Much of Annapolis ’s allure lies in its sparkling waterways: the Severn River, Spa Creek, and just around the bend, mighty Chesapeake Bay. If you’ve arrived at the city by land, take heart; you can experience the joys of the open waters by reserving a trip on a watercraft tour, which allows you to feel the sun on your face, the wind in the sails, and sea spray as it splashes over the bow.
For an immersion into Annapolis’s historic sailing culture, consider reserving a spot on the Woodwind or sister ship the Woodwind II (Pusser’s Landing at the Marriott Waterfront, 80 Compromise St., 410/263-7837, www.schoonerwoodwind.com , 2-hour weekend sail $39 adults, $37 seniors, $25 children), 74-foot two-masted wooden schooners that take up to 48 guests for two-hour tours of the area. (If you saw the movie Wedding Crashers, you might recognize the Woodwind II as Christopher Walken’s yacht.)
On weekends and during the summer, the company offers sunset cruises and special Sunday champagne brunch tours.
Watermark Cruises (City Dock, 410/268-7600, www.watermarkcruises.com ) leads 40- and 90-minute tours of Annapolis harbor and the Naval Academy waterfront or the Spa Creek area aboard the motorized launches Harbor Queen and Miss Anne as well as special kid-friendly Pirates of the Chesapeake tours, trips out to Thomas Point Lighthouse, or day trips to scenic St. Michaels, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore.
Tours run daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day and on a shorter schedule in spring and fall; prices range $13-70 adults, $5-30 children.
Go Navy; beat Army. Thousands of men and women have launched their naval or Marine Corps careers from the U.S. Naval Academy, the nation’s military college for naval officers, a public institution founded in 1845 that currently has a student body of roughly 4,400. The Naval Academy is the second oldest of the country’s five service academies, behind its rival the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, established in 1802.
Annapolis is a term used nearly synonymously with the Academy; the town and the university are intertwined historically and socially, with the students, called midshipmen, seen out and about on weekends enjoying the city’s historic district and major regional events and activities taking place frequently on the Yard, as the school’s grounds are known.
The Academy occupies 340 acres on the Severn River and Spa Creek, its architecture a mix of beaux arts and Second Empire. Notable buildings include Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world, home to the entire Brigade of Midshipmen and encompassing Memorial Hall, a stirring space containing the names of all Academy graduates who have been killed in action.
The Chapel is a beaux arts masterpiece designed by Ernest Flagg and crowned with a 225-foot copper-clad dome. It contains the elaborate crypt of John Paul Jones of “Don’t Give up the Ship” fame, the father of the American Navy.
Visitors can take a formal tour of the school from the Armel-Leftwich Visitors Center (52 King George St., 410/293-8687, www.usna.edu/nafprodv/vc , summer Mon.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Sun. 12:30-3 p.m., winter reduced hours). The visitors center is free; tours cost $9.50 adults, $8.50 seniors, $7.50 children. On the tour, you’ll learn about the history of the grounds as well as the stories of famous graduates, including astronaut Alan Shepard, President Jimmy Carter, Sen. John McCain, and others.
If formal tours aren’t your style, you can still enter the grounds (everyone 16 and older must present a picture ID) and explore it on your own; the U.S. Naval Academy Museum (118 Maryland Ave., 410/293-2108, www.usna.edu/Museum , Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., free), contains a collection of uniforms, artifacts, ship models, maritime maps, prints, and paintings.
At the bottom of Main Street lies the City Dock, the heart of historic downtown Annapolis , a meet-up spot that draws visitors year-round. The dock is a popular spot for a picnic lunch or an after-dinner stroll, located near restaurants, shops, and lodgings. Sightseeing cruises and water taxis leave from the bulkhead regularly, and seafarers often pull their boats, yachts, and even ships up to its moorings. During the summer, bands and musical groups from the Naval Academy perform in the area, and the dock is often the site of town activities, including festivals and the Christmas boat parade.
A collection of statues in the sidewalk marks the spot believed to be where the ancestor of Alex Haley, author of the book Roots, was brought ashore as a slave. The memorial is a sculpture of Haley reading to three young children; he is telling the story of his ancestry and of Annapolis’s role in the slave trade during the 18th century.
Haley’s novel and its subsequent 1977 TV miniseries were groundbreaking, casting light on an often ignored chapter in U.S. history and the ancestry of millions of Americans. Although the accuracy of Haley’s book was later questioned, Roots prompted historical sites and museums nationwide to widen their scope to include African American and Native American history.
