Give Yourself the Royal Treatment in Charlotte
Forty years ago, if you had asked someone what city would have revolutionized the banking industry with interstate banking and become a major financial hub, chances are high that Charlotte, NC would not have made the shortlist. But that one act has propelled this city — founded back in King George III’s time (named for his wife, actually) — into the sprawling mega-metropolis that it is today.
As the largest city in North Carolina, Charlotte draws creative and culinary talent to its core and makes the perfect getaway for all seasons, because there is so much to indulge in. From delighting your taste buds with gourmet cooking and celebrating different cultures with festivals to feeling the adrenaline rushes of racing a NASCAR simulator and whitewater rafting, Charlotte has come into its own.
Here is your guide on things to do in the “Queen City.”
Get the Lay of the Land
Located in south-central North Carolina near the South Carolina border, Charlotte lies just east of the Catawba River in the Piedmont region and is well served by Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Chances are, there’s probably a nonstop flight to Charlotte from wherever you’re sitting. The city is also located at the junctions of I-77 and I-85, so it’s about a 3-hour drive from Raleigh and Charleston, S.C. and about a 4-hour drive from Atlanta and Knoxville, Tenn.
Once you get to Charlotte, you can either drive or use the LYNX rail system for getting around. With so many unique and inviting neighborhoods here, you are going to want to do some exploring.
Just north of the Queen City’s downtown area, which locals refer to as “Uptown,” you’ll find a former missile manufacturing site that is now an artistic hub for 40 tenants called Camp North End. A few blocks over is the hipster haven of NoDa (short for North Davidson Street), full of murals, galleries and enough coffee shops, bars and breweries to whet your whistle.
On the west end of Charlotte, you’ll find Wesley Heights, a neighborhood brimming with green spaces, historic homes and skyline views.
Take the light rail down South Boulevard and you’ll find yourself in South End, a magnet for young professionals and full of luxury apartments, galleries and fresh eateries.
Eat, drink and be merry
With a population of nearly 900,000 people, Charlotte knows how to feed both locals and visitors alike.
Over at Kindred in nearby Davidson, James Beard nominee Chef Joe Kindred and his restaurateur wife, Katy, serve a farm-to-table seasonal menu. Be sure to try the signature milk bread or the squid ink pasta. Adults can even satisfy their littlest picky eaters with some buttermilk fried chicken tenders or grilled cheese from the kids’ menu.
Leah & Louise, a modern juke joint opened near Camp North End by James Beard-nominated chef Greg Collier and his business partner and wife Subrina Collier, tempts visitors with its modern interpretations of Southern classics and whimsical menu items. For example, “Say it witcha chest” is a milk tea brined pheasant breast with chestnut polenta, arugula salad and persimmon glaze while “wabbit season” is a smoked rabbit country captain with grits, almond raisin crumble, shaved carrot and parsley stem vin.
Optimist Hall was originally home to Charlotte’s largest textile mill (and even instrumental in the story of Spanx), but today this facility dresses your insides more than your outside. With more than 25 tenants, this food hall northwest of the Second Ward serves everything from wood-fired pizza at Ava and Asian street fare at Bao and Broth to high-end fried chicken sandwiches at Boxcar Betty’s and the sweet scoops at Honeysuckle Gelato.
The Market at 7th Street is in Uptown, adjacent to the 7th Street Light Rail Station, and serves as a non-profit incubator to emerging chefs, among other skilled artisans. Here you can find 60 different flavors of kettle corn (including fried chicken) at It’s Poppin! or sample the Jersey Shore-style pizza at Geno D’s and the dumplings at Momo Station.
Whether it’s part of a day’s exploration (you are on vacation, after all) or part of a night out, leave some room to give Charlotte’s craft beer scene a whirl. Several breweries have even received awards or honorable mentions at the 2021 North Carolina Brewers Cup, including Beer Flavored Beer from Divine Barrel Brewing in NoDa, Czech Please from Lenny Boy Brewing Co. in South End and Barrel Aged Varsity at Town Brewing Co. in Wesley Heights.
