Mention “North Carolina vacation” to most Richmonders, and we automatically think beaches of the Outer Banks or mountains of Asheville. But Charlotte? Hmmm. Not so much – right?
Yet, here’s the takeaway: If you haven’t been to the Queen City, you’re in for something special. Charlotte, North Carolina – once clearly the low-key little sister to some Southern Belle cities – is transforming into a full-on vibrant beauty in her own right. But first, why is she called the Queen City? Interestingly, the city’s nickname, the name of the city itself, and the name of the county it’s located in (Mecklenburg) all go back to the same source – Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany. (Fun fact: The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, can also be traced back to this queen.)
But let’s say you’re heading toward Charlotte – maybe you or your spouse have business in the city (it is the second largest banking hub after New York City), your sister lives on the outskirts, or you’re passing near Charlotte on your way to a final destination. You should grab the chance to explore this family-friendly city for a day or (easily) a week. You’ll quickly discover why Charlotte has blossomed from kind of snoozy to super-sensational!
Our tour begins in the Queen City’s chic – and booming – Uptown. This gorgeous, walkable slice of Charlotte is layered in fountains, rental bikes, kiosks, museums, restaurants, wine bars, coffee houses, bakeries, luxury hotels, and … you get the picture.
Want to wow the kids? Consider foregoing the walk and explore Charlotte in a quirky way. Charlotte’s Segway Tours (inside the Bank of America Plaza in the heart of Uptown) offers many experiences including a one-hour Fun Ride (perfect for short attention spans), the Taste and Glide tour, the Historic Uptown Neighborhood tour, and several more. Riders must be at least one hundred pounds, and an adult must pair up with those under eighteen. [charlottenctours.com/segwaytours]
First up, Discovery Place! This colorful science and technology center is a resounding “Yes!” for families. With a zillion interactive labs, a 3D theatre, and a beautifully stocked café with adorable cupcakes and meals for the pickiest of kids, you can spend all day at Discovery Place. My boys loved lying on a bed of nails, building a giant carbon nanotube, and riding an air chair. Kids – and adults – are encouraged to touch, build, and play with the many elements. Awesome for toddlers to seniors. [discoveryplace.org]
Plan to park in Uptown? (Good luck with that!) Kidding, but here’s one approach: If you’re spending the entire day in Uptown, leave your car in Discovery Place’s fabulous parking garage, and walk, or use Charlotte’s easy light-rail system to see the rest of the area. Parking is $15 for the day.
Five minutes from Discovery Place is ImaginOn. Let’s say a wondrous library and a professional kids’ theatre got married and had a baby. Their beautiful dream-child, and quite possibly the coolest “library” known to kid-kind, is ImaginOn. With two professional theatres and wildly creative educational programs, this library hybrid is for kids of all ages. My boys loved the sophisticated Teen Nest that’s filled with computers, Wi-Fi hot spots, graphic novels, comic books, and of course, books. Tired Mom dove into cushy seating with a stack of magazines. Library admission is free, but show prices vary so check the website for more information. [imaginon.org]
My kids have been over-the-moon about CARS, the movie, since it made its debut. (Never seen CARS? Rent it today.) My point: if the thought of touring the NASCAR Hall of Fame makes you stifle a yawn, go anyhow! Your little vehicle fans will be ecstatic to get up close to car-royalty – and you’ll snag great photos.
Before entering this impressive homage to NASCAR, you’ll enter a beautiful 275-seat theatre and be treated to a fascinating movie that details how NASCAR developed throughout the last decades to present day. No spoilers, but know this: The presentation was so well done, I wanted to see it a second time.
Once inside the museum, I marveled at the sophisticated design of “Glory Road,” where the exhibited cars are featured on a banked pseudo-road meant to look like they’re actually racing around a track.
Kids will love the hands-on displays that let them get behind the wheel in one of eight iRacing simulators. You’ll even find a group of computers that allow users to race cars around a track. Thrilling and unforgettable. One caveat: Visit on a low-crowd day or first thing in the morning. nascarhall.com
Kids also expect water on most vacations. Good news! You don’t have to leave Uptown Charlotte to cool off! On hot summer days, head for First Ward Park (301 East 7th Street) that sits across the street from ImaginOn. Kids chill in the interactive fountain, and play with a giant chess game and a huge Connect Four. Open from ten to eight daily in the summer. On South Tryon Street, you’ll find The Green. This triple-tiered emerald lawn features a literature theme, cool art, and plenty of restaurants. Kids can play under the three fish fountains that rain plenty of H20.
