Free and Cheap Things to Do in Charlotte
Banish boredom with these Queen City activities, all priced under $10.
by Jen McGivney
Per a COVID-19-related Mecklenburg County health directive issued Jan. 12, 2021, please note that some businesses may have modified their hours of operation and changed procedures in order to comply with CDC and Mecklenburg County Health Department guidelines. Please wear a mask, limit any non-essential activities and refrain from gathering with anyone outside of your household.
Tight budget? Never fear. Charlotte has plenty of activities that don't cost a dime. We've curated a list of free and cheap things to do in the city. Everything listed here is priced under $10, meaning you can focus on making memories, not money. To take full advantage of all that Charlotte has to offer, check out our travel deals page for even more budget-friendly options.
Anne Springs Close Greenway
$5 Daily Use Fee
It’s just 15 miles from Uptown, yet Fort Mill’s Anne Springs Close Greenway feels like a rural escape. Bring your mountain bike or your hiking shoes, and explore the beautiful 2,100 acres here. While some areas keep you in good company with visitors, it’s easy to find a trail offering quiet, uninterrupted time with nature.
Kate’s Skating Rink
Charlotte Motor Speedway isn’t the only place to experience fast left turns on wheels. The three locations of Kate’s—two in Gastonia and one in Indian Trail—offer retro, family-friendly fun, showing that no matter how quickly change comes to the world, there’s a place that has no need for improvement: an old-time skating rink.
Find Your Muse Open Mic
For a few bucks, you can enjoy a night of live music at The Evening Muse in NoDa. Each Monday evening at 7:30, the microphone at Find Your Muse is shared by host Erik Button, a special guest performer and fresh faces performing all genres of original music. Perhaps you’ll leave with a new favorite.
How does Charlotte have so many breweries yet so many fit people? The secret: beer fitness. Work For Your Beer’s weekly Brewsletter lists yoga classes, run clubs, cycling groups and boot camps associated with breweries. The group gives hope that you don’t have to trade having a six-pack when you have, well, a six-pack.
Cinemark Movies 10 Matthews
$3 Movies and Half-Off Tuesdays
With patience comes savings. Watch second-run movies at Matthews' Cinemark Movies 10 on the cheap. For the price of a ticket at a first-run movie theater, you can add a bag of popcorn, too. And if you come on Tuesdays, you’ll score even cheaper tickets: just $1.50 (plus tax), all day.
$8 for a 24-Hour Pass
Give your cardio some scenery, and design your own Charlotte bike crawl. A 24-hour pass gives you a day of rides between 24 stations around the city. Your route might begin at the beautiful Johnson C. Smith campus, meander through Uptown, stop along a few Rail Trail favorites and wind up at Freedom Park.
Wine and Color Wednesdays
Science says so: Art therapy reduces stress and encourages creativity. At Coco and the Director, you can pair art therapy with wine-and-dessert therapy. On Wednesdays, the beautiful Uptown coffee shop offers adult coloring pages, as well as $5 glasses of select wines and half-priced pastries.
Science on the Rocks
$10 without IMAX
Adults like to play, too. So each third Friday of the month, Discovery Place Science opens after-hours to let adults in on the fun. Each event offers a special theme—like Nerd Olympics or Wizarding World—as well as contests, music, cocktails and fun activities to match. Liquid nitrogen wine slushie, anyone?
U.S. National Whitewater Center
At the U.S. National Whitewater Center, get your cardio in with free trail access for hikers, bikers and runners, and then relax in a sunny spot by the rapids to enjoy watching the rafters maneuver (and occasionally flip). Thursdays through Saturdays during the warm-weather months, River Jam brings great bands for free shows, and summer festivals offer free yoga, music, and some of Charlotte’s best fireworks.
Raclette Night at Orrman’s Cheese Shop
$10 for standard plate, Thursdays 4 – 8 p.m.
