Best Places to Visit in North Carolina for Southern Charm and Outdoor Fun

Kimberly Miles Avatar

A view of the Riverwalk in Wilmington, one of the best places to visit in North Carolina.

North Carolina may be popular for college basketball, but the Tar Heel State is so much more than just sports. We’re talking about incredible sandy beaches, mile-high swinging bridges, remarkable history, adrenaline-pumping adventure sports and mountain vistas that will leave you speechless. And who can forget about the unforgettable Southern charm and culture? You’ll find all of the above and more with our roundup of the best places to visit in North Carolina.

North Carolina is a paradise for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. I’m talking TONS of places for hiking, biking, backpacking, sightseeing and rock climbing. The state is also packed with charming architecture, historical sites, art museums and gardens that will leave any visitor speechless.

If one thing is for sure, with all that there is to see and do in North Carolina, it won’t be easy to just stay for a day. In fact, you may just want to plan on booking one of its wide variety of accommodation options from award-winning luxury resorts and beachfront vacation homes to B&Bs and secluded mountain escapes.

Get ready to take notes, because we’re sharing the best places to visit in North Carolina for your Southeastern getaway.

Read More: Best NC Family Resorts

City and country – and mountains – in Asheville, NC. Photo credit: Explore Asheville

Asheville

Known for its downtown Art District, art galleries and museums, the mountain town of Asheville in western North Carolina is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina for art lovers as well as those who love natural beauty and outdoor activities. Native New Yorker and SheBuysTravel contributor Judy Antell describes Asheville as “Brooklyn ringed by mountains.”

Home to the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, Asheville boasts a booming art scene as well as eye-catching historic architecture. A walk through the city will provide something for everyone, from scenic mountain vistas and outdoor adventures to delicious eats and local breweries. But Asheville’s most famous attraction is the historic Biltmore Estate.

Biltmore Estate

Located in Asheville, the 250-room Biltmore Estate (an 8,000-acre estate belonging to George Vanderbilt) is a must-visit when in North Carolina. As the largest private home in the USA, it has been declared a National Historic Landmark and is a top tourist destination with more than one million visitors a year.

Take the estate’s audio tour to learn about the Vanderbilt family tree, their traditions and the history of the estate grounds.

Note: Although an incredible estate with plenty to see including a winery, farm and horseback riding (among other activities), it does charge a steep admission fee. Be prepared!

Read More: 12 Ways to Celebrate Christmas in Western North Carolina

view of downtown Raleigh NC
Downtown Raleigh NC has southern charm and a welcome spirit with plenty of family-friendly activities. Photo credit: TVS Designs/Brian Gassel/GRCVB/visitRaleigh.com

Raleigh

The capital of the state, Raleigh, is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina for a big city feel with Southern charm. It is full of history, outdoor adventures, breweries, delicious restaurants and museums. Part of the Research Triangle along with Chapel Hill and Durham, Raleigh is known for its technology companies and scholarly institutions.

A day in Raleigh can be spent visiting one of the three museums, including the popular North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Or, you can visit the North Carolina State Capital and see a station of George Washington dressed as a Roman general. You can also take a walk along the cobblestone streets of the City Market and check out historic Civil War cemeteries. And with more than 150 parks and lakes, there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy various outdoor adventures.

SheBuysTravel contributor Kendra Pierson spent some time in Raleigh with her son and loved the overall character of the city so much that she wanted to move there! In her own words, “I’ve personally always thought of Raleigh as a trendy and growing city with lots of southern charm. I wasn’t surprised to find that it has the innovation, trendsetting, free spiritedness, art and culture of Austin, TX but with the manners and graces of a true Southern city.”

A sign at the entrance of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, one of the best things to do in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is just one of fun things for all ages to do in Raleigh, NC. Photo credit: Kendra Pierson

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

If you’re in downtown Raleigh, you’ll want to make time to visit the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. It is the best place to visit in North Carolina for a fun and educational experience on the state’s geology, flora and fauna. If you’re traveling with little ones, they may even be fascinated by the museum’s fossil collections, live animal programs and 3D movies!

The museum covers seven floors over two buildings and wings. The Nature Exploration Center features the diversity of habitats in North Carolina, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean and prehistoric beasts to amazing arthropods. There is even a living conservatory of a Central American tropical dry forest filled with living plants and animals. Visitors can even become their own scientist in the Naturalist Center by looking at specimens individually on two interactive computer field guides.

North Carolina Resorts: The Ballantyne, A Luxury Collection Hotel
The Ballantyne, a Luxury Collection Hotel in Charlotte. Photo credit: Marriott

Charlotte

Known as “Queen City,” Charlotte is home to the world’s tallest and fastest giga coaster, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the largest man-made whitewater river and to top it all off is the site of the first gold discovery. Taking all of the above into account, it’s no wonder Charlotte is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina.

