View of the cars driving along the lined fall foliage trees with the skyline of Raleigh, one of the best cities in North Carolina

13 Best Cities in North Carolina in 2023 (A Local’s Picks)

I’m a North Carolina local with first-hand insights into the best cities in North Carolina.

This guide overviews what makes each city unique and who it’s best suited for — whether you’re a tourist seeking places to visit or planning to relocate. I also cover several regions, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Outer Banks. Plus, I share helpful resources so you can learn more about these exciting destinations! 

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13 Best North Carolina Cities


A quirky and artsy mountain city with outdoor attractions galore.

Sunset view over Downtown Asheville
Downtown Asheville

🏠 Population: 94,067 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | Where to Stay in Asheville | 👉 Browse Hotels in Asheville on Booking

Asheville is one of the most unique cities in North Carolina, despite being a smaller city overall. It’s the only “major” city located in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and it’s an eclectic hub for all sorts of activities. 

Outdoor enthusiasts, fans of craft breweries, artists, and so many other types of people love Asheville. It provides a fun mix of exciting things to do and has a distinct local charm. 


North Carolina’s largest city offers rich arts, entertainment, and sports scenes.

View of the skyscrapers in Uptown from South End of Charlotte
View of Uptown from South End

🏠 Population: 879,709 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | Where to Stay in Charlotte | 👉 Browse Hotels in Charlotte on Booking

Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina. Some of the state’s best entertainment venues, museums, and attractions can be found here. Think Broadway plays, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an amusement park, and more. 

Charlotte is a vibrant city with activities for every age. There are awesome restaurants and a cool mix of arts and sports scenes. Lastly, Charlotte is the perfect gateway to exploring the rest of North Carolina, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Outer Banks.

📚 Related Reading: Asheville vs Charlotte (Which is Better to Visit in 2023?)


The capital city of North Carolina is full of museums and close to major universities.

View of the fall foliage lined along Bicentennial Plaza in Downtown Raleigh
Bicentennial Plaza in downtown Raleigh (photo: hansak Joe / Shutterstock)

🏠 Population: 469,124 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Raleigh on Booking

Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina and a major hub for museums and universities. There’s the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the North Carolina Museum of History. Universities like Duke University, NC State, and UNC Chapel Hill are all nearby. 

Raleigh is located in the Central Piedmont region and is only a couple hours’ drive from the beach and Charlotte.


A Central Piedmont city with historical sites and family-friendly attractions.

Aerial view of the city skyline of Greensboro, North Carolina
Greensboro skyline

🏠 Population: 298,263 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Greensboro on Booking

Greensboro is the third biggest city in North Carolina, located in the heart of the Central Piedmont region. Historically, Greensboro is known for being the location of the Greensboro sit-ins that took place in 1960. Today, Greensboro is a hub for historical museums and sites as well as family-friendly attractions. This includes an aquarium, zoo, and children’s museum.


A growing industrial city, home to Duke University.

View of the unique industrial skyline of Durham, North Carolina
Durham’s unique, industrial skyline

🏠 Population: 285,527 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Durham on Booking

Durham is best known for being home to the prestigious Duke University. Fittingly, Durham has its fair share of educational attractions, especially for kids. 

Durham is a growing city that’s reinventing its industrial background. The American Tobacco Historic District located in downtown Durham is a great example of this. Here, you can find cool local restaurants, shops, breweries, and more. 


A charming and walkable riverfront town on North Carolina’s east coast.

View of the riverwalk along the waterfront of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington
Shops and restaurants on Wilmington’s waterfront

🏠 Population: 117,643 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Wilmington on Booking

Wilmington is the largest city on North Carolina’s Atlantic Ocean coastline. Wilmington has a charming and walkable downtown full of local shops and restaurants right along the Cape Fear River. There’s a relaxed, Lowcountry vibe here that’s distinctly North Carolinian. 

Overall, Wilmington is a great introduction to North Carolina’s beaches and some of the best activities in the state. For example, the Outer Banks are just over four hours north.

Chapel Hill

A buzzing college town, home to America’s first public university: UNC Chapel Hill.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
UNC Chapel Hill campus

🏠 Population: 61,128 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Chapel Hill on Booking

The town of Chapel Hill is located just outside of Durham and Raleigh. Chapel Hill is best known for its highly regarded university UNC Chapel Hill, which makes up one-third of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. 

Chapel Hill has a real college-town vibe as you’d expect. Franklin Street is the main area. It’s filled with local shops and restaurants and constantly buzzing with students. 


