By Jodi Helmer
When it comes to Southern cities, Charlotte, North Carolina has a lot to love. The city shines with award-winning restaurants and breweries, outdoor activities, and world class museums — and its rapid growth means that each visit to Charlotte brings a totally new experience.
A $1.2-billion extension to the light rail line in 2018 brought the city even more together, connecting the best neighborhoods in Charlotte to downtown and each other. This makes it easier than ever to explore the city that locals are proud to call home. Hop off at these stops to discover the hippest and hottest spots of Charlotte.
36th Street Station
This stop is the gateway to the North Davidson (NoDa) Arts District, where artists have turned blank walls into colorful canvases of public art. Taste the local color on a four-minute walk from the station to Haberdish, where Southern favorites, like fried chicken, sweet potato dumplings, and collard greens, fulfill the ideal. Get your sugar fix only a few steps away at the walk-up window of Reigning Doughnuts. Aim for Sunday, when the doughnut of the day comes with peanut butter icing with banana chips, and exclamations of “ah-ma-zing.”
NoDa is also home to two outstanding live music venues. The Neighborhood Theatre opened in 1945 for movies — and still shows them on occasion — but the venue is best known now for performing arts, especially an impressive lineup of indie acts. Much smaller in size but perhaps mightier in reputation is The Evening Muse, where jazz, folk, and reggae acts take the stage nearly every night of the week.
For a different kind of entertainment, reserve a session in one of the cat rooms at the Mac Tabby Cat Café. You can snuggle adoptable cats while grabbing a coffee — or even arching into cat pose at Monday Night Cat Yoga — and watching the frisky felines try to charm their way into fur-ever homes.
7th Street Station
This stop in the heart of downtown Charlotte (which locals call Uptown) provides access to a diverse collection of museums. One of the best is the Levine Museum of the New South, where exhibits highlight the people and places that have shaped the South since the Civil War. The award-winning permanent installation, Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, has been hailed as the most comprehensive interpretation of post-Civil War Southern history in the nation.
Make an afternoon or evening of the neighborhood, especially if the sun is shining, at BB&T Ballpark, where the Charlotte Knights, a Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, cover all the bases of a perfect day at the ballpark — hot dog included, albeit featuring brisket and orange soda slaw.
Local chefs might have more game than the baseball team. Uptown is chock full of outstanding restaurants. Newcomers La Belle Helene, an upscale French brasserie, and farm-to-table favorite Haymaker are favorites. End the evening at Fahrenheit, a see-and-be-seen rooftop lounge that boasts outstanding views of Charlotte. Order a craft cocktail and soak up the scene.
Some of the best hotels are located near the 7th Street Station. Find personality and boutique design at the upscale Southern-flavored Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel and The Ivey’s Hotel, which transformed the former J.B. Ivey & Company department store into a blend of Parisian and Southern style, with a bit of edge.
For fans of car racing, there’s perhaps no better place in Charlotte — if not the world — to make an extended pit stop than at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Inside, find the Hall of Honor — a shrine to NASCAR legends over the years and the cars that loved them. The 150,000 square-foot complex also hosts a High Octane Theater which tells the story of NASCAR on a 64-foot projection screen with surround sound. Get a taste of speed by racing up to 15 competitors inside eight stock car replicas outfitted with iRacing simulators, with all the action broadcast on a 50-foot video screen overhead.
East/West Boulevard Station
This station accesses two popular Charlotte neighborhoods — Dilworth and South End. Explore both on a walk along the 4.5-mile Charlotte Rail Trail, a new urban trail that runs along the light rail line. Look for the magic carpet murals painted on sections of the paved path and snap your selfie in front of the Confetti Hearts Wall, an Instagram sensation.
Get a good taste of Charlotte’s culinary scene in South End. Sign up for a FEAST Food Tour and visit six neighborhood restaurants, breweries, and wine bars, while learning about the history and growth of the neighborhood between bites and burps.
To burn off the calories, take advantage of the local bike sharing program. Charlotte B-Cycle has a docking station adjacent to the light rail station. From there, pedal through the Dilworth neighborhood, where tree-lined streets lead to historic homes. On the edge of the neighborhood sits 98-acre Freedom Park, Charlotte’s version of Central Park. Hit the many athletic fields or simply spread a blanket and snuggle with nature.
Charlotte is home to 47 breweries (and counting) and some of the best are near the light rail line, making the trains your designated driver. A pint’s throw from the station, pull up to the bar at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, Charlotte’s oldest local brewery and ignitor of the now flourishing craft beer scene. Take a free weekend tour and then relax in the outdoor beer garden, shaded by oak, pecan, and hickory trees; while sipping pilsner, porter, and hefeweizen. Sugar Creek Brewing Company, dedicated to crafting Belgian-inspired ales, is just around the corner.
For something harder, head to nearby Great Wagon Road Distilling Company, where unfiltered single malt whiskey and vodka is made from mash produced at neighboring Mecklenburg. Its onsite bar, The Broken Spoke, spins the product into craft cocktails. Next door to the distillery is GoodRoad CiderWorks, home to 20 varieties of craft cider, a taproom, and outdoor patio.
On Saturdays, local luminary and cooking school instructor Chef Alyssa Wilen serves brunch in her new classroom and dining room space, Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen. Learn from the master herself in regular classes, or simply reap the benefits at the Saturday morning brunch. The challenge will be picking between pancake tacos, stuffed French toast, and hash bowls like “Morning Buzz” — coffee-rubbed short ribs, grits, and a poached egg.
Off the Rails
Adrenalin pumps, muscles flex, and feet spring at this 1,300-acre outdoor playground 13 miles west of Charlotte. Indeed, at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, there’s far more than just rafting, kayaking, and paddling on the artificial channels, rivers, and pools — including the world’s largest man-made whitewater river. Zip-line and rope courses soar above, and 40 miles of groomed trails twist through the preserved woodlands surrounding. Even dancing is on the schedule at the performance venue in the middle of the complex. Here, roots rock, Americana, bluegrass, folk, and funk bands groove it up Thursday to Saturday evenings.