One of only 15 residences left that belonged to a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Charles Carroll House (107 Duke of Gloucester St., 410/269-1737, www.charlescarrollhouse.com , Jun.-Oct. Sat.-Sun. noon-4 p.m., donation) was home to Charles Carroll, grandson of Irish immigrant Charles Carroll, a Roman Catholic who moved to Maryland to escape persecution for his religious beliefs.
Charles Carroll the grandson was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence; his former home is owned by the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. He was also the last signer of the Declaration to die, in 1832 at age 95; he was also one of the founders of the B&O Railroad.
Sited on Spa Creek, the house is a 1720s mansion that has been added onto over the years and is in the process of being restored, offering a glimpse into the home’s architectural alterations and history as well as a look at building methods and styles of the past 300 years. For example, the original front door is on the second story, since the land was regraded for construction of St. Mary’s Church, an 1860s Gothic structure that sits behind it. If you visit Charles Carroll House, take a moment to peek inside the church; the interior is breathtaking.
The oldest state capitol building still in use by a state legislature, the wooden-domed Maryland State House (100 State Circle, 410/974-3400, open daily, guided tours hourly) was completed in 1797, the third building on State Circle to serve as the legislature. Construction began on the Georgian-style building in 1772; legislators have met in it since 1780. The State House’s dome is the largest wooden dome in the United States. It contains no metal nails.
The lightening rod—a large acorn skewered by a metal pole—is based on a design by Benjamin Franklin and is the largest built in Franklin’s lifetime. It is a replica of the original, removed in 1996 after protecting the building for more than 200 years (the original suffered dry rot and metal fatigue).
The interior of the state house was updated and redesigned in 1905; it features marble-lined chambers and skylights made by Tiffany. Outside the northwest side of the statehouse is a statue of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a native of Baltimore who became the first black American to sit on the high court. The sculpture marks the former site of the Maryland Court of Appeals, where in 1935 Marshall argued University v. Murray, a case that contributed to the desegregation of Maryland state colleges.
The other statues that make up the memorial are of Donald Murray, the plaintiff in that case, and two children representing the victors in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Marshall’s most significant case.
The third-oldest college in the United States, St. John’s (60 College Ave.) was founded in 1696. It is a liberal-arts school of roughly 460 students who study a unique curriculum called a “Great Books” program, during which they read from an established list of source material, including classical Greek works—Homer, Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, and others—in their freshman year and moving through history, with seniors exposed to the works of more contemporary writers like Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, and W. E. B. Du Bois. It’s the ultimate liberal-arts education, without majors or formal lectures.
A school that bucks conformity by refusing to provide information to U.S. News & World Report’s widely distributed college ranking list, St. John’s develops highly qualified students, most of whom go on to graduate school.
The college’s striking Georgian-style campus lies directly across the wall from its antithesis, the disciplined, science-oriented United States Naval Academy. In the spring, the two schools go head-to-head in what is one of the city’s most well-attended spectator events, an intercollegiate croquet match. Spectators dress in finery—bow ties, suspenders, and coats for the men, sundresses and hats for the women—for the festivities. St. John’s inevitably comes out the winner; croquet is only one of three sports offered at the school.
The William Paca House (186 Prince George St., 410/990-4543, summer Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m., winter reduced hours, guided tours on the hour, admission $8 adults, $7 seniors, $5 children) is one of the best-preserved 18th-century buildings in Annapolis , a 1765 Georgian-style home designed by its owner, planter William Paca (pronounced PAY-ka), signer of the Declaration of Independence who later served as a state legislator and governor. The house and gardens have been restored to their original appearance at the height of Paca’s career, with antique furniture, decorative arts, and silverware as well as a paint scheme and layout designed by Paca to personalize the home, including a dark robin’s-egg blue on the walls of the second floor and a “lying-in” room where his wife, Mary Paca, would have received guests during the weeks following childbirth.
The splendorous gardens with colonial terraces and a fish pond have taken great commitment from dedicated preservationists: At one time the gardens were covered by a hotel that had been built on the site. When the entire property, then known as Carvel Hall Hotel, was slated for demolition in 1965, the Historic Annapolis Foundation stepped in to save the home and restore the gardens. It was opened to the public for tours in 1973.