If sports are your thing, your family can have a ball in Charlotte. BB&T Ballpark sits like a jewel at the foot of Uptown’s skyscrapers. Home to the Charlotte Knights, a AAA minor league baseball team, the Knights play seventy-two games at home, and Sunday games mean kids get to run the bases. The park also has a Kids’ Zone with speed pitch and interactive games. Homer the Dragon – the Knight’s popular mascot – provides even more fun for families.
Other sports in Uptown include the Charlotte Hornets – the city’s NBA basketball team – playing in the Spectrum Center if you’re in town anytime from the end of October through April.
Football fans will want to check out the Bank of America Stadium that’s home to the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte’s NFL football team (a three-minute drive from the NASCAR Hall of Fame).
Also in Uptown, when you’re hungry, take a 4-minute walk from Discovery Place – on wide, beautiful sidewalks – to the 7th Street Public Market. This lively indoor venue offers many casual eating choices including pizza, crepes, coffee, breads, and baked treats.
If you park at the market, bring your ticket and proof of purchase from any Market business to Greeneman Farms or Local Loaf, and score free parking for the first ninety minutes. [7thstreetpublicmarket.com]
Just a short walk from the NASCAR Hall of Fame, is Amelie’s French Bakery & Café Uptown. This 24/7 bakery serves egg sandwiches, quiches, and pastries like bejeweled cream cheese, fruit Danishes, croissants, and sticky buns. Nosh the calories, sip the heavenly coffee, and wonder why we don’t have Amelie’s in RVA. (Yet!)
For more options in Uptown, you might head to The Epicentre (an easy walk from Spectrum Center), a multi-layered outdoor mall brimming in dining, shopping, entertainment, and more dining. Expect to find casual Mexican, steakhouses, and dessert bars. The Studio Movie Grill serves
a meal and a movie.
The Charlotte Douglas International Airport is about six-and-a-half miles west of Uptown, and that’s where you’ll find the Carolinas Aviation Museum. Established in 1992, the museum has a collection of more than fifty aircraft, an aviation library with over 9,000 volumes, and a very extensive photography collection.
In January 2011, the museum acquired the US Airways Airbus A320 landed by Captain Chesley Sullenberger (as US Airways Flight 1549) in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. This aircraft is about thirty-five years younger than any other commercial airliner on display in a museum. Do you remember the story? “Sully” Sullenberger landed the plane in the Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers and crew members, and propelling himself into the annals of history. Today, Sully’s Airbus is housed in the Carolinas Aviation Museum honoring a heroic man who spun countless hours of training into one shining moment when he dared to land on a river, versus heading for an airport tantalizingly close, but too far to reach (tests later confirmed).
See Sully’s plane and then let the kids climb into multiple aircraft, including a fighter jet and a commercial airplane. The friendly staff provide scavenger hunts for little and big kids with small prizes at the end. Plan for two hours in the museum. [carolinasaviation.org]
Inside the Perimeter
Just inside the perimeter surrounding Uptown is SouthPark, the area of Charlotte where you’ll find the ultra-posh SouthPark Mall. Fair warning: It might get tricky pulling the kids out of the The LEGO Store and the American Girl Store! For grown-ups, there’s Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Tiffany & Co., and Nordstrom, to name a few.
Shouldering the larger mall is Phillips Place, layered in fountains, iron lampposts, and flowers galore – it’s a beautiful backdrop for window shopping, just in case you’ve blown your vacation budget. This gorgeous mall features upscale shopping, upscale dining like P.F. Chang’s, a movie theatre, and the Hampton Inn & Suites.
Outside the Perimeter
Charlotte is wrapped in a perimeter with Uptown in the center. The following venues fall outside of the city, but are an easy drive and worth the trip for families.
