It’s no surprise Charlotte North Carolina was voted one of the best places to live in 2022 by US News & World Report.
On a recent road trip from NYC to Atlanta, I stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina and discovered a wonderful destination worth exploring. With excellent hotels, top-notch dining, and sprawling parks even in its downtown core, Charlotte proved to be a dynamic city. There’s so much to experience and enjoy in Queen City, and it’s rapidly growing as a favorite Southern city for the LGBTQ community.
Air travelers will be happy to discover that Charlotte Douglas International Airport (cltairport.com) is undergoing a 10-year airport renovation and expansion project to the tune of $3 billion. Whether you’re arriving or passing through, in the future Charlotte airport will appear to be one of the most advanced in the country, guaranteed to garner attention with its future-forward design, more amenities, gates, stores, restaurants and, most importantly, increased passenger comfort.
Charlotte has a prominent cityscape, the perfect marriage of cosmopolitan flair and Old Southern charm, diverse neighborhoods, rapid development, and a growing economy (it’s the second largest banking hub in the USA behind NYC), and great weather. It’s no surprise Charlotte was voted one of the best places to live in 2022 by US News & World Report (it’s been on the list consecutively for many years).
Charlotte is also getting more inclusive day by day. Charlotte Pride (charlottepride.org) has been going strong since 2000, and the city continues to move forward in a progressive direction.
In fact, in 2021, the City Council of Charlotte, NC passed a non-discrimination ordinance that protects the city’s LGBTQ population from discrimination of any kind, including gender identity, familial status, and sexual orientation. In January 2022, Carolinas LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce partnered with NASCAR (headquartered in Charlotte), which became the organization’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion partner. This is the first time NASCAR has ever partnered with an LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Furthermore, in March 2022, The Carolina Panthers and Charlotte FC welcomed members of Charlotte Pride to show commitment for engagement and support moving forward.
“Charlotte is a large LGBTQ-affirming city that has been able to retain its charm as a welcoming, hospitable place for visitors and newcomers, alike,” says Matt Comer, Charlotte Pride’s Director of Operations. “Our LGBTQ residents, business owners, bars, and other organizations have truly integrated in a wide range of LGBTQ-affirming neighborhoods.” He adds that the Charlotte Pride Festival and Parade began as a single-day festival with 2,500 people in 2001 and now “attracted 200,000 visitors at our last in-person event in 2019, making it one of the largest Pride events in the Southeast. In the Queen City itself, the event is the city’s largest street festival and parade each year. The growth is a testament not only to our event organizers, but also to the growth of Charlotte as a whole.”
Affirming Charlotte’s growth in tourism is the number of new hotels (about 8 since 2021), most of which are located in Downtown Charlotte. The most recent is JW Marriott Charlotte (600 South College, Tel: 704-333-1101. marriott.com), opened August 2021. JW Marriott Charlotte is part of Ally Charlotte Center (think indoor/out door dining, open spaces, urban gardens). Located inside a towering 23-story building, it features 381 rooms (including 34 custom suites), three restaurants, and a rooftop with an open-air pool and Aurora bar. I loved that the hotel taps into Charlotte’s beautiful connection to nature (the rooftop has “English garden” vibes, and plenty of natural light in public spaces, and floor-to-ceiling windows in guest rooms). Sometimes I felt I was at a convention hotel; other times, I felt I was inside an urban resort. For those who really want fresh air, book the executive suite with a massive outdoor balcony that can host up to 15 people.
Iconically gay- and pet-friendly Kimpton opened Tryon Park Hotel (303 South Church, Tel: 704-445-2626. kimpton.com), just a few blocks from JW Marriott. Kimpton’s new design direction and vision has been one of my favorites for a hotel chain the past few years. Think: upscale stylish, tech forward, and sexy. A lot of the newer Kimpton’s across America feel like luxury residences. Tyron Park Hotel is an 18-story hotel, but it still feels quite intimate and modern with visually compelling crystal chandeliers and art in the sun-drenched lobby. There are 217 rooms, many with balconies, but all with floor-to-ceiling windows offering enormous views facing Truist Field baseball stadium and Romare Bearden Park.
From my balcony, it was fun to watch outdoor yoga classes and dog walkers. For even better views, head up to Merchant & Trade, the 19th-floor rooftop bar. Don’t expect an easy breezy entrance. You generally need a reservation, and there’s a dress code, but in the end, it’s worth it. Cocktails are top-notch, the views are commanding, and the fried chicken sandwich, with perfect crunch, juicy breast, and tangy sauce, hits all the right notes.
