All aboard: Why Charlotte should be your next stop
When planning a getaway, sometimes the logistics of getting there and getting around takes away some of the excitement about exploring a city. Not so with Charlotte, an easy and inviting antidote in North Carolina’s Piedmont region.
Chances are, there is a nonstop flight to Charlotte from your local airport. While the city itself is rather large, if you stick to the LYNX light rail system (which locals call the Blue Line), you'll cover a lot of ground. Plus, you'll travel sustainably and save money (a one-day unlimited ride ticket costs $6.60). You will need a car if your trip also includes the mountain ranges to the west and the white sand beaches on North Carolina’s coast, but while you're in Charlotte, the car can stay parked at the hotel.
So hop on the Blue Line, which covers approximately 19 miles and takes about 45 minutes to run from one end (south Charlotte) to the other (UNC Charlotte). It's a great way to discover all that Charlotte has to offer. Hint: There’s a lot, from craft breweries and gourmet meals to unique attractions and shops.
Here are some of our favorite stops and nearby offerings on this 26-station system.
Make your base here…
Brooklyn Village & 3rd Street Station
Many of the big chain hotels are located near these two Uptown Charlotte stops (which are about an 8-minute walk from each other), so drop your bags off and start exploring some of Charlotte’s cultural attractions. Pro tip: If you have an older map of the rail system, Stonewall Station was renamed Brooklyn Village in mid-2022.
Late last year, the city opened its first museum in a decade. The Museum of Illusions offers a mesmerizing array of exhibits, from perspective-changing rooms and optical illusions to plain old mind trickery. Take a walk in an upside-down world, grow and shrink your body, swap noses with your friends and even serve your head on a platter at this mind-bending place.
Celebrate NASCAR’s 75th anniversary with a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s full of classic and present-day cars on display as well as interactive exhibits and realistic iRacing simulators. In honor of this diamond anniversary, the museum’s signature exhibit, “Glory Road,” is featuring 19 cars for the first time such as Robert Huffman’s 2003 Toyota Celica, Griffin Motors 1950 Oldsmobile and Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
The 5-story Mint Museum Uptown houses a craft and design collection as well as American, contemporary and European art. In addition to the gallery, there is also a 240-seat auditorium and art studios where guests are encouraged to drop by for some creative fun. The Mint is part of the Levine Center for the Arts, a campus that includes the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Named for Charlotte’s first African-American mayor, this museum preserves African-American art, culture and history. Current exhibits include “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.” (through March 12) and “Visions: A Study of Form” (through May 21).
Head north to…
In between Uptown and NoDa (more on that shortly) is the Optimist Park neighborhood, full of restaurants, bars and parks, which create the perfect environment for an afternoon stroll (or pub crawl). Optimist Hall is the kind of place where you can easily lose a few hours of your day. It’s the largest food hall in the city, featuring diverse offerings like Botiwalla Indian Street Grill; Enat, an Ethiopian restaurant; Bao and Broth ramen and bun shop; and Cuban-inspired Suárez Bakery & Barra.
In addition to sampling different cuisines, you can walk around to the various specialty shops and pick up a thing or two (for yourself as a souvenir, natch). Satiate your sweet tooth after your meal with a stop at Collier Candy Company. Archer Paper Goods has everything for the stationery lover in your life, while Paradiso Plant Shop has accessories and home goods for plant parents.
Thanks to the rail system, nobody in your party has to be the designated driver, which means, well, everyone can party. Stop by The Spindle Bar and while away the afternoon testing out local beers or fruit-flavored cocktails like “Go for Gingham” (gin, pomegranate, orange and sparkling water) or Airmail (dark rum, spiced honey, lemon and pineapple cider). Drop by Fonta Flora for a pint or two, (or cans/bottles, which you can also bring back to the hotel).
Be sure to include Cordelia Park in your plans for one of the best views of the Charlotte skyline. This 20-acre city park also has a community garden, a playground, a swimming pool and plenty of open space to stretch your legs or relax.
...or 36th-Street Station
Known as the art district, the NoDa neighborhood — short for its main street, North Davidson — offers trendy, fun restaurants, bars and live music among a backdrop of brightly painted murals.
Step into the Parisian-inspired Amelie’s French Bakery & Café, a spacious joint where framed mirrors line the walls, the chalkboard menus are inside antique frames, quirky light fixtures include a trapeze artist holding a chandelier and table surrounds include a brightly lit tree as well as the Eiffel Tower. Try the salted caramel brownies.
