While Charlotte and Raleigh are the two largest cities in the Carolinas, they are also very different cities. That’s not to say one is better than the other; however, we deliberately chose to move to Charlotte after considering our options. Still, in comparing Charlotte vs. Raleigh, you must dig a little deeper to understand the nuance between the two cities.
We love North Carolina for the moderate climate, and Charlotte and Raleigh both sit between the mountains and the ocean. In this regard, the cities are similar, but there is a long list of differences worth understanding.
Charlotte vs. Raleigh: Top 5 Things To Consider
Since Raleigh is the state capital and is surrounded by top-tier universities, it has a much more institutional vibe than Charlotte. That’s not a bad thing. Raleigh features awesome museums that are a must-visit with kids.
Still, the Queen City features a booming urban core built along the city’s light rail. And while Raleigh might win a battle of museums, Charlotte features the Whitewater Center and three of the four largest major league sports.
And while Charlotte doesn’t have a subway system, it does have a transformative light rail system. It’s one of the reasons Charlotte feels like a significantly bigger city than Raleigh.
And still, most differences are much more nuanced, so we created this detailed comparison of the top 5 things you should consider when comparing Charlotte vs. Raleigh:
1. Job Prospects: Does Charlotte Or Raleigh Offer More Opportunity?
I am from central Florida, while my wife is from the Chicago suburbs. We decided to settle in between, and when we looked at different cities, one major consideration was big employers.
While small to mid-size employers are the lifeblood of an economy, large employers add a degree of stability and often a national platform. We chose Charlotte partly because of the number of Fortune 500 headquarters in the region.
Fortune 500 Company Headquarters
The Charlotte region is home to nine of the 13 Fortune 500 headquarters in North Carolina. While there is a friendly rivalry between Charlotte and Raleigh, Charlotte is the economic center of gravity for both Carolinas.
Fortune 500 companies in the Charlotte region include Lowe’s, Bank of America, Nucor, Honeywell, Duke Energy, Truist, Sonic Automotive, CommScope Holdings, and Bright House Financial.
Why does this matter? Well, it speaks to Charlotte’s diverse economy and the deep talent pool that exists throughout the region. It also means more job prospects, not only at these companies but at supporting and new companies drawn to the region as these big-name companies thrive.
International connectivity through Charlotte Douglass International Airport is another big draw. Did you know that Charlotte Douglas is the sixth busiest airport in the United States by passenger boarding? This is largely due to the number of connecting flights since American Airlines uses CLT airport as a hub.
Of course, it’s not all bad news for the Raleigh region. Advance Auto Parts is based in Raleigh, and the Research Triangle is a powerhouse in tech and biotech circles. IQVIA Holdings is a leader in analytics and clinical research services that is based in Durham.
Other Major Headquarters
The Charlotte region features more than 15 Fortune 1000 headquarters and more than half of the Fortune 1000 companies that are headquartered in North Carolina. In addition to the Fortune 500 companies listed above, you will also find Ingersoll Rand, Coca-Cola Consolidated, Sealed Air, JELD-WEN Holding, Dentsply, Domtar, Albemarle, and Curtiss-Wright.
In this way, Charlotte has big-city vibes. Major companies want to locate in Queen City, and it’s one reason professional sports have flourished (at least financially).
Of course, publically traded companies aren’t everything. Duke University & Duke Health Systems, alongside the State of North Carolina, are major employers in the Raleigh area.
Durham and Raleigh are about 30 miles apart, but the combined region throws a heavy punch when it comes to education and healthcare. In Charlotte, Atrium Health and Novant Health are major employers.
North Carolina offers a very diverse mix of employers and industries, which helps the state to maintain a bustling economy.
2. Sports and Culture in Charlotte and Raleigh
The friendly rivalry over sports and culture comes to mind in comparing Charlotte vs. Raleigh. Most recently, a group in Raleigh pushed for a professional soccer team, but the MLS awarded the new team to David Tepper and Charlotte instead.
Charlotte FC has been a major hit in the Carolinas, but not without some resentment from soccer fans in the Raleigh area. Now, a group in Raleigh is pushing for an MLB team to represent the Carolinas, but it remains to be seen if that will ever come to fruition or where a professional baseball team will land.
For now, the Carolina Hurricanes are the pride of Raleigh. The Carolina Hurricanes are a professional hockey team (NHL) that plays its home games at PNC Arena. The team has seen some major success over the years. The Hurricanes have won five division titles, two conference championships, and one Stanley Cup.
