In 1755, Pennsylvania homesteader Thomas Polk settled at the intersection of two trading paths used by Catawba Indians. Thirteen years later, the settlement that sprang up was named for Charlotte Sophia, the wife of England’s King George III.
But it wasn’t until 1799 that Charlotte’s emergence as a financial center began, with the discovery of a 17-pound gold nugget in the northern woods, sparking the nation’s first gold rush. Charlotte has since endured war, poverty, racial strife and financial crisis on its way to becoming a global banking powerhouse.
Today, Polk’s crossroads lies in the shadow of Bank of America tower in the heart of an eminently walkable downtown, which Charlotteans call uptown. In the last decade, escapees from jobs in the corporate world have revitalized nearby enclaves Dilworth, NoDa and Plaza Midwood, leaving galleries, breweries and farm-to-table enterprises in their wake – all increasingly linked by greenway, bike route and light rail. The “Queen City” is smaller and easier to navigate than, say, Atlanta, and is an excellent place to soak up the new Old South.
Entrepreneurial cooks and purveyors share ideas and peddle wares at Seventh Street Public Market. Lin McKay and Mike Shafer, former math professors, preside at barChocolate, selling candy creations including ghost chile sea salt caramel ($2.50 for each, a half dozen for $14). At Orrman’s Cheese Shop, try a Calvander from Chapel Hill Creamery. Outside, the Levine Museum of the New South juxtaposes Charlotte’s bright future with its turbulent past.
When Alejandro Torio and his partners commissioned artist Jon Norris to paint the ceiling of their new restaurant 5Church two years ago, he amazed them by reproducing all 40,000 words of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” But if the ceiling is the centerpiece of this dark, atmospheric restaurant, Jamie Lynch’s menu is no less inspired.
A few miles from uptown lies a former textile mill community. A group of artists turned several buildings into galleries, and the term NoDa (North Davidson arts district) was born. In 2001, Joe Kuhlmann opened Evening Muse, an intimate place to catch emerging acts like Shovels and Rope before they follow fellow alumni the Avett Brothers, Sugarland and the Civil Wars.
Grab a Lynx light rail train from uptown ($2.20) to the East West station. You’re a short walk from Luna’s Living Kitchen, where Juliana Luna offers a creative menu of raw foods. Her Living Burrito ($12) holds sunflower seeds, refried beans, cauliflower rice, pico de gallo and guacamole, all wrapped in a collard leaf.
The East-West station has a kiosk for one of the largest bike-share programs in the South. Grab a Charlotte B-cycle ($8, first half-hour is free, $4 per half-hour afterward) and spin through Dilworth – created at the dawn of the 20th century as a streetcar neighborhood. A three-mile route runs down East Boulevard to Dilworth Road, passing Queen Anne, colonial revival and Victorian homes, through Latta Park and back to the station. For more calorie burn, take East Boulevard to the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.
Return to NoDa by way of Amelie’s French Bakery. Lynn St. Laurent’s eclectic bistro never skimps on the butter or fresh ingredients that grace her quiches ($4.99) or her grandmother’s spinach, asparagus and leek soup (3.99). Save room for a salted caramel brownie ($2.29). Pura Vida Worldly Art sources toys, clothing and art from fair trade vendors. Ruby’s Gift carries works from local artisans, including streetscapes by painter David French. Tucked down 36th street lies the Rat’s Nest, a vintage shop where a working Atari “Pong” video game ($45) was spotted.
Race fan or not, you’ll find the NASCAR Hall of Fame fascinating. Opened in 2010, the museum traces NASCAR’s roots from Appalachian moonshine running to competitions along the sands of Daytona Beach to the billion-dollar spectacle of today. (Entrance, $19.95.)
Charlotte has never been known as a big barbecue town, but Midwood Smokehouse’s pitmaster and executive chef, Matt Barry, seeks to change that with this noisy, popular restaurant. Barry cooks his chicken, pork and turkey over North Carolina hickory in a computer-controlled smoker.
Brian and Mark Wilson’s Thirsty Beaver Saloon is a cinder-block juke joint with a modest stage, two pool tables, photos of Burt Reynolds and Charlotte’s longtime cartoon show host “Cowboy Fred” Kirby on the walls. A few miles south, the Double Door Inn has been dishing out rock and blues (alumni include Eric Clapton, Junior Brown and Stevie Ray Vaughn) inside a house since 1973. For comfy chairs and a speakeasy vibe, take a quick walk to Soul Gastrolounge, where the D.J. starts spinning at 10.
Soak up last night’s libations at Zada Jane’s Corner Cafe in Plaza Midwood. This cheerful joint offers vegetarian fare and fruit pancakes ($7.50) alongside omelets stuffed with veggies and local sausage ($4.50 to $10). Arrive early or expect to play shuffleboard for a while out front. Afterward, stroll down Thomas Avenue through a neighborhood of oaks and Craftsman cottages before returning to Central Avenue. Its miniature Haight-Ashbury district includes shops like Fifteen Ten Antiques and Boris and Natasha.
The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture’s collection includes African-American art collected over 50 years by Vivian and John Hewitt. Current exhibitions include “Selected Works of J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.: Returning to Where the Artistic Seed Was Planted.”