One of strong points of Charlotte, North Carolina, is that it has an abundance of high-quality options for families. Residents from other areas often cite family-friendliness as a primary reason for moving there, and visitors often find the city easy to enjoy with children around.
Uptown Charlotte has many child-friendly options such as Discovery Place. It is relatively easy to enjoy the center city while in the company of children. Other areas of interest may include South End, NoDa (during the day), and Ballantyne.
Preparation is key when traveling with children. If you are staying in a hotel that serves breakfast, make sure to grab a bite to eat before leaving. By Charlotte standards, food is expensive Uptown. Also, make sure that your kids have a good pair of walking shoes. You may want to carry sunscreen and water, especially during the summer when the sunshine can be intense. And of course, it always helps to have plenty of supplies (diapers, food, etc.) handy; though there are some helpful stores Uptown, it is not guaranteed that you'll be able to find a box of handy-wipes at a moment's notice.
Due to its location at the intersection of I-85 and I-77, most American visitors arrive in Charlotte via automobile. It is helpful to know how close your destination is to the "inner" and "outer" beltways (277 and 485, respectively) if you are trying to arrive as quickly as possible. If you are approaching from the east or west, N.C. highway 74 is also a good approach -- it connects directly to 277 from either direction, and catches 485 in the southeast.
If you are coming from outside the core of the city you have several options for approaching Uptown. The simplest is just to drive in and find parking in a lot or deck; this is especially helpful if you don't want to be tied to a transit schedule. If you take this route, be aware that many parking decks are "private" (use is restricted to tenants). Also, be attentive to the posted hourly/daily rates; some places gouge prices on "event" days, and some will lure you in with a low hourly rate that goes up dramatically with each passing hour. A kid-friendly way to avoid this problem is to park near the edge of Uptown and catch the Gold Rush Trolley (see below).
International visitors will most likely be arriving in the city via Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Like other American cities, Charlotte can be reached by long-distance bus. This means of transportation could be fine if you are traveling for a relatively short time, but children may be very uncomfortable and fussy if your ride is more than a few hours long.
Charlotte has an Amtrak station, but your arrival time might be very inconvenient, especially if coming from the south, and Amtrak is notorious for lateness. However, children are usually much more comfortable on trains than on other modes of transportation and there is always the possibility of walking around during the trip that you don't have on buses or planes.
- Gold Rush Trolley[dead link] - These buses converted to look like old-fashioned trolleys are a wonderful attraction for children, as it accomplishes several goals at once: it moves them around the city safely and comfortably, gives them a fun riding experience (with bells and warm colors all around), allows them to see the bustle of the city up close, establishes a sense of history for older children, and is totally free for everyone (parents included). A ride on the trolley is strongly recommended, especially if you're trying to move across Uptown without getting back in the car. Kids love pulling the stop-cord! There are two lines: the red line along Trade Street and the orange along Tryon, which is particularly useful for getting from the museums on the north side of Uptown to the south side. Be warned that the Gold Rush Trolleys do not operate on the weekends.
- Otherwise, buses in Charlotte are clean and feel very safe. However, they can be relatively slow in traffic and occasionally have riders who cause children to feel unsafe. The upside is that the main terminal is across the street from Bobcats Arena and a short walk from several major attractions. In particular, using the bus to park-and-ride from a location in the suburbs can be a major stress-saver during festivals and holidays. Use your best judgment when considering this option. Stops are usually well-marked along roads and at major attractions.
Taxis are not generally used by families in Charlotte, though they can be of some use in certain circumstances. There is a surcharge for having more than 2 passengers, so this option might be more expensive than necessary. While taxis are common in the central districts, they do not come by regularly in the suburbs. If your kids have never ridden in a taxi before, this might be a novelty for them; otherwise, consider other options.
The LYNX light rail[dead link] is one of the best options for moving in and out of the center city from the south. The line follows College St. out of Uptown, then runs along South Blvd. through South End all the way out to I-485 near the South Carolina border.
See the Charlotte district articles for specific details on the attractions below. The information here is an overview of kid-friendly attractions.
