1.7 million: Population (metro)
$171,000: Median home price
B: Multisport grade
$1 billion: Amount the NASCAR industry pumps into Charlotte's economy annually
Charlotte's been rising. Its population has doubled over the past 20 years, and eight Fortune 500 companies now call the greater Queen City area home. Today, suit-and-tie bankers polish off sushi on bustling corners where vendors used to hawk catfish fresh from the cityside Catawba River. But while skyscraper-dense Charlotte is now legitimately cosmopolitan the Ritz-Carlton will open its doors uptown this fall it hasn't forgotten its southern roots: The city is renovating the 100-year-old brick buildings of Uptown Village, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. just opened a new bar in the 267,000-square-foot Epicenter. The same blend of old and new applies to public transportation: While the city continues to expand its light-rail system, it's also spending $421 million to refurbish the its 20th-century trolleys. Another high priority is recreation. The U.S. National Whitewater Center, just 15 minutes from downtown, is home to the world's largest man-made rapids and the country's best outdoor climbing gym. And two hours to the west is multisport mecca Asheville, where you can hike and bike 2,000 miles of trails in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. While Charlotte has been particularly hard-hit by the recession Bank of America is based here there's reason for hope: Duke Energy's new 48-story headquarters, to be completed in 2010, sits in a cultural corridor that will include two museums, a performing-arts center, and Wake Forest College's latest business extension.