While not new, Ivey’s Hotel (127 North Tryon Street, Tel: 704-228-1111. theiveyshotel.com) deserves a mention. The 7-year-old is a hidden gem and feels like a residence. In fact, it’s only 42 rooms across two floors of a converted 1920s department store in the uptown district. In 2024, the building will be 100 years old, and a lot of the history resonates here. The rooms are intimate and stylish with Art Deco and mid-century furnishings, and the lobby had zero “hotel lobby” vibes. It almost felt like an oversized, cozy library meets rich friend’s living room where I wanted to hang out all day.
Charlotte’s dining scene is a culinary thrill, with many great options from which to choose. Optimist Hall (1115 North Brevard Street, Tel: 980-701-0040. optimisthall.com) opened in 2021, and is unique for Charlotte. This 147,000-square-foot modern food hall inside a former gingham mill, with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, is a “best of” dining destination with both emerging and well established regional chef-led eateries. Expect an eclectic mix of restaurants. I made a beeline to Charleston-famous Boxcar Betty’s, known for its fried chicken sandwiches, and I even tried the infamous grilled cheese sandwiches at Papi Queso.
Para (235 West Tremont Avenue, Tel: 704-812-0607. paraclt.com) in the hip South End serves as a model for the new, progressive direction in Charlotte’s dining renaissance. Not only does Para focus on small plates (think tapas versus traditional Southern family style), it’s quite swanky and classy without being ostentatious. The menu has a global approach, and I adored the Asian influence in the Korean street corn with gochujang (a spicy sauce I grew up eating) and the ahi poke.
Italian restaurant Angeline’s at Kimpton (angelinescharlotte.com) was also a nice surprise, and quite possibly the first Kimpton restaurant I’d define as an unarguable “hot spot.” In fact, it was packed on a Tuesday evening with the after-work crowd. All pastas are made in house, and the signature ricotta with lavender honey pistachio was perfectly creamy atop a buttered toast. The cacio e pepe (bucatini, pecorino, toasted black pepper) was simple, yet memorable. It didn’t leave me full after, and it was a nice break from my fried chicken streak.
I also had to dine at Tupelo Honey (101 South Tyron, Tel: 980-270-7268. tupelohoneycafe.com), one of the most popular independent restaurant chains in the South. It’s native to Asheville, where I first dined in the mid 2000s, and my meal left such an impression thanks to fresh baked breads, made-from-scratch ingredients and perfect fried chicken. My meal in Charlotte was equally memorable and delicious. The crispy Brussels sprouts had a light char, perfect with the garlic buttermilk ranch, and since I had been indulging in so much fried chicken during my visit, I went with the incredibly fresh Caesar salad (but OK, fine, with fried chicken added).
These days, I find it challenging to cover gay nightlife in “What’s New” stories. As more LGBTQ individuals go onto apps to meet, a new gay bar or club opening is rare in any city in the world.
“Charlotte is a large LGBTQ-affirming city that has been able to retain its charm as a welcoming, hospitable place for visitors and newcomers, alike.”
Fortunately, Charlotte’s gay scene doesn’t need a new bar or club; the institutions and local landmarks work just fine, and most of the action centers around NoDa (short for North Davidson), aka “the gayborhood,” a progressive area known for young artsy types hanging out in bars, galleries, shops, and restaurants.
In Charlotte, I found the gay bars low-key, soulful and, for the better part, unique, many rich with history, such as The Scorpio (2301 Freedom Drive, Tel: 704-373-9124. thescorpio.com). As the city’s oldest gay bar and club (since 1968) it’s considered a landmark for locals, and hosts some of the most fun drag shows in the city.
More low key is Petra’s Bar (1919 Commonwealth Avenue, Tel: 704-332-6608. petrasbar.com), a gay-owned venue specializing in live performances (rock bands) and karaoke. It’s more of a “mixed” crowd (though gay owned), and the back patio is a magnet for youngsters who like to socialize.
Since Charlotte is a “sports” city, you can find plenty of action at Stonewall Sports Charlotte (stonewallcharlotte.org), an LGBTQ and ally non-profit sports league known to organize recreational activities (think: kickball, volleyball, bowling). If you’re a rugby fan, Charlotte Royals Ruby Football Club (charlotteroyalsrugby.com), a gay men’s rugby team, has quite the following of fans, and you can watch them in action or even meet them at one of their social gatherings.
With the city’s undeniable progressive approach to culture and identity, elevated dining that goes beyond traditional Southern fare, future-forward modern hotels, and an LGBTQ scene that’s wonderful and full of gay Southern charm, Charlotte has every right to be known as “The Queen City,” and I already h ave it on my list of great places to return to in 2023.