My entire experience with North Carolina up until a few months ago consisted of a vague knowledge of the sports teams the state boasts: Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, Charlotte Checkers, the Hounds, the NASCAR Cup races, and its Hall of Fame. That all changed when our family fell head over heels for Charlotte on a recent trip to cross the North Carolina off our “50 States List.” Headquarters to Wells Fargo, the city is the third-largest financial center in the United States. And to be sure, the city is chock full of bankable moments.
Nicknamed the Queen City, the city of Charlotte was honored with the moniker of the German princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was head consort of Great Britain (and therefore Ireland); those among the first to establish a township in the region after the Catawba Native Americans population diminished. Nationally recognized for their interactive youth-centric activities, the Children’s Theatre and the Great Wolf Lodge are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the long list of “to-do’s” for long family-friendly weekend vacay. The Concord Aquarium, Sky Zone, ImaginOn, and Discovery Place (Science and Nature!) follow with a set of their own kid-friendly adventures.
The field guide to fast casual started in Charlotte, with a long and delicious list of southern barbeque options for everyone. From pimento cheese to biscuits and backyard smoked soul food, to staples like jalapeno-cheddar cornbread and fried chicken just like Mama used to make it. Kids down for the night? Hit up any number of eateries serving up craft beers and southern starters. Within a day’s drive are gorgeous wineries serving up the region’s most delectable vintages, but if you’re not keen on leaving the Queen City’s limits, the oldest rum distillery in the state lies within the city boundaries, serving up history along the banks of the Catawba River.
Relaxing with a craft cocktail 19 floors above greater Charlotte might sound too good to be true, but the buzz of the city melds with the sleek elegance of its history within the four walls of the Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel (tryonparkhotel.com). An uptown Charlotte institution brimming with hospitality, and featuring a soothing blue and gray palette, the hotel takes seriously its place in a city fit for a queen. Each of its 217 guest rooms and suites are elegantly furnished, appointed with Italian marble, mahogany, crystal, and feature views of Romare Bearden Park and BB+T Ballpark or the sprawl of Uptown Charlotte.
Craft extends beyond cocktails at its rooftop Merchant & Trade bar - from music, punch, and tableside bar snacks to mixology and bottle service. Rent the space for your own event or just enjoy the indoor-outdoor flow, complete with lawn, terrace, fire pits, modern furniture, and lush foliage. Head downstairs to Angeline’s for straightforward Italian-American cuisine that greets each ready tastebud.
Seasonal southern ingredients are prepared with traditional Italian techniques, and every meal is the chance to reconnect with friends, family, and colleagues. Our family broke bread over a multi-course feast, full of antipasti, wood-fired pizza, and a post-dinner limoncello digestiva (for the grownups). The kids and I rose early for flaky European style pastries, and I brought an espresso to my deliriously comfortable husband in bed, before we ventured out for another day in the city.
Situated in the heart of what was once the mill town of North Charlotte (known today as NoDa), Haberdish (haberdish.com) is a pre-Prohibition era-focused eatery with a distinctive apothecary feel. This restaurant - popular with tourists and locals alike - elegantly melds history with nostalgia in everything from its ambiance to its menu of chef-driven family-style Southern comfort food (meats, vegetables and sides here are served on a jumble of plates). Think of it as a family potluck, but one where the spread is comprised of only your favorite foods. Inspired by the dishes served in the region during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the eats here revolve around what might very likely be “the best fried chicken in town” (brined, battered and fried), sides and snacks (think house pickles, pimento cheese ball rolled in spiced pecans, mac & cheese and my personal fave - kale grits) and seriously impressive, innovative craft cocktail creations (like a smoked mint julep that I can’t say I’ve ever seen on a menu anywhere else).
The hometown spirit is alive and well in North Carolina, beginning with the renegade nature of NASCAR, brought to life at the Hall of Fame (nascarhall.com). Celebrating the spirit of America’s favorite race, the Hall features exhibits ranging from the suits our favorite drivers have worn to the exact tilt and sprawl of each fabled track: from 0 to nearly 33 degrees banked. Realistic racing simulators and Race Week simulators help recreate the sport from all angles: pit to to driver’s seat. Watch a movie that traces NASCAR’s historic roots from the sandy beaches of Daytona to present day on a 64-foot wide projection screen in the 278-seat High Octane Theater.
Feeling the need for speed after exploring the Hall of Fame? Explore the 1,300 acres of the world’s largest man-made whitewater river at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (usnwc.org). Our littlest adventurer’s eyes lit up when she saw the zip lines, ropes courses, and of course, outdoor climbing walls. Home of Olympic hopefuls and whitewater enthusiasts alike, the 30 miles of walking trails, stand-up paddleboarding, single or tandem kayaking, and guided rafting ensures a day full of outdoor excitement.
Opting for a more active weekend away over a more sedate experience, the all-access Activity passes at the Whitewater Center gave our family plenty of opportunity to play and experience the great outdoors. You can choose from 30+ activities to try something new, perfect a hobby or hop between activities to try your hand at several adventures for all ages and skill levels. Play on land with ropes courses, mountain biking and rock climbing, in the water rafting down rapids, flatwater kayaking or standup paddle boarding or in the air with ziplines.
For those looking to kick back, live music and outdoor festivals create a unique atmosphere of relaxation and community. The River Jam concert series takes place every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening throughout the summer months, in addition to nine distinct festivals throughout the year. The River’s Edge, Pump House Biergarten, Adventure Dining opportunities ensures no shortage of food and fuel throughout the day. Based on our kids’ excitement in regaling the tale of our day of adventure at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, we wouldn’t be surprised if this world-class outdoor recreation destination rises to the top of all of our friends and family’s “must experience” list when in Queen City.