Cleveland County is nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a sweet spot between Charlotte and Asheville. It’s also dotted throughout with small towns known for music and liver mush. However, those two treasures hardly encapsulate this wonderful part of our state. Many folks from all over flock to the iconic Don Gibson Theatre and the impressive Earl Scruggs Center. But as many travelers to Uptown Shelby, Kings Mountain and the rest of Cleveland County have learned, this place is where you think there’s just one way to enjoy it before discovering there’s so much more to do here.
This travel guide is part of series on Cleveland County, our state’s small towns, and more places to visit in North Carolina. In both sections we’ve highlighted many of the fun and unique things you can do!
Weekend Things to Do in Cleveland County
Understand its History
The Revolutionary War had important impact on Cleveland County, So much so that you might recognize all of the streets in Shelby are named after Revolutionary heroes. Moving into the 20th century, Cleveland County also hosted a political powerhouse known as the “Shelby Dynasty” which sent two governors to Raleigh, as well as representatives to the House and Senate in Washington. This led way to great economic development and growth for the county and made it into the beautiful historic area it is now.
Take a peak at the area’s past with this book about Shelby and Cleveland County before and during the 20th century.
Don’t Squeal about Livermush
Even though we’re following up mention of politics in Shelby, we think this is going to be the most controversial section, yet. When in Cleveland County, you need an order of livermush, “split and dropped.” This deliciously seasoned and fried breakfast meat isn’t something you can really describe without it sounding unattractive. “Everything by the squeal” of the pig is one way we’ve heard it. But despite the description, livermush is absolutely wonderful. With a crispy outside and a smooth savory inside, livermush is perfect alongside a plate of eggs or even sandwiched between a biscuit.
Celebrate Livermush in October
And there’s a reason we specifically mention eating liver mush as a thing to do in Shelby and around. Because every October, Uptown Shelby swells with over 10,000 people to the Mush, Music and Mutts festival. You might even catch a glimpse of the reigning Little Miss Livermush! We recommend getting your mush on at the Shelby Café or outside the city proper at Ken & Mary’s!
We’ve also included Shelby Cafe among our favorite breakfast restaurants in North Carolina, in case you’re still hungry for an early meal!
Support Local Restaurants
One of the best weekend things to do in Shelby is to support the local food scene.
J-Birds Deli and Ales
The perfect balance to a weekend in Shelby is made whole and healthy by a visit to J-Birds Deli and Ales. The owner, Justin, was behind the bar when we ordered. And from the moment we walked in, you could tell that there was a chill and communal vibe to the place. J-Birds serves up gourmet artisanal sandwiches to accompany an impressive rotating tap and great selection of beers to-go. We know it’s hard to choose between The Hot Chick and The Kamikaze so we recommend multiple trips to eat both and even complete a menu circuit!
Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille
Fun fact: You might get a little bit of a District 12 feeling while in Uptown Shelby. That’s because many of the Hunger Games outdoor scenes were filmed in the area. While most of the production sets have been torn down, you can still feel like your right next to Katniss and Peta in Shelby. How? Just head to the Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille and try out the Hunger Games inspired “Girl on Fire” pizza! You also can’t go wrong with a half and half pizza like what we did! On one side, there’s the hot and spicy Katniss inspiration and on the other side, traditional North Carolina Barbecue, sauce, and coleslaw!
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
Speaking of barbecue, you cannot leave Cleveland County without stopping at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge! For starters, it’s listed on the NC Barbecue Society’s Historic Trail and mentioned in our guide to North Carolina barbecue. Bridges Barbecue has been smoking meat over hickory all night and day for 72 years. In true Western NC BBQ fashion, their pork is served chopped or sliced and comes with a thick tomato sauce and tangy red coleslaw. Oh, and don’t forget to leave room for that banana pudding!
Uptown Sweets and Treats
And if you’re craving something sweet post-dinner, how about something sweet and savory? Uptown Sweets and Treats is where two cravings are more than met. There, you can find scooped or soft serve ice cream, thick creamy fudge, and delicious locally inspired cupcakes. They also have a wide variety of gourmet popcorns. If you want a nice mix of flavors, grab a Cheerwine Cupcake and take home a bag of dill pickle popcorn. Oh, and ask for samples before you go for something wild!
We spent most of our time exploring restaurants in Shelby but would love to know your go-to bites throughout Cleveland County!
