I could hear birds chirping from a hidden perch somewhere in the lush foliage of trees lining the streets. One-story standalone shops and restaurants occupied street corners in front of low-rise, modern apartment buildings. A train on the light rail quietly hummed past me, carrying travelers in air-conditioned comfort while others opted for bicycles on the rail trail. The South End neighborhood has become a vibrant hub of shopping, dining, and drinking in the city – but could it be enough to satisfy visitors for a weekend getaway?
Just twenty years ago, the South End was an abandoned, neglected area of the city. South Boulevard – the main thoroughfare through the neighborhood – offered a hodgepodge of corporate big box stores but little else.
The term “South End” was first coined in 1994 with the creation of the South End Development Corporation. Over the next decade, nearly $300 million was invested in revitalizing the community. In 2007, a $2 billion investment in Charlotte’s first light trail kicked off a boom in new construction, renovation, and business development.
There are over 225 shops, restaurants, and breweries in the South End – and 45% of them are locally owned. During a recent visit to Charlotte, I decided to tackle an important question: could I spend an entire three-day weekend exploring just the South End comfortably and without getting bored?
Getting Around with the Light Rail
“Now arriving at Carson Station.” The announcement over the train’s speakers was monotone, but it created a tingle of excitement. The hum of the light trail train faded as inertia pulled me forward in my seat. The doors opened, and I stepped outside onto a concrete platform – the northernmost station in the South End.
In the distance, I could see the gleaming skyscrapers of Uptown Charlotte. But this would be as close as I would get. Instead, I turned my back to the skyline vista and began wandering through the South End. Bicyclists, skateboarders, joggers with children in strollers, and people with dogs in tow meandered along the wide sidewalks.
In 1852, the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad opened a track connecting Charlotte with Columbia, SC. It was the city’s first railroad and would remain in use for nearly two centuries carrying cargo and passengers. In 2007, plans for a public light rail transit were finally realized, and that original railroad corridor was put to new use.
The light rail runs parallel to South Boulevard – the “main street” through the South End – with nearly a dozen stations between I-485 and Uptown. Most of the local retail shops, restaurants, and breweries are within easy walking distance of one of the stations, making them the perfect way for weekend visitors to get around.
Pro Travel Tip
An all-day pass for the Light Trail costs about $4 and can be purchased at kiosks at every station. Tickets are not checked when boarding or deboarding but instead by random inspectors. Don’t be caught without a boarding pass – the penalty fee would cost the same as weeks of travel on the Light Rail.
The Charlotte Rail Trail
Riding the light rail is the best way to get between neighborhoods, but in the South End, the Charlotte Rail Trail is the best way to get between retail shops, breweries, and restaurants. The 4-mile rail-trail connects the proposed Terminus Park near the New Bern Station, through the entire South End neighborhood and Uptown Charlotte, to First Ward Park.
Running parallel to the light rail, the pedestrian-only path is used by locals and visitors to walk, hike, jog, and bike through the urban jungle. The trail connects residences with places to eat, shop, and play. It’s the perfect way to get around the South End during a weekend getaway.
In 2015, an effort began to add public artwork to the trail. Along with shady trees, comfortable benches, and bicycle repair stations, the Charlotte Rail Trail has become a vital part of the culture and landscape of South End.
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Coffee Shops in South End
The best way to start any day is with fresh local coffee. Unfortunately, while the local coffee scene has expanded through the Charlotte area – there are over a dozen fantastic caffeine joints to explore now – only four have made it into the South End.
Central Coffee Co. is a popular place for joggers on the rail trail to grab a nonfat latte to go. The dark wood paneling along the bar and chalkboard menu painted on the wall create a modern chic atmosphere. Peak around the corner to find plenty of comfortable seating while you enjoy fresh coffee, quiche, and scones.
At Not Just Coffee, you’ll find exactly what they promise: coffee, tea, breakfast, and lunch items. The South End location is in the historic Atherton Mills building – a textile factory from the late 1800s that made yarn. With only a few tables and chairs basically located in a hallway, the coffee here is meant to go.
