A Road Trip Through North Carolina’s Reinvented Core

The cities of Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte are innovating a cool future through art, food, and a celebration of the past.

A Road Trip Through North Carolina’s Reinvented Core

Throughout North Carolina’s Piedmont region, innovative restaurants, shops, and restaurants like Leah & Louise in Charlotte, above, are creating a buzz.

Photo by Peter Taylor Photography

North Carolina’s Piedmont region is becoming known for reinvention. Its former textile mills and tobacco warehouses are being transformed into innovation hubs and food halls, and many people have flocked to the area to live. I’m contemplating moving myself. Would I have new places to put on my list? So last October, when I headed to Charlotte for the inaugural BayHaven Food & Wine Festival—a three-day, Harlem Renaissance–themed culinary event with Black chefs, mixologists, and Black-owned wine and spirit brands from around the United States—I arrived early to explore.

The Piedmont region extends from the coastal plain to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and includes farmland and rolling wooded hills, especially on the 1-40 stretch near Hillsborough. I started in Raleigh, then drove the short distances to Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte. My road trip through those key cities revealed what the buzz is all about.

Day 1: Raleigh

Raleigh may have a slow pace, but thanks to great food, art, and music, it’s no sleepy state capital. You’ll find restaurants from celebrity chefs like James Beard Award–winner Ashley Christensen and Top Chef alum Katsuji Tanabe, as well as more than 140 public-art installations and murals and contemporary art museums like CAM Raleigh. Take a food tour with Taste Carolina or Triangle Food Tours to sample some of the city’s best eats. What’s tasty food without a drink? The Raleigh Beer Garden serves the world’s largest draft beer selection.

For music lovers, there are big events such as International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Live weekend (the self-proclaimed largest free urban festival of bluegrass in the world) and rapper J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival, as well as live-music restaurants and clubs. Enjoy freebies like the African American Cultural Center and North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Where to stay: Heights House Hotel

Book Now: Heights House Hotel

Go for big-name accommodations and treats like the new Heights House Hotel, an elegant 1858 mansion in a downtown Raleigh neighborhood, and the nearby Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing, where the patio has a view of the city skyline. I could have lingered all night looking at the twinkling lights. It’s a very Raleigh spot. Cosmopolitan, but comfortable. That’s the city’s superpower.

open-uri20220222-48-1fmawsu

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum is located in the Woolworth building, where four civil rights pioneers sat the “whites only” lunch counter and launched the sit-in movement in 1960.

Photo by NatalieSchorr/Shutterstock

Day 2: Greensboro

Drive time from Raleigh: 90 minutes

Next up, history 101. Start with the International Civil Rights Center & Museum at the F.W. Woolworth building, where four college freshmen helped launch the sit-in movement in 1960. Take in the pictorials, video re-enactments, interactive components, and artifacts. I had a surge of emotion looking at the images of the era’s violence and wrestled with my heaviness. My spirits lifted with a visit to Magnolia House, a former Green Book motel, where legends including James Brown, Ray Charles, and Tina Turner stayed—and after recent renovations you can, too. Browse the memorabilia, stay for Sunday brunch. Families can burn off some energy with a visit to Altitude Trampoline Park, while adult groups might hop on Brew Peddlers’ trolley and peddle around downtown to hit bars, breweries, and restaurants. When you’re ready to chill, head to the O. Henry Hotel for afternoon tea. The Social Lobby is grand with its wood paneling, piano, and ornate, yet comfy sofas and chairs.

Where to Stay: Proximity Hotel

Book Now: Proximity Hotel

The Proximity Hotel is not only the first LEED Platinum hotel in the country—it’s where guests like former President Obama have checked in.

Day 3: Winston-Salem

Drive time from Greensboro: 35 minutes

This small city’s Downtown Arts District is emerging, with murals, galleries, urban art park, boutiques, breweries, and distilleries. (Don’t miss the monthly First Friday gallery hop nights.) My favorite shop was Body and Soul, where owner Dana Suggs has created a haven to get lost in. It’s four stores in one: a book room, an Afrocentric gallery, a section with scarves and jewelry, and another with skincare and aromatherapy. We chatted and chatted—that’s southern hospitality at its finest.

The Downtown Arts District is also home to funky 6th & Vine, which is not only woman-owned but also boasts the historic addition of the city’s first Black executive chef, Ebony Warfield. Sit on the patio, take in the funky Greenwich Village atmosphere, and dig into spiced crab and artichoke dip, shrimp and grits, or bacon jalapeño burgers.

There’s also plenty to see in other neighborhoods. Over at Winston-Salem State University, the Diggs Gallery has been called one of the top 10 African American galleries in the country. And Old Salem is a living history enclave and museum, so you’ll see folks in 18th- and 19th-century costumes. Get in the spirit with pottery, quilting, or shoemaking.

open-uri20220222-48-1mnma21

James Beard Award–nominated chef Greg Collier and business partner/wife Subrina Collier, of Leah & Louise, are part of the Black-owned food renaissance in Charlotte.

Photo by Peter Taylor Photography

Day 4: Charlotte

Drive time from Winston-Salem: 90 minutes

Finally, head to Charlotte for museums like the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Mint, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts & Culture. Sports fans can check out the NASCAR Hall of Fame or try Olympic-level whitewater rafting at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. I fell in love with the Gantt. The art is powerful and political, with the truth on full display.

Charlotte’s charm extends beyond downtown to its neighborhoods. Hit NoDa, the colorful arts and entertainment district, for the street art, people, and establishments. Sample craft beers at the many breweries, hunt for cool vintage clothing at the Rat’s Nest, or re-energize at Smelly Cat Coffee House & Roastery. When it comes to cuisine, there’s a Black-owned food renaissance going on in Charlotte, with restaurants like Leah & Louise, What the Fries, Mert’s Heart & Soul, and more. And though you expect great barbecue and fried chicken here, you can also try Ethiopian, Armenian, or Malaysian eateries.

By the end of my road trip through the Piedmont, I felt like I had watched a blockbuster—but I know there’s more to this movie. I’m already anticipating the sequel, plotting my return.

>> Next: The Best Beaches in North Carolina

More From AFAR