Charlotte is a city on the cusp. One of the fastest growing cities in the country, the population has grown by thirty percent in the last decade. A hub for business and innovation, the city is also attractive due to its central location as well as its well-organized layout and eye towards progress. Also known as the “Queen’s City” as it was named for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who had become queen consort of Great Britain the year before the city’s founding, Charlotte is a jewel that shines in the crown of the eastern seaboard.
An extremely bike-friendly city, with wide-bike lanes and an easily navigated layout, there’s no better way to explore than on two wheels. I arrived at the office for my morning Food & Culture Bike Tour of Charlotte a few minutes early, eager to start. My guide Tremaine is a Charlotte native and was keenly interested and involved in the changes that were coming to Charlotte. He was also a history buff, having served as a docent at a local museum; I knew he would be an excellent guide.
I met the three ladies who would also be part of our tour, sisters who had met in Charlotte for one of their birthdays. After filling out the requisite paperwork and being fit for helmets (including one with a Mohawk of plastic spikes—very avant garde), we walked down to the garage to choose our rides for the day. As Charlotte is a relatively flat city with few hills, we were given cruiser bikes with comfortable seats and a single speed, so changing gears was not an issue. Tremaine gave us a brief safety talk about keeping together and paying attention to traffic signals and his hand signals and we were soon off.
Our first stop was not far down the road, as we started the tour in the heart of the Charlotte: Trade & Tryon. A four-way intersection that was once the cross-roads of two Native American trade paths, was filled with art that not only commemorated the history of the area but also celebrated the future. From Charlotte’s beginnings as the location of the country’s first gold rush (a 17-pound gold nugget was found in 1799) to its integral participation in the Revolutionary War to its rise as a center for farming and textiles to its rise as a center for banking and business, Tremaine relayed stories of the past as well as a look at what was to come, like at our second stop at the end of the public transportation line.
A light rail system that connects commuters throughout the city, this public transportation system will soon be expanded to the west, adding another nine miles of rail and connecting the University of North Carolina to the downtown area. At the current terminus is the 8th Street Public Market that houses a variety of stalls featuring artisan coffee, cheese, cupcakes and wine, as well as more substantial fare like gourmet pizza and sandwiches. This market, Tremaine explained over coffee and a cupcake, is indicative of the collaborative feeling of the city, the idea that different businesses and people can come together to be a greater as the sum of its parts.
The weather was perfect for a bike ride and as we rode from the market through the Fourth Ward (the downtown area is divided into four wards; each has a distinctive feel to it), I had to remind myself to pay attention to the road as I admired the Victorian houses and tranquil tree-lined streets that characterized the area. Charlotte and its surrounds have become a hub for filming and as we rolled down the streets, Tremaine pointed out locations from Homeland (Charlotte stands in for Washington, D. C.) and the Hunger Games movies (the capital scenes of Panem were filmed in Charlotte).
Our next stop was Alexander Michael’s, known to its patrons as Al Mike’s. Almost hidden on a side street in the Fourth Ward, Al Mike’s is housed in a Victorian home and has been a locals’ favorite for more than 30 years. We arrived just as the doors were opening for lunch, which was fortuitous timing as the place was soon packed with everyone from suited professionals to laborers. Al Mike’s is known for their fried pickles, which are only available after 4 p.m., but we were all very impressed with the homemade veggie burger on pita bread as well as the pint that we shared of the IPA from Triple C, a Charlotte brewery.
But there was more to see so we soon pushed off yet again, heading back into the more commercial area of the city, past the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art with the “disco chicken” (an art piece whose actual name is The Firebird) to Amelie’s, a French patisserie with two locations. The original location is a few miles outside of city center, but the new downtown location is already a popular spot and holds the same charm and tasty treats as the original. With a salted caramel brownie (a signature item) to share, there was a marked silence as the first bite was savored; for the next few minutes, only a few moans of pleasure were heard as the last crumbs were devoured.
Fully satiated, we hopped back on the bikes for the ride home. There is an abundance of green space in the city and we took a quick ride through Romare Bearden Park, one of the major green spaces in Charlotte, and a park dotted with directional signs that proclaimed that, yes: Charlotte is the center of the world. It was a fitting end to the tour, as everything that we had seen and heard indicated that Charlotte is continually growing, securing its place as a hub, if not the center, in the changing world.
–Contributed by Katie Coakley