With the sleepy First Broad River running through the area, there are plenty of outdoor things to do in Cleveland County. Walking, biking, horseback riding and even boating and tubing are just a few of the fun opportunities while visiting the area.
Follow the Thread
The Carolina Thread Trail is a network of paths and greenways spanning through 15 counties. It can be accessed from three points in Cleveland County. Entry points include the the Kings Mountain Gateway Trail, Broad River Greenway, and the First Broad River Greenway. The trail also runs through Charlotte and we included it in our outdoor guide to Queen City!
Each trail has its own unique feel and beauty, so we suggest you lace up your shoes and check them all out!
Check Out Gardner Webb
If you are looking for some rolling hills and historic brick buildings, take a lovely stroll through the campus of Gardner Webb University in Boiling Springs. Even though it’s a small university of under 3,000 students, Gardner Webb is a fantastic spot to get some exercise and enjoy beautiful campus life.
Crowders Mountain State Park
Only 25 miles from Charlotte and on the edge of Cleveland County is the beautiful Crowders Mountain State Park. Trails range in difficulty from easy strolls to strenuous hikes. Reach the summit of Crowders Mountain through the Crowders Trail (2.8 miles one way) and the Backside Trail (0.90 miles one way), ending your ascent with 336 wooden steps. It’s estimated to be 3 hours round trip, or you can ascend The Pinnacle at 2 hours roundtrip. We promise, the view is worth it!
Stay Somewhere Cozy
Depending on who you’re traveling with and how you want to enjoy your weekend in Cleveland County, these places to stay will cover all your needs. The kind folks of Cleveland County set us up at Hampton Inn and Suites which is next to the Cleveland County Mall. Out of all the bigger names, Hampton Inn is our go-to, based on multiple previous experiences. Another high-rated place to stay is Morgan and Wells Bed & Breakfast. It’s not far from the Cleveland County Arts Council and other Downtown favorite that we’ll mention shortly.
Earl Scruggs Center
In the center of Uptown Shelby, in a former Cleveland County Courthouse, is the Earl Scruggs Center. Detailing the life and impact of Cleveland County native, Earl Scruggs, visitors learn about the life and history of early American Southern music.
Scruggs-style picking revolutionized bluegrass music and you can learn about it with state-of-the-art hands-on and audio exhibits. Visitors can interact with music and history throughout the building. This museum isn’t just for anyone who likes Earl Scruggs, it’s for anyone that loves music!
We shared more about our experience at Earl Scruggs Center here!
Don Gibson Theatre
Step back in time to simpler days in the majestic art deco Don Gibson Theatre. The 400-seat venue is small, but mighty! Inside, you’ll find a stage that has hosted Grammy Award-winning acts. You’ll also learn more about Shelby native and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, Don Gibson. Gibson wrote over 350 songs in his lifetime and 75 of those hit the charts. As you walk around Uptown Shelby, you’ll see beautiful artwork displays of his LPs.
You can keep tabs on upcoming acts or one of their Throwback Thursday Movies here.
Buy from Local Farmers and Artists
Hang out with the local folks of Shelby at the Foothills Famers Market every Saturday! With local produce, hand crafted pottery and artisanal products, there is something for everyone at the market. We felt like the pulse of Cleveland County was under this pavilion of twinkle lights. So many people stopped to talk to us. One little girl even grabbed Charlotte’s hand and they ran off together playing! The people of Shelby are reason enough to visit. And you’ll find many of them at the market on Saturdays!
Go Round and Round
Feel the joy and excitement of childhood at the Shelby City Park Carousel! With thirty-two jumping hand-painted horses and an authentic working Carousel Band Organ, every child should take a ride on this 100-year old piece of art. Costing only 50 cents to ride, the carousel is one of the few open year-round. In good weather, also go for a ride on the Rotary Special Miniature Train. The 1952 train circles a large and impressive playground, making this park a must stop when traveling with kids!
Our Thoughts and Yours, Too!
Cleveland County captivated us in a way that not many small towns have. It’s clear that this is a community of people who love where they live, and we can see why! With a rich history in music between Earl Scruggs and Don Gibson, the beat is still pulsing through the streets. Live music can be found in early every restaurant and soft soulful melodies waft through the streets. With great food, plenty of outdoor trails, and lots of events, we know that we’ll keep coming back to expand on our favorite weekend things to do in Cleveland County!
Special thanks to Cleveland County, Inc. for providing us with complimentary accommodations, admission, and meals throughout our stay. All opinions within this article are our own.