The largest city in North Carolina, Charlotte is packed with things to do for all ages ranging from sprawling urban parks to beautiful art museums. Its city center (also known as “Uptown”) is home to the Levine Museum of the New South with post-Civil War history and Discovery Place with hands-on science displays. Outdoor adventure enthusiasts will have just as much fun with Charlotte’s numerous nature trails and whitewater rapids.

If you’re looking for a fun way to explore the city, a guided tour via segway will take you to all of the key landmarks in just 90 minutes.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you’re flying in and out of CLT, here’s where to find the best Charlotte airport food.

NASCAR Hall of Fame

The NASCAR Hall of Fame is one of those must-visit places when in Charlotte, especially if you’re into car racing. And definitely don’t think of it as just a museum, because it’s also packed with tons of history and heritage when it comes to the sport.

A day spent at the museum means listening to and learning about various stories, honoring the famous drivers and contributors of the sport and jumping into the action with more than 50 interactive exhibits. You’ll have the opportunity to get behind the wheel and test your driving skills with an iRacing simulator.

You’ll also get to play the part of the crew with a Pit Crew Challenge. It is definitely a memorable experience for all ages!

Wilmington

Known as a gateway to the Cape Fear Coast beaches,Wilmington is a lovely historic port city and one of the best places to visit in North Carolina with the family.

There are plenty of fun things for all ages to do during a visit to Wilmington including a stroll along the pretty wooden walkway on Cape Fear Riverfront, museums, gorgeous 19th architecture and African-American history. Take a step back into history with a view of the the majestic Battleship, used in World War II.

There’s also a Civil War site, a plantation that doubles as a horse sanctuary.

Read More: Top Things to Do in Wilmington, North Carolina

Boone

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Boone is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina for adrenaline junkies and outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to its stunning mountain views, there’s no shortage of fun and adventure to be found, from challenging mountain sports to theme parks and art galleries.

Boone’s weather makes it ideal for sporting year-round, from skiing and fly fishing, to canoeing and zip lining. Spend the day admiring the incredible vistas while hiking, biking, tubing or rafting with friends and family. Or, if you prefer something more low-key, visit a museum, go to a street festival, tour one of the many historic sites or pick up some souvenirs at one of the many specialty shops.

The Tweetsie Railroad amusement park is a major tourist attraction and must-visit for all ages. The Hickory Ridge Living History Museum is also one to add to your list to get a taste of the 1700s homestead life. But the #1 thing to do near Boone is to cross Grandfather Mountain’s infamous swinging bridge.

Grandfather Mountain

Do you dare to cross a swinging bridge hanging one mile from the ground? If so, you’ll want to pay a visit to Grandfather Mountain in northwest North Carolina. Not only is it home to the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge, but at 5,946 feet, it is also the highest peak on the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Estimated to be 300 million years old, Grandfather Mountain is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina for unparalleled natural scenic beauty and biodiversity. It is one of the most beautiful places to go for a hike through the forest and observe various wildlife such as cougars, bears, bald eagles and elk. No matter how you want to explore the park, you’ll find much to admire about Grandfather Mountain.

Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill is mostly known for the University of North Carolina, and more notably its basketball team. However, Chapel Hill also has much more to offer, such as numerous trails, art museums and delicious restaurants and bars.

Nature lovers will want to make a stop at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens and spend time in one of its themed gardens or on one of its gorgeous nature trails. The popular Bolin Creek Trail and the Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area are great for hiking, biking and taking a leisurely stroll. Science enthusiasts may want to pop into the oldest planetarium in the southeast, the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, offering live demonstrations and hands-on experiences. And of course, there’s the lively Franklin Street lined with the best shops, restaurants, breweries, live music venues and nightlife.

Sutton’s Drug Store is a must-visit once you’ve worked up an appetite – and no, it’s not a neighborhood pharmacy. Rather, it’s a restaurant that has been serving up the best shakes, burgers and hot dogs since 1923! Another classic is the Carolina Coffee Shop, the longest-running restaurant in North Carolina.

Winston-Salem

Winston-Salem is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina for a relaxing yet educational getaway. It’s a small town, but is full of history and fun things to do for all ages, including strolling through its breathtaking gardens, touring its art museums and sipping on a refreshing brew or glass of wine at one of its 10 craft breweries.

While in Winston-Salem, make sure to make a special visit to Old Salem, a historic district of the area originally settled by the Moravian community in 1766. There you’ll find the historic Old Salem Museums & Garden, a must-visit while in the area. There you’ll find several museums that provide visitors with an engaging and educational history experience while sharing the stories of the Moravian, Black and Indigenous communities in the American South. If you’re an art lover, you won’t want to miss visiting the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), which has some of the best collections of art and architecture in the nation!

