Keep your kids active and entertained on a family trip to Charlotte. (Photo: Alamy)
There’s no shortage of kid-friendly activities in Charlotte, both indoors and outdoors, and we’ve selected a handful of the coolest. The best thing about the following excursions is that they’re fun for parents, too. The second best thing about them? They’re totally free.
Create and Imagine
What happens when you cross an award-winning children’s theater company with a nationally recognized library? At ImaginOn, the goal is to help children develop literacy, but for kids, the key element here is fun.
This collaboration between Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has become one of city’s hottest destinations for families.
The children’s theater’s ticketed productions are staged here, but the building is also filled with free activities for kids of all ages.
In the Park Family Story Lab, preschoolers dress up and present their own impromptu performances on a book-shaped stage, while kids create shows in the puppet theater.
Upstairs, Studio I is a place for teens to flex their creative and tech muscles, with recording booths, animation technology, iMac computers, a blue screen and plenty of software and props.
Families have special hours to make use of the space as well.
Also at this stop is First Ward Park, perfect for letting off steam or enjoying a picnic. If you’re driving, park in ImaginOn’s parking lot or 7th Street Station.
Hitting the Trail
The Mecklenburg County Greenway System is a network of 37 paved miles and more than a hundred unpaved miles of trails that run adjacent to the county’s creeks.
They crisscross the city and beyond, providing a haven for wildlife as well as paths for bikes, feet, strollers and scooters. Entries onto the greenways are in neighborhoods, shopping centers and schools.
The system is made up of more than 15 different greenways around the county, and each is named for the creek it runs alongside.
The most urban of the greenways is Little Sugar Creek Greenway, which boasts a breathtaking skyline view at dusk, as well as the Trail of History, a growing collection of sculptures of Charlotte’s historical figures.
Tip: Use this Greenway map to find all the entries to the greenways and to plan your excursion.
Meet a Snake
Or maybe a frog, if snakes freak you out. The best places to meet these creatures face-to-face are the three nature centers within the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department: Reedy Creek, Latta Plantation and McDowell.
The nature centers provide habitats for some small animals native to the area and also host hands-on nature learning for kids.
Throughout the year, the centers present festivals, campfires, hikes, scavenger hunts and workshops, most of which are free of charge.
Each nature center is located in a nature preserve, so the learning extends from the building to miles of trails, ponds and lakes.
Hint: Each nature preserve has its own special features. Right outside Reedy Creek Nature Center is a natural playground, and a short hike through the nature preserve brings you to ruins of the 18th-century Robinson Rock House. McDowell Nature Preserve offers camping, including rent-a-tent sites.
Latta Plantation shares space with two unique attractions: Carolina Raptor Center, an educational center where visitors meet and learn about birds of prey that are being rehabilitated for release into the wild, and Historic Latta Plantation, a living-history farm that offers a glimpse into life on a cotton plantation in the 1800s.
Visit Museums for Free
Charlotte has a rich museum scene, and many of them feature a free day each week or month. Here’s a rundown.
The Mint Museum
The Mint Museum, an art and design museum with two locations — Randolph and Uptown — is free to visit on Wednesday evenings at both outposts. It’s also free daily for teens who join the (also free) NexGen MINT program.
Once a month the museum’s Uptown location puts the focus on families with Sunday Fun Days. On those days admission is free for kids and half-price for adults. Visit the website for the schedule.
Tip: The Mint Museum Uptown is part of Levine Center for the Arts, which includes two more museums you shouldn’t miss: Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture.
While you’re there, pose with Charlotte’s most iconic photo op, the sparkly Firebird sculpture in front of the Bechtler.
Levine Museum of the New South
The Levine Museum of the New South, which tells the story of the South from post–Civil War times through the modern day, is free the first Sunday of the month for groups of fewer than 10 people and is half-price all other Sundays.
President James K. Polk State Historic Site
The President James K. Polk State Historic Site, a living-history museum devoted to our 11th president, is always free to visit.
Hint: Every summer, many museums across the country participate in Blue Star Museums, a program that offers free admission to military families between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The Bechtler takes it a step further and offers free admission to military families all year.