Fast & Curious
When visiting Charlotte, you’re in the heart of NASCAR country. The NASCAR Hall of Fame in Uptown is full of classic and present-day cars on display as well as interactive exhibits and realistic iRacing simulators. Head 25 miles northeast of Charlotte to Concord for the Charlotte Motor Speedway, host of daily tours and year-round events, including the Coca-Cola 600 in May and the Bank of America Roval 400 in October.
Pull out of the fast lane and reflect at The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art; once a private collection held by the Bechtler family of Switzerland, only a handful of works here have ever been on public view in the U.S. The works focus on influential artists of the mid-20th century and include pieces by Miró, Picasso, Warhol and Le Corbusier.
Named for Charlotte’s first African-American mayor, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture preserves African-American art, culture and history. Current exhibits include “Visible Man: Art and Black Male Subjectivity” (through April 24) and “FuturePresent: Acquisition Highlights from the Permanent Collection” (through June 26).
Take the kids to ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center, a combination kids’ library/youth theater that brings stories to life. A collaborative effort between the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Children’s Theater of Charlotte, this 102,000-square-foot facility has two state-of-the-art theatres, a dedicated library space for kids 11 and under, four multi-use classrooms, a teen-only library, a multimedia production studio and interactive exhibit space.
If you’re out and about, there are plenty of Insta-worthy stops to make. Check out the Wall Poems of Charlotte, mostly found in Uptown’s First Ward, which puts lines of poetry in highly visible areas to make the art form more accessible. Head to the Confetti Hearts Wall, over by Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in South End, for a lovely (get it?) backdrop.
If you prefer more quirky attractions, venture to Freshlist’s seasonal produce clock and its hand-painted illustrations of fruits and vegetables. Completed in 2020, this custom-built clock in the Belmont neighborhood slowly progresses through the seasons (one rotation per year) as a way to show what produce from the Piedmont region is in season.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
Despite being landlocked, Charlotte still offers watersports like whitewater rafting and canoeing, thanks to the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
Spread out over 1,300 acres, the Whitewater Center is home to 50 miles of trails as well as ziplines, ice skating, rock climbing and a deep water solo-climbing complex; deep water solo is a form of rock climbing where you fall into a deep pool of water instead of wearing traditional climbing protection. Would-be Olympiads might also recognize the center as a U.S. Olympic Training site for the nation’s top athletes in canoe and kayak.
Keep the adrenaline going with a visit to the Carowinds amusement park. Rides range from rollercoasters with names like Afterburn, Hurler and Intimidator to tamer kids’ rides and a waterpark. In the summer, grab a mat and head to the newly opened Boogie Board Racer, the longest mat-racing water slide in the Southeast.
If you’re more the type to hold the coats, head to Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. Open year-round on Wednesdays-Sundays, the facility is set on 380 acres on the banks of Lake Wylie. In addition to the various garden sections, there is a conservatory of orchids and tropical plants and 3.2 miles of walking trails.
Festivals for All
As a magnet city to so many people, Charlotte welcomes and celebrates all different cultures and interests with a calendar full of festivals and events.
Feel the creativity and innovation at the sensory feast that is Charlotte SHOUT in April. Experience Charlotte’s largest street festival in May at Circle K Speed Street presented by Coca-Cola. Be an ally at the Pride Festival in August.
Sample Indian cuisine at the Festival of India in September. Get ready to cheer during the Charlotte Dragon Boat Festival and Asian Festival in October. Go back in time to 16th-century Europe at the Carolina Renaissance Festival in October-November.
Plans are in the works this year for a second BayHaven Food & Wine Festival, which debuted last year as a three-day showcase for black chefs and mixologists.
It’s fitting that in the Queen City, everybody gets to wear the crown.