Charlotte is the largest city in the Carolinas and offers all of the amenities and attractions that you can think of. Still, is Charlotte, NC, a big city? It probably depends on your perspective. Charlotte may not seem that big if you grew up in Chicagoland (like Erin) or a world-class city like San Francisco.
What makes a city feel big will vary from person to person. Heavy traffic and a dense skyline might make a city feel big to some people. A dense urban core with walkable communities and transportation options (e.g., light rail) might make a city feel big to someone else.
And Charlotte checks both of those boxes, but you will likely still need a car to get around Charlotte. For some people, whether or not a car is a bellwether for how big a city truly is. But few cities have subway systems as developed as New York City or Washington D.C.
Suffice it to say Charlotte’s size is a matter of perspective. Let’s explore more.
Is Charlotte, NC, A Big City? It Depends…
Charlotte is the 15th largest city in the United States based on population. Of course, that is a little misleading. Charlotte actually has a larger population than San Francisco, which we mentioned as a world-class city. It is also more populated than its mega-city peer to the south, Atlanta.
That’s because a city’s population is strictly counted based on the residents in the city limits, and some of the cities might cover twice the land area as other cities. It is probably better to compare metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs).
Interestingly, the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC MSA, as it is known, is the 22nd largest MSA in the country. And the MSAs housing Atlanta and San Francisco both rank higher than Charlotte.
Regardless of how you look, Charlotte is a top 25 US city, and it feels larger than that.
5 Reasons That Charlotte, NC, Is the Perfect Size
To many of its residents, Charlotte feels like the perfect size. Charlotte has a beautiful skyline, professional sports teams, light rail transportation running through popular neighborhoods, and more. And while traffic is bad, it’s nothing compared to traffic around Atlanta.
1. Big City Amenities with Small Town Feel
Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) is a major hub for American Airlines, which makes it one of the busiest airports in the entire country. Charlotte Douglas is a major economic engine for the city and state, and it also conveniently connects residents to wherever they might want to go.
And within the city, the light rail anchors a transformed center city. The light rail runs through Uptown Charlotte, which is great for commuters in surrounding neighborhoods, but the Rail Trail might be the big drawing card.
Charlotte’s Rail Trail is a parallel pathway to the light rail tracks. The Rail Trail is why Charlotte has modern walkable neighborhoods (like South End and NODA), and it is just fun to visit. There are murals, art installations, skyline views, restaurants and retail, and offices and apartments.
South End in Charlotte is one of the few neighborhoods in the entire Southeastern United States where you can get by without a car for transportation.
Charlotte offers the convenience of public transportation, diverse restaurant and shopping options, year-round entertainment options, and professional sports. You will also find top-rated medical care and professional services. There are tons of advantages to living in a big city.
Still, Charlotte has charming and quaint neighborhoods that feel much smaller. You will also find plenty of endearing southern hospitality. And while you can feature professional sports or a Broadway musical one night, you can stroll through a quiet park the next day.
Is Charlotte, NC, a big city? Yes, but Charlotte is also a short drive from the mountains. You can easily find a remote waterfall near Charlotte or a quaint mountain town where you can spend a relaxed day strolling the streets.
2. Growing Economy
While small businesses are the engine that keeps the economy humming, big businesses cluster in the biggest cities. The fact that several of these big companies continue to choose Charlotte for relocation and expansion is evidence that Charlotte’s economy continues to boom.
For example, when BB&T Bank and SunTrust Bank merged, they chose Charlotte as the headquarters for the newly formed Truist Bank. And Honeywell moved its headquarters from the New Jersey suburbs to Uptown Charlotte. Truist and Honeywell are Fortune 500 companies that employ thousands of people in the Charlotte area.
These companies joined the likes of Lowe’s, Bank of America, Nucor, Duke Energy, and Sonic Automotive, which are Fortune 500 companies that already called the Charlotte region home. In total, there are nine Fortune 500 companies in the Charlotte region and 17 Fortune 1000 headquarters.
In addition to these signs that the Charlotte region is growing, we already mentioned Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) estimates that CLT airport contributed more than $30 billion to the state’s economy last year.
All of this economic activity trickles down to the rest of the region’s workers. Corporate executives need accountants to do their taxes. Those accountants need someone to dry clean their nice suits. The dry cleaner needs to buy supplies. And the corporate executive, accountant, dry cleaner, and supplier all need grocery stores and restaurants.
By nearly any measure, Charlotte’s economy is majorly important to both Carolinas.
3. Unique Neighborhoods and Culture
One thing that we love about Charlotte is that the various neighborhoods have very distinct vibes and offer unique cultural communities. And while the neighborhoods are very different, they also neatly sit side-by-side as they circle the center city.
Uptown Charlotte is the central business district filled with skyscrapers, but did you know Uptown is divided into four wards? The four wards are divided by Trade and Tryon streets. Each ward has it’s own distinct feel.
The South End community has been one of the hottest submarkets in the entire country in recent years. The area was previously known as an industrial neighborhood filled with warehouses, but the light rail changed all of that.
