Formerly sleepy Charlotte, North Carolina, is the largest city in the state. In response to growth of the city's banking industry, an influx of workers from outside the South began arriving in the mid-1980s. With arts, culture and sports offerings exploding on the city's scene, Charlotte is now one the country's fastest growing urban areas. Established neighborhoods are being gentrified, and the rolling farmland outside of town is giving way to shopping malls and residential developments. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte to the northeast and the busy airport to the southwest have also contributed to the city's rising profile. Amid the expansion, the city has managed to retain its softer edge and genuine friendliness.
Charlotte's topography has plenty of natural charm. The city is nestled in the Carolina piedmont, a gently rolling landscape that stretches between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain. The hilly region is veined with creeks and rivers; dams on the Catawba River have created popular Lake Norman and Lake Wylie a few miles/kilometers outside of town. The tree-rich area is especially fetching when the abundant azaleas and dogwoods bloom in the spring, and when the hardwoods blaze with color in the fall.
Charlotte's financial district, known as Uptown, has an easily navigable grid system of streets, but the rest of the city is a maze of curving roads. Interstate 77 is the main north-south axis; I-85 runs southwest to northeast. Residential development continues to boom along the interstates, despite the slowing of the area's economy. In addition to the old, upscale neighborhoods of Myers Park and Dilworth, affluent Charlotteans have spread north into Lake Norman and south to Lake Wylie, Ballantyne and other parts of burgeoning south Charlotte. SouthPark mall is the city's premier shopping area.
Along with many other US cities, a side effect of suburban congestion has been a boom in city-center apartment and condo construction. Gentrification of Charlotte's central working class neighborhoods to the east and south of the I-277 loop that circles Uptown are leading both to additional city traffic and to calls for improved and diversified transportation options.
Charlotte lies on the junction of two important Native American trading paths that were used by the local Catawba people, as well as the Cherokee and other tribes. The strategic significance of these paths endures to this day, contributing to Charlotte's role as a distribution hub. The first permanent European settlers in the area were mostly Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who went to the Piedmont via the Great Wagon Road.
By 1768, the area was populated enough to incorporate; the town was named for Charlotte, queen to England's King George III. To this day, it is often called the Queen City, and icons of crowns mark its main streets and city-based merchandizing. (Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, is named after Queen Charlotte's homeland in Germany.) Statues of her stand outside the airport terminal's main entrance and at the corner of College and East Fifth streets in Uptown.
During the American Revolution, British Gen. Cornwallis passed through the area, and his army drew fire from patriots in and around the village—Cornwallis would refer to Charlotte as a "hornet's nest." This comment is reflected in the city today: Charlotte's police badges bear the likeness of a hornet's nest, the city's former NBA team was called the Hornets, and its former WNBA team was called the Sting.
Gold was first discovered in the U.S. near Charlotte in 1799, when 12-year-old Conrad Reed took home a shiny rock he found in a creek near his family's farm. In 1802, a jeweler paid Reed's father the sum of US$3.50 for the 17-lb/8-kg nugget, and gold fever took off. North Carolina held the reputation of the greatest gold-mining state until the California gold rush in 1849. Not surprisingly, banking and commerce flourished, and the first branch of the U.S. Mint opened in Charlotte in 1837. The building is now home to the Mint Museum of Art.
Charlotte's importance as a financial hub has steadily grown, though in fits and starts.Thanks to a series of mergers and acquisitions, Charlotte is now the second-largest banking center in the U.S.
Charlotte is more of a working city than a tourist mecca. Yet visitors willing to search for the city's unique gifts will discover plenty of worthwhile attractions.
If you're mixing work and pleasure, Uptown, the commercial center, is a great place to do so without getting into a car. Don't miss the Bank of America building's lobby and its astounding Ben Long frescoes. Also in Uptown is Discovery Place, a top-notch science museum that's also a fun playground. Across from it on North Tryon Street are the Mint Museum Uptown and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. A block east on North College Street, the Levine Museum of the New South illustrates Charlotte's progress from cotton and textile hub to major banking center.
While most of the historic buildings in the downtown areas were leveled to make room for Uptown, some of the vibrant residential neighborhoods in the shadow of the skyscrapers date back to the early 1900s and make for pleasant walking tours. Middle-class bungalows, eclectic stores and cafes mix well in Dilworth (East Boulevard), Elizabeth (Elizabeth Avenue) and Plaza-Midwood (Central Avenue, near Pecan). Be sure to check out the renovated mill houses and commercial strip of NoDa, which was rediscovered by artists in the 1980s and is now a foodie and entertainment district.
Beyond Uptown, the Hezekiah Alexander Homesite, Historic Rosedale and The Billy Graham Library are among the sites that evoke the city's history. The Mint Museum Randolph, just a few miles/kilometers east of Uptown, is also a part of the city's history.
Charlotte's nightlife scene is growing along with the city. Every week there are plenty of performances and live-music shows to keep you busy, but young people looking for constant action—or people accustomed to the many diversions of a large metropolis—might find Charlotte's offerings limited. Dance clubs oriented to college students are conveniently packed into the Uptown Entertainment District, a one-block area along College Street; you can easily dance your way from one place to another without missing a beat.
Bars typically close around 2 am, but some of the dance clubs keep things hopping till 4 am.
Newcomers to Charlotte once moaned, "There's nowhere to eat." That certainly has changed. Although many restaurants are clustered in the Uptown business district, there are plenty of choices in outlying suburban neighborhoods within the city limits. The explosion of genuine ethnic offerings has added to the mix.
Several of Charlotte's top-notch dining establishments are housed in Optimist Hall, a sprawling mixed-use space that opened in 2019 just a few minutes from Uptown by taxi. The renovated textile mill also houses office space, including Duke Energy's Innovation Center. 1115 N. Brevard St. http://optimisthall.com.
Keep in mind that hard-working Charlotte is a relatively "early" town; restaurants get busy at the end of the business day and stay that way until about 9:30 pm. If you're planning to dine later, it's best to call first to confirm that the kitchen will still be open at that time.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$20-$30; $$$ = US$31-$40; $$$$ = more than US$40.
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