One of Charlotte's strong points 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, and visitors often find the city easy to enjoy with children around.
In the past 20 years, the amount of child-friendly options in Uptown Charlotte has grown exponentially. The recent additions of several new facilities, added to established favorites such as Discovery Place, has made it relatively easy to enjoy the center city while in the company of children. Other areas of interest may include South End, SouthPark, NoDa (during the day), and Ballantyne. With travelers in mind, this itinerary will focus primarily on Uptown options.
Needless to say, 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.
Highways - 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.
Airport - International visitors will most likely be arriving in the city via Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. See Charlotte for more information about traveling from the airport to the center city.
Parking - 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).
Gold Rush Trolley - This is 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 parents. 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! Look for stops along the busier streets.
Bus - Generally the buses in Charlotte are clean and feel very safe. However, kids are not always easy to deal with on a bus. 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.
Taxi - 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.
Rail - Beginning in 2007, light rail will be the best option for moving in and out of the center city from the south. The line will follow College St. out of Uptown, running along South Blvd. in South End and extending just past 485 near the South Carolina border. Also, the historic Charlotte Streetcar will be reactivated once the light rail line is completed, allowing a more intimate trip from South End to Uptown and back. Like the Gold Rush, this is a can't-miss for travelers with children; it also makes it convenient to combine trips to the two most family-friendly districts in the city.
This itinerary assumes good weather and ideal traveling conditions; if there is a major holiday or event, you may need to adjust your plans accordingly.
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.
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.
Gold Rush Trolley - When the kids get restless and lunchtime approaches, walk back up to Tryon St. and catch the Gold Rush Orange Line heading south (if you go the wrong way, don't worry; it loops around on a circuit). Ride past the Square (Trade & Tryon, with the big statues) and let a youngster pull the cord to stop near 2nd St.
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 -- Matt's Chicago Dog will satisfy most children, and Uno Pizzaria allows kids to design their own Chicago-style pizza. Once you've gotten lunch, 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.
South End Shuttle/Streetcar - For the time being, streetcar service is on hiatus; however, once it starts back up the nearest stop will be only a short walk from the Green. In the meantime, look for a Gold Rush Trolley with a "South End Shuttle" sign in the window, and catch it heading south. This will take you quickly out of Uptown and into historic South End. Check the free map in advance to decide which stop you'd like to take. Tickets are $1 each way, with a Free Fare zone between Morehead and 11th St.
Shopping - Since you can't do kid stuff all day, take some "me" time and check out the shopping in SouthEnd. The district 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. In particular, LoobyLoo Toy Store at 228 E. Blvd is one of the city's most interesting children's shops.
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 souvenier for Rover.
Pike's - Pike's Pharmacy is a Charlotte landmark, and a great place for kids of all ages. Once an old-fashioned pharmacy, the store has been converted into a soda shop/restaurant in the heart of SouthEnd. This is a great place to stop and get a tall milkshake or float, especially on hot days when the A/C is a relief.
Mr. K's - Keep feeding that sweet tooth at Mr. K's, a well-established ice cream shop at 2107 South Blvd.
Jillian's - If your kids are old enough to salivate over video games, they'll love Jillian's. As long as you get there before 9pm (when Jillian's becomes an adults-only sports bar), you can let them run free with tokens while you enjoy big-screen TVs and a solid menu of food and drink. By the time you arrive at this point on the itinerary, a mixed drink might be just what you're looking for.
Get back! - The trolley is the easiest and most direct route to Uptown. Alternately, you can drive directly up South Blvd. or Tryon St., or take a bus or taxi the short distance back.
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 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.
Bobcats Arena - Only a year old and already the center of attention in the entertainment district. The chances are good you will find a Bobcats (basketball) or Checkers (hockey) game going on in the fall or winter, and ticket prices aren't necessarily prohibitive -- check out the cheap seats. Probably the most family-friendly option is the WNBA's Sting, which plays during the summer and goes out of its way to welcome children (and the prices are extremely low). There are ample, but expensive, dining options inside.
ImaginOn - The Children's Theatre 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.
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 Pita Pit, Mert's, and 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.
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 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.