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Best Things To Do in Charlotte

AOL PICK from our Editors

Charlotte has established itself as an entertainment supercenter in the Carolinas, with a wide gamut of things to do. Great for families with children, it also draws young people with its vibrant nightlife. Don't leave without experiencing a little of NASCAR, either at the NASCAR Hall of Fame or the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Most of the best Charlotte things to do are located within the perimeter, and therefore typically no longer than a half-hour drive away. The top things to do in Charlotte on the outside of the perimeter are easily accessible via Interstate 85 or Interstate 485. That said, visitors will need a good map or travel guide to navigate to some of the activities closer to downtown. Here are our suggestions for the best Queen City attractions.

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

Neighborhood: Gastonia

There is no way you can see everything at the beautiful Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, but it's sure fun trying. Set among 380 acres on the banks of Lake Wylie, the grounds include nine distinctly-themed gardens. Start your visit by hiking the paths through the meadows and woodlands, and then head into the Orchid Conservatory, our favorite part of a visit. This gigantic glasshouse space (8,000 square feet under five stories) is a stunning horticultural display dedicated to orchids and tropical plants. We like the 16-foot tall Tropical Canvas full of epiphytes, as well as the sweet smell of all those flowers. The Orchid Conservatory is a treat for the senses, from the lush green foliage and colorful flowers to the sound of the waterfall. The goal at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden is to provide guests with a chance to reconnect with nature. We believe they have succeeded.

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Freedom Park

Neighborhood: Myers Park/South Park

Freedom Park is Charlotte’s own version of Central Park. With almost 100 acres of land, it’s THE place to go to bike, walk or simply people-watch. The park is especially popular with runners, though the paths get crowded with rollerbladers and skateboards on the weekends. Walk the Freedom Park Naturescape Trail, which has 10 stations for observing birds and butterflies. The park's seven-acre lake is also home to many waterfowl. Spring and fall are especially beautiful, with the park flora in vibrant color. During the summer, catch music and arts performances at the Pavilion, or bring a blanket and watch one of the free summer movies. Films are shown the second Friday each June, July and August. Free popcorn provided. 

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Carowinds

Neighborhood: Pineville

If amusement parks are your thing, make time to visit Carowinds, where some fifty rides will whirl, spin, thrill and drop you. A top Charlotte thing to do, this adventure park is one of the best in the South and caters to all ages. Highlights include the Drop Tower, which has a 100-foot freefall, and the Intimidator, one of the fastest and longest coasters in the southeast. Our favorite is Boomerang Bay, a 20-acre Australian-themed water park where you can cool off in the Charlotte heat. Carowinds has water rides, carnival games and 12 fun rides for the little ones, and every kid likes the SpongeBob 3-D action adventure at the Carowinds Action Theater. Get to the park early before the crowds show up, and you'll be able to ride more rides. And don't forget the sunscreen. There is little shade, so you're going to need it! Tickets can be bought online or at the park, and are $39.99 for ages 3 and up. If you live near Charlotte and can visit often, buy the season pass, which is the best value. The Carowinds Camp Wilderness Resort next door offers 140 RV, fifty-six tent and fifteen luxury cabins for those who want to stay near the park. Carowinds is open daily during the summer, and on weekends in the spring and fall, when the weather is best.

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The Billy Graham Library

Neighborhood: South Charlotte

He has been called one of the most influential voices of the 20th century. And no matter what your beliefs, a tour of the Billy Graham Library will provide insight into the life of America's most beloved evangelist. One of Charlotte's most popular attractions, the Billy Graham Library recently completed a major renovation, including even more state-of-the art multimedia exhibits. Graham has led an interesting life, and visitors get a comprehensive look at his life and faith with exhibits such as his personal book collection. The restored Graham family home is onsite, set in a dairy farm setting reminiscent of Billy Graham’s childhood. We like viewing Graham's memorabilia, such as the poem penned for him by rock star Bono or photos from his visits with U.S. presidents. Kids have plenty to keep them busy here, including Bessie, a talking cow, who greets visitors and offers stories from Graham’s boyhood. When you get hungry after your visit, stop at the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar, featuring home cooked specialties like Ruth Graham’s signature chicken salad recipe and ever-popular ice cream and cookies.  Best of all, this attraction is FREE!

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Charlotte Museum of History (The)

Neighborhood: University City

Visitors soon discover that Charlotte history has a colorful past, and the best place to learn more about it is at the Charlotte Museum of History. Kid-friendly exhibits detail Colonial times in North Carolina, with special attention to the local county history. Our favorite part of the museum is the Hezekiah Alexander Homesite. Alexander was a blacksmith and farmer who built the home in the 1750s. Don't be surprised if you're greeted at the door by a lady in colonial dress. Guides in period clothing demonstrate how weaving, cooking and other skills were done in the olden days—an attraction especially popular with the little ones. The grounds are lovely, so take a picnic and enjoy lunch by the stream after your visit.

