Whether you’re a Charlotte native like myself, a transplant or someone just passing through, it’s easy to see that the area’s urban parks and open spaces are the crown jewels of the Queen City. They’re beautiful, of course, but one of the best parts about them is even more basic: urban parks are unifiers – places where people of all backgrounds can enjoy the city and the outdoors together.
These open spaces are also a major part of the city and county’s development plans. Consider First Ward Park, the culmination of a joint partnership between Levine Properties, UNC Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte. The four-acre park, which opened in December 2015, used to be nine blocks of parking lots. Now it’s intended to be the centerpiece of a new urban village, surrounded by offices, shops, residences and hotels.
But for the uninitiated, here’s a primer on where to go and what to do at some of the city’s best parks:
Where to go for a scenic stroll: Independence Park
Once the site of the city’s first public playground, the 19-acre park located at 300 Hawthorne Lane has many of the amenities of other large parks around the city (baseball fields, basketball courts, volleyball nets), but it’s also one of the city’s most relaxed spots to walk or read a book.
What you’ll find: A rose garden, memorial waterfall and reflecting pool inside a stone archway.
Where to go for a family picnic: Freedom Park
One of the city’s highest-traffic public spaces, Freedom Park is tucked between Dilworth and Myers Park neighborhoods, and is home to Little League games, family reunions and festivals alike. Plus, there’s plenty of green space for lounging on a blanket in the shade.
What you’ll find: Hillsides, a seven-acre lake (with geese), a concession stand and more than a dozen recreation options, from volleyball courts and soccer fields to batting cages and two playgrounds. There are tons of walking trails and paths, and the park even connects to Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Freedom Park is also adjacent to Discovery Place Nature, which gives visitors hands-on programming to get close to wildlife and experience nature.
Where to go for a swim: Double Oaks Park, Cordelia Park, Ray’s Splash Planet indoor waterpark
In the summer, it costs $1 per person per day to enter the two outdoor pools: Double Oaks (1200 Newland Road) and Cordelia (2100 N. Davidson St.). At Ray’s Splash Planet (215 N. Sycamore St.), a year-round indoor facility and partnership between the county and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, daily entrance fees range from $3 to $11 per person.
What you’ll find: Lifeguards, group activities, free swim lessons (pre-registration required), and – at Double Oaks and Ray’s Splash Planet – water slides.
Where to take pictures with the kids: The Green
Located on top of an underground parking garage in uptown Charlotte, this 1.5-acre “pocket park” (400 S. Tryon St.) is adorned with public works of art that are meant to be climbed on and played with. The Green is surrounded by quick-bite restaurants, shops and three of the city’s most popular museums: the Mint Museum Uptown, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.
What you’ll find: A manicured three-tiered landscape full of whimsical artwork with a literary theme. Concrete fish spout water kids can play in. Tall, bronze sculptures were fashioned to look like stacks of classic books like “Roots” and “Wuthering Heights.” And colorful signposts point to real places that combine to form well-known authors’ names, such as Edgar, Wis., Allan, Canada and Poe, Alberta.
Where to hear live music: Romare Bearden Park
Located in the heart of uptown Charlotte at 300 S. Church St., Romare Bearden Park has a standing combination of weekly and monthly music series to look forward to for much of the year. All you need to do is check the park’s Facebook page for times and descriptions and pack up a picnic, blanket and some lawn chairs. The park was named for the late Charlotte-born artist Romare Bearden, and designed to echo the feel of Bearden’s collages and paintings, which are part of collections in top museums around the world.
What you’ll find: An iconic view of city’s skyline, a waterfall fountain lit up at night, and BB&T Stadium, home of the Charlotte Knights, the region’s local minor-league team.
Where to de-stress on your lunch break: First Ward Park
Pack a lunch or grab something across the street at the Seventh Street Public Market, which is full of local small businesses selling everything from coffee to sushi, pizza to cupcakes.
What you’ll find: A large lawn, an interactive fountain and animal sculptures you can sit on – all with the backdrop of the city’s skyline. You’ll find a mix of professionals, UNC Charlotte students who study at the university’s adjacent Center City campus, and kids playing after a trip to nearby ImaginOn.
Where to play basketball and tennis: Latta Park
Yes, Freedom Park has courts, but 32-acre Latta Park (601 E. Park Ave.), nestled in the heart of Dilworth, is less than two miles down the road – and more wooded, much less crowded, and generally easier to navigate.
What you’ll find: Greenery, beautiful homes in the surrounding area, and a nice picnic shelter, complete with lights, grill, electricity and restrooms.
Where to get married: St. Mary’s Chapel at Thompson Park
For $500, Mecklenburg County residents – with up to 100 guests – can rent the historic St. Mary’s Chapel in Thompson Park (1129 E. Third St.). The small structure just outside Uptown is nestled on just more than 3 acres near Central Piedmont Community College and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.
What you’ll find: Lush landscapes, old trees, manicured flowerbeds, and a gazebo. The park also includes a Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Caroline Portillo is Editor in Chief of the Observer’s SouthPark Magazine.
Go wild at the U.S. National Whitewater Center
Imagine Disneyland but for people who love the outdoors. That’s the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Set on 1,300 acres along the Catawba River, the Whitewater Center serves as the U.S. Olympic Training Center for whitewater kayaking and canoeing, but you don’t have to be an Olympian to enjoy it.
This outdoorsy wonderland offers just about every activity you can imagine. Go whitewater rafting, flatwater kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, mountain biking or rock climbing. Clip into the ropes course or fly across the park on a zip line. Or just sit by the water, drink some local craft beer and watch one of the many free concerts the center hosts throughout the year.
There’s nothing quite like the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Good thing it’s here in Charlotte.
usnwc.org. 5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy, Charlotte.