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Situated between the Atlantic and the Appalachian Mountains in the rolling hills of the Piedmont plateau, Charlotte, North Carolina, is a city of surprises. For starters, downtown is considered “Uptown,” and the city is the site of the nation’s first gold discovery, so Charlotte has proudly become an international capital of finance and banking.
Look past the high-rise office towers, though, and you’ll find vibrant yet laid-back neighborhoods, great culinary and cultural offerings, and unparalleled recreational activities. Here’s what to explore on your next visit to Queen City (named after Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III).
Where to Stay
Unlike some “time capsule” cities in the U.S. like Boston, which are home to numerous Colonial-style buildings, relatively little of Charlotte’s historic architecture remains. Several properties, though, are exceptions. The 10-story Dunhill Hotel on Tryon Street opened in 1929 as Mayfair Manor, offering both hotel rooms and apartments. Now a 60-room boutique beauty, the Dunhill is often high on the list of the country’s best small historic hotels — and it’s reportedly haunted, to boot. For another charming and centrally located stay sans spirits, The Ivey’s is a former 1920’s department store with updated amenities and a sophisticated ambiance.
If lavish Southern décor suits your style, Duke Mansion is a grand example of Colonial Revival architecture and genteel service. If you prefer to venture outside of the city for some peace and quiet, head 30 minutes out of Uptown and climb into this cozy treehouse — complete with a hot tub, fire pit, and friendly goats that roam the surrounding farm.
Art and Culture
After the Civil War, Charlotte eagerly embraced the concept of the “New South,” transforming an area best-known for agriculture into a powerhouse of textile manufacturing with fabric mills churning cloth from cotton grown in the region. This industrial pivot, in addition to the Civil Rights Movement and other elements of Charlotte’s rich history, are chronicled at the city’s fine collection of museums. The Levine Museum of the New South shows the intersection of past, present, and future, while the Hezekiah Alexander House takes visitors into a 1774 homestead — the county’s oldest structure.
Craft and contemporary art shine at Uptown’s Mint Museum, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture showcases the best in dance, film, painting, and photography. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art houses master works by Picasso, Miró, Calder, Degas, and more in a stunning postmodern building. Bluegrass lovers will want to drop in to the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame to learn more about the scene that spawned performers like the Avett Brothers, Charlie Daniels, and Shirley Caesar.
Where to Eat
The Queen City’s culinary scene is expanding and diversifying all the time, grabbing some of the spotlight from more tourist-driven destinations like Charleston, Savannah, and Asheville. Get your fill of tried-and-true Southern classics like fried chicken and hickory-charred barbecue at Midwood Smokehouse — don’t skip the pimiento cheese fries — but be sure to try more than just regional specialties. Slip inside the cozy Craftsman-style bungalow that houses the Fig Tree for eclectic and innovative offerings, such as gorgonzola escargot and chorizo-kissed octopus.
In a historic mill, Optimist Hall is where chefs finetune authentic Italian, American, Asian, Mexican, and Indian street fare — serving burgers, bao buns, Belgian beer, and more. And at modern juke joint Leah and Louise, James Beard-nominated Chef Greg Collier puts a fresh spin on traditional ingredients, offering dishes like paw paw custard and collard green mole. Charlotte’s craft beer scene is attracting buzz, too. Check out these 15 hot breweries tapping cold ones across the city.
Speaking of buzz — how about those Hornets? Owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan, Charlotte’s NBA franchise honors the angry insects. Late in the Revolutionary War, British General Lord Cornwallis and his army got badly stung in several battles, leading him to describe the city as “a hornet’s nest of rebellion.” Since then, the feisty flying menace has become a symbol of Charlotte.
Basketball is far from the only game in town: Charlotte is the home of NASCAR — the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing — and visitors can watch a race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, drive an actual stock car around the track at the NASCAR Racing Experience, or learn all about the history of the sport at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
If you prefer rivers instead of asphalt, head to the U.S. National Whitewater Center for all sorts of adventure including ziplining, yoga, rock-climbing, biking, and, of course, whitewater rafting. For a great view of the great outdoors, take a drive out to the sheer cliffs of Crowders Mountain State Park, where you can hike, bike, boulder, canoe, and fish. For more fun on the water, rent a paddleboard, kayak, or a party-friendly pontoon at nearby Lake Norman (the state’s largest reservoir).
For a street-level view of Charlotte’s vibrant neighborhoods, download a map or podcast and check out some colorful street art and murals on a self-guided tour through Uptown. Take a blanket and a picnic basket, swing on the playgrounds, and feed the ducks at the 98-acre Freedom Park. Stroll through Camp North End, soaking up vibes at this car factory/military depot turned public space offering art, music, food, and hammocks.
Serious shoppers will appreciate the abundance of offerings Charlotte has to offer. There are malls, of course, but hunt for more interesting finds at independent boutiques in neighborhoods like South End, NoDa, Myers Park, and Dilworth. North Carolina is also known for its furniture industry. If your nest needs feathering you’ll find plenty of home décor at Hickory Furniture Mart, with more than 1,000 furniture lines in galleries, showrooms, and outlets.
Late Night Fun
Sunset doesn’t stop Charlotte from having a good time, and the city has nightlife to suit practically any taste. Catch a big national act at Bojangles Coliseum or at the Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre (which has great skyline views). Splash it up in the pool at Craft City Social Club, or channel sultry Buenos Aires while sipping a cocktail at the Argentinian-inspired rooftop of Búho Bar.