had an infected left flipper which required amputation. Now, the turtle weighs around 500 pounds.
This exhibit is a replica of an Indo-Pacific reef with Blacktip Reef Sharks, Humphead Wrasse, Spotted Unicorn Fish, Wobbegong Shark, Guineafowl Puffer, and Zebra Sharks.
For those unable to see the aquarium in person, you can still watch the fish in the Blacktip Reef live.
North Atlantic to the Pacific is home to the Atlantic Puffin, Banggai Cardinalfish, Percula Clownfish, Yellow Tang, Sea Stars, and the Wolf Eel.
The Amazon River Forest was one of my favorites. It features the Giant South American River Turtle, Silver Arowana, Dwarf Caiman, and more in an environment mimicking an Amazon tributary at the beginning stage of its seasonal flooding.
The Upland Tropical Rain Forest is home to the Golden Lion Tamarin, Linne’s Two-Toed Sloth, Blue-Crowned Motmot, South American Yellow-Footed Tortoise, Tarantula, and Yellow-Headed Amazon Parrot.
The Living Seashore is filled with hands-on activities including touchpools and interactive touchscreens. With a focus on the Mid-Atlantic shoreline, visitors can touch Moon Jellies, Horseshoe Crabs, Clearnose Skates, and Atlantic Stingrays while learning about the coastal environment and animals that live there.
Jellies Invasion: Oceans out of Balance has such an incredible assortment of jellies on display including the Sea Nettle, Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, Upside-Down Jelly, and Purple-Striped Jelly.
There is also a live webcam for the Blue Blubber Jellyfish (photo above, bottom right).
The Dolphin Discovery Exhibit first opened in 1990 and is home to seven dolphins. In addition to the amphitheater, there is also an underwater viewing area.
Evan favorite part of the entire aquarium was getting a peek at the filtration system.
Near Dolphin Discovery is the Children’s Discovery Gallery. This was a great spot to let the kids unwind after viewing all the exhibits. There is a puppet theater, dress up area, and a reading section with books available. Claire especially loved the felt walls with animals for sorting.
Our last stop was Australia: Wild Extremes. Beautifully replicating a northern Australia river gorge, this exhibit has 120 species including the Barramundi, Broad-Shelled Turtle, Death Adder, Laughing Kookaburra, Pig-Nosed Turtle, and Grey-Headed Flying Fox.
There are two spots to grab a bite to eat: the Harbor Market Kitchen across from the stroller check/lockers and the Harbor Market Cafe near Jellies Invasion.
Other exhibits include the Atlantic Coral Reef, Maryland: Mountains to the Sea, Shark Alley: Atlantic Predators, and Surviving Through Adaptation. We spent about 4 hours here and overall had a great time. Allow for 3-4 hours to see everything. As a note, the aquarium can get quite packed on weekends and holidays. The least busy times are before 11 am and after 3 pm.
Baltimore’s Little Italy is located just east of the Inner Harbor and north of Harbor East. Italian immigrants began settling in this area during the mid to late 1800s with the houses and businesses becoming predominately Italian by 1920. It now has a variety of Italian restaurants and bakeries.
Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop
On our second day, we took a small detour to Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop in Little Italy while walking to the Inner Harbor. The kids were huge admirers of the cookie display near the entrance. I started the meal with a Nutella Latte while Claire and Chad split a homemade Strawberry Gelato Milkshake. We also shared two breakfast panini with yogurt- one with just egg and cheese and the other with egg, cheese, and tomato.
Vaccaro’s has a variety of cannoli, from the original to chocolate dipped, chocolate cream, mini-sized, and even Nicolette’s Cannoli Chips & Dip. I have seen recipes for Cannoli Dip over the past few years, but this was my first time actually trying it. What came to the table was a massive scoop of sweet cannoli cream studded with chips and topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. It was delicious, but we were only able to make it through 3/4ths of the pile. Evan referred to it as a big snow-covered mountain. Along with the Little Italy location, there are also shops in Canton, Hunt Valley, and Bel Air.
While in Baltimore, we stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Baltimore Downtown/Inner Harbor on Aliceanna Street in Harbor East. It was the perfect location for our weekend with short walking distances to Inner Harbor, Little Italy and Fells Point. The area is home to a variety of restaurants, shops, entertainment, and hotels.
Bagby Pizza Co.
For our second night, we stopped by Bagby Pizza Co right across the street from our hotel. This was a great spot for the kids. They were offered menus with crayons and I especially loved the decent size of their portions. Claire had a large cheese pizza slice while Evan enjoyed Mac and Cheese. Chad and I started with the Peanut Kale Crunch and Cobb Salads followed by the Blackened Chicken Penne and the Tennessee Honey Chicken Pizza (grilled honey-marinated chicken, roasted red peppers, roasted artichokes, mozzarella, provolone, and ricotta).
We all had such a wonderful weekend in Baltimore. Check out Visit Baltimore for more information on the city and what it has to offer for all ages.
After trying the incredible mountain of Cannoli Dip at Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop, I wanted to make my own version at home. For those who enjoy cannoli, but don’t have the tools or time to make them at home, this Cannoli Dip is a great option. Ricotta, mascarpone, and powdered sugar are beaten together until smooth and lightly seasoned with vanilla and cinnamon. For a bit of texture, fold in handfuls of mini chocolate chips and chopped pistachios (optional).
I made the chips using the same recipe as the shells in my original cannoli post. Instead of forming them into the circular shells around molds, I cut the dough into sheets followed by little triangles. Keep a close eye on the cannoli chips as they will quickly turn golden. It only takes a couple of minutes.
If you are short on time or don’t want to deal with frying the chips, the dip is also delicious paired with premade and broken apart cannoli shells, waffle cones, or Pizzelle.
Cannoli Dip Recipe
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Pinch ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons shortening
1 large egg
1/4 cup marsala wine
Vegetable oil for frying
15 ounces ricotta
8 ounces mascarpone, room temperature
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup mini chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped pistachios (optional)
Mini chocolate chips
To make the chips: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and cinnamon. Mix in the red wine vinegar, lard, egg, and marsala until dough comes together.
Line a baking sheet with paper towels and set aside. In a large saucepan, add oil until 2 inches deep. Place over medium heat to 375˚F.
Divide the dough in half. Cover one half with a towel or plastic wrap and place the other on work surface.
Use a pasta machine or rolling pin to roll the dough into a sheet about 1/8th inch thick. Cut the sheet into 1 1/2 inch wide strips, then cut the strips into triangular chips. Repeat with remaining dough.
Gently add the cannoli chips, in a few batches to not overcrowd, to the hot oil and fry both sides until lightly golden. Remove with a slotted spoon to the towel-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining chips. Allow to cool. Store in an airtight container until ready to serve with the dip.
To make the dip: Place a strainer over a small bowl and add the ricotta. Strain the refrigerator for 30 minutes to remove excess liquid.
In a large bowl, beat together the strained ricotta, mascarpone cheese, powdered sugar, cream, vanilla extract, and cinnamon until smooth.
Fold in the mini chocolate chips and pistachios. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to a day to allow the flavors to meld.
Serve with a sprinkling of mini chocolate chips, chopped pistachios, and a dusting of additional powdered sugar.