Raclette comes from the French word “racler,” which means “to scrape.” It’s an apt name for a cheese that melts perfectly and scrapes evenly over food. See and taste for yourself on Thursday evenings at Ormann’s Cheese Shop in the 7th Street Public Market. Buy a $10 plate of potatoes, bread and cornichons (French pickles), and Orrman’s will scrape hot, melty cheese on top for a decadent dish.
Whether you want to tutor children, foster shelter dogs, visit senior citizens or write grants, you have plenty opportunities to support your community. Volunteer organizations like HandsOn Charlotte and Share Charlotte offer hundreds of opportunities, searchable by interests, locations and skills, that connect you with causes that need a hand.
Abari Game Bar
Reminisce on the 8-bit days of your childhood—or possibly of your parents’ childhoods—with classic video games at Abari. Whether you want to grab a controller of a Sega Genesis, hit the arcade or play classic pinball, Abari’s got options to keep you entertained on the cheap. If the game cost a quarter back in the day? It still does here.
Wing Haven Gardens & Bird Sanctuary
$10 Admission, Children 10 and under are free
Walking into Wing Haven is like walking into a secret. From the road, you have little idea of what awaits you on the other side of the brick fence in Myers Park. Once inside, you’re treated to gardens full of lush flowers, bushes and trees, all planted to attract birds. Stones engraved with poetry and scripture add inspiration to beauty. This was the private garden of Elizabeth and Edwin Clarkson before opening to the public. Be sure to watch the video before touring to appreciate the history of this garden and its two animal-loving creators.
Who doesn’t love a parade? Charlotte has many reasons to throw one, including Martin Luther King Jr. Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Come to Uptown (take light rail to avoid parking, if you can), line the streets and celebrate.
ImaginOn is a children’s library that makes adults jealous. Activity spaces encourage kids of all ages to explore and to learn, whether they’re a budding scientist or an aspiring novelist. Kids even have studio access to create videos, music and costumes. Keep an eye on the event calendar for cool (and free!) events.
Open Streets 704
Streets—and people—go car-free several Sundays each year for Open Streets 704. A route extending several miles and winding through several neighborhoods closes down to cars and opens up to bikes, scooters and feet. Enjoy family-friendly fun along the way, like live music, crafts and carnival games, all to celebrate the heart-healthy benefits of staying on the move.
Reed Gold Mine
Free Admission, $3 to Pan for Gold
In 1799, the Reed family of Midland, North Carolina, found a pretty 17-pound yellow rock on their farm, which came in handy as a doorstop for a while. Turns out, it was the first gold discovery in the U.S., which sparked a Southern gold rush. Visit the Reed Gold Mine to learn the history, and—if you’re feeling lucky—to pan for gold yourself.
The Billy Graham Library
At the time of his death, dignitaries from around the world gathered at The Billy Graham Library to honor “America’s Pastor” Billy Graham. Through 2018, the library is featuring special exhibits of photos and memorabilia from Graham’s life, which will include examinations of his international reach, his embrace of technology and his legacy.
The Light Factory
Admire photography and film from emerging and established artists at The Light Factory in Plaza Midwood. The pieces in the gallery continually change, introducing new works and rotating exhibits. Evening lectures and Artist Talks offer opportunities to learn about art from those who create it.
James K. Polk Historic Site
Before he became the country’s 11th president, James Polk grew up in Pineville. On the land the Polk family once owned, a tour guide in period attire takes you through buildings that resemble those that stood here in the early 1800s. The James K. Polk Historic Site also offers a visitors’ center with special exhibits and a film about Polk’s life.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport Overlook
The Charlotte Douglas International Airport Overlook is simple enough: a grassy area, a few benches. But it’s the view that brings people here: a front-row seat to watch airplanes take off and land on the Charlotte Douglas runways. It’s rare for an airport to offer public viewing areas, and this is a popular one for families, photographers and plane enthusiasts.
Sure, you know an IPA from an amber. But how well do you know how beer is brewed? Many breweries in the Charlotte area offer free tours to give you the behind-the-scenes details. Try an Old Mecklenburg Brewery tour on weekends at 2, 3 and 4 p.m., or learn about Legion Brewing Company’s operations on weekends at 2 p.m.