A small city with a rich history, a unique historical museum, and the home of a famous dessert.

View of the city skyline of Downtown Winston-Salem with a clear blue sky in the background
Downtown Winston-Salem

🏠 Population: 250,320 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Winston-Salem on Booking

Winston-Salem is a North Carolina city located just west of Greensboro. Similar to Greensboro, Winston-Salem is known for its historical sites and museums. The museums and gardens at Old Salem are especially unique. 

Winston-Salem is also known for its longstanding tobacco history and for being the birthplace of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. A handful of state parks are also within an hour’s drive.


A mountains-meets-Piedmont town with a quaint, charming downtown.

View of the buildings and the people walking around downtown Hickory
Walkable downtown Hickory (photo: Nolichuckyjake / Shutterstock)

🏠 Population: 43,532 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Hickory on Booking

Hickory is a classically American town located between the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hickory has a walkable downtown with charming old buildings that house local shops and restaurants. Easy access to nature and a lower cost of living further why Hickory is one of the best places to live in North Carolina.

📚 Related Reading: 17 Best Towns in Western North Carolina (in 2023)


A community just outside of Raleigh filled with amenities, perfect for families.

View of the local shops in downtown Cary, North Carolina
Local shops in downtown Cary (photo: KAD Photo / Shutterstock)

🏠 Population: 176,987 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Cary on Booking

Cary is a larger city by population, but it isn’t commonly mentioned as one of North Carolina’s major cities. This is because Cary doesn’t offer as many local attractions as other North Carolina towns and cities, despite its large population. This being said Cary is a desirable area for families because it’s safe, has lots of amenities, and is close to downtown Raleigh

High Point

The “Home Furnishing Capital of the World” in North Carolina’s Central Piedmont.

Aerial view of the skyline of Downtown High Point
Downtown High Point

🏠 Population: 114,086 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in High Point on Booking

High Point claims fame as the “Home Furnishing Capital of the World.” Hundreds of home stores and outlets can be found here. The High Point Market is the town’s biggest trade show, and it happens every year. 

City parks for outdoor recreation, smaller museums, and eating North Carolina cuisine are all popular things to experience aside from High Point’s furniture scene. High Point is located in the Piedmont just southwest of Greensboro.


A big military-family city in North Carolina’s Sandhills region with a lively downtown. 

View of the local shops and restaurants in downtown Fayetteville, North Carolina
Downtown Fayetteville shops and restaurants (photo: Goldilock Project / Shutterstock)

🏠 Population: 208,778 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Fayetteville on Booking

Fayetteville is a city located east of Charlotte and south of Raleigh. Fayetteville is best known for being home to a large military family population because Fort Bragg is here. 

Downtown Fayetteville has a historic district, which is charming and walkable. Popular Fayetteville activities include exploring local parks, farms, and nature centers.

New Bern

A cozy town on North Carolina’s coast with beautiful architecture and deep historical roots.

Aerial view of the docked boats near the bridge in New Bern
New Bern, right on the water

🏠 Population: 31,346 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in New Bern on Booking

New Bern is a picturesque, historical town situated along two rivers on North Carolina’s east coast. History and beautiful 18th-century architecture are what New Bern is best known for, as well as being the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola. 

Downtown is quaint and idyllic, with shops, cafes, and galleries to stroll by. Water activities like boating and kayaking are popular things to do.

FAQs About Cities in North Carolina

What are some of the best small towns in North Carolina?

New Bern and Hickory are some of the best small towns in North Carolina. The same can be said of Hendersonville, Brevard, Washington, Beaufort, and Elizabeth City. 

What are all the cities in North Carolina?

The major cities in North Carolina are Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Asheville

What are the top places to live in North Carolina?

The top places to live in North Carolina are Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Hickory, and Asheville, according to US News. However, the most ideal place to live will vary based on personal preferences and lifestyles. 

Which Carolina is best to live in?

Which Carolina is best to live in is based on factors like budget and lifestyle. North Carolina offers a more varied landscape but has higher taxes and a higher cost of living. South Carolina has a warmer climate year-round and more of a Lowcountry lifestyle. On the downside, South Carolina has a slightly higher crime rate and roads can be rough. 


Did you learn anything new about these cities in North Carolina? Did I leave any cities or towns out? Let me know in the comments below.

Next up, check out my guide to the best things to do in North Carolina.

(Featured Image Credit: Konstantin L / Shutterstock)

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