Berlin is a small town with big appeal

Berlin, just outside Ocean City, opens up on to another world

May 14, 2014|By Donna M. Owens | For The Baltimore Sun


City slickers, be forewarned. One visit to this picturesque and utterly charming town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and even devout urbanites may be tempted to pull up roots, pack their bags and change ZIP codes.

That's no exaggeration. Berlin has in recent years welcomed an influx of new residents -- nicknamed "come heres" in the local parlance.

Indeed, those who discover this locale less than 10 miles from Ocean City and Assateague Island's famous ponies will find a destination that's increasingly gaining national buzz.

Budget Travel magazine recently deemed Berlin "America's Coolest Small Town, 2014" after a nationwide contest in which tens of thousands cast votes online. Of hundreds of towns nominated, the magazine narrowed the list to 15 and let the public vote. The result: 40,000 votes (28 percent) for Berlin.

"We [were] looking for great history, architecture, food, culture and, most importantly, people ‹ the true spirit of community that you can find in a small town," said Elaine Alimonti, the magazine's president and publisher. "We found it all in Berlin. Š We had an absolutely wonderful time visiting."

My introduction to Berlin unfolded in leisurely fashion on a bright, breezy spring afternoon. My first impression was of a pristine setting with a storybook quality.

Out of the past

Berlin's streets are lined with magnolia and sycamore trees, and Federal and Victorian-era homes are accented by manicured lawns.

Downtown Berlin, impossibly quaint and impeccably maintained, is a designated National Register Historic District, where the architectural gems include tidy brick storefronts with vintage facades that house a mix of antiques shops, boutiques and restaurants. Visitors will find art, jewelry, toys, furniture and lighting ‹ not to mention eats that run the gamut from Italian fare to burgers and crab cakes.

My next stop was the Calvin B. Taylor House Museum, a restored early-19th-century house named for a prominent businessman that's overflowing with artifacts and memorabilia that relate Berlin's rich history.

Touring the museum with Susan Taylor, a local historian and the facility's longtime curator, I learned that while this town may be small, its roots run wide and deep.

The area was once inhabited by members of the Assateague and Pocomoke tribes. A major section of town is built on a tract called Burley (also spelled Burleigh), which dates to 1677.

At what's now South Main Street and Tripoli Street, Colonial travelers were known to stop for rest at the Burley Inn. Local lore suggests that a melding of "Burley" and "inn" likely inspired the name of the town.

Berlin was officially incorporated in 1868, three years after the Civil War.

Today, Berliners "don't pronounce the name like the city in Germany. Instead, it's BURL-in ‹ with the accent on the first syllable," Taylor says, smiling.

Having existed for centuries, the town exudes a sense of civic pride and neighborliness among the population, which numbers around 4,500.

"I was lucky enough to be born here, and we've always been a friendly town where everyone knew everyone and looked out for each other," says Mayor William "Gee" Williams III.

"It's still insular, but I think what differentiates our culture from other small towns is that we have a vibrant attitude, we're diverse and we welcome everyone. About the only thing we don't tolerate is intolerance."

Gee is known to give a warm bear hug (he dubs it the "Berlin handshake"). When the town's mailman, James Tingle, delivers parcels, he cheerfully greets shopkeepers by name and vice versa.

Townsfolk, who often zip by on bicycles, frequently stop to chat with one another.

Even the canine crowd is treated with consideration in these parts: Water bowls are placed around town.

Present charms

Whether you're here for a day trip or a weekend getaway, Berlin has ample activity.

The Globe Theater, built circa 1910, has functioned as a garage for carriages, a movie house and, now, a bustling bar and restaurant that doubles as an art gallery and live music venue.

Folks of drinking age can grab a pint at Burley Oak Brewing Co. and watch as founder Bryan Brushmiller and his team brew beer with quirky monikers like "Mob Barley" in huge copper vats.

Warm weather brings the clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages down Main Street, where there's also an art stroll every second Friday of the month. It's an ideal time to stop into the funky studio of Jeffrey Auxer, an artist whose blown glass is attracting buyers from across the U.S. and beyond.

Meanwhile, the annual peach festival, bathtub races, a fiddlers' convention and a yearly jazz fest are just part of the fun. Come winter, the town hosts a Victorian-style Christmas, complete with a tree lighting.

Berlin has been featured as the backdrop for not one, but two major motion pictures.

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