Grab your bike, scooter or running shoes. Mecklenburg has 37 miles of greenways (so far), including the McAlpine Creek Greenway, where you might spot a river otter or a rare purple wildflower. Or give your cardio an educational slant on the Trail of History, which lines the urban stretch of Little Sugar Creek Greenway with bronze sculptures honoring Charlotte’s history.
UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens
Free; Guided Tours $5
Here’s a secret: One of Charlotte’s prettiest gardens is free to tour. At the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, you can explore 10 acres of outdoor gardens—the Van Landingham Glen and the Susie Harwood Garden—or you can wander around the greenhouse, which includes a Dinosaur Garden with "living fossils."
Charlotte Regional Farmers Market
So many veggies, fruits and flowers. The Charlotte Regional Farmers Market is a delight to the senses, offering all the ingredients of a delicious summer dinner. It’s more than produce, however; on Saturdays, butchers, bakers, cheesemakers and even vintners are here, many of whom offer free samples.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Storytimes
The old days of libraries being quiet, stuffy places are no more. Bring your kids to story times at library branches—check cmlibrary.org for locations, dates and times—that has kiddos of all ages engaged with stories through songs and movement activities. The library even hosts bilingual story times, perfect for Spanish-speaking families as well as English-speaking families who want to introduce their children to a new language.
More murals continue to appear around town, making art and poetry out of walls, underpasses and bike trails. To create your own mural crawl, go to NoDa and simply look up. A few murals of note: a mural under the Matheson Bridge and a 1,200-square foot mural on the wall of Jack Beagle’s, both by artist William Pucket, and a wall poem at 3204 N. Davidson St. by William Harmon.
Create-Your-Own Bar Crawl
South End. NoDa. LoSo. Uptown. Just about every neighborhood offers its own opportunities for custom bar crawls, but we’ll offer two ideas. If you want to spend the night in Montford, start with bowling or bocce at 10 Park Lanes, then hit Moosehead Grill and Angry Ale’s for some beverages, and end the night belting out tunes at Jeff’s Bucket Shop. If you prefer Plaza Midwood, start at Workman’s Friend, then head to Thomas Street Tavern and Common Market. Round your night out with a late-night burger at The Diamond Restaurant.
We’re spoiled for great hikes within a few hours. An hour and a half north of Charlotte, we have Stone Mountain, with its stunning 600-foot granite face; Craggy Gardens, which explodes in rhododendron blooms each June, is two and a half hours away. Then, of course, there's Crowder’s Mountain. Although Crowder’s can get, well, crowded, the views from the top are worth it. Gaze at vultures floating on air currents below and spot a tiny Charlotte skyline, 30 miles east.
Levine Museum of the New South
$9 Adult Admission, Half off on Sundays
Increase your Charlotte IQ with exhibits covering our city’s history (“Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers”), the role of social justice (“K(NO)W Justice K(NO)W Peace”) and civil rights (“Let Love Reign”). But the Levine Museum of the New South is more than words and images: Panels, tours, and even book clubs enable learning and foster understanding through conversation.
Charlotteans don’t have to travel far to get a dose of nature therapy. Before hitting the trails, though, learn about our native flora and fauna at the Reedy Creek, McDowell and Latta Plantation nature centers. Each center is free and welcomes visitors with trail maps, discovery halls and even a few live animals to see up close.
Free Admission on Wednesday Evenings
There are two Mint Museums—one Uptown and one on Randolph Road. At the Uptown museum, visit the Romare Bearden Gallery to learn more about this Charlotte-born artist whose visual art was inspired by jazz. At the Randolph location, learn about Native American cultures through ceramics, textiles, baskets, and performance masks, spanning over the past two centuries.
