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.
Marathon runners and sunbathers can both be at home at sprawling Freedom Park. Hipsters with guitars can mingle with suit-clad bankers on their lunch break at First Ward Park. Little kids and veteran sports fans alike can cheer as one when the Carolina Panthers host rallies at Romare Bearden Park.
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.
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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
What to know: 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 see: A rose garden, memorial waterfall, and reflecting pool inside a stone archway.
Fun fact: Independence Park was the site of the city’s first public playground, built in 1914, with horizontal bars, swings, a trapeze and two slides. At the time it was referred to as an “out-door gymnasium.”
Where to go for a family picnic: Freedom Park
What to know: 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 see: Hillsides, a seven-acre lake (with geese), a concession stand and tons of 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. It’s also adjacent to the Charlotte Nature Museum, operated by Discovery Place.
Fun fact: Near the Mahlon Adams Pavilion, the Mecklenburg Extension Master Gardeners maintain a “demonstration garden,” changed seasonally. It’s packed with vibrant native plants, all tagged, and information on sustainable gardening practices.
Where to go for a swim: Double Oaks Park, Cordelia Park, Ray’s Splash Planet indoor waterpark
What you’ll see: Lifeguards, group activities, free swim lessons (pre-registration required), and – at Double Oaks and Ray’s Splash Planet – water slides.
What to know: 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 $8 per person.
Fun fact: “Ray” – the indoor waterpark’s namesake – is a sun, and the official mascot of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department. His name stands for “Recreate All Year.”
Where to take pictures with the kids: The Green
What to know: Located on top of an underground parking garage in uptown Charlotte (400 S. Tryon St.), this “pocket park” is adorned with public works of art that are meant to be climbed on and played with. The 1.5-acre park 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 see: 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, S.C.
Fun fact: You can often find a lone trumpet player sitting at one entrance, on a bench along South Tryon Street, playing a little bit of everything.
Where to hear live music: Romare Bearden Park
What to know: 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.
What you’ll see: 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.
Fun fact: 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.
Where to de-stress on your lunch break: First Ward Park
What to know: From noon to 1:30 p.m. every Wednesday to Friday, from May to August, enjoy the “Music Box Lunch Series” at four-acre First Ward Park (301 E. Eighth St.), where solo artists or small combos offer a mellow musical background. 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 see: 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.
Fun fact: When the light rail extension comes through the area, officials say there will be a stop on either side of the park.
Where to play basketball and tennis: Latta Park
What to know: Yes, Freedom Park offers courts as well, but 32-acre Latta Park (601 E. Park Ave.) is less than two miles down the road—and more wooded, much less crowded, and generally easier to navigate.
What you’ll see: Greenery, beautiful homes in the surrounding area, and a nice picnic shelter, complete with lights, grill, electricity and restrooms.
Fun fact: Near the picnic shelter, there’s a Little Free Library, a birdhouse-sized shelter where neighbors and park visitors leave and take books for all ages.
Where to get married: St. Mary’s Chapel at Thompson Park
What to know: 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 see: Lush landscapes, old trees, manicured flowerbeds, and a gazebo.
Fun fact: St. Mary’s Chapel, which dates back to 1892, was originally on the campus of Thompson Orphanage. Its current location, Thompson Park, also includes a Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Caroline Portillo is Editor in Chief of the Observer's Carolina Bride magazine.