Top 14 things to do in Charlotte to get the most out of your visit
Lonely Planet Writer
Charlotte is North Carolina’s largest city and a base of operations for dozens of financial and commercial corporations. But not everything in “Banktown” is strictly business – a streak of playfulness and creativity cuts through its suit-and-tie demeanor, giving it a casual yet cosmopolitan energy.
The city’s distinct mix of friendly neighborhoods, greenways and urban meeting spaces attracts newcomers year after year, who come looking for something special and leave pleasantly surprised with all there’s to see and do. From food to art to outdoor recreation, here are 15 ways to find yourself in Charlotte.
Feel a need for speed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway
Even if the words “drafting” and “drag” aren’t part of your daily vernacular, one visit to the Charlotte Motor Speedway and you’ll be talking like the experts. Races are a frenzy of noise, heat and dizzying speeds you can feel thundering in your chest.
Stay overnight – tent camping and RV sites with full hookups offer something unique – or better yet, take your own laps at 100mph with the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Pair that with a visit to the NASCAR Museum, and consider your education on stock-car racing complete.
Battle the rapids at the US National Whitewater Center
Whitewater kayaking and rafting are the focus at this massive complex, but the recreational activities don’t stop there. This 1300-acre playground is family- and pet-friendly, and a huge feather in Charlotte’s ecotourism cap. Whether you’re after frothy Class IV rapids, hiking trails, climbing walls or ropes courses, you can book a single activity or try them all. Special events, such as Green River Revival in March, are particularly fun – the water gets dyed green for St Patrick’s Day festivities!
Catch a show at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Just steps from the Levine Center, also on Tryon St, you’ll find another cultural arts powerhouse. Split between three venues – the Belk Theatre, Booth Playhouse and Stage Door – the Blumenthal runs the gamut of dance, comedy, drama and music. Artists and performers from across the globe convene here, so it’s well worth making an “Uptown evening” of it with dinner and a show.
Tour the Levine Center For the Arts
There’s so much art happening here that you’ll need a week for the Levine Center alone. The sprawling campus comprises the Mint Museum Uptown, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Harvey B Gantt Center, and it’s overflowing with eye – and ear – candy in the realms of film, sculpture, music and history. If you’ve got the time, the best deal is a $20 all-access ticket that’s good for two days.
Hop aboard the Charlotte Rail Trail
City leaders have taken big strides toward making Charlotte more pedestrian-friendly, and the Rail Trail is a perfect example. After the route for the local light-rail system was developed, this multi-use trail was created, both to maximize the areas alongside it and to connect to other public-use paths.
Just shy of 4 miles long, it features lively stretches abuzz with murals, outdoor cafes and street buskers. For a limited time each year, night owls can also enjoy the annual after-dark festival, I Heart Rail Trail: Lights – in 2022, from March 4 to 20.
Take in a sporting event
With five major- and minor-league teams – football, basketball, hockey, soccer and baseball – calling the Queen City home, Charlotte’s professional-sports scene is a big deal, and venues like the Bank of America Stadium and Spectrum Center draw thousands of fans each season. In addition to regularly scheduled games, there are special family nights and themed events, so be sure to check each team’s website for details.
Bring the kiddies to ImaginOn
If you’re in town with kids in tow, this is a stop that will score major brownie points with the little ones. Creatively speaking, ImaginOn is a supercharged space brimming with books, theatrics and imagination – between the stacks and the stage, it’s a constant source of online activities, bilingual programs and live performances for every age.
Sample some Carolina BBQ
The dining scene in Charlotte is all-encompassing when it comes to international cuisine, but sometimes it’s nice to keep things close to home – and in the Carolinas, that means chowing down on barbecue with all the fixins.
If you’re new to the world of smoked meats, don’t overthink it: as long as you smell hickory wood burning, the sauce is vinegar-based and mac ‘n’ cheese is on the menu, you’re off to a good start. The beef brisket at Sweet Lew’s in Belmont or any of the “nooner specials” at McKoy’s won’t steer you wrong.
Go on an old-school date at the Badin Road Drive-In Theater
For a romantic night out, skip dinner and drinks, and take in a double-feature at the Badin Road Drive-In Theater instead. Though it’s technically outside of Charlotte, in the quiet town of Albemarle, it’s worth the hour-long drive.
Movies are shown on two screens on a seasonal basis, and adult tickets cost $7. And there’s a snack bar, so a popcorn and soda go without saying. Mostly under the radar, even for many Charlotte residents, it’s a memorable way to spend an evening under the stars.
Raise a glass at a Charlotte brewery
Asheville still reigns supreme when it comes to the number of breweries per capita, but Charlotte isn’t far behind – it has more than two dozen spread across town, so it’s easy to get your hands on all manner of locally crafted beers.
Create your own self-guided tour by visiting the likes of Olde Mecklenburg, Sycamore or Triple C Brewing. There’s also a handful of distilleries, such as Great Wagon Road and Doc Porters, for whiskey, gin and vodka enthusiasts.
Get inspired at the Light Factory Photo Arts Center
Located on Central Ave in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, this beloved institution has been promoting the visual arts in Charlotte for more than 50 years, from emerging local talent to nationally recognized photographers like Sally Mann and Bruce Davidson. The Light Factory offers photo walks, gallery exhibitions and “salon” talks; catch a photography show, then hit up the nearby establishments for a bite to eat.
Enjoy the outdoors at one of Charlotte’s parks
The bevy of green spaces scattered around Charlotte serve as an excellent reminder that the best things in life are free – rain or shine, these parks are meant to be enjoyed by visitors of all ages. Freedom Park’s playgrounds and bike paths are just a small portion of its 100 acres.
At Veterans Memorial Park, the splash pad and shady trees are especially welcoming in the summer months, and once spring is in full swing, the University of North Carolina’s Botanical Garden and the McGill Rose Garden provide nice floral backdrops for a picnic.
Go bowling at Pins Mechanical Company
If a night of healthy competition, DJ-fueled dancing and kitschy Instagram photos is what you’re after, this is the place. Located in the South End neighborhood, this trendy purveyor of games for grownups has spots in several other major cities as well.
Try your hand at bowling, or sip on Pinball Wizards and Kenny Gs while you ping-pong your way to legendary status. It’s a guaranteed good time – and family friendly until 8pm, when it turns 21 and over.
Spend an afternoon at Camp North End
This funky, gorgeously repurposed, 70-acre shopping and dining destination is F-U-N, and no two visits are alike. You could easily while away an entire afternoon here, sending your senses into overdrive – in a good way.
Sample goat cheese at the farmers market, scope out local art, nosh on pork belly buns at Saru by Bow Ramen or peruse the classics at That’s Novel Books. Once the sun goes down and Charlotte’s skyline glitters in the distance, things turn even more festive.