Gantt After Dark
Enjoy free admission to one of Charlotte’s most beautiful art galleries (and most striking buildings) during Gantt After Dark, hosted the third Thursday evening each month at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Each celebration has its own theme, but count on live music, light appetizers, conversations with artists, and access to world-class exhibits in painting, photography, film, and more.
Crown City Comedy
Enjoy brews and a packed event calendar at Crown Station Coffeehouse & Pub. Each Wednesday is Crown City Comedy night, an open mic event hosted by comedian Mimi Benfield and her dog Fiona. Look for free reggae on Sundays, jazz on Mondays and soul on Tuesdays.
Beer Education Night
You always meant to go back to school; Growler’s Pourhouse makes it more fun than you probably expected. On the first Tuesday of each month, Beer Ed is in session. Past classes have included Beer & Bourbon and Doughnuts & Beer. Expect expert insight and free samples.
Ditch the Sunday night blues and get in touch with your inner rock star at Snug Harbor’s karaoke party. Each Sunday at 6 p.m., Bryan Pierce hosts the party at this Plaza Midwood music venue, and you choose the tunes and hit the stage.
Free the Mic
Find words of inspiration with the Guerilla Poets at this open mic reading at Mugs Coffee on the second Wednesday of the month. With the mission of proving poetry is for everyone, the group seeks out other poetry stages around town when they aren't dropping verses off Park and Selwyn.
South End Gallery Crawl
On the first Friday evening of each month, devote a night to admire art in South End, whether your preferred medium is paint, jewelry, pastels or mosaics. Enjoy free receptions at places such as the Dilworth Artisan Station, Lark & Key Gallery and the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Cocktails in the Courtyard
What's better than cocktails and a view? Weekday evenings, The Duke Mansion hosts this free happy hour event with cash bar. The 4.5 acres surrounding this century-old Myers Park estate offer picturesque places to sip among the peonies, camellias and crepe myrtles.
Food Truck Fridays
Remember when Charlotte had just one Food Truck Friday? No longer. With Food Truck Fridays held in South End (at Sycamore Brewing), in Matthews (at Stumptown Park), in Dilworth (at corner of Scott Avenue and East Boulevard) and more, you have plenty of options for al fresco (and inexpensive) dining.
Queen City Cinephiles
Attention indie movie lovers: You’ve found your tribe. Enjoy curated independent films with fellow cinephiles, then stick around for a discussion and Q&A. Screenings are held at breweries and bars, and each night has its own theme, like Creature Features and War Films.
Competitors are welcome. Google is not. Almost any weeknight, you can find a trivia night at a restaurant or brewery to flaunt your knowledge of miscellany and exercise your creative chops in team naming. Hit Lebowski’s for trivia on Tuesday nights, Heist on Wednesdays, and Ed’s Tavern on Thursdays, just to name a few.
Charlotte Knights Game
$8 Advanced, $10 Day of Game
The BB&T Ballpark cheap seats aren’t seats at all: a grassy hill by the first base line offers great views for less than 10 bucks. From April through September, enjoy Friday fireworks, let kids run the bases on Sundays, and watch the Knights transform into the Caballeros during Copa de la Diversion (Fun Cup) nights. Bring a picnic blanket, buy a hot dog and, of course, some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.
Camp North End
In the 1920s, these buildings produced Model T Fords. In the 1950s, guided missiles. Today, Camp North End is a 75-acre hub for cultural, entrepreneurial and educational groups. Attend a free art reception at Goodyear Arts, grab a coffee and pastry during Saturday Morning Markets, and enjoy live music and food trucks here on Fridays, from May through October. Look for one-off festivals and movie screenings to crop up, too.
Ramsey Creek Beach in Lake Norman
$5 Per Car for Mecklenburg Residents
A summer day at the lake. Enough said. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, Ramsey Creek Beach has enough to keep you here all day, whether you’re here for the swimming beach, the boat launch, the dog park, the volleyball court or the nature trails. Tip: Save a few bucks by catching the free shuttle from the Northcross Park and Ride lot in Huntersville.