Wild horses in front of luxury beach rental homes in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Wild horses roam the northern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Outer Banks (OBX)

Located off the coast of North Carolina, the Outer Banks (also known as OBX) is a collection of barrier islands that separate the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland. It is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina if you’re looking for a beach getaway away from the typical crowded beach towns.

While Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are two of the most popular towns to visit, there are more than 100+ miles of shoreline with charming seaside towns and some of the best beaches to choose from. You won’t want to miss a visit to the town of Manteo on Roanoke Island, the site of England’s first settlement in the New World. Another absolute must-visit is the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.

SheBuysTravel contributor Judy Antell visited the Outer Banks with her kids and calls it a “paradise for those who love to go fishing.” You can fish off a pier, take a fishing boat tour or go crabbing and shrimping. You can also climb the tallest lighthouse in the United States, see wild horses, visit state parks and dive shipwrecks. Since it is a more active beach vacation, she recommends the Outer Banks especially for tweens and teens. However, if you do visit with the little ones, consider bucket hats with straps for kids since it can be a bit breezy!

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

With more than 70 miles of shoreline, Cape Hatteras National Seashore is for certain one of the best places to visit in North Carolina for beachgoers. But it isn’t all about the beach. The islands that make up the seashore also have a rich history and heritage, once home to Native Americans, farmers, enslaved people, lighthouse keepers and watermen.

There’s lots of ways to spend your time at Cape Hatteras, including splashing around at the beach, kite flying, picnicking or admiring the plants and wildlife while taking a walk along the shore. Kayaking and fishing are other popular activities. And if you’re up for the climb, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse will reward you with stunning views.

Bald Head Island

If you’re looking for a relaxing and family-friendly getaway away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland, Bald Head Island is the place to be. With beaches, creeks, forests, hiking, golf and even a day spa, it is the best place to visit in North Carolina for a stress-free getaway amongst nature.

Just a 20-minute ferry ride away from the mainland, Bald Head Island (historically Smith Island) is a small village on the east side of the Cape Fear River. It is home to Old Blady, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse. In addition to its beach and charming neighborhoods, the island has 10,000 untouched acres of marsh and maritime forest preserves. It is truly one of the most beautiful places to be and see in North Carolina!

Learning to surf at Wilmington NC beaches.
Learning to surf at Wrightsville Beach. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

Wilmington Area Beaches

And then of course, there are the beaches! Downtown Wilmington is an easy drive to several gorgeous beaches for those who want to spend some time in the sun, sand and surf.

Deb Steenhagen visited Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach, and loved them all. Her daughter even had the opportunity to take surfing lessons!

Red trolley car in Inner Banks NC
The Edenton Trolley Tour. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Inner Banks

The Inner Banks, between Interstate 95 and the Outer Banks, includes the historic small town of Edenton. This gem of a spot has an adorable downtown, and you can take a trolley ride to see the sites. After SheBuysTravel contributor Judy Antell toured the area on The Edenton Trolley Tour, she ran the same route so she could see all the places up close. On the trolley ride, locals waved, and the waves seemed like genuinely friendly, not ironic New York waves.

Lighthouse on the Roanoke River.
The 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse in Edenton. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Edenton also has a historic lighthouse that you can tour. The 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse is the only  surviving screw-pile lighthouse in the state of North Carolina. It originally guarded the mouth of the Roanoke River and was moved twice; to land where it was a family home, and to Edenton’s waterfront. You can only see the interior by guided tour.

Exterior of Elmwood B&B in Washington NC
A beautiful place to stay, Elmwood 1820 Bed & Breakfast. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Washington, NC

Washington, aka little Washington, is in Beaufort County, North Carolina. This historic city is ideal for a romantic getaway, with the fabulous Elmwood 1820 Bed & Breakfast. After a mulit-course, cooked-to-order breakfast, you can hike, rent kayaks or bicycles, or wander the downtown. The North Carolina Estuarium has free boat trips on the river.

The Elmwood innkeepers really open their home to you – and their bar. It is stocked with local spirits, and you are free to help yourself. But when SheBuysTravel contributor Judy Antell stayed here she headed to The Hackney Restaurant, Bar & Distillery, where the Executive Chef was nominated this year as Best Chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation. Everything is seasonal and local. And vegetarians can even enjoy collard greens, in a salad with candied pecans and apples.

Blue Ridge Parkway

If you find yourself taking a road trip through North Carolina, make sure you take a trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway, a National Parkway and All-American Road famous for its scenic beauty. Winding 469 miles starting at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and going south through North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is America’s longest linear park.