Near the south end of South End, Stable Hand is in a shop that continuously seems to change hands. Over the years, I have seen a bottle shop, taproom, and entirely different coffee shop in this location. The current iteration features white painted walls and shelves with lots of natural light, creating an invigorating space to sit for awhile. Beans from Hex Coffee Roasters are ground fresh for every serving.
The Suffolk Punch is one of the most interesting coffee shops I’ve ever come across – it’s a coffee shop by day, taphouse at night, brewery all the time, and the food is fantastic. Beans are rotated frequently but wisely chosen to produce drip coffee, espresso, and cold brews. Comfortable booths in a spacious environment offer a great opportunity to enjoy a coffee while taking a break from exploring the South End.
South End Shopping
From local artisans to art galleries and boutique shops, South End has some of the best local shopping in the Queen City. It’s easy to wander along the comfortable sidewalks through the neighborhood window shopping – and even easier to take something home with you.
The Atherton Mills Complex developed throughout the 1890s as one of the premier producers of yarn goods. The mill – along with nearly a dozen throughout the Charlotte area – were owned by D.A. Tomkins, a New South entrepreneur who was instrumental in Charlotte’s early industrial development. Today, the 115,000 square foot facility is a premier residential and commercial destination with dozens of retail shops and restaurants.
The ultimate place to shop locally in the South End is Charlotte Collective. The small retail space showcases local artisans’ work that makes excellent gifts for yourself or others. Pop the Top Craft Beer Shop is the place to go if you’re looking for craft beer made throughout the Carolinas. At Paddywax Candle Bar, you can take wonderfully scented candles home with you – but you’ll have to make them first. Check their website for upcoming workshops or shop their retail store for candle-making kits you can take home.
704 Shop is the place to go for Queen City-themed clothing. The local shop features a large assortment of tops, hats, and essentials with their distinctive brand of local icons. Ole Mason Jar features the work of Filipe Ho and Bradley Rhyne. The fine clothing shop offers everything from casual shirts to formal suits. 128 Park Ave is one of many businesses started by former Panthers player Captain Munnerlyn. The clothing shop features brands he feels bring out the best in casual fashion.
South End Restaurants
True to the old-fashioned diners of the 60s, Midnight Diner is open 24/7, serving comfort food in a shiny aluminum box. If you’re looking for a bigger menu – and maybe a coffee shop, taproom, and brewery – then you need to visit The Suffolk Punch. Burgers, flatbreads, and salads – their Nola Mac-n-Cheese is out of this world.
The menu at Lincoln’s Haberdashery is simply divided between Mornin’ and Sandwiches – and both are served all day. It’s one of the few places in Charlotte where you can enjoy a savory breakfast meal all day. Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits – started in Charleston and recently expanded into the Queen City – offers melt-in-your-mouth biscuit sandwiches that are so buttery soft you’ll need a fork to eat them.
When you sit down with a wooden board holding a burger piled high with toppings and hand-cut fries, you know you’re about to have a great meal. Bang Bang Burgers cooks everything to order in a small shop with easy access from the light rail. When a couple of New Yorkers living in Charlotte missed the taste of really good pizza, they banded together to create Fuel Pizza inside an old defunct gas station. There are several locations around the city – including New York and Washington, D.C. – but you’ll want to stop by the one on South Boulevard.
Any trip to South End requires a stop at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. The Ohio-based creators of the delicious ice cream have a stand-alone shop near several restaurants and a light rail station. At Golden Cow Creamery, local owners Liz and Alex Hannah have a passion for creating homemade ice cream in a comfortable place for people to enjoy every bite. Two Scoops Creamery’s South End location is the second in the local chain owned by three best friends, Marques, Jae, and Rich. The friends serve ice cream made with top-secret family recipes.
Nate DeVillers and Alex Beebe started making doughnuts at a popup, but their chef-driven recipes quickly gained a following. South End was the first brick-and-mortar location for Pepperbox Doughnuts – they have since expanded into NoDa – where they serve savory pastries that include vegan options.
Did you know?