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Charlotte Motor Speedway

Neighborhood: Concord

If you visit North Carolina, you can't miss this one. Charlotte Motor Speedway may be the best-known attraction in the whole state. NASCAR racing was born and bred in North Carolina and Charlotte is the center of it. The speedway is THE place to go to see the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series races, NASCAR SPRINT Cup or the 10-week Legends Car Summer Shootout Series. Even if you can't make a NASCAR event, there's a full schedule of family-friendly events throughout the year, including auto shows and Monster truck rallies. If your dream is to get behind the wheel, spring for one of the driving school packages.  Try the ride along with the Richard Petty Driving Experience (1-800-BE-PETTY). Rushing 160 mph around the track is a rush like no other (we speak from experience on this). For a more laid back NASCAR experience, take the Feel The Thrill Tour, which takes you to areas normally off-limits on race days. Tours run daily and cost $5. Check in at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Gift Shop or call 704-455-3202 for details.

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NASCAR Hall of Fame

Neighborhood: Uptown
Charlotte equals NASCAR, so it's only natural that your stay would include a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Even if you're not a huge racing fan, this brand new museum (2010) is so well done that you'll be entertained (we were). Start your visit to the 150,000 square foot facility on the main floor exploring Glory Road, a banked ramp with eighteen historic race cars from different eras of NASCAR history. Then head over to the High Octane Theater, a 278-seat auditorium showing informational films. On the second floor, we like the racing team exhibits, including a full-sized hauler and a bevy of racing simulators. The Hall of Honor celebrates famous inductees. Our favorite part of the museum, hands down, is the Pit Challenge, where you can try your own timed pit stops. There's even a smaller version for the little ones. If you get hungry, grab a bite at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Café or the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. Admission is $19.95 for adults and $12.95 for children. 

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Carolina Raptor Center

Neighborhood: Huntersville

As an unusual attraction, the Raptor Center is also one of the best Charlotte things to do if watching carnivorous birds is on your activities list. The Center is dedicated to the conservation and rehabilitation of birds of prey. Located about 15 minutes from Charlotte in Huntersville, the center rescues, rehabilitates and releases birds of prey, but also has resident raptors on site. Take the self-guided tour along the ¾ mile trail on Latta Plantation Nature Preserve on the banks of Mountain Island Lake, and you'll see twenty-three different species of raptors. (Be sure to take the map or you might miss a few birds.) Check their website to see when they are releasing birds back to the wild. Our favorite animals are the owls, especially Dumbledor, who was named after the Harry Potter character. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children and kids under 5 are free.

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Mint Museum Uptown/Randolph

Neighborhood: Uptown
The last few years have seen a real art boom in Charlotte. Nowhere is this more evident than at the brand new Mint Museum Uptown, part of the Levine Center for the Arts. Just to be clear, Charlotte actually has TWO Mint Museums. While the Mint Museum Randolph tucked in historic Myers Park boasts collections such as Historic Costumes and Ancient and Native American art, the new Mint Museum Uptown displays premier Contemporary, American, and Craft + Design collections in addition to traveling exhibitions. At the Mint Museum Uptown, don’t miss focal points like Dale Chihuly’s Royal Blue Mint Chandelier or pieces like Carolina Shout by acclaimed Charlotte native Romare Bearden. Those are just the beginning though. We love spending the whole afternoon browsing the two full floors of galleries at Mint Museum Uptown. Don't forget to stop in at the Museum Shop, which specializes in crafts from the Carolinas. Meanwhile at the Mint Museum Randolph, a building that was once served the region as the first branch of the U.S. Mint, be sure to catch a glimpse of the city’s namesake, Queen Charlotte, painted by Allan Ramsay.

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Discovery Place

Neighborhood: Uptown

It’s geared toward children, but Discovery Place brings out the kid in all of us. Charlotte's only children's museum, this interactive attraction features hands-on activities and exhibits that explore various fields of science. Check the schedule for the daily shows and demonstrations. Our favorite stops are World Alive, where you can trek through a "rainforest" from a swinging bridge; and the giant human eyeball walk-through replica. Discovery Place just underwent a massive renovation, and their new aquarium is twice the size of the old one. The aquarium tanks house fish and the ever-popular stingrays. Check out the 3D Theatre and OMNIMAX, an IMAX theater and planetarium. Museum admission is $12 for adults and $9 for children. Kiddos under 2 are admitted free. Museum + IMAX combo tickets are $18 for adults and $14 for kids.

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