Charlotte, North Carolina, is a city of newcomers. An influx of people from outside the South began arriving in the mid-1980s, making it North Carolina's largest city. Rolling farmland has been replaced by shopping malls, residential developments, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the busy airport and the constant buzz of construction equipment. Still, the city has managed to retain its softer edge and genuine friendliness.
A lot of this growth has happened because of banking—Charlotte is the nation's No. 2 financial center, after New York City. Bank of America's 60-story skyscraper dominates a revitalized downtown Charlotte, and the financial institution's moniker has been placed on the National Football League's Carolina Panthers' stadium and a major fall NASCAR race. The bank and other large corporations have helped create a growing cultural and arts scene. Charlotte is a business city, so most visitors go there for work.
Although Charlotte's topography isn't dramatic, it 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 downtown financial district, called 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 neighborhood of Myers Park, affluent Charlotteans have spread out into Ballantyne and other parts of burgeoning south Charlotte. That part of town's SouthPark mall is the city's premier shopping area. The Lake Norman area, north of town on I-77, is also sprouting stately homes.
Despite efforts to widen the interstates, the road system is still unable to keep up with sprawl; rush-hour traffic is horrendous and a light-rail system that parallels I-77 is under construction, although it has been plagued with cost overruns and delays, and the mess causes additional traffic jams. A side effect of this suburban congestion has been a boom in downtown condo construction and the gentrification of neighborhoods immediately east and south of the I-277 loop that circles Uptown.
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 of King George III. To this day, it is often called the Queen City, and icons of crowns mark its main streets. (Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, is named for Queen Charlotte's homeland in Germany.) A statue of her stands outside the airport terminal's main entrance.
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.
In 1991, North Carolina National Bank and Atlanta's C&S Sovran merged to form NationsBank and kept its headquarters in Charlotte. NationsBank went on to execute a series of bank buyouts and mergers to combine with Bank of America, forming the second-largest bank in the U.S. and making Charlotte the country's No. 2 banking center.
Charlotte is a working city, not 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 is the Mint Museum Uptown , a serious yet whimsical presentation of craft elevated to an art form. 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.
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).
Beyond Uptown, the Hezekiah Alexander Homesite, Historic Rosedale Plantation 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.
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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