The Blue Ridge Parkway has views of some of the highest peaks in the east. Frequent travel and SheBuysTravel contributor Terri Marshall considers it to be one of her favorite road trips in the Southeast, with scenic overlooks that show panoramic views of majestic mountains, colorful wildflowers and deep ravines. She also loves the split rail fences, historic structures, and old farmsteads that tell the story of the route’s history along the way.

SheBuysTravel Tip: We recommend avoiding the drive if you have a child or adult prone to motion sickness.

Mountains at sunset at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the best places to visit in Tennessee
Drool-worthy views indeed from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo credit: Terri Marshall-Holder.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling between the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the USA and one of the best places to visit in North Carolina. With remarkable plant and animal life, ancient mountains and South Appalachian mountain culture, it is definitely one of the most beautiful places to visit in the state of North Carolina.

SheBuysTravel contributor Jill Robbins considers the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a must-visit, whether you visit for sightseeing, hiking or other activities. In her words, “Two of my favorite spots are Cades Cove and Klingman’s Dome. The latter is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a steep hike but the path is paved and there are plenty of spots to stop and rest.”

Chimney Rock State Park

When it comes to incredible, breathtaking views and that Insta-worthy photo op, Chimney Rock State Park takes the ball. It is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina. Located just a half-hour from Asheville, the 8,000+ acre park is one of the best places to visit for visitors who love nature.

While the park is popular for Chimney Rock, a large rock structure overlooking Lake Lure and the Blue Ridge Foothills, there’s so much more to do and explore. There are several trails for hiking, no matter what your experience level. There’s also an Animal Discovery Den to learn about the area wildlife as well as rock climbing classes and adventures.

Want to check out Chimney Rock without the hiking or crowds? Hop aboard a helicopter tour for a ride that will give you amazing views of the rock as well as the surrounding mountains, lakes and valleys.

Pisgah National Forest

Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, the Pisgah National Forest is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina to connect with nature. With 500,000 acres to explore, it’s a great place to visit for all ages.

With hundreds of miles of trails, whitewater rivers and more than 200 waterfalls, the forest is popular for hiking, biking, backpacking, swimming and camping. Walk behind a 50-foot waterfall at Moore Cove Falls, or slide into a waterfall (literally) at Sliding Rock. Hikers will be rewarded with a clear view of Cold Mountain on one side and downtown Asheville on the other. A walking nature therapy tour is a great way to relax, calm your mind and awaken your senses.

For campers, roadside campsites are sprinkled throughout Pisgah National Forest and include a tent pad, fire ring and parking space. The easy-access Rocky Bluff campground has 15 campsites with a parking spot, picnic table, tent pad and fire grate. If you’re traveling by RV, some sites have RV hookups with a reservation.

Linville Gorge

Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Linville Gorge sits within the 12,000 acre Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, one of the best places to visit in North Carolina for hikers, backpackers and rock climbers. Located off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the gorge features some of the best remnants of uncut forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains and is a prime habitat for wildlife.

The incredible steep walls of Linville Gorge enclose Linville River, which begins at Grandfather Mountain and enters the gorge at the breathtakingly popular Linville Falls (a must-see, multi-level cascading waterfall). Hikers can choose from numerous trails spanning 39 miles including the 0.8-mile Erwins View Trail, which leads to a stunning panoramic overlook of the Linville Gorge. Shortoff Mountain and Table Rock on the east rim of the gorge are two of the most premier climbing sites in the state of North Carolina.

Hanging Rock State Park

Located a little more than a half-hour north of Winston-Salem, Hanging Rock State Park is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina for those who love the outdoors. With more than 20 miles of hiking trails, swimming lakes, streams, waterfalls and breathtaking views, it’s an excellent way to stay active while enjoying North Carolina’s natural beauty.

Hanging Rock State Park is a popular place to go for swimming, paddling, hiking, biking and camping. There’s a 73-site campground, picnic grounds and canoe rentals available at the lake. For those with a permit, rock climbing is an option. There are also vacation cabins available if you want to stay longer than a day or two. To get to the popular Hanging Rock, start at the paved trail at the edge of the visitor center parking lot. The paved trail eventually turns to rock and gravel and gains elevation. You’ll want to plan on about an hour to reach the top.

Kimberly Miles Avatar
Kimberly Miles is a mother of one and an experienced solo and single mom traveler. So far, she has traveled to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Dubai, Bahamas, Aruba, Mexico, and several places in the U.S. Kimberly was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, but in 2018 she took a leap of faith and made the beautiful beach town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico her home with her young son. In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Kimberly ghostwrites blogs on a variety of topics. She also provides marketing consulting services and business guidance to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and corporations via her independent business KNM Virtual Solutions. When she’s not traveling or writing, you can find Kimberly working out, eating tacos, dancing the night away, or spending time at the beach with her son. You can read more of her work at Travel Unapologetically.
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