Things to do in Charlotte away from the convention

By Thom Patterson, CNNUpdated 31st August 2012
Blinded by balloons. Freaked out from funny hats. Overcome by confetti.
The nonstop insanity that occurs every four years at presidential party conventions is a given. And next week's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, is no exception. Convention-goers will need a break.
Can you sneak away for an hour?
Check out a free, self-guided walking tour of public art among the Uptown area's shining modern skyscrapers. After you download a map and an audio podcast, you're ready to hit the sidewalk. The starting point is at West Trade and Poplar streets, a stone's throw from the Time Warner Cable Arena convention hall.
At Independence Square, you'll see four statues created by Pittsburgh's Raymond Kaskey -- representing commerce, industry, transportation and the future. Farther along the tour, you'll come across sculptures by British artist Shaun Cassidy.
Outside the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, take part in a tradition. Join countless others who've had their photo taken with the Firebird sculpture. The outdoor work stands 18 feet tall, and it's covered with thousands of tiles of mirrored glass.
An hour might give you just enough time to see the US Airways plane that pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger made famous in 2009. A bird strike forced Sullenberger to ditch the A320 Airbus with 155 passengers and crew in New York's Hudson River. No one was hurt, and the plane is now on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum, a 15-minute drive from the Time Warner Cable Arena.
There's a lot more to see at the museum, including two rare aircraft -- the D-558-1 Skystreak and a Savoia Marchetti S.56B -- so don't blame us if you end up taking more than an hour.
Maybe you can steal a little more time -- a whole afternoon?
If so, here's an idea that's perfect for the politics crowd: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's prized collection of jeweled pins.
See more than 200 of them at the Mint Museum Uptown at 500 S. Tryon St., about a 15-minute walk from Time Warner Cable Arena.
There's a funny story linked to these sparkly artifacts. Albright started collecting pins during rising tensions between the United States and Iraq, she told The Charlotte Observer. In 1994, when she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the Iraqi press called her a "serpent."
Albright turned that insult into a fashion statement. At her next meeting about Iraq, she sported a decorative golden brooch that looked like a snake.
That's how Albright started her signature style of wearing jewelry to send not-so-subtle diplomatic signals.
Another idea: Take a 10-minute drive from the convention hall and explore NoDa.
This neighborhood's name comes from its location on North Davidson Street, where long ago, textile mills hummed with activity. Now the district buzzes with live music, trendy restaurants and funky coffeehouses.
Take a seat inside the friendly Smelly Cat Coffeehouse near North Davidson and 36th streets. "We have no idea necessarily what to expect," barista Leah Burleson says about possible convention traffic. The shop -- named after a "terrible, terrible song" sung by "Friends" TV character Phoebe Buffay boasts a new bean roaster that Burleson says sets it apart from the competition.
NoDa also has another rarity: a 24-hour French bakery and cafe. The eclectic vibe at Amelie's is almost as memorable as its savory soups, sandwiches, cookies, pastries and cakes.
Or take an hour and hit Lunchbox Records, an independent music shop that specializes in vinyl, CDs and DVDs. It's about a 10-minute drive from the arena, off Central Avenue in the trendy Plaza-Midwood neighborhood.
Got kids? Consider an afternoon at Discovery Place, Discovery Place KIDS or Charlotte Nature Museum, offering a hands-on educational experience for the whole family.
If you can swing an entire day?
Would you be interested in seeing any of the following up close? Prince's purple guitar that he played at the 2007 Super Bowl. Malcolm X's personal Quran and diary in which he described his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca. Serena Williams' tennis outfit that she wore when she won Wimbledon in 2009. Author Alex Haley's Smith Corona Coronet Electric typewriter that he used to write "Roots." Jimi Hendrix's black flair pants, purple top and crop vest. Astronaut Joan Higginbotham's space shuttle flight suit and helmet.
They're all in one place: The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, a 15-minute walk from the arena. The museum's "America I AM" exhibit celebrates and documents five centuries of African-American history.
Also within walking distance from the arena is the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where historic vehicles and impressive displays show off 60 years of stock car racing.
About 15 miles from the convention hall is the world's largest man-made whitewater river. The U.S. National Whitewater Center offers more than 400 acres of outdoor action, including a zipline, kayaking, rafting, mountain biking and rock climbing.
"It's kind of a Disney World one-stop shop" for outdoor activities, says spokesman Stephen Youngblade. If you're not into the action and just want to hang out for the day, the price is right: There's no general admission fee.
Of course, plenty will be overnighting it
Experience a concert at NoDa's Neighborhood Theater, a historic cinema converted into one of Charlotte's beloved music venues. The theater's walls are decorated with beautiful, giant mural paintings. The convention week's events offer a mix of music and art. Check the theater's website for details.
Finally, let's not forget shopping. Concord Mills, which boasts about 200 retail and outlet shops, is about a half-hour northeast of Charlotte. Another shopping mecca, SouthPark Mall -- about six miles south of the city's center -- offers high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.
Some of the region's best furniture manufacturers and outlets can be found an hour northwest of the city in Hickory, North Carolina, and an hour northeast in High Point.
One word of advice, call ahead if you can. Many of these places are operating under special hours because of the convention.
Hey, Charlotte natives, do you have any ideas for conventioneers? Feel free to post them below.