By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY
Road warrior Lou Heckler says Charlotte - host to this week's Democratic National Convention- is "a wonderful place to be when a long weekend beckons."
Heckler, a motivational speaker who twice lived in the North Carolina city, applauds civic leaders for revitalizing the downtown area and appreciates Charlotte's friendly residents.
"Charlotte has many big-city qualities, while the people's kindness and cordiality make it feel like a small town," says Heckler, who lives in Gainesville, Fla.
Such warmth may rub off on convention-goers at the Time Warner Cable Arena and the Bank of America Stadium this week.
When not at those venues, convention-goers and other visitors seeking more Charlotte charm might want to consider USA TODAY's travel suggestions.
The suggestions are based on recommendations from food guidebook publisher Zagat, Moon Travel Guides, TripAdvisor and USA TODAY's panel of Road Warriors, some of the world's most frequent business travelers who voluntarily provide information.
They include road warrior Brian Matos of Frisco, Texas, who has found that charm starts at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
"The wooden rocking chairs at the airport are a great spot to people watch," says Matos, who works in the supply chain industry. "The lobby bar (First in Flight) with model planes circling overhead is another great people-watching spot, and you can get good sushi there."
Road warrior Bill Clegg, who moved to Charlotte 19 years ago and flies out of the airport weekly, says security screening is efficient, Wi-Fi is free throughout the airport, and shuttle vehicles and ground transportation run smoothly.
He says there's a choice of quality food at the airport. But "for a real taste of Charlotte," he says, head for local restaurants.
Zagat selects Barrington's, a cozy bistro in South Park, as the Charlotte restaurant with the best food.
"Chef-owner Bruce Moffett's sublime culinary imagination yields just-plain-wow New American fare - starring gnocchi that's better than sex," Zagat and its reviewers rave.
The menu, which changes seasonally, has included such dishes as crispy fried quail with buttermilk sweet potato biscuits, and sesame-crusted halibut with corn and edamame succotash, bok choy and coconut-lobster curry sauce.
Other Zagat recommendations:
•For Italian food, the standouts are Luce, Toscana and Mama Ricotta's.
•For outdoor dining, Toscana, Pewter Rose Bistro and Soul Gastrolounge are the best bets.
•For a quick bite, go to Bad Daddy's for burgers, Mac's Speed Shop for barbecued meats or Brooklyn Pizza Parlor.
•For great views, head for Bentley's on 27, Halcyon or Vida.
•For a lively bar scene, visit Blue Restaurant & Bar, Carpe Diem and Sullivan's.
•For a power scene, flex your muscles at Mimosa Grill, Morton's or Palm.
Mimosa Grill has "a great brunch, and it's upscale, genuine Southern cuisine - something you can't get in any other area of the country," says road warrior Kathryn Alice, a Los Angeles-based author and speaker who formerly lived in Charlotte.
The Billy Graham Library is the highest-rated attraction among millions of travelers, according to TripAdvisor.
The 40,000-square-foot library on 20 acres on Westmont Drive retraces the pastor's youth on a farm to his international missionary work. Visitors can use interactive kiosks, see multimedia presentations and tour the restored house he lived in.
Among other attractions in TripAdvisor's Top 10 are the U.S. National Whitewater Center and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The whitewater center is an outdoor recreation and adventure sports facility with a man-made whitewater river for rafting, mountain biking and running trails, a climbing center and zip lines. The center, a U.S. Olympic training site, is on 400 acres of woodlands along the Catawba River.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame, across from the Charlotte Convention Center, has more than 40,000 square feet of space for hands-on exhibits, interactive video displays and a banked ramp simulating numerous auto racetracks.
Jodi Helmer, author of Moon Travel Guides' Charlotte book, says her favorite places are the Levine Museum of the New South and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
"The Levine Museum of the New South is a fantastic place to learn about the history of Charlotte and how it helped shape the South," Helmer says. "The Bechtler Museum has a phenomenal collection of modern art."
Mark de Castrique, a Charlotte-based author who has written numerous mystery novels, recommends taking a walk through a small park called The Green, next to the Bechtler Museum.
The park, he says, "is a tribute to literature, with extremely clever artwork and wordplay."
Though luxury cocktail lounges and sports bars abound in Charlotte neighborhoods, uptown - the locals' word for "downtown" - is the heart of the city's nightlife, according to Moon Travel Guides.
The EpiCentre, at the intersection of Trade and College streets, is the place to go, Helmer says.
"In one complex, there are several venues, from a dueling piano bar to an upscale bowling alley and an exclusive nightclub," the author says. "There are also tons of restaurants offering any kind of cuisine you can imagine."
Another popular spot is the North Carolina Music Factory, which Moon Travel Guides describes as "an amusement park for music lovers."
Standing alone in the heart of a former industrial district, the music factory is a former textile mill transformed into a mixed-use entertainment complex with music and comedy venues, bars and restaurants.
Alice, the road warrior who formerly lived in Charlotte, implores visitors to avoid rush-hour traffic "at all costs." At certain times of day, "Charlotte's traffic is probably worse than Los Angeles traffic," she says.
Road warrior Dean Burri, an insurance agent who lived in the Charlotte area for 15 years and now lives in Tampa, says Charlotte - like many southern cities - lacks cross streets.
"You basically have a limited number of arteries with no alternatives," he says. "When I lived near Charlotte, we joked they put a road wherever the goat walked that day."