No matter how old someone is, the desire to run through spraygrounds never really goes away. During the summer, Mecklenburg Park and Rec offers free spraygrounds all around the county—Cordelia Park, First Ward Park, Latta Park and The Green, to name a few—for days when it’s too nice to be indoors but too hot to stay dry.
Dave’s Paddle Boats
It’s impossible to feel stressed while pedaling a paddleboat, and the pond at the Shoppes at University Place offers such an opportunity to unwind and have kid-like fun. Each boat belonging to Dave's Paddle Boats can fit up to two adults and two small children, and the rental price covers a 30-minute ride.
Front Porch Sunday in South End
A pop-up festival emerges the first Sunday of each month, April to November. Stroll past tables of local vendors, have your pick of food trucks, enjoy live music, and try to resist the adoptable dogs from the Greater Charlotte SPCA. What could be more South End than that?
Forget Netflix. True movie fans know the thrill of a big screen and an audience. Enjoy movies in the great outdoors at Craft Growler Shop and Tasting Room, the Outdoor Cinema Series in Cornelius, Movies in the Park in Huntersville, or Movies on the Green at Promenade on Providence. On nights that call for air conditioning, try Movie Night Saturdays at Coco and the Director.
Alive After Five
The Rooftop Stage at the EpiCentre brings the after-work crowds here for free live music each Thursday night from April to September. This year—the event’s 18th—adds another band to the stage each night, so you can see two bands in one night.
Sounds on the Square
Each Friday from May through August, Blumenthal Performing Arts brings free outdoor concerts to the Square at Spirit Square. Acts as diverse as Temperance League, Gina Robinson and Biscuit Miller will take turns taking the stage. Whether your jam is rockabilly, gospel or jazz, you’ll find music to enjoy beneath the lights of Uptown.
Romare Bearden Park
Romare Bearden Park offers an impressive lineup each summer, often bringing big names from Charlotte and beyond—like Amanda Shires and Sinners & Saints—to Live on the Green each Friday. Wednesday nights feature Party in the Park, showcasing all genres of music. Bring a blanket and picnic to the lawn beneath Uptown’s towering skyline.
Charlotte Jazz Fest
Each spring, you can find plenty of free entertainment during Charlotte Jazz Fest, whether you want to fill your Uptown lunch break with music or take your jazz al fresco at Romare Bearden Park. The fest also includes a second line—also free!—which invites attendees to join in the New Orleans-inspired celebration.
Circle K Speed Street
Each May, downtown Charlotte transforms into Speed Street ahead of the races at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While the big shows on the Coca-Cola main stage have an admission cost, the rest of the events are free. You can get autographs from your favorite drivers, listen to concerts on the Mello Yello Stage and tailgate with your favorite Charlotte sports mascots.
Taste of Charlotte
Free Admission, $10 for 7 coins
Every year for a week in June, the streets close to cars and open to food vendors and food lovers during the three-day Taste of Charlotte festival. Over 100 samples will compete for your attention and your coins—from biscuits to barbecue, pizza to pad thai—so we recommend making a loop before making your choices.
Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas
The Juneteenth Festival commemorates the end of slavery and honors the spirit of freedom through a celebration of African-American culture for three or four days every June. This Plaza Midwood festival showcases international drum circles, African dancing, art, fashion, food, storytelling and seminars about the cultural heritage of slaves.
Free without Game Admission
One of the best Fourth of July fireworks shows in the region happens at BB&T Ballpark after the Knights play. You don’t need a ticket to enjoy a great view of the SkyShow Charlotte fireworks, though; any number of places near the ballpark offer great vantage points, especially from the lawn of Romare Bearden Park. (Tickets to the game start at $12 if you want the whole shebang, but they sell fast.)
Bojangles’ Summer Shootout Series
$8 for Adults, Free for Kids
The future stars of NASCAR put on a family-friendly show at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with everything from school bus races to drag races to a go-kart battle between local sports mascots. Ten rounds of the Bojangles' Summer Shootout Series occur throughout June and July on the frontstretch 1/4-mile oval.
