New York but less wired
While photographing Buddhist curios in the store windows of Hampden, Baltimore's centre of suburban kitsch, I'm approached by a local man.
"Oh, it's a Canon," he says, looking at my camera. "I use Nikon, but Canon is a great brand. You should come back in the evening, when all the shops are lit up. It's very tacky, but you'll get some good pictures."
So we launch into an earnest discussion of photography. He knows his cameras; I'm just winging it. We'd never met before but I've come to expect this from Baltimoreans. They will stop to chat about almost everything.
For a city of 600,000 people, Baltimore, in the state of Maryland, is disarmingly friendly. It is known, without a hint of irony, as "Charm City". It's a place where strangers will go out of their way to help a traveller (I even received a free treatment from an acupuncturist, because "if you've come all the way from Australia, you need it"), where waitresses expect an honest and detailed response to the inquiry "How was your food?", and where the locals possess a self-deprecating sense of humour that would impress the British.
If nearby Washington DC exudes urban sophistication, or San Francisco radiates urban cool, Baltimore is a city that seems to define urban charm.
A landmark of Hampden - and an institution of Baltimore - is Cafe Hon, an old-style diner guarded by a giant pink flamingo on the outside and a life-size Elvis as you enter the front door and proceed to the leopard-skin seats.
Cafe Hon offers generous slices of blueberry-cherry crumble, or that Baltimore speciality: crab cakes. "If you have a restaurant in Baltimore and you can't make crab cakes," says the owner, Denise Whiting, "you really should do something else."
Baltimore maintains its charm, despite having so many "trendy" neighbourhoods that it might as well be lower Manhattan, and despite the fact that - due partly to a struggling economy - it has one of America's highest crime rates, as depicted in the television series The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets.
Baltimoreans don't shy away from this. They are proud of The Wire. If they discover that you've actually seen it, they will probably tell you they know someone in the cast.
Baltimoreans turn their violent history (and to an extent, their violent present) to their advantage. Ghost tours are very popular, with many people suffering violent deaths in the town's corrupt early years. While they try to keep the place safe, there is a peculiar delight in the old-fashioned danger.
The history is apparent from the red-brick buildings along the harbour, most of them more than 150 years old. This is the town where Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to America's national anthem as he witnessed US forces defend the harbour from British invaders in 1814.
Balanced precariously between the north and the south, Baltimore played a major role in the anti-slavery movement. Its energetic jazz scene is a long-standing tradition, as the home of Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday. It was the birthplace of baseballer Babe Ruth, whose childhood home - conveniently located near the wharf - is now open as a well-attended museum.
Though the most famous living Baltimorean is probably Olympic champion Michael Phelps, the locals are much prouder of filmmaker John Waters, who brought Hampden cheesiness to the cinema with the likes of Hairspray (which summed up the city in its opening song, Good Morning, Baltimore).
Baltimore's museums are an unusual bunch, from the Baltimore Museum of Industry (which recently hosted an exhibition on the history of the Ouija board, a local invention) to the waxworks museum saluting African American history with an unforgettable name: the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
Perhaps the archetypal Baltimore museum is Geppi's Entertainment Museum, with its refreshingly pop-culture view of the world. The movie posters that plaster the walls eschew Citizen Kane, in deference to such classics as Untamed Women. The music section doesn't include Stravinsky, but it does have Annette Funicello and the Monkees.
Baltimore's literary heritage has been a boon for fans of pop-culture, without the loftiness of the London or New York writing scenes. This is the town of H. L. Mencken and Upton Sinclair, Dashiell Hammett and Edgar Allen Poe.
The charm of Baltimore extends to its place as one of America's least pretentious major cities. At the Waterfront Kitchen, with its excellent marine views and locavore cuisine (corned bison tongue from the nearby bison-farm town of Gunpowder, rockfish fillet from Chesapeake Bay), wait-staff wear uniform jeans and blue work-shirts and often approach you with their hands in their pockets.
This ain't New York, pal. If you don't like their casual dress, you would despise their friendly chattiness even more. For me, it is part of the attraction.
On weekends, many Baltimoreans will head to Annapolis, half an hour from central Baltimore, a bayside haven of sailing, fishing, canoeing and paddle boarding.
The town was also America's first peacetime capital, holding fort in 1783 at the elegant Maryland State House, which still looks over the town, surrounded by lavish residences that previously belonged to Founding Fathers.
Annapolis also has the world's largest crab feast, held every August, in which 2500 people dine on 30,000 crabs, seasoned with the region's characteristic Old Bay spice. As quick primary-school maths would confirm, each diner consumes, on average, a remarkable number of crabs.
Nobody in Annapolis is likely to starve. The next morning, I have breakfast at Chick and Ruth's Delly, a local institution famous for its three-pound super colossal sandwich and six-pound colossal shake.
Back in central Baltimore the next night, I visit the Brewer's Art, a busy restaurant in the trendy Mount Vernon neighbourhood, offering grilled magret duck breast and braised cauliflower gratin in sheep's milk mornay.
At the table next to me, a woman is hosting friends from interstate.
She glances at the formidable menu, then orders French fries. "They have the best fries in town," she tells her friends.
The waitress takes the order with a smile.
Baltimore is a city where nobody is afraid to order fries and where people are happy to be themselves.
It doesn't try to be a smaller New York or Philadelphia.
It only wants to be Baltimore - and it achieves this with liberal doses of charm.
The writer visited Baltimore with assistance from United Airlines, Visit Baltimore, and Visit Annapolis.
STAYING THERE Embassy Suites Baltimore Downtown, close to the Inner Harbour, offers suites and rooms from US$169 ($204). embassysuitesbaltimore.com.
MORE INFORMATION baltimore.com
THREE MORE BALTIMORE CHARMERS
FEET OF COCOA One of Hampden's most agreeable shops is Ma Petite Shoe, which combines two of a woman's favourite things: chocolates and shoes - as made by artisans.
This boutique shop is the place to buy Next Day Low sneakers (made of recycled Tyvek) or Vosges Mo's dark chocolate bacon bars. Vegan products are also available - both edible and wearable.
CELEBRATING HON In June, Cafe Hon's Denise Whiting organises HonFest (honfest.net), a summer street festival. Scores of women (and a few men) gather for the "Best Hon" pageant, dressing in ways Dame Edna might find extravagant: feather boas, tall beehives, retro sunglasses and colourful clothes. "It helps them to step outside their comfort zone," says Whiting.
CANINE GOURMET Annapolis is ranked as one of America's most dog-friendly cities. Hotels and restaurants cater for dogs (provided they dine outside, due to health regulations), but Rams Head Tavern spoils them the most.
The menu includes "bowser beer" (non-alcoholic), "mutt meatballs" (ground turkey, eggs, parmesan, oregano) and "rover rice" (beef tips on rice simmered in chicken stock).