Now the largest city in North Carolina, Charlotte is a popular destination for those looking for the perfect mix of entertainment, arts, culture and cuisine.
Though the South is generally cheaper in comparison to places like New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, that doesn’t mean everything in Charlotte will be budget-friendly – and indeed, as the city grows, so do prices. But if you're a cost-conscious traveler looking for a deal, all is not lost. Here’s our list of the best free and cheap things to do in Charlotte.
Spend the day in Romare Bearden Park
Named for influential Black artist Romare Bearden, who was born in Charlotte, this park is located in the heart of uptown. With views of the city’s skyscrapers towering above, you can spend hours zoning out on a blanket or getting lost in a good book.
The park has a unique waterfall that comes alive and changes colors at night. It's been the backdrop of many photos and even proposals over the years. For families, there’s a small interactive section with stepping stones that play music.
On any sunny day, you can find people hanging out enjoying the views with relatives, pets and friends. There are plenty of restaurants in walking distance, including pizza chain Mellow Mushroom just across the crosswalk, Angeline’s in the Tryon Kimpton Hotel and Day & Night, a build-your-own retro cereal bar across the street in Latta Arcade.
Stroll UNC Charlotte’s botanical gardens
It’s almost shocking that something so beautiful is free, but it’s no typo. Spend a few hours leisurely strolling the 10 acres of UNC Charlotte’s gardens, pausing for a break on the wooden and stone benches found throughout the property.
The outdoor gardens are open year-round, but if you prefer something inside, there's also McMillan Greenhouse, which features a variety of exotic plant life, such as tropical ferns and orchids.
Guided tours are offered for small groups, but you’ll need to arrange them in advance. Prefer to stroll on your own? No worries – there are maps laying everything out, and most of the plants and flowers have labels so you’ll know what they are. Look out for the garden’s corpse flowers, aka stinky plants. There are currently two: Odie and Rotney the Magnifiscent.
Run or bike the greenways
Charlotte’s greenways are a haven for those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle while getting in a good workout. The trees, rustic bridges and adjoining stream will make you feel like you’ve traveled to another town.
In total, the area has about 49 miles of developed greenways for running, walking and biking. The most popular, Clark’s Creek (sometimes called Mallard Creek) extends a little less than 7.5 miles. Parking is free at the many entrances across the city.
Listen to live music at Armored Cow Brewing Co.
Who doesn’t love great live music? Now add that to sitting on a patio while drinking local craft beer, and you’ve found one of Charlotte's best evening activities that doesn't require a lot of money.
Although there are dozens of breweries across the city, Armored Cow in the University area has a large patio space that welcomes musicians, local vendors and even a lineup of food trucks on Friday nights in the fall. It's also pet- and family-friendly, as are most breweries in town.
Hike Crowders Mountain
Escape the city for a few hours by taking the 30-minute drive from downtown Charlotte to Kings Mountain. There you'll find Crowders Mountain State Park, which is home to several hiking trails, including the popular Pinnacle Trail, ending at a lookout to the Charlotte skyline. Trails range from about 2 to 6 miles in length.
There are covered picnic shelters and public bathrooms for use in the park. Parking is also free. Be sure to pack a lunch, or at the very least a few snacks and bottled water to fuel your hike.
Plan a Wednesday-evening trip to the museum
In late 2021, three Charlotte-area museums launched an initiative to get more people enthused about the arts. Every Wednesday from 5pm to 9pm, you can visit the Harvey B Gantt Center, Mint Museum (both locations) or Bechtler Museum of Modern Art for absolutely nothing.
Each of the three museums showcases different art forms. The Harvey B Gantt features works of local and national Black artists from a range of mediums, and the Mint and Bechtler have exciting rotating exhibits all-year-round.
Enjoy a festival at Freedom Park
Considered one of the OGs of Charlotte-area parks, Freedom Park is a city landmark, especially for locals. The park has a large human-made lake perfect for strolling around, as well as sports fields, playground equipment and an old train popular with kids. There's no charge for parking.
In late September you can check out the annual Festival in the Park. Admission is free, but the food and artwork are not, so come prepared to browse or just pack your blanket and hang out on a nice day.
Take a self-guided city mural tour
Each year Charlotte adds nearly a dozen murals to its buildings through the Talking Walls festival, when local, national and international artists come together to brighten up as many city sites as they can.
While there’s no designated map for finding every mural in the city, the Talking Walls website has the locations of each year’s new commissions. From there, map out your own route to check out the larger-than-life works of art, or stage an impromptu photoshoot and create some serious FOMO for your friends.
Score tacos for less than $2 at Sabor Latin Street Grill
With eight locations in Charlotte (most with their own parking) and several more in the surrounding area, getting your Taco Tuesday fix at Sabor Latin Street Grill is very easy – and you won't spend much either. The weekly special features the restaurant’s tacos autenticos for $1.49 a pop, filled with chicken, beef, black beans or veggies and topped with onion and cilantro. (Extra charges may apply for premium proteins like steak or shrimp.)
But not to fear: if you miss Taco Tuesday, you can still get tacos autenticos for cheap – $2.95, to be exact – on any other day.
Sip cheap mimosas in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood
Charlotte’s NoDa (North Davidson) neighborhood is known for its laid back eclectic vibe, and that only heightens on the weekends, when many of the neighborhood’s bars and taverns feature cheap mimosas for brunch. You'll also find beer specials during the week.
At Billy Jack’s Shack, you can pay as little as $1 for a 10oz Pabst Blue Ribbon and, on Sundays, $4 for mimosas, while JackBeagle’s has $3 mimosas and Bloody Marys all day on Saturday and Sunday. Both spots also have good deals on food as well.