How to Have Fun in Charlotte for $20 or Less

How to Have Fun in Charlotte for $20 or Less

By Ryan Pitkin

January 25, 2024

Inflation has slowed down some lately, but everyone has felt a pinch in their wallet at this point. That said, if you’re looking to spend a day or a weekend of fun in the Queen City—whether as a visitor or local—there are plenty of options for things to do that won’t set you back a mortgage payment. 

We’ve compiled a list of hangouts and regularly occurring events that won’t cost you any more than $20 per person—heck, some won’t cost you anything. These ideas for a day or a night on the town are spread throughout the city, separated by neighborhood, so find something to do near you and have a blast without blowing too many bucks. 

North End: Camp North End

300 Camp Road

Over its 100 years in existence, this property has hosted a Model-T and Model-A Ford factory, a Quartermaster Depot during WWII, a missile plant during the Cold War, a pharmaceutical plant, and now Camp North End. 

Today, the 73-acre campus is home to dozens of local businesses while serving as a haven for artists, whose murals can be viewed in every corner of the grounds, it seems. It would take at least a couple of hours to seek them all out, with The Boileryard providing a good spot for a break, its swinging chairs and benches creating an outdoor lounge atmosphere under the rustic water tower. If you do have a few bucks to spend, try Seemingly Overzealous, the dairy-free ice cream shop, or stop in at HEX: Coffee, Kitchen, and Natural Wines. They won’t break your bank.  

Ballantyne: Ballantyne’s Backyard

11611 N. Community House Road

In 2021, commercial real estate agency Northwood Office opened Ballantyne’s Backyard, a new community park on a former golf course in the Ballantyne neighborhood of south Charlotte. Ballantyne’s Backyard features more than 100 acres of lush green space with the former cart paths making up miles of running and walking trails and the water hazards now serving as catch-and-release fishing holes.

Since opening, Ballantyne’s Backyard has hosted public events such as the annual Charlotte International Arts Festival, a summer outdoor concert series, monthly open-air markets, outdoor movies, and group fitness classes. 

Uptown: Wednesday Night Live

Levine Avenue of the Arts & South Tryon Street

How to Have Fun in Charlotte for $20 or Less

Wednesday Night Live offers free admission to the three neighboring museums and venue at Levine Center for the Arts in Uptown—The Mint Museum, The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, and Knight Theater—between 5-9 p.m. every Wednesday, with live entertainment or programming at one of the four institutions each week. 

The special programming, which rotates among the four partners, has included everything from Brazilian dance performances to spoken-word artists to film screenings. To kick off the new year, for example, Mint Museum hosted an experimental dance and projection performance by Eric Mullis, director of Goodyear Arts at the aforementioned Camp North End. 

West Charlotte: US National Whitewater Center

5000 Whitewater Center Parkway

How to Have Fun in Charlotte for $20 or Less

Sure, many of the activities at the US National Whitewater Center (USNWC), which opened in west Charlotte in 2006, cost well over $20, but there are many ways to enjoy your time at USNWC without spending more than the daily parking fee. 

The center maintains more than 50 miles of trails for mountain bikers, hikers, and trail runners—no activity pass needed. Just be sure to check the status of the trails on the website prior to accessing them. 

In the warmer months when the rapids open up, you can picnic on the grass next to the water and watch folks kayak and raft down the class IV rapids all day (you will see some spills). Catch some live roots rock, Americana, bluegrass, folk, and funk for free during the River Jam sessions on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from May through September. 

University City: UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens

9090 Craver Road

How to Have Fun in Charlotte for $20 or Less

Photo courtesy of UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens via Facebook

Launched in 1966 on the newly-established Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina system, the Botanical Gardens were the brainchild of biology professor Dr. Herbert Hechenbleikner and UNC Charlotte founder Bonnie E. Cone, created to serve as a living classroom for biology students and as a horticultural and botanical resource for the campus and greater community. 

In more than a half-century since, the Botanical Gardens have evolved into the special resource that exists today, comprising 10 acres of outdoor gardens, a 4,500-square-foot glasshouse with attached workspace, and teaching classroom that contains a 1,200-plus-book botanical and horticultural library. The three garden sites feature 16 collections, including the rare Titan Arum, and admission is always free. 

NoDa: The Evening Muse Find Your Muse Open Mic

3227 N. Davidson St. 

How to Have Fun in Charlotte for $20 or Less

Located in the heart of NoDa, Charlotte’s arts and entertainment district, The Evening Muse has been one of Charlotte’s best small-sized music venues for more than two decades. While nearly every show runs well under $20, you can always count on Find Your Muse, the weekly open-mic show hosted by Dollar Signs frontman Erik Button that features a number of great local comedians and singer/songwriters rotating on and off stage between sets from the night’s feature act—all for just $5. 

This is not just any old open mic with amateurs throwing things at the wall to see what sticks—it is a talent incubator where you’re guaranteed to see some of Charlotte’s best fledgling performers. 

South End: Charlotte Rail Trail

How to Have Fun in Charlotte for $20 or Less

The Charlotte Area Transit System opened its long-awaited Lynx Blue Line light rail in South End in 2007, and while it has since become a main artery of the city’s transportation system, what has formed alongside that first phase of rail is equally special. The 3.5-mile Charlotte Rail Trail connects Sedgefield, Southside Park, Brookhill, Dilworth, Wilmore, and South End to Uptown, and is by far the most scenic urban walking trail in the Charlotte area. 

The Rail Trail is a great place to discover cafés and bars, explore galleries, see artists at work, stumble upon an impromptu jam session, take an afternoon stroll with your family, or relax on a bench and watch the city come alive around you.

East Charlotte: Charlotte Museum of History

3500 Shamrock Drive

How to Have Fun in Charlotte for $20 or Less

Long an integral educational institution of east Charlotte thanks to its location next to the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander homesite, the city’s oldest home, in recent years the Charlotte Museum of History has reinvented itself by consistently offering more contemporary exhibits and programming that’s appealing to younger and more diverse populations. 

Let’s look to February, for example, when the museum will host Banned Book Story Time on Feb. 6 and its renowned annual African American Heritage Festival from Feb. 22-24. Not only was the AAHF awarded Best Cultural Celebration of 2023 by Queen City Nerve, but it includes free admission for the whole weekend. Of course, you can still get your fill of old-school history with a tour of the Alexander homesite, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year.


  • Ryan Pitkin

    Ryan Pitkin is a writer and editor based in Charlotte, where he runs an alternative weekly newspaper called Queen City Nerve. He is also editor of NoDa News, a community newsletter in the neighborhood where he has lived for 15 years.

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