There is more to Charlotte than NASCAR. The North Carolina town exudes genteel ways and Southern charm. It’s a place where you can sip sweet tea from a mason jar, spend a languid afternoon in a rocking chair and wander through historic plantation homes. True to its racing roots, Charlotte is also on the fast track to become one of the greenest cities in the Southeast.

Charlotte’s mayor, Anthony Foxx, has made a commitment to green the Queen City. He signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, vowing to reduce emissions to levels that meet or exceed the standards of the Kyoto Protocol. Foxx, who was elected in 2009, is pushing for projects that will create green jobs and implementing policies that promote environmental stewardship, including supporting LEED projects and adding more green vehicles to the city’s fleet.

A growing number of green restaurants, shops, hotels and attractions have helped put Charlotte on the map as a worthwhile eco-friendly destination. What are you waiting for? It’s time to plan a visit.

Taste green

The restaurant scene has exploded in Charlotte, attracting chefs from across the nation. Although fried chicken, collard greens and sweet tea are still staples of Southern menus, more Charlotte restaurants are starting to focus on local and organic ingredients.

Ratcliffe on the Green pioneered the Farm to Fork movement in Charlotte. Executive chef Greg Balch designed the menu to include ingredients like heirloom vegetables, grass-fed beef and farm fresh eggs that are grown or raised on local farms and harvested at their peak. The menu changes with the seasons and features Carolina cuisine like Southern shrimp and grits, Eastern North Carolina BBQ and mac-and-cheese. Balch often hosts chef/farmer dinners that are served on local farms.

Farm-to-table cuisine is also the focus at Nolen Kitchen . In addition to dishes like roasted free-range chicken, double-cut pork chops and spinach pie, diners flock to the restaurant for regular wine tastings that often pair 100 percent organic wines with vegetables and meats from local farms

Even local pizzerias are baking pies with the environment in mind. At PieTown , the pizza and paninis are topped with organic garlic and free-range eggs. The menu also includes microbrews from local breweries.

Play green

When it comes to green recreation, Charlotte has some great options for both arts and culture and outdoor activities.

The U.S. National Whitewater Center is a must-see. The 307-acre facility is an official U.S. Olympic training site that’s open to the public for rafting and recreation. Skip the man-made rapids and zip lines in favor of a flatwater kayaking tour of the Catawba River or an afternoon of hiking or mountain biking along the 14 miles of trails.

Green thumbs will want to tour the botanical gardens on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The gardens feature native plants, a waterfall pond and a butterfly terrace spread over 10 acres. It’s also one of the most diverse rhododendron gardens in the Southeast.

The newest addition to the arts landscape in Charlotte is the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art . The collection includes 1,200 works from artists including Picasso, Warhol, Degas, Braque and Klee and an outdoor sculpture garden. Although the museum did not seek LEED certification, the new building does have several sustainable features, including a terra cotta exterior that includes recycled content, daylighting and a heating/cooling system that is shared with a neighboring theater.

Shop green

A growing number of Charlotte’s independent boutiques are showcasing green products.

Book Buyers takes recycling to a whole new level. As the only dedicated used bookstore in Charlotte, the store has a reputation for stocking everything from trashy romance novels to thin volumes of poetry at bargain prices.

On Saturday mornings, the Tailgate Farmers Market is the best place to find locally grown fruits and veggies, organic eggs, free-range meat and a host of other goodies, including handmade soaps and candles.

Charlotte is also home to an American Apparel store. The mecca for eco-conscious fashionistas offers colorful clothes made from organic cotton that are manufactured in the USA.

Sleep green

In a city filled with chain hotels, it’s hard to find a green standout — at least it was until the Ritz Carlton burst onto the scene. The 146-room hotel opened in 2009 and was designed to achieve LEED gold certification, and features amenities like a green spa and wellness center, restaurants with menus with organic and local ingredients, and a rooftop green space. To encourage guests to lessen their carbon footprint during their stay, the hotel offers bike rentals and free valet parking for guests driving hybrid or electric vehicles.

Jodi Helmer is the author of Moon Charlotte (Avalon Travel, 2010), a travel guidebook for exploring the Queen City.

Destination of the Week: Charlotte, N.C.
This Southern town has plenty of arts, local food and outdoor recreation. And a green-minded mayor, too.