I moved to Charlotte when I was 6 and called it home for 12 years. For the longest time, there wasn’t much to it… not that I knew about anyway. I played soccer on probably every soccer field in Mecklenburg County, went to malls and movies with friends on the weekends, and spent countless summer Saturdays and Fourth of July holidays with family and friends on Lake Norman. That was all of Charlotte to me.
It wasn’t until I was a senior in college and the years after that I looked at the city as if I was a traveler. Not because I didn’t think of it as home anymore, but because I wanted to see what else there was to it. Through a haunted night tour of Uptown–not downtown–and plenty of exploration of areas away from those where I grew up, I realized there’s a lot to the area and its history that both visitors and locals don’t know about.
Founded in 1755 by settlers of European descent, it was named after Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, hence the Queen City nickname. Twenty years later, local leaders signed Mecklenburg’s declaration of independence, one of the first acts of its kind that later led to the Declaration with a capital D. During the Revolution, residents themselves drove General Cornwallis out of the city, prompting him to call it a “hornets nest of rebellion” and unknowingly giving it a second nickname Charlotteans would be proud of to this day.
Following the Revolution, Charlotte became the location of the first gold rush in 1802 and remained the leading producer of gold until much bigger veins of gold were discovered out west, but it didn’t experience significant growth until after the Civil War with the rise of cotton production and railways. After WWI, unique and vibrant neighborhoods outward from its historic center at Trade and Tryon Streets, formerly major Native American trading routes and the only two roads in the city, as soldiers and manufacturers settled there.
Today, Charlotte is known mostly as the second banking capital of the US after New York, but is also recognized as the home of NASCAR and auto racing, a rising state capitol for craft beer, and a great place to experience North Carolina’s food specialty: barbecue. Charlotte is a new travel destination in its own right, but it’s also situated in the middle of the state with easy access to the Blue Ridge Mountains, many state and national parks, the Outer Banks, Wilmington, and nearby major cities, like Raleigh and Atlanta.
No matter what you’re in Charlotte for, our guide is here to help you travel well while you’re here.
Getting To, From and Around
CLT is the sixth busiest airport in the world, and as much as local flyers complain about the “nightmare” it is to get in and out, I bet most would find that statistic surprising. Charlotte Douglas is busy, of course, as a US Airways hub, connector to destinations around the world and provider of 140 direct flight destinations. Add to that its major overhaul currently underway, and it can seem a bit chaotic. But in our experience it’s really not all that difficult to get around, and once you’re in the terminals, there are plenty of great restaurants, cafes and shops to enjoy. What we love most about CLT though is its incredibly friendly staff. While most airports we’ve been to seem to collect all the grouchiest local residents they can find to staff their desks and TSA checkpoints, Charlotte is the opposite. From the moment you park your car and get on to a shuttle bus or get dropped off at curbside baggage check, everyone is outwardly kind, friendly and genuinely helpful.
Travelers can get to and from Charlotte via 35 different routes that extend to nearly every corner of the US and many parts of Canada. The Station Building stop at 1914 North Tryon Street has easy access to most areas of the city via taxis, buses and rental cars.
Renting a car is by far the easiest way to get around everywhere you need to go in Charlotte. All the major national chains can be found at the airport, train station and across the county, and parking is generally free or cheap and easy to find nearly everywhere you might want to go.
The historic center of Charlotte can be found at the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets, once the only two roads in town and served as major Native American trade routes. On each corner of the intersection is a statue: Transportation, Commerce, and Industry, representing the drivers behind Charlotte becoming a commercial center (it’s now the second banking capital of the US behind NYC), and those three statues are facing the fourth–Future. Around intersection are great bars, shops and restaurants and a large outdoor pavilion making up Independence Square. Explore further out from there to find more restaurants, plazas, museums, the Epicentre, Discovery Place, Bank of America Stadium, BB&T Ballpark and more all within walking distance. Some of our favorite spots:
TIP: Get a unique Uptown experience with a walking ghost tour or haunted bike pub crawl!
Mine for Gold
After local 12-year-old Conrad Reed found a 12 pound rock later determined to be almost pure gold, Charlotte became the location of the first gold rush in 1802 and remained the leading producer of gold until much bigger veins of gold were discovered out west. Reed Gold Mine operated until 1912 and is now a historical site in Midland, NC, a suburb of Charlotte, and the former Charlotte Mint which produced gold coins is now the Mint Museum of Art, the first fine art museum in NC.
Hit the Water
Lake Norman and its smaller counterpart, Lake Wylie, are popular summer go-tos for locals. They’re ideal for watersports like tubing, waterskiing, wake boarding and more, and their quieter branches are seeing a big increase in stand-up paddle boarding. If you’re not into boating or boarding, plenty of restaurants, parks and marinas around both offer stunning lake views and small beaches to enjoy.
Visit the US National Whitewater Center
If flat open water isn’t enough for you, the US National Whitewater Center has class II, III and IV rapids that may be more your speed where you can enjoy whitewater kayaking, rafting and SUP. Visitors can also enjoy flatwater SUP or no water at all! The USNWC has mountain biking trails, a high ropes canopy tour, climbing and ziplines for land dwellers, most of which are open year-round, along with festivals, Fourth of July fireworks and other big events.