- 1 Discovery Place. Any child's trip to Charlotte should begin at Discovery Place. This attraction is best visited in the morning, while they still have a fresh mind and lots of energy. Let them tour the many science-oriented exhibits to be found on the three museum floors. This is an experience that will be fun and educational for both younger and older children. If the timing works out, catch a movie in the huge IMAX theater.
- 2 ImaginOn. With learning in mind, stroll down 7th St. toward ImaginOn, the large children's center near Bobcats Arena. You can feel safe letting your kids roam around in areas designed for their own age group (careful -- no adults allowed in the teens section!), as friendly staff members are diligent about each child's security. Despite its large and attractive collection of children's literature, this is much more than a library; even an adult can get caught up in the many kiosks and displays. An excellent gift shop provides unique shopping, and there's a good chance you will encounter a special presentation or performance. Give some thought to visiting during a Children's Theatre performance (usually in the evening), and let your kids jump around the unusual sculpture in front of the building.
- 3 Levine Museum of the New South. This splendid historical museum, which chronicles the growth of the South since the Civil War, offers plenty of interactive exhibits for visitors, like a model train layout, hands-on displays where kids can touch tools or cotton and see recreations of old homes and businesses.
- 4 Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. While the museum may not be very entertaining to children (unless they really like art), there's one aspect of this museum that's perfect for kids and costs nothing: the Firebird sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, which has a whimsical quality to it and just begs to be touched and enjoyed up-close (you can even walk between its legs).
- The Green - There are several good parks Uptown, but this is the most kid-friendly. Located on Tryon St. between 1st and 2nd, it's surrounded by family-oriented restaurants, and once you've gotten lunch you can explore this unique urban park. A literacy theme will interest older children, while unusual terrain and play areas will excite the little ones. During the summer, carry bathing suits and allow them to cool off in the splash-fountain. In early winter, bring your skates to the temporary ice rink. And if a morning on the move has you worn out, stop by the library branch for a moment's relaxation.
- 5 Nascar Hall of Fame. This is an excellent museum of children with a huge number of interactive exhibits, including an entire play zone for toddlers and simulators that allow kids to step into the driver's seat or take part in a pit crew.
- Shopping - If you are traveling with teenagers, consider giving them some spending cash at the Overstreet Mall. Though most of the shops are oriented toward office workers, teens will find some attractive botiques (including a small department store and several clothing stores) and plenty of familiar fast food names (including McDonald's, Burger King and Subway). The mall is enclosed and extremely safe, so it is not a bad place to let teens hang out while you take smaller children elsewhere. However, they ought to be reminded that the mall connects directly to several office towers, which are decidedly kid-unfriendly.
- Shopping - The South End is full of stores ranging from the quaint and unique, to the downright strange. Most of the district is easily walkable, with large trees providing shade during hot summer afternoons.
- Canine Cafe. Kids will fawn over this unusual boutique -- Canine Cafe is devoted to providing its "canine friends and family" with the best catering possible. Homemade dog biscuits are only the beginning; the place is like a puppy wonderland. If you come at the right time, you might discover a customer planning a "pawty" for a beloved pet. Not a better place in town to get a souvenir for Rover.
Elsewhere in Charlotte
- The Carolinas Aviation Museum is undoubtedly one of the best places to take your kids in Charlotte, with historic and restored airplanes (including Flight 1549, better known as the plane Sully Sullenberger successfully landed in the Hudson River) and air shows. It is located on the outskirts of the city near the airport, so driving is the only convenient way to get here.
If you're still going after a long day, or if you got a late start, there are plenty of things to do after the sun sets. One note of caution: the bar-heavy area around College St. behind Hearst Tower in Uptown can be a little less than kid-friendly. It's safe, but you might hear some rich language and you will definitely see people in varying states of intoxication.
- Time Warner Cable Arena[dead link] - The center of attention in the entertainment district. The chances are good you will find a Hornets (basketball) or Checkers (hockey) game going on in the fall or winter, and ticket prices aren't necessarily prohibitive -- check out the cheap seats. There are ample, but expensive, dining options inside. The new Lynx light rail line has a stop just 100 feet from the door to the Arena.