My favorite spot in Charlotte? Hands down, it’s the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Perhaps it’s a response to those folks who only think of traditional beach and mountain vacations when they think of North Carolina. Rambling over 700 acres of land from the hem of the Catawba River, the center is about eleven miles from Uptown and delivers an unforgettable day of land and water activities.
The Center features whitewater rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, eco-trekking (a geocache activity using GPS), plus, regular hiking. The thrill seekers can choose between a variety of scary activities including riding a zip-line – 1,123 feet in length – traversing the water far below, falling from the Mega Jump (a controlled free fall from a 46-foot tower), an adventure course (twenty feet up in the trees), and a canopy tour (fourteen tree platforms linked by seven zip-lines and sky bridges – soaring sixty feet high). Appropriate for preschoolers to grandparents. [usnwc.org]
Located about fourteen miles southwest from Uptown (on the border of North and South Carolina) is Carowinds, a scream-machine amusement park that has rides for all ages. Visit Carowinds and you’ll swear you’ve been here before. Turns out, Carowinds is owned by the same company – Cedar Fair – that owns and operates King’s Dominion. However, there are enough differences between the two parks to make a visit a lot of fun.
If you haven’t been to King’s Dominion in years (gasp!), trust me, you need to get back there with the family. And yes, Carowinds is also perfect for families with kids of all ages. The park has thirteen world-class coasters, two of which made the tallest coasters in North America list (Fury 325 and the Intimidator). The park also has Boo Blasters, a river rafting water ride, and WindSeeker (the tallest ride built at Carowinds).
The small set will be delighted with Planet Snoopy that has a small coaster, balloon rides, a train, and more. The park has live entertainment shows and a 20-acre outdoor waterpark called Carolina Harbor (boasting an enormous wave pool, a super lengthy lazy river, water slides and a multi-level play structure). The park has fireworks on July 3 and 4, and a Halloween event called Scarowinds. carowinds.com
Cabarrus County is just twenty miles northeast of Uptown and is easily accessed by I-85. In fact, if you’d love to visit Charlotte, but don’t want to pay Uptown prices, Cabarrus County may be the solution. [visitcabarrus.com]
Charlotte’s Great Wolf Lodge is technically in the community of Concord. If your kids need to let off steam, Great Wolf Lodge is a smart option, but with one caveat: This Great Wolf is smaller than the one you may be used to in Williamsburg. For example, Great Wolf Concord doesn’t have a surf simulator, but the hotel portion of this Great Wolf Lodge is identical to Williamsburg’s venue. [greatwolf.com/concord]
The Sea Life Charlotte-Concord is an adorable aquarium inside the Concord Mills shopping mall. During the fun 2-hour experience, kids will meet thousands of aquatic creatures, play in interactive touch pools, and watch feeding demonstrations. Our family loved walking through a 360-degree ocean tunnel with glimmering fish, sharks, rays, and a rescued green sea turtle named Neptune. Appropriate for toddlers to age twelve. Teens might also enjoy seeing the sea life up close, but prep them not to expect dolphins, seals, killer whales, and the like. [visitsealife.com]
And because North Carolina is the birthplace of stock car racing, you’ll also want to check out Charlotte Motor Speedway in Cabarrus County. Guess which cartoon-movie based on the maturation of one racecar had its world premiere at the Charlotte Motor Speedway?! That’s right! McQueen, Sally, Mater, and friends – from the CARS movie – were introduced to the world right here at the Charlotte Motor Speedway back in spring ’06.
This complex features a 1.5 mile track that hosts NASCAR racing including the huge (huge!) Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, the NASCAR All-Star Race, and the Bank of America 500. The speedway is considered the home track for NASCAR with many race teams located in the Charlotte area. ZMAX Dragway, the only all-concrete, 4-lane drag strip in the U.S., is also here.
Special tours include “Feel the Thrill” Speedway tour, where you get to see the NASCAR garage, ride through two infield race tracks – going fast! – and take a picture in the winner’s circle. The family and I took the Thrill tour. The kids and husband loved this tour and still talk about it. And of course, “I can’t wait to race the NASCAR track again soon,” said no mom, ever. Or at least, this one – winking! [charlottemotorspeedway.com]
Photos: Patrick Schneider, Bill Russ, Patrick Schneider, VisitNC.com