In northeastern Maryland, the seat of Harford County is an outer suburb of Baltimore, but with its own story to tell.
Artsy downtown Bel Air packs history, cultural venues, a veteran farmers’ market, lively events, and an ever-growing network of hiking and biking trails to help you get around without a car.
The founder of modern gynecology, Howard Atwood Kelly, built his mansion in Bel Air, and this sumptuous residence in manicured grounds is open to the public for free.
On a more complicated note, Bel Air is also the birthplace of John Wilkes Booth. His childhood home, Tudor Manor, is preserved as a museum, shedding light on the Booth theatrical family.
1. Liriodendron Mansion
The brilliant physician and founding professor of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Howard Atwood Kelly (1858-1943) built his summer residence in Bel Air in 1898.
Kelly is remembered for establishing gynecology as a specialty through pathological research and innovative surgical approaches to gynecological diseases.
Resting in more than 100 acres of beautiful parkland, the main Palladian mansion is open to the public for free on Wednesdays and Sundays, with an art gallery to peruse on the 2nd floor.
Liriodendron sets the scene for numerous events and activities, including concerts, weddings, private parties, corporate meetings and a calendar of free community events.
The estate goes back further to 1835, with a cluster of outbuildings including a cottage, Georgian house, two ice houses, a corn crib, bank barn and carriage house.
One of that pair of ice houses is a museum space with an exhibit for Native American prehistory. You can get onto the property via the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, connecting with downtown Bel Air.
2. Downtown Bel Air
For a city of just over 10,000 people, Bel Air’s tree-lined downtown area punches above its weight, with historic landmarks, unique shops, cosmopolitan dining, cultural venues, public art and big events.
First Fridays brings the community together for a monthly block party, while the MD State BBQ Bash is a competitive culinary festival bringing tens of thousands of people downtown in October.
New works of public art have cropped up across the center of Bel Air in the last few years, and the city has published a self-guided art walk with more than 20 stops, and lots of places to shop and dine along the route
3. Ma & Pa Heritage Trail
In Harford County, the old corridor of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad (Ma & Pa) has been turned into a constantly growing trail network with two main segments.
The Bel Air stretch is 3.3 miles long, running from Williams St (a block west of Main St), past the Liriodendron Mansion to Heavenly Waters Park.
This is a convenient and safe way to encounter the woods and streams on Bel Air’s west side, without having to negotiate busy roads.
Before long, the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail will be hooked up to the Flaston Link and Forest Hill Trail to form an unbroken, eight-mile trail between downtown Bel Air, Fallston and Forest Hill.
4. Bel Air Armory
The most striking sight along Main Street is this National Guard armory, built in 1915 from local Port Deposit granite.
As with other armories in the region from this period, this building was designed to resemble a Medieval castle, with decorative arrow loops, a pair of hexagonal towers and crenellations.
The armory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, and is now a hall for arts, entertainment and community events in Bel Air.
The former garages to the rear have been converted into the Armory Marketplace, incubating exciting local businesses. Outside is Armory Park, with delightful gardens, seating and a stage area for performances.
5. Harford Artists’ Gallery
Founded in 1967, the non-profit Harford Artists’ Association (HAA) has over 280 members working in a wide array of disciplines. Their art can be seen throughout downtown Bel Air, at businesses like Independent Brewing Company.
The main gallery for the association can be found at the Armory Marketplace, and this is a dynamic space, staging themed exhibitions on a bi-monthly basis.
If you want something unique to take home, there’s sure to be a piece that catches your eye. The Harford Artists’ Gallery is also the setting for various HAA events and workshops for a range of skills, from watercolors to acrylic pour painting.
6. Rockfield Park
This public park a short way east of Main St along Churchville Rd has a lot going for it. In the northwest corner is the idyllic Rockfield Manor, built in the early 1920s and now rented out for weddings and other special events.
Rockfield Park is the stage for a number of community celebrations in spring and summer, like National Kite Day in April and activities for the Fourth of July.
In summer families are sure to love the park’s 5,000-square-foot Chesapeake Sensory Plaza, an innovative water play area along a 60-foot channel system, equipped with educational panels about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The year-round playground here is also fantastic, with a lot of interactive elements, sandboxes and castle-like climbing structures.
For a moment of repose, the park’s Horticultural Gardens has a sequence of spaces, like a Xeriscape Garden and Butterfly & Hummingbird Garden, along a looping path.
7. Tudor Hall
This historic Gothic Revival house just out of town was built in the early 1850s as a country retreat for the famed English Shakespearean actor, Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852).
He had settled on this property in 1822, and Tudor Hall was to be a grand replacement for the log cabin that had long served as his home.
Booth, Sr. died before Tudor Hall was completed, but for four years up to 1856 this building was a home for his son, John Wilkes Booth (1835-1865), who was born on the property.
The building is preserved as an historic house museum, with an interesting background on the Booths, a complex family known for their eccentricity long before John Wilkes Booth’s infamous deed.
