If you’ve never checked out any of the best places to visit in North Carolina before, then prepare to be pleasantly surprised. It’s incredible that one state can have so much diverse scenery.
I grew up in North Carolina and have a serious love for the state. I’m here to make your trip planning easy with this list of the 29 best places to visit in North Carolina.
From the mountains in the west to the central Piedmont cities and the Outer Banks beaches in the east, North Carolina quite literally has it all.
Table of Contents
- 29 Best Places to Visit in North Carolina
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Outer Banks
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- Mount Mitchell State Park
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore
- Cape Lookout National Seashore
- Hanging Rock State Park
- Chapel Hill
- Elizabeth City
- Emerald Isle
- Pisgah National Forest
- Lake Lure
- Carolina Beach
- Kitty Hawk
- Bald Head Island
- Old Salem
- Grandfather Mountain
- Lake Toxaway
- Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
- Linville Gorge and Falls
- Merchant’s Millpond State Park
- Little Switzerland
- Nags Head
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29 Best Places to Visit in North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
America’s most visited national park, perfect for the whole family
The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina. Being America’s most visited national park, it’s already a popular thing to do in North Carolina, but for good reason. This subrange of the Blue Ridge Mountains is filled with lush forests, open meadows, and a variety of native plant and animal life.
Hiking, biking, fishing, and camping are all popular activities here. There are diverse trails ranging from easy walking trails along rivers to more challenging uphill climbs. This makes it an especially great park for families, as there’s a little something for everyone.
Whether you stay for a weekend or a week, be sure to add the Great Smoky Mountains to your itinerary and experience the peace and tranquility of this magical park!
Laid back beaches with charming coastal towns
The Outer Banks are the outermost islands that create a barrier formation on the east coast of North Carolina. In total, 130 islands make up the Outer Banks, all with relaxing beaches and coastal towns.
What makes this such a perfect North Carolina vacation destination is the wide variety of family-friendly attractions in the Outer Banks. For some family fun, Carolina Beach has a lot to offer. For more untouched nature and adventure, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores are great choices. And for a classic Outer Banks vacation with a mix of both, Nags Head is the perfect destination.
Don’t stop there though, the Outer Banks have so many other amazing islands and towns worth checking out—many of which are mentioned throughout this article!
Blue Ridge Parkway
A stunning drive with mountain scenery as far as the eye can see
A trip to North Carolina just isn’t complete without a drive through the Blue Ridge Parkway. Nearly 500 miles of meandering mountain roads weave through North Carolina and part of Virginia, providing visitors with stunning mountain scenery. This makes it one of the best places to visit in North Carolina.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is home to an infinite number of hiking trails, camping spots, rivers, and waterfalls. Quaint mountain towns are also scattered throughout this region of North Carolina. If you’re a nature lover or outdoor enthusiast, be sure to add this to your itinerary. It’ll be easy for you to see why this parkway is known as “America’s favorite drive.”
👉 Just visiting North Carolina for a few days? Then be sure to read our carry-on only packing list.
Mount Mitchell State Park
Soar above the clouds on the highest mountain peak east of the Mississippi
At 6,366 feet above sea level, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi. It’s the perfect day trip from Asheville and surrounding areas, and one of my all time favorite parks in the region.
The park is located right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, accessible by car and a short walk to the viewing platform. At the top of the platform, you’ll be greeted with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountain landscape. If you’re looking to hike, the park has many scenic trails to hit up.
The park also has a gift shop, museum, and restaurant. With so many things to do and ways to enjoy this park, Mount Mitchell makes for a fantastic family destination.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
A peaceful beach escape with ever-changing islands, shaped by nature
North of Cape Lookout is Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which is the easternmost point of North Carolina. If you’re looking for natural Outer Banks beauty and tons of opportunities for adventure, this is it. It’s one of the best places to visit in North Carolina, and it’s great for the whole family.
Cape Hatteras is actually one of the largest sections of the Outer Banks, so there’s no shortage of things to do. Think kayaking, swimming, and even horseback riding through the woods and beach. Witness wildlife at the local wildlife refuge, or see sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach.
Overall, Cape Hatteras is the perfect place to go for that mix of natural beauty, outdoor recreation, and classic beach fun.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
An undeveloped seashore full of history and wild horses
Just off the North Carolina mainland are the barrier islands that make up Cape Lookout National Seashore. This area has pristine beaches that stretch for 56 miles and the area remains largely undeveloped. To reach Cape Lookout, you’ll need to take a ferry.
The main appeal of Cape Lookout is its untouched natural beauty. Visitors can stay in rustic cabins or even camp on the beach. Another must-see attraction, though, are the wild horses that can be seen on Cape Lookout’s southernmost edge, Shackleford Bank. Other attractions include Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters, and Portsmouth Village.
