Charlotte, still known as one of the largest banking hubs in the country, is one of the fastest growing cities in the US. With a renewed focus on green, urban planning and a rock-solid cultural scene, the Queen City offers a diverse array of activities and venues to explore. Here are 25 must-visit attractions in Charlotte.
Even if you’ve never watched a NASCAR race, the NASCAR Hall of Fame strives to be a destination for racing and non-racing fans alike. Located right downtown, visitors will appreciate the high-tech displays. You’ll get to see behind-the-scenes information about the day in the life of race crews during race week, plus a display of more than a dozen actual race cars. Or, take in a race at the historic Charlotte Motor Speedway, as the track hosts many premier NASCAR events each year.
Part of the reason the Billy Graham Library ranks so highly on Charlotte’s list of attractions is because the religious icon grew up just a few miles down the street. Graham was born in 1918, and today this destination has become a pilgrimage for many to pay their respects. The Library is designed to reflect Graham’s journey from a humble farm boy to an international sensation and is set on 20 acres (8ha) of beautiful land. A highlight of the experience is walking the 1.5-hour Journey of Faith, a mix of photos and interactive stops.
Not many major cities can boast a world-class whitewater rafting complex just ten minutes away. There are also many other outdoor activities available to enjoy at this 1,300-acre (526ha) complex, so you can have a blast swinging between trees and biking across more than 30 trails. Of course, the highlight is taking to the water to experience Class II-IV rapids where US Olympic teams train. In addition to whitewater rafting, you can try out stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and deep-water solo climbing, where you climb with no ropes and rely on the water to cushion your fall.
Right off the bat, Uptown is unique because it’s technically the city’s downtown. This bustling city center offers excellent shopping and serves as the nation’s second-largest financial hub, with towering skyscrapers glinting in the sun. Explore the overhead mall which weaves through Uptown connected by skywalks, then stop for drinks at one of the many buzzing cocktail bars, enjoy the sun at one of the rooftop terraces and see some culture at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
Bakery, Pastry Shop, Pastries, Dessert, Fast Food, $$$
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Many people know that The Hunger Games series was filmed in Charlotte, but did you know you can eat like people from the Capitol of Panem? Just stop at Amélie’s French Bakery for tea cakes, éclairs or a small chocolate cake called a petit gâteau. As well as cakes, Amélie’s also serves desserts such as chocolate mousse and delicious pastries such as chocolate twice-baked croissants. Truly, no matter which dessert you’re craving, you can find it here.
Carowinds amusement park actually spans the cities of Charlotte and Fort Mill, covering nearly 400 acres (162ha). The price of admission includes access to the waterpark, Carolina Harbor, and the 13 thrilling roller coasters see around two million visitors each year. If you want to stay and play another day, there are multiple campgrounds and places to stay in Carowinds.
For a real piece of the city’s history, visit the Dilworth neighborhood, the first suburb served by the city’s streetcar. Now, the sprawling city – the 16th-largest in America – has a unique layout, as walkable neighborhoods continue to pop up around the downtown area. As streetcars have been operating here since 1891, it’s a place with a fascinating history. Keep your eyes peeled for the adorable historic bungalows, and make sure to stop into some of the boutiques and cafés that you’ll pass along your way.
Charlotte has a lot of goals when it comes to keeping its urban sprawl in check with the help of urban forests and parks like Freedom Park. At 98 acres (40ha), Freedom Park features a seven-acre (3ha) lake and several ballfields used by recreation leagues and weekend warriors regularly. With batting cages, tennis courts, soccer fields, two playgrounds, baseball fields, two volleyball courts and five outdoor shelters with grills, there’s plenty to keep you, your kids, friends and family entertained here.
This museum aims to be cutting-edge in both its interactive exhibits and through its events, such as the unique Science on the Rocks events geared toward adults with themed activities or experiments each month. There’s plenty here to entertain kids both big and small (liquid-nitrogen wine coolers, anyone?). A wealth of participatory exhibits, labs and even an aquarium make this a fantastically entertaining day out for all.
Market, Farm Shop, Farmers' Market, American, Street Food, $$$
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Charlotte has lots of farmers markets, but this unique indoor venue brings the energy of fresh produce stalls with the convenience of a location smack in the middle of Uptown. It celebrates the diverse regional food cultures of the Carolinas, helps support food artisans and, of course, sells incredible food.
This enormous lake sits just outside of the city and has long attracted NASCAR superstar residents to its 520 miles (837km) of pristine shoreline. Watersports take over the waves during the warm months, with fishing charters, brightly colored kayaks and boats of all sizes zipping atop the waves. Created between 1959 and 1964 as part of the construction of the Cowans Ford Dam, it’s the largest man-made body of freshwater in North Carolina – not that that matters when you’re enjoying splashing around on a hot day.
Charlotte has a number of specialty museums, and the Mint has the distinction of being North Carolina’s oldest. As a result, it has one of the largest art collections in the southeast, while the building itself is an architectural gem at 145,000 square feet (13,470sq. m.). With a range of temporary and permanent exhibitions, there’s much to see.
Another museum that should be on your radar, the Bechtler houses art from some of the world’s most renowned artists including Picasso, Warhol and Giacometti. You might just be lucky enough to find your new favorite painting hanging here, especially since many of the works have been held in private collections for generations and are often being viewed by the public for the first time. Like Mint, the building itself has architectural significance as a work by the great Swiss architect Mario Botta.
Considered one of the best restaurants in Charlotte, Good Food on Montford was a contender for James Beard’s best new restaurant award during its first year. Since then, it has earned many accolades and nominations for best chef. The wait can be long during peak times, since this dinner-only restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but it does utilize the Yelp Waitlist (NoWait) app. We recommend the catch of the day – no matter what it is, it will always be delicious.
Each Charlotte neighborhood has a personality worth getting to know, but for beer lovers, the hip South End neighborhood can’t be beaten. You’ll find a string of breweries and two cideries here, along with food trucks, cute shops and live music. You can easily walk between the various stops, so it’s a great option if no one’s keen to be designated driver.
Short for North Davidson, a visit to NoDa is a must if you’re keen to tap into the local art scene. Charlotte’s quirkiest neighborhood has colorful murals and buildings that make for a pleasant walk between stops at more breweries, tattoo shops and galleries. Gallery crawls are held bi-monthly, so you can get a taste of the different offerings from the many arts venues. Events are also held regularly, including film screenings, block parties and other community gatherings.
Charlotte has a music venue to fit every taste and atmosphere, and the NC Music Factory contains nearly all of them. From nightclubs to an outdoor amphitheater and dive bars, there’s something for everyone here. This complex houses 12 different music and comedy experiences, including the Fillmore, modeled on the iconic venue in San Francisco that has hosted some of the most famous bands in the world, including the Grateful Dead, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix.
For a bit of nature to balance out Charlotte’s towering skyscrapers, the beautiful Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden has a lake, more than a dozen amazing gardens and manicured paths that’ll have you feeling like you’re miles away from the city. A full calendar of fun events and the opportunity to soak up a bit of peace and quiet has long drawn city residents, and there’s even 100 acres (40ha) of gardens to explore, including a children’s garden, a conservatory of tropical plants and orchids and fountains.
Arguably the largest bird of prey treatment facility in the world, this center rehabilitates injured animals, with 36 birds on-site including eagles, hawks and owls. Nearly 400,000 visitors come through each year to walk the fascinating Raptor Trail, a 3/4-mile (1.2km) path that features over 30 birds of prey, including the peregrine falcon, vulture, magpie and barn owl.
Plane nerds, assemble. The overlook at Charlotte’s international airport is an underrated yet interesting place to check out. It’s the sixth-busiest airport in the world – great if you like to watch the non-stop takeoffs and landings – and plane spotters will delight in being able to see all the latest models and features.
If you’re in Charlotte in the fall, Lake Wylie should be at the top of your must-visit list. This area has stunning fall foliage, with the forest looking as if it has been painted red, gold and brown reflecting in the surface of the water. The lake is perfect for boating, paddleboarding, swimming and any other water-based activity you could name. A beautiful lakeshore, plenty of hiking paths and play areas for the kids make it a hit for everyone.
Located at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the aviation museum has been teaching residents of North Carolina about all-things plane for more than two decades. The centerpiece is the Airbus A320 used on US Airways Flight 1549, but there are plenty of other interesting attractions, too, as well as the themes of innovation, hope and heroism running throughout.
On a mission to engage a broad audience in the history of the South since the Civil War, the Levine Museum is well worth visiting if you’re in Charlotte. Exhibits here focus on life in the North Carolina Piedmont after the American Civil War. Founded in 1991, it has both permanent and temporary exhibits.
A funky food hall offering delicious fare of all kinds, the Optimist Food Hall is a great hangout. Previously called Highland Park Gingham Mill and Highland Park Mill #1, Optimist Hall was originally home to Charlotte’s largest textile mill. Now, it offers boutique stationery and cute pet products, as well as seemingly every kind of delicious food under the sun, from dumplings to gelato, hamburgers to grilled cheese.
Sometimes, no matter what the question, art is the answer – and perhaps nowhere is this more true than at Metalmorphosis. Created by Czech artist David Černý (he of the weird and wonderful sculptures dotted throughout Prague), its home is the Whitehall Technology Park in Charlotte. Consisting of 40 steel pieces, it’s a rotating, morphing masterpiece. The entire head, split into seven segments, rotates seemingly at random. Sometimes the sculpture looks like a head, sometimes like a huge amorphous blob of metal and sometimes like something else entirely.