- ImaginOn. The Children's Theatre of Charlotte runs a regular schedule on the intimate, state-of-the-art stage at ImaginOn. Even if you visited during the day for other reasons, it's worth returning to catch the show.
- 1 Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Depending on its schedule, this may be an option to expose your child(ren) to some culture while in town. Though it typically shows adult oriented opera and musical performances, Blumenthal hosts a fair number of children's shows as well. Check to see if The Lion King, Blue's Clues, or other family shows are in town.
- Dining - If you are eating out late, ask at the door of Uptown restaurants if kids are permitted -- and if they are a good idea. Some places will admit them late, but they'll be exposed to a smoky, adult-friendly drinking atmosphere. Good bets include Mert's, Soho Bistro on College St.; Brixx Pizza on 6th St.; and Starbucks at the Square for lighter eating.
By and large, Charlotte is an extremely safe city in its central districts. Crimes against children or families are extremely rare; however, as in any city you never want to let your guard down too far. Keep kids in sight in crowded areas (such as the bus terminal) and don't let them wander too far. Teach them to recognize the dark blue uniforms of police, and use a central location (such as the Square) as an emergency meeting point.
The most common crime in central Charlotte seems to be auto-related theft and break-in. Parking in a deck will usually be enough to keep your car safe; if you park in a lot, be sure that it will have an attendant at all times. Parking on the street is generally safe during the day, but streetside parking in isolated areas at night is probably not wise.
As always, be aware of police presence if you should feel unsafe. Call 911 to report unsafe or threatening incidents. If your car is stolen, call 911 to place a report; if it is broken into or vandalized, call 311 (non-emergency services) to report the crime.
Of course it is impossible to prepare for all situations, so it's helpful to be aware in advance of the resources available for an emergency. If you are in need of basic healthcare or hygiene items (such as bandages, diapers, or common medications), there are pharmacies located on both the northern (CVS) and southern ends of Tryon St. in the city center.
For more serious emergencies, you can go to one of the two hospitals located just outside of Uptown. Presbyterian Hospital[dead link] is the most directly accessible; simply head straight down East Trade St. away from Uptown. Trade will turn into Elizabeth Ave., which dead-ends at the hospital. Also, the larger Carolinas Medical Center is only a few minutes away. From Morehead St. near the stadium, head south and bear right on Kings Dr.; Medical Center Drive is on the right. CMC includes a large children's hospital and may be better for child-specific emergencies.
- Children's Theatre of Charlotte. Theater programs available for children and teens. Half-day programs for ages 3 to 5, and full-day, full-week programs for ages 6 to 18 are available most days during the summer, and one-day programs are available for ages 6 to 12 on selected dates during the year. Multiple locations; most programs are at ImaginOn, about half a mile from the convention center. $70 per day; $300 per week.
- CPCC Summer Experience (Central Piedmont Community College), ☏ . Educational childcare options in multiple locations every summer. Mostly half-day programs. Lots of programs for teenagers, and a few for the younger kids.
- 2 Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture (formerly, Afro-American Cultural Center), 551 S. Tryon St (one block northeast of the Stonewall Street station on the LYNX Blue Line), ☏ , email@example.com. Tu–Sa 10AM–5PM; Su 1–5PM. Offers a limited number of all-day programs, usually for kids and teens age 9 to 18. Across the street from the convention center. daily admission, $9.
- Kids-N-Technology, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Week-long, tech-focused summer camp programs. For kids age 6 to 18 who want to spend their summer learning how to code, or even to build a computer.
Most visitors will use highways to leave Charlotte; consider staying off the interstate if you're visiting during a heavy rush period (such as a holiday or game day). In particular, festivals such as the 4th of July and Speed Street[dead link] will completely jam local roads; give some thought to using a city bus to park-and-ride on those days in order to save some stress. If you need to head back to the airport, the flat $20 fee for a shuttle is worth the convenience.