While the red and black uniforms are sharp, we love the Hartford Whalers throw-back sweaters. Those things are classics. Of course, while wearing the throw-back uniforms looks good, the tradition of sounding the siren before the game is the best tradition at PNC Arena. Several members of the Carolina Panthers have sounded the sirens through the years, as well as other big names like Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Charlotte’s biggest major league team has a pretty cool pre-game tradition, too. They have someone pound the ‘Keep Pounding’ drum to start the party. No professional team in Charlotte has ever won a championship, but the Carolina Panthers have twice played in the Super Bowl.
The ‘Keep Pounding’ comes from an emotional speech made by Hall of Fame Carolina Panthers player and coach Sam Mills. A prominent statue of Sam Mills sits outside the stadium to remember his legacy, and the entire city resonates with his spoken word.
Sadly, the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA are better known for their uniforms than their winning ways, and Charlotte FC is only a few years old.
The Charlotte area is also home to NASCAR’s headquarters, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and many of the race team headquarters. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is a fun visit in Uptown Charlotte, and you can also visit local race shops.
Minor League and College Sports
Minor league baseball teams scatter the Carolinas, including in the Charlotte and Raleigh metro areas. Have you ever heard of the movie Bull Durham based on the Durham Bulls?
There are also major Division 1 college programs across the Carolinas, including a major concentration around Raleigh. If you’ve never done so, look up how close UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Duke, and Wake Forest really are. It’s kind of incredible that they are so close.
So if sports are your thing, Charlotte offers more than Raleigh. And we didn’t even discuss other professional events such as the PGA Championship and President’s Cup, both of which have occurred at Quail Hollow in Charlotte.
Still, there is plenty to do in both metropolitan areas.
While Charlotte takes the lead with professional sports, Raleigh evens the score with an impressive slate of museums. That’s not completely unusual for a capital city, but Raleigh sets itself apart with quality.
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences might be the most recognizable museum in the state because of its three-story globe, which sits outside. But that’s just the eye candy to get started in this Raleigh museum featuring four full floors of exhibits. It’s a world-class museum that serves as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
You will also find the North Carolina Museum of History in downtown Raleigh. Plus, kids will enjoy the Marbles Kids Museum and the Marbles IMAX. Collectively, these museums are just some of the reasons people have referred to Raleigh as the “Smithsonian of the South.”
Down in Charlotte, you won’t find state-supported museums. Still, you will find the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Mint Museum, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture.
More Arts & Culture
When you are ready for a classy night on the town, Charlotte offers several theaters, including the Belk Theater, the Knight Theater, and the Ovens Auditorium. The Belk Theater is the most prominent of these three and plays host to Broadway musicals and Opera Carolina.
You can catch events at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium or places like the Durham Performing Arts Center, but it’s hard to beat a night on the town in Uptown Charlotte.
3. Parks and Recreation: Does Charlotte or Raleigh Reign Supreme?
Charlotte has long been knocked for having insufficient parks and recreation, but the best parks in Charlotte are must-visits. Freedom Park covers nearly 100 acres and features beautiful walking trails around a small lake. The walking trails connect to the adjacent Little Sugar Creek Greenway.
On the first warm day during spring, just about everyone ventures over to Freedom Park to enjoy the sunshine. There are multiple playgrounds, including a Play60 playground provided by the Carolina Panthers. There are also ball fields and even a steam locomotive for kids to climb inside.
Other popular parks include Romare Bearden Park and First Ward Park in Uptown, and McAlpine Creek Park, which features a fishing dock.
We would also call attention to the Cross Charlotte Trail (XCLT), which will eventually stretch over 30 miles across the city.
Of Course, Raleigh holds its own and features more than 200 parks in its own right. Raleigh is known as the “City of Oaks” because of the many majestic oak trees that provide a canopy over the city and a backdrop to the many parks and greenways.
The Capital Area Greenway Trail System offers more than 100 miles of trails in and around Raleigh. The well-developed trail system offers great opportunities for relaxed evening strolls, advanced cycling, and everything in between.
If you are looking for one must-visit park in the Raleigh area, start with Pullen Park. The 66-acre park is close to N.C. State University, and only five minutes from downtown Raleigh. Beyond the ample amount of green space, you will also find a historic carousel and miniature train. Plus, you can rent pedal boats too.
It’s hard to call a winner when comparing parks and greenways between Charlotte and Raleigh, but one thing is for sure. North Carolina is a beautiful state.
4. Population & Cost of Living – The Numbers
Much of this comparison is subjective, so comparing some numbers, like the population and cost of living, makes sense.
Is Charlotte Bigger Than Raleigh?
Comparing populations can be misleading because cities cover differing square mileage. It’s also true that Raleigh and Durham are mostly considered to be one metropolitan area. Still, the data still offers insight into the fabric that makes up each city.
Charlotte is nearing 1 million residents, while Raleigh is nearing 500,000 residents. Interestingly, Charlotte also covers twice the square mileage of Raleigh and is slightly less dense.
Charlotte has about 3,000 people per square mile, covering over 300 square miles. Square mileage aside, did you know that Charlotte is the 15th largest city in the United States? Charlotte recently grew past Indianapolis, Indiana, and now trails Columbus, Ohio, as the 14th largest city in the United States.
Raleigh features a density closer to 3,300 residents per square and the city, but the city covers only about 150 square miles. Comparatively, Raleigh is the 40th largest city in the United States, trailing Colorado Springs, Colorado.
When you consider Durham and other nearby cities, the comparison gets murky. And still, the population only offers one level of insight into the cities. The two cities “feel” much more different than the metropolitan numbers might suggest.
So, is Charlotte bigger than Raleigh? Yes, based on every metric, Charlotte is bigger. Charlotte is much more urban and has a much more prominent skyline. Raleigh feels more suburban.
Cost of Living
The cost of living isn’t quite as impacted by the square mileage as the population statistics. Still, there could still be some impact on how the metric is calculated. Nonetheless, Charlotte is slightly more affordable than Raleigh. Compared to other large American cities, both Raleigh and Charlotte fare well.
CNBC rated North Carolina as the best state for business multiple times, partly driven by the cost of living. While there may be differences between the cost of living in Charlotte and Raleigh, you see that they are fairly comparable when you zoom out a little. Both cities are also reasonably affordable compared to many emerging cities in the United States.
According to payscale.com, Charlotte’s housing expenses are approximately 18% lower than the national average. Surprisingly, Raleigh is a little more expensive, perhaps because of the high concentration of tech talent and stably-paid government workers. Raleigh’s housing expenses are 9% lower than the national average.
Even so, while housing is more expensive in Raleigh than in Charlotte, payscale.com calculates that living in Raleigh is still 1% cheaper than in Charlotte. That’s a small difference that could easily fluctuate. The takeaway is that the cost of living is essentially a wash when comparing Raleigh vs. Charlotte.
5. Skylines – Our Favorite Comparison Between The Two Cities
It’s hard to beat a nighttime skyline, and this is one category where Charlotte really outshines Raleigh and most peer southern cities. Plus, the skyline continues to sprout up at a staggering pace, even with the work-from-home phenomenon hurting commercial real estate.
For decades, the high rises were contained inside the I-277 loop surrounding Uptown. In recent years, the skyline has spread below I-277 to South End, making it one of the hottest submarkets in the entire country.
Just how impressive is the Charlotte skyline? Seventeen of the twenty tallest buildings in North Carolina are in Uptown Charlotte. Only two of the twenty tallest buildings are in Raleigh, and one of the top twenty sits in Winston-Salem.
Really, Charlotte’s skyline is more impressive than comparing Charlotte vs. Raleigh would lead you to believe. North Carolina borders Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina. There are only four buildings surpassing 500 feet in these four states combined (three are in Nashville).
Needless to say, there are plenty of things to do in Charlotte, but checking out the skyline is one of our favorites.
North Carolina is home to nine buildings surpassing 500 feet, eight of which are in Charlotte. The tallest building in Charlotte is Bank of America’s headquarters, which is 871 feet tall, which is 250 feet taller than the tallest building in Nashville.
Comparing Charlotte vs. Raleigh
North Carolina has beautiful mountains, beaches, big cities, and small towns. In comparing Charlotte vs. Raleigh, you will find the two premier cities. Charlotte is more urban, while Raleigh has a much more suburban feel.
People also like to compare Charlotte vs. Atlanta, Charlotte vs. Nashville, and even Charlotte vs. Greensboro, but the reality is that Charlotte and Raleigh offer a better comparison.
In some ways, Charlotte and Raleigh are very similar. For instance, Charlotte and Raleigh are both part of the Piedmont region in North Carolina. You can expect hilly terrain and beautiful fall foliage. The region is also characterized by hot and humid summers and mild winters.
Both cities are great to live in or worth a weekend visit.
Still, the cities offer plenty of differences. Charlotte has more people, a more impressive skyline, and more professional sports teams. Raleigh has impressive museums and is surrounded by some of the premier institutions of higher education in the entire nation.
While we’ve chosen to live, work, and play in Charlotte, you really can’t go wrong in either city.