Jack Faulk and Richard Thomas opened the original location of Bojangles at the corner of West Boulevard and South Tryon Street in the South End neighborhood. Since then, Bojangles’ has expanded to hundreds of locations across the country and developed a reputation for their Cajun-style chicken tenders and made from scratch biscuits. There is still a Bojangles restaurant located at that intersection, although it is not the original building.
Breweries in the South End
As it turned out, old textile factories and warehouses work great as space for local breweries. As the South End began to revitalize, locals began buying the defunct spaces and converting them into gorgeous taprooms, productive breweries, and awesome places to hang out almost every night of the week.
The folks at Salty Parrot Brewing Company want to bring the beach to Charlotte with their quirky taproom and lineup of craft beers. You’ll find lagers, pale ales, and stouts on their menu – usually mixed with a citrus flavor for that beachy feel.
At Wooden Robot Brewery, founders and lifelong friends Dan Wade and Josh Patton wanted to bring a traditional Belgian farmhouse brewery into Charlotte. What exactly is a farmhouse brewery? They get all their malts and ingredients for their beer directly from local farms in the Carolinas. The spacious warehouse-turned-taproom features outdoor seating and is located a block from the Bland Station on the light rail.
The family-owned Sycamore Brewing is a lively destination for craft beer – just ask any of the hundreds of locals who crowd the indoor taproom and outdoor seating on the weekends. The brewers are fans of lagers, pale ales, and stouts, with a few additional seasonal offerings throughout the year.
In 2012, Chris Harker, Chris Murphy, and Christina Murphy banded together to create Triple C Brewing Company. When the Murphy’s left the brewery, Harker used the name to establish three core beliefs: craft, community, and commitment to the environment. At the large taproom on Griffith Street, patrons can relax inside, sit at picnic tables outside, and order oven-baked pizza to go with the craft beer.
Across the street, The Suffolk Punch is one of the most interesting and diverse breweries in the entire city. The doors open early, seven days a week to serve breakfast and delicious lattes, transitions to fantastic meals for lunch, and ends the day with lively entertainment with friends and family drinking craft beer.
In 2011, Lenny Boy Brewing Company started with a passion for brewing kombucha. Wait – what? Kombucha – a fermented black or green tea with health benefits – was the early passion of the founders. But in 2013, they expanded the business model to include a microbrewery. They moved into the gargantuan 32,000 square foot facility on Tryon Street three years later. Order a craft beer, take a seat at one of the comfortable wooden picnic tables, and enjoy the artwork hanging inside the beautiful brewery.
Where to Stay in South End
There is no shortage of great places to stay in the Charlotte area – but there is only one hotel in the South End neighborhood. Uptown Charlotte features quite a few luxury and mid-range hotels that are just a few minutes away by car or a few stops on the light rail. Further down South Boulevard, there are a few other options along I-77.
Sleep Inn is located along Tryon Street – an easy backdoor route into the South End. The hotel features free on-site parking and complimentary breakfast, but that’s where the amenities end at this budget-friendly option. Choose from rooms with two queen beds or a single king bed.
The Best Western on Woodlawn Road is another good budget-friendly option. It’s within walking distance to the Woodlawn light-rail station for quick access to the South End. Choose from rooms with two full beds or a single king bed.
Holiday Inn Express & Suites is the only hotel located in the South End – and it’s located in the heart of the neighborhood, one block from shopping and dining. The hotel features free on-site parking during the week with valet parking on the weekends. The comfortable rooms range from two queen beds to a single king bed.
Courtyard by Marriott would be an excellent place to stay while exploring the South End. Located on Tryon Street, it’s just a five-minute drive into the neighborhood. The hotel features free on-site parking, a market for midnight snacks, and a fitness center. Choose from rooms with one or two beds or go with a suite that includes a sleeper sofa.
Hampton Inn is always a great choice for staying in almost any destination. Located in Uptown Charlotte, this hotel is about a 15-minute drive to South End. The hotel features on-site parking for an additional fee, an indoor swimming pool, and a fantastic complimentary hot breakfast. Choose from rooms with two queen beds, a single king bed, or the King Study that includes a sleeper sofa.