At Boudreaux’s Louisiana Kitchen, Cajun, Southern and Low-Country meals are made from scratch. Start with some gator bites or crab and corn hush puppies, then go for a main like etouffee, bourbon fried chicken or jambalaya.
If you’re missing your feline companion, head to the Mac Tabby Café, Charlotte’s first cat café (and second in North Carolina). It’s a divided space, so it’s half cat lounge, where you can spend up to an hour playing with 12 adoptable kitties, and half coffeehouse, where you can have a fresh, local bakery item with coffee, tea or alcohol. Reservations guarantee you a 1-hour spot; walk-ins are only 30 minutes.
The area is chock full of craft breweries, like The Chamber by Wooden Robot Brewery, a wood-aging facility that offers a rotating selection of draft and packaged beer, with a focus on farmhouse ales and sours. (Bonus: Wednesdays-Saturdays often features a food truck.) At Protagonist, beer drinkers can taste from 20 taps or from the “Fridge of Curiosities,” both of which feature their own ales and a curated collection of global craft brews. Growlers Pourhouse offers a cozy pub atmosphere and 14 taps with American craft beers.
Stroll over to The Evening Muse, an intimate venue (seats 120) that caters to independent music acts and performing artists. Here’s where you might spot an up-and-coming musician, artist, comedian or poet. Built as a movie theater in 1945, Neighborhood Theatre was converted into a live performance venue in 1997, hosting local and national acts.
Head south to...
Craft breweries abound in Charlotte, but in LoSo, or Lower South End, you can also find more interactive entertainment. In this part of town, you’ll find Weathered Souls Brewery, The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and Sugar Creek Brewing Co., but make a beeline for Queen Park Social. Here you can enjoy a craft beer or cocktail while playing free games like cornhole, darts, cards, life-size Jenga and Connect Four, foosball and ping pong. For a small fee, you can also go bowling or play skeeball, air hockey, shuffleboard or pool.
Perhaps you might need some liquid courage at Exit Strategy South, an escape room that challenges visitors to unlock the mystery (and door). Choose from scenarios that include space, medieval times, bank robbery, murder, and the supernatural.
For a little shopping, head to Sleepy Poet Antique Mall, where various dealers sell collectables and vintage items like old records, retro furniture, cowboy boots and vintage outfits and jewelry.
...or New Bern Station...
Charlotte's South End has a ton of nightlife, but you need to fuel up for it first. This is the station that will help you do it, whether you’re looking for casual or something a bit finer.
Suffolk Punch Brewing has a scratch-made menu that constantly evolves, but one thing that stays the same is its use of locally and sustainably sourced seasonal ingredients. At The Waterman Fish Bar, seafood takes the stage, with fan favorites including their oysters on the half shell, lobster roll and blackened platter.
Paying homage to being on the light rail and being in South End – home to Charlotte’s first railroad line in the mid-1800s – Link & Pin has a dress code for its upscale dining and cocktail experience. (Think: collared shirts and sports coats.) Entrees include crispy whole flounder or branzino European sea bass, tomahawk bone-in ribeye and lobster tail.
Duck into the Backstage Lounge, a speakeasy, for a cocktail with a humorous name. Choose from drinks like “Awkward First Date” (George Dickel rye, apricot brandy, coconut, dates and amaretto) or “It’s a Situationship” (Plantation Dark, peach-lemon tincture, honey, grapefruit and charred pineapple).
...or East/West Blvd. & Bland Street
These two light rail stations are about a 30-minute ride from each other, but this area of Charlotte encompasses a lot of nightlife and brings you closer to your home base hotel as well.
You might head to Seoul Food Meat Company for the Korean fusion barbecue, but the real reason to linger at night is for one of the four different karaoke rooms. Throw back some soju and let the tunes warble out.
For some games, head to Slate Charlotte, a pool hall that also has skeeball and life-sized Connect Four. Slingshot Social Game Club offers arcade games, but you might find yourself creating a new competition: sampling the 48 different craft beers, ciders and wines you can pour from the beer wall.
If music is in order (and really, when is it not?), The Gin Mill delivers with live cover bands on Fridays and Saturdays. At Broken Promises, the dark, moody vibe is complemented by DJs playing deep house music Thursdays-Sundays.
Depending on the hour, you could still take the LYNX rail service home with your group. Weekday LYNX service operates until almost 2 a.m. and is available every few minutes. Weekend service operates until nearly 2 a.m. and is available every 30 minutes during late night hours.