Visit Freedom Park
For a more low key outdoor experience, Freedom Park is for you. It’s a classic urban oasis park in the historic Dilworth and Myers Park neighborhoods with playgrounds, athletic courts and fields, paved walking trails, a 7-acre pond with an island hosting a performance pavilion, nature learning center and even an old steam engine.
Get an Adrenaline Rush at Carowinds
During its open season, Carowinds boasts a variety of rides and attractions from the totally tame to the Fury 325, a 95 MPH ride inspired by the Charlotte hornet. It also has its own waterpark, Boomerang Bay, but my favorite time to visit the park isn’t in the summer, it’s October. For the entire month, the park turns into SCarowinds, a haunted amusement park with haunted houses, crazy characters and extra scary thrill rides.
Hike the Parks
Charlotte has a ton of parks, greenways and other natural areas in and around the city, but our favorites are the larger parks by lakes, which tend to have slightly more challenging terrain, more wildlife and better views.
Walk the Gardens
Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden is an all-season garden in Belmont, a town just west of Charlotte. Starting from the visitor pavilion, paved paths loop and wind through exquisitely maintained groves, gardens and green spaces, making it a prime spot for learning, strolling and relaxing on a bench or picnic blanket. Our favorite spot, however, is the orchid conservatory which transports you to a tiny, colorful paradise.
Feel the Need for Speed
Charlotte is undoubtedly the racing capital of the US. As home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the Coca-Cola 600 and Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Concord Mills race track inspired mall, zMAX Dragway, and 90% of racing teams, plus the nearby Race City USA (Mooresville) and the North Wilkesboro Speedway (home to NASCAR’s first races), it’s impossible to avoid the racing culture in the Charlotte area.
Eat & Drink Well
If there’s one thing NC does best, it’s barbecue. You absolutely cannot pass through any part of this state without trying some, and here you’ll find a range of barbecue from the old-school diner style to the upscale and experimental. You can’t go wrong pretty much anywhere that sells barbecue, but here are some good places to start–and don’t forget slaw, sweet potato fries and a cold Cheerwine, Sun-Drop or sweet tea, additional NC specialties and essential barbecue pairings.
- RO’s Bar-B-Cue (Gastonia, NC)
- Boone’s Bar-B-Que Food Truck
- Midwood Smokehouse
- Heist Brewery – Tapas style with new-age bbq options, like the bbq eggplant (vegetarian friendly!) or the duck flatbread with sarsaparilla root beer bbq sauce
- Carolina Pit BBQ (Charlotte Douglas International Airport) – perfect if all you’ve got in Charlotte is a layover
TIP: If you’re around in October, visit the Q-City BBQ and Brews Festival, a championship of Charlotte’s best barbecue.
Many believe Charlotte is on track to beat out Asheville as the craft beer and microbrewery hotspot for North Carolina. With everything from The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery’s old-school German-style brews to the NoDa’s Hop Drop ‘n Roll, beer lovers will find that Charlotte has plenty to check out.
- The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery – Great German-style food, too!
- NoDa Brewing Company – Hop Drop n’ Roll won #1 IPA in the world at the World Beer Cup
- Heist Brewery
- Triple C Brewing Company – This brewpub is dog friendly!
- Birdsong Brewery
- Ass Clown Brewing Company (Cornelius)
- The Unknown Brewing Co.
- Sugar Creek Brewing
TIP: Visit Charlotte Beerfest for some of these and many others all in one place in September.
Like many cities, Charlotte has enjoyed a growing food truck culture, and there’s a great mix to sample from all across the area:
TIP: Catch many of them in one place every other Friday night in historic South End for their Food Truck Fridays.
Great restaurants abound in Charlotte, and many are located in charming and walkable neighborhoods, making them some of our favorite. Taking a stroll before or after dinner not only gives you a more intimate view of the city’s varied and beautiful neighborhoods, but it also burns some extra calories so you can enjoy dinner just a little more. What could be better?
- 131 Main
- Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar – Bad Daddy’s has a location at the airport, too, in case you’re only in Charlotte for a layover
- Toast Cafe
- Mama Ricotta’s
Historic South End
- Pike’s Old Fashioned Soda Shop
- Nan and Byron’s
- Tupelo Honey
- Phat Burrito – Pet friendly patio!
- Price’s Chicken Coop
North Davidson (AKA NoDa)
TIP: Many of the breweries listed above are found in these neighborhoods, so you can easily create your own brewery and restaurant crawl tour.
On the Wild Side
Charlotte is the largest US city without its own zoo, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in the animal department. With several educational centers, ranches and animal sanctuaries in and around the city, there is plenty to explore (and support!) Note: The locations outside of Charlotte proper are an easy half-day outing.
- Carolina Raptor Center and Historic Latta Plantation (Huntersville, NC)
- Lazy 5 Ranch (Mooresville, NC)
- Tiger World (Rockwell, NC)
- SEA LIFE Aquarium (Concord, NC)
- Discovery Place
- North Carolina Zoo (Asheboro, NC)
If you’re in Charlotte for an extended period of time and want to explore more of what North Carolina and the Southeast have to offer, several areas are a day or weekend trip away:
- Asheville, NC
- Triangle Area – Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill
- Wilmington, NC
- Beaufort, NC
- Charleston, SC
- Savannah, GA