Hanging Rock State Park
A nature haven just north of the Piedmont
Just north of Winston-Salem in the Piedmont is Hanging Rock State Park. Hanging Rock offers everything you could ask for in a nature park: trails, camping, picnicking spots, rivers, and waterfalls. This nature park even has a beach for swimming and places to canoe.
With nearly 8,000 acres of land, Hanging Rock State Park makes for the perfect nature getaway if the Great Smoky Mountains are too far. One of the most popular, must-do hikes is Hanging Rock Trail, which is a semi-challenging 2.6-mile roundtrip trail that rewards you with panoramic views.
An artsy, eclectic city nestled in the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains
Asheville is located in the heart of Western North Carolina amongst the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. This artsy city is full of character and boasts a lot of the region’s best in terms of food, art, culture, and beer.
What makes Asheville especially popular though, is its proximity to nature and accessibility to outdoor activities. This includes infinite opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, river kayaking, camping, rock climbing, and so much more that is accessible via day trips from Asheville. The famous Biltmore Estate is also located here.
At its core, Asheville is a nature lovers paradise while still providing the culture and convenience of being in the city. As someone who grew up right outside of Asheville, I can say that it’s one of the best places to visit in North Carolina. Check out my guide to what to do in Asheville to get planning your trip.
A fun city full of art, amenities, and attractions
Charlotte is the largest city in the state, and its variety of attractions and amenities certainly make it one of the best places to visit in North Carolina. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in America.
Uptown and surrounding neighborhoods like NoDa and Plaza Midwood offer incredible dining, shopping, and entertainment. Meanwhile, other North Carolina attractions like Carowinds, the U.S. National Whitewater Center, and the Nascar Hall of Fame are all located here.
And with Charlotte being located in the Piedmont, it’s the perfect destination for taking day trips to other places throughout North Carolina.
Close to nearby beaches and a downtown full of history and charm
Wilmington, North Carolina is a great vacation destination for visitors of all ages. It combines some of the Outer Banks’ best, with its historic, waterfront downtown area and access to Cape Fear beaches like Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Kure Beach.
Visitors can enjoy a plethora of activities in Wilmington, too. The area has tons of history and hands on museums, as well as a WWII-era battleship that can be toured. Wilmington is also home to Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park, which is one of the best waterparks in the state.
For slower-paced activities, the downtown has tons of historic sights, local shops, and plenty of tasty restaurants, coffee shops, and breweries.
Visit North Carolina’s most famous college town for quintessential Carolina charm
You don’t have to be a student or sports fanatic to enjoy a trip to Chapel Hill. Located adjacent to UNC Chapel Hill’s campus, this small town is steeped with classic Carolina charm. In fact, UNC’s teams are known as the Carolina Tar Heels, reflective of North Carolina’s nickname of “the Tar Heel state.”
The center of downtown Chapel Hill on Franklin Street is the center of the action. The street buzzes with college students. You’ll find tons of local restaurants, cafes, pubs, and shops.
A trip to visit Chapel Hill isn’t complete without a walk through UNC’s campus. You should also be sure to visit the Morehead Planetarium. While you’re in the area, check out nearby Carrboro for its cute shops and cafes.
A city known for its higher education, museums, and growing food scene
The capital city of Raleigh, North Carolina is located in the central Piedmont of the state, within the “Research Triangle.” Known as the “the City of Oaks,” Raleigh has grown increasingly popular in recent years and is a great destination for visitors of all ages.
Some of the best museums in North Carolina are located here. This includes the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, as well as the North Carolina Museum of History. There are also parks, gardens, and greenways galore, and places like William B. Umstead State Park and Falls Lake State Recreation Area are nearby.
Lastly, Raleigh has become a booming foodie hotspot, so be sure to try out local restaurants and breweries!
An inviting small town known as the Harbor of Hospitality
Elizabeth City is a small, charming town located on the northern inland coast of North Carolina. The tranquil waters of the Pasquotank River snake through the town, giving it a relaxing waterfront atmosphere. Elizabeth City is a town full of history and Southern charm, which makes it the perfect destination for a quiet getaway.
Popular things to do here include exploring the historic downtown, sitting by the waterfront, and visiting the Museum of Albemarle where you can learn all about local history. Elizabeth City is also home to the largest U.S. Coast Guard base in the country.
This small, industrious city has history and attractions worth checking out
Durham (also known as the “Bull City”) is a small, growing city located near Raleigh and Chapel Hill, and within North Carolina’s “Research Triangle.” In recent decades, Durham’s cityscape has undergone major transformations.
This includes the American Tobacco Historic District. What was once an industrial district with warehouses, is now the city’s premier district for shopping, restaurants, taphouses, and entertainment.