Panthers Fan Fest
Price Announced in July
There’s only one upside to the end of summer: the start of football season. Early August, prepare to keep pounding at Fan Fest by cheering on the team at practice, dancing along with the TopCats and feeling the bass of the PurrCussion drumline. You must reserve a ticket to get in on the fun—watch for ticket sales in July.
Each August, Charlotte Pride brings well over 100,000 people to Uptown, with participants as diverse as small nonprofits, big banks, churches, gay bars and politicians, all supporting the LGBTQ community. Musicians, drag performers and comics entertain all day, and parties at bars extend the excitement into the early morning. The parade gets bigger each year.
Festival of India
$7 Admission, Free for children 10 and under
This Uptown festival celebrates the diversity of Indian culture through performances of traditional Indian and Bollywood dances, film screenings, and an art gallery. Vendors offer Indian foods and souvenirs for sale, and a Kids Art Pavilion allows children to create India-inspired crafts under the guidance of a local artist.
Celebrate the last weekend of summer with three days of food, fun and entertainment, all while raising money for local nonprofits. Kids enjoy carnival games and rides, adults shag dance to beach music, and everyone comes together for one of the Southeast’s largest Labor Day parades.
Festival in the Park
Artists fill Freedom Park with paintings, pottery, candles and more during this annual September festival. Wander through exhibit tents, talk with artists and maybe find something pretty to take home. Bands and food vendors inspire lovely picnicking on the hill, and the lights strung between tents reflect off the pond to give the festival a magical touch each evening.
Yiasou Greek Festival
$3 admission, accompanied children 12 and under are free
Opa! Yiasou Greek Festival is one of Charlotte’s great festivals, and it has been since 1978. Thousands flock to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Dilworth to clap along to live music, join folk dancing, and learn about Greek history and culture through lectures and exhibits. Don’t leave without visiting the dessert tent, offering homemade pastries, most of which are just a couple dollars each.
The International Festival
Experience the cultures of 50 nations without a passport. The annual festival, which has been around for more than 40 years, brings the art, music, costumes, and crafts of international cultures to UNC Charlotte. Indoor and outdoor stages showcase music and dance performances, booths sell international food, and even the game zone offers an education in culture and history.
About 60,000 people will celebrate the heritage of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America at the Hola Festival. Explore the Latin American Cultural Village, which brings the art, food and clothing of 15 countries to Uptown. Or you can dance along to musical performances from international performers on two event stages. Demonstrations will give your feet some pointers, whether you’re looking to improve your skills on the soccer field or the dance floor.
Christmas Town, USA
Move over, Clark Griswold. McAdenville attracts 600,000 visitors from around the country with its bright holiday lights. They string 375 trees with lights on Dec. 1, and they light them each night through Dec. 26. You can drive or walk through the light display for free, or come for the Yule Log Parade and enjoy free hot cocoa and kettle corn while you watch.
Celebrate Kwanzaa and each of its principles—unity, self-determination, working together, supporting one another, purpose, creativity and faith—with festivals and events all over Charlotte. Kwanzaa Charlotte holds workshops to teach families about the holiday and hosts celebrations all week long to honor each of the principles.
Charlotte Checkers 1950s Night
Admission Price Varies
Reminisce over the days—and prices—of yore. On 1950s Night in January, the Checkers restore mid-century pricing to celebrate Charlotte’s emergence as a hockey town in 1956. Get tickets for a Checkers game for a buck or two, dollar hot dogs, and 50-cent sodas and popcorn. And, of course, you get to dance with Chubby Checker… the Checkers’ mascot, that is.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebrations
Honor the legacy and continue the work of Martin Luther King Jr. through free commemorations and celebrations throughout Charlotte. HandsOn Charlotte invites the community to join a day of service, offering volunteer opportunities to support neighbors in need. Friendship Missionary Baptist Church offers free and inexpensive musical programs. And museums like the Levine Museum of the New South and Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture offer free lectures and music.