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Hip downtowns in the Carolinas

Mint Museum, courtesy CRVA 

North and South Carolina downtowns are up-to-date urban in every sense of the phrase, with marvelous museums; tours of every ilk; art galleries that appeal to novice and refined tastes; eclectic shops brimming with boutique fashions, antiques and kitschy gifts; and restaurants to satisfy even the pickiest eater.

These cities are easy to walk, and some boast state capitol buildings. All, however, are flavored with a Southern seasoning, an unhurried embrace that can seduce a visitor like a welcoming hostess, creating lingering memories that lure the delighted recipient into return visits.

Charlotte, North Carolina
Home to the NFL Carolina Panthers and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Charlotte sports a downtown packed with great group attractions. The Levine Center for the Arts features three museums, including the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture. Close by, the Levine Museum of the New South interprets post-Civil War Charlotte with an award-winning, long-term, interactive exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers.”

“You can touch and feel cotton inside a real cotton gin and sit on a stool from a civil-rights-era lunch counter,” said Laura Hill, director of communications for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. “It’s a hands-on kind of experience, just like our new Experiential Tourism program.”

In addition to walking tours of every ilk, out-of-towners can get to know Charlotte better through experiences at 30 attractions in arts and culture, food and spirits, history and heritage, and racing and adventure. For example, at the new Mint Museum Uptown, Halcyon and e2 emeril’s restaurants offer food and wine pairings, followed by a visit to related exhibits such as “F.O.O.D. (Food, Objects, Objectives, Design),” facilitated by a Mint expert.

The Raptor Center protects 25 species of birds of prey on site, and groups can arrange for interactive programs with the birds and the staff. And Broadway buffs can sneak backstage to learn about their favorite shows at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

“Sixty-plus experiences are all set up and ready to go,” said Hill.

Columbia, South Carolina
With South Carolina’s state Capitol as its hub, metropolitan Columbia continues to renovate and repurpose its downtown historic buildings. Originally a cotton warehouse district with a busy railroad terminal, the riverfront Congaree Vista area has morphed into an arts and entertainment district. On either side of the brick-lined streets, former warehouse facilities and a train station now bustle with 60 upscale restaurants and bars, and more than 40 art galleries, retail shops and antique dealers.

Once a four-story textile mill, the South Carolina State Museum led the way in the reclaiming of historic buildings during the 1980s, and its floors teem with exhibits showcasing the art, history, natural history, science and technology of the Palmetto State.

“Main Street revitalization is bringing visitors and locals back downtown,” said Kelly Barberry, vice president of sales and marketing for the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism. “The Columbia Museum of Art, a Mast General Store and the new Nickelodeon Theatre are near the state Capitol. It’s all walkable. And because three rivers flow right through town, groups can kayak, canoe and tube.”

Groups can also tour Adluh Flour, a 1900s mill still in operation that towers over downtown; take a guided tour of the South Carolina State House Complex and its 18 beautifully landscaped acres; catch a concert or a play at the Koger Center for the Arts; or stroll the gardens of the historic Robert Mills House, home to the designer of the Washington Monument.

“It’s like walking through a page of history,” said Tony Maliza of Capitol City Lake Murray County Regional Tourism Board. “The gardens are alive and vibrant like they were back then.”