North Carolina’s prestigious Duke University is also located in Durham and definitely worth checking out. The historic campus features open green spaces and Gothic-style architecture. The Duke University Chapel and the Sarah P. Duke Gardens are also worth a visit. Overall, Durham is a destination becoming increasingly popular for its artsy vibe and food scene.
Relaxing beaches and tiny towns perfect for a quaint summer vacation
In the center of the Outer Banks’ barrier islands is Emerald Isle, a relaxing vacation hotspot. What makes this area so special are the small communities and tiny coastal beach towns that line the coast. Each has its own unique flair, yet they still remain connected by the waters of the Crystal Coast.
The beaches of Emerald Isle offer tons of family fun from fishing to watersports. The area purposely lacks high rises to prevent overdevelopment, in order to maintain the natural beauty. Lastly, if you visit in the late summer or early fall, you may catch a glimpse of nesting sea turtles. Just remember to take everything you need for a relaxing beach vacation!
Pisgah National Forest
A camping and hiking paradise with over 250 waterfalls
Situated between Asheville, Brevard, and Waynesville is Pisgah National Forest. This beautiful, family-friendly park has over 500,000 acres of wilderness, waterfalls, and infinite hiking opportunities. In fact, it’s known as one of the best places to visit in North Carolina (and even the country!) for outdoor adventures and recreation.
Popular things to do in Pisgah National Forest include driving through the Blue Ridge Parkway, hiking, mountain biking, camping, and picnicking. There are also tons of cool attractions like Sliding Rock, Cradle of Forestry, Looking Glass Falls, and Looking Glass Rock.
👉 Pro Tip: In the winter, some of the roads close on the Blue Ridge Parkway and you can actually walk these closed-off areas!
Water sports and outdoor attractions galore, perfect for families
In the foothills of North Carolina sits Lake Lure, an idyllic yet adventure-filled destination that’s one of the best places to visit in North Carolina. Most of the lake is surrounded by private homes, but a section of the beach is open to the public in the summertime for a small fee. It’s the perfect place to come on a hot summer day, and there’s even a waterpark.
Another must-see attraction near Lake Lure is Chimney Rock State Park. This park has a natural “Chimney Rock” monolith with incredible views of the mountains and lake. On a clear day, you can see as far as 75 miles. At just under an hour from Asheville, Lake Lure makes for a fantastic day trip.
👉 Did You Know? The 1987 movie Dirty Dancing was actually filmed at Lake Lure!
The perfect, family-friendly beach getaway for sun, fun, and attractions galore
Looking for family fun? Carolina Beach is your destination. Located just outside of Wilmington, this beach town has enough attractions and beach activities to keep your family entertained for the entire duration of your stay.
The Carolina Beach Boardwalk is considered one of America’s best and has amusement rides, an arcade, biking, and water sports since it’s right on the water. For adults, Carolina Beach has tiki bars and beer gardens for some nightlife fun.
Lastly, this town has some unfiltered nature to explore, at Carolina Beach State Park or along the Cape Fear River inlet.
A beach town with cool history and tons of laid-back outdoor activities
If you know anything about North Carolina, you probably know that it’s dubbed as the birthplace of aviation (don’t remind Ohioans of this—it’s a touchy subject). This is because the Wright Brothers accomplished their first successful flight in North Carolina—right near Kitty Hawk at Kill Devil Hills.
Today, Kitty Hawk offers a bit more than being the birthplace of this historic accomplishment. The town boasts beautiful beaches and coastal activities like kayaking and surfing. The area is also home to full-time Outer Banks residents, giving the town a low-key and residential feel, perfect for a laid-back beach vacation.
To learn more about the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, be sure to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
Bald Head Island
Enjoy a slow-paced vacation on this car-free island
Bald Head Island is the perfect place for anyone to go for a vacation reset—families, friends, and couples alike. Located on Cape Fear just south of Wilmington, it is the southernmost island of the Outer Banks. The car-free island can be reached by taking a ferry from Southport.
Once on the island, visitors can enjoy the island’s untouched natural beauty in a variety of ways. The long stretches of pristine coastline make it a perfect place to paddleboard and even surf. Besides the beach, the island also has beautiful marsh and forest areas, ideal for more outdoor exploration.
Step back in time and experience important stories and cultural history
Technically a part of the city of Winston Salem, Old Salem is a historic district worth checking out if you happen to be in Winston-Salem or nearby. Here, you’ll be able to step back in time and get a taste of living history. The museum and gardens tell the stories of Black, Moravian, and Indigenous people of the American South.
A fine collection of artifacts and arts from life in early the South are featured here. This includes furniture, artwork, metalwork, and more. Overall, this is a fantastