Leave your preconceived notions of the South at home and spend three exciting days exploring the largest city in North Carolina, an American banking and financial center second only to New York City. Named for Queen Charlotte, the wife of England’s King George III, this is a booming, complex and friendly city that simultaneously builds skyscrapers while staying in touch with its roots.
Though there are 199 neighborhoods in Charlotte, visitors can focus on only a few – like Uptown, Dilworth and NoDa -- and still get a clear picture of the city and the New South. Home to NASCAR racing, a handful of plantations, and vinegar-based North Carolina barbecue, Charlotte also invites you to climb mountains, explore African-American heritage, discover art, wander gardens and wind down with a hand-crafted beer – as well as a side of locally famous fried pickles.
Day 1: Exploring Uptown
At the city’s center, this condensed, highly walkable urban area is where you’ll find most of Charlotte’s cultural attractions. There are a few options apiece for art lovers, history buffs, and travelers with kids.
Exploring Charlotte’s two main art museums could consume an entire day, or you could choose to spend only an hour or so in each. The largely American- and European-focused Mint Museum, named for its former status as a branch of the U.S. Mint, is the most popular, while the splashy, high-concept Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is the newest, open only since 2010. Nearby, the nuanced art exhibits at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture provide visual and emotional insight into the varied black communities of both Charlotte and the South as a whole.
If history is your passion, the Levine Museum of the New South will acquaint you with the past, present and future of this region. While it features rotating exhibits about the general evolution of the post-Civil War South, its permanent exhibit, Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, focuses specifically on the growth of Charlotte. If you want to pick up the pace even more, take a spin around the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which features vintage stock cars and a movie about the history of racing, shown in a state-of-the-art theater with surround sound.
Families with small children will appreciate the interactive science and technology exhibits at Discovery Place (which includes an IMAX Dome theater) and the story hours at the crayon-colorful ImaginOn, a library and theater complex for kids. To burn off some energy outdoors, be sure to visit the playground at Fourth Ward Park.
Two blocks east of the Convention Center, the EpiCentre Mall provides options for every meal of the day, as well as coffee, frozen yogurt and cocktails, along with a state-of-the-art movie theater (where you can have dinner at your seat), a bowling alley, and an open-air pavilion for live concerts.
If it’s an especially nice day, consider taking breakfast or lunch to go and enjoying it at one of the outdoor dining tables in Romare Bearden Park, which was named for a famous local artist and opened in August 2013.
2. Exploring Dilworth and NoDa
About 8 minutes southwest of Uptown, Dilworth is adjacent to Charlotte’s version of Central Park, the 98-acre Freedom Park. Within the park, you’ll find walking and biking trails, a 7-acre lake, a year-round demonstration garden, and the family-friendly Charlotte Nature Museum. The surrounding neighborhood of typical Craftsman houses and more lavish mansions is home to some great lunch options. Try the fried pickles at casual Lebowski’s Neighborhood Grill, or while away a couple of civilized hours on the graceful wraparound porch at 300 East.
Ten minutes northeast of Uptown, NoDa is short for North Davidson, the main artery of this funky, walkable arts district. Take an hour’s tour of the lavish Rosedale Plantation and its 8 acres of gardens, which date back to 1815, then explore neighborhood galleries like the arts and crafts collective at Area 15. Ease into the evening with a crawl along local breweries and pubs, including Growler’s Pourhouse.
Day 3: Day trips
To get your pulse racing, head 20 minutes west of Uptown to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, which offers 24 activities along the world’s largest manmade whitewater river, a series of forest trails and the adjacent Catawba River. Go rafting or kayaking, clamber along the rock-climbing course, or traverse a series of suspended rope bridges on a canopy tour. There’s an on-site café and pub with a big deck, in case you’d like to make an entire day of it here.
For a wine and nature lover’s adventure, head 30 minutes northeast of Uptown to Charlotte’s own Uwharrie Mountains Wine Trail. This 42-mile, four-winery meander is surrounded by hiking trails and ends at Stony Mountain, a picnic-friendly peak which overlooks the city. The oenological focus here is on vintages made with sweet Muscadine grapes, but you’ll find a variety of traditional red and white table wines, as well.
If taking time to smell the roses is more your speed, visit the David Stowe Botanical Garden, one of the finest gardens in the U.S. 45 minutes from Charlotte in the town of Belmont, this 380-acre garden sprawls along the banks of Lake Wylie and features a conservatory full of orchids. Picnics are encouraged, so consider picking up lunch from the nearby Catawba BBQ & Grill, popular for its Carolina-smoked and pulled-pork twists on East Coast specialties.