8. Independent Brewing Company
At the north end of Main Street, within walking distance of the trailhead for the Ma & Heritage Trail sits the county’s premier brewery.
Independent Brewing Company has a spacious, bicycle-friendly patio area. Inside you’ve got 26 taps for small-batch craft ales and cider, on a constant rotation and brewed with locally sourced ingredients where possible.
There’s something for all tastes, whether you prefer hoppy IPAs (Bad Hombre, Hippie Cartel), malty dark beers (Blacklisted, Cereal Killer), crisp lagers (Nachos Before Muchachos, Take me to Your Litre).
In terms of soft drinks you’ve got homemade root beer on tap, and craft sodas made with cane sugar by the bottle.
Food-wise, a new food truck stops by each day, for local crab cakes, pizza, souvlaki, hot dogs, tacos, cheese steaks, BBQ and much more.
9. Hays House Museum
At the very south end of downtown Bel Air there’s a compact Federal-style house built around 1788.
In 1811 the Hays House was purchased by the attorney and entrepreneur, Thomas A. Hays, who made enlargements shortly after.
His family would remain here for the best part of 150 years and the residence took on their name. The building was relocated to its present site in 1960 and is now open to the public on a limited schedule, from March to mid-December.
Outside, the weatherboard and shutters are original, while the interior has been restored to its late 18th-century appearance, complete with authentic woodwork.
10. Bel Air Farmers’ Market
Bel Air has had an outdoor, producer-only market since the 1970s, and it continues to go from strength to strength.
On an average week there are more than 50 vendors in the District Court parking lot, offering seasonal fruit and vegetables, herbs, plants, fresh-cut flowers, pasture-raised meats, cheeses, olive oil, baked goods, salsas, honey, eggs, jams, local wine, organic skincare products, pet treats and a lot more besides.
The Bel Air Farmers’ Market takes place on Saturday mornings through December 17th, and there’s always a selection of prepared and hot food available, like pizza baked in a wood-burning oven.
11. Alecraft Brewery
Beer aficionados are spoiled for choice in Bel Air, as there’s another small-batch brewery on Main Street just south of downtown.
Alecraft Brewery was founded as a supply shop 2013 by two avid home brewers, and has expanded over the last decade, becoming a microbrewery and moving into the front of Preston’s Stationery Building in 2017.
The brewery has a rotating choice of ten artisan brews and ales. A few on tap when we compiled this list were Le Renard (American IPA), Bourbon Barrel Crucible (Belgian Tripel), Cassiopeia (Amber Lager) and Royal Roast (Oatmeal Stout), The taproom is open Tuesday to Sunday, and you can order a flight if you can’t make a decision.
Alecraft has partnered with Birds Nest BBQ next door, delivering anything from wings to sandwiches to baby back ribs and BBQ platters at the drop of a hat.
12. APG Federal Credit Union Arena
The largest indoor event facility in northeastern Maryland is on the campus of Harford Community College, on the east side of Bel Air.
Completed in 2012 at a cost of $26.7 million, this is a modern expansion of the old Susquehanna Center (1968), doubling the capacity to 2,552 for sports events.
The arena is home court for Harford Community College’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as its women’s volleyball team (NJCAA).
You can come to watch the Fighting Owls in action, while the arena also hosts concerts, student events, conferences and trade shows.
13. Bynum Run Park
On Rockfield Park’s east side is the smaller Bynum Run Park, set around a pretty pond.
The pond’s green banks are partially shaded by trees and have a paved trail with plenty of places to settle down with a book or enjoy the peace.
The banks are also flocked by ducks, swans and geese, and you’ll see spot turtles around the water’s edge. A popular family activity is feeding the waterfowl (healthy snacks like oats, corn, rice and other grains).
There’s a small pier by the parking lot for fishing, and largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and black bullhead are often caught in these waters.
14. Historical Society of Harford County
Responsible for Hays House, Bel Air is the home of the oldest county historical society in Maryland.
This was established in 1885 and has assembled massive collections over the last 140 years, comprising photography, artifacts, documents, artwork, textiles and county records going back to the 1600s.
The society spent decades hopping around Bel Air from one location to the next, eventually settling at the New Deal-era former Post Office building in 1938.
When we wrote this article the main building was temporarily closed to the public for building work, but there are usually worthwhile exhibits sourced from that rich inventory and accompanied by a gift shop.
15. Bel Air Festival for the Arts
On the third Sunday in September, one of the biggest one-day events in Harford County takes place in Bel Air’s Shamrock Park.
The Bel Air Festival for the Arts has been running for more than 55 years, bringing hundreds of artisans and craftspeople to the city.
You can browse some of the best hand-made crafts, photography and fine art on the East Coast, but there’s also a day-long feast of live entertainment at the bandshell stage and roving entertainers in the crowd.
A shuttle bus runs from the MVA Parking Lot on Route 24 to the festival site.