In the years since the CATS Blue Line finished construction, thousands and thousands of apartments filled the neighborhood. Retail and restaurants followed the density, and now high-rise office towers are filling the neighborhood too.
In some ways, NODA replaced South End as the trendy neighborhood, but it has a much different vibe. It has long been home to much of the Charlotte arts community.
You will also find cool spots meshing history and modern culture, like an ever-popular food hall, called Optimist Hall, which is revitalized mill. Optimist Hall has great food, and even better atmosphere.
Camp North End is also a fun spot. In it’s past, Camp North End served as a Ford Model T production facility, and later as a WWII Army depot. The spot north of Uptown now houses corporate offices, small businesses, food joints, co-working, and residential.
Other neighborhoods, like Elizabeth and Dilworth, are residential neighborhoods filled with cute bungalows. These older neighborhoods are also lined with massive oak trees.
We could go on. Charlotte has many different neighborhoods, each with its own culture and feel.
4. Many Things To Do
There are so many things to do in Charlotte that there is something for everyone. When we have guests visit town, the Whitewater Center is high on our list of places to take them. The Whitewater Center is mere miles from the skyscrapers lining the streets in Uptown Charlotte, but you would never know once you are on site.
Whitewater rafting in the artificial river is the main attraction, but you can also go rock climbing, mountain biking, trail running, and flat-water kayaking at the Whitewater Center.
They also offer a summer concert series and an ice rink and lights during the winter. It’s an interesting dynamic that its location next to a major population center makes this outdoor mecca viable, but we are so glad it is there.
On the other end of the spectrum, Uptown Charlotte is home to the Belk Theater at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the Mint Museum, the Bechectler Museum of Modern Art, and much more.
You can catch a Broadway musical in Charlotte or enjoy an exhibit showcasing fine art. And kids will enjoy Discovery Place Science and the Imaginon library in the First Ward.
Sports lovers will appreciate that Charlotte is home to the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, Charlotte FC, and the headquarters for NASCAR. The Charlotte Motor Speedway (actually in nearby Concord, NC) is, in some ways, the center of the racing world.
The All-Star race was in Charlotte for years, and many of the NASCAR teams are headquartered in the area.
So, Charlotte offers NASCAR and Broadway, plus everything in between. If you are looking for a guide to Charlotte, NC, we recommend starting with the Whitewater Center, exploring Uptown, and strolling along the Rail Trail.
5. Suburbs Offer Contrasting Vibe
Of course, lots of people don’t want to deal with the big city traffic or the hustle and bustle. Charlotte is big enough that it is surrounded by ring cities, or commuter towns, that offer a completely different living standard. Towns like Waxhaw to the south, or Huntersville or Concord to the north, are great places to live.
These towns definitely have a more suburban and car-dependent design, but they also offer more space and frequently great schools. That’s just a few of the reasons people have migrated to the suburbs over the years. And this was hastened by the pandemic. In a work-from-home world, it’s important to have a little extra space at home.
Still, these towns are all close enough to Uptown Charlotte for commuting. And you can live in these towns and still access all of the big city amenities like professional sports, entertainment options, and even quality healthcare.
So, Is Charlotte, NC, a big city? You have to be a big city to support ring city communities, and Charlotte fits that bill. Still, these smaller towns are part of the reasons that Charlotte maintains its small-town feel.
Charlotte Compared To Other Cities
Is Charlotte, NC, a big city compared to other cities in the south? Charlotte is the largest city in the Carolinas and one of the largest cities in all of the Southeastern United States. In fact, strictly by population, only Jacksonville, Florida, is a larger city in the Southeast.
That is a little misleading for the same reasons we covered above. Jacksonville covers a massive land area, while Atlanta covers a much smaller land area. Still, it reinforces that Charlotte is a major city, even if it isn’t the size of a top-tier city like Chicago.
And while Charlotte doesn’t have a subway system, the light rail is still transformative for the city. In fact, some people prefer to live in South Carolina and commute to Uptown via the light rail.
We will leave it to you to decide which Carolina is better, but Charlotte certainly acts as the center of gravity for the collective Carolinas.
Which City is Bigger? Raleigh or Charlotte?
Whether you strictly consider the two cities’ populations or the broader MSAs, Charlotte is bigger than Raleigh. In comparing Charlotte vs. Raleigh, Charlotte is the stronger economic engine, while Raleigh is the state capital and institutional powerhouse.
Charlotte also has one of the most impressive skylines in the entire country. That’s largely a result of The Queen City’s stature as a major banking center and the Fortune 500 headquarters we mentioned above.
Charlotte Is A Big City To Most, But Maybe The Perfect Size
Charlotte is the 15th largest city in the United States and the largest city in the Carolinas. The Queen City is home to one of the busiest airports in the country, a bustling economy, top-tier healthcare, and public transportation, including a light rail. It is also home to professional sports and diverse entertainment options.
But is Charlotte, NC, a big city? Charlotte isn’t as traffic locked as Atlanta, and there are pockets of the city that still have a small-town feel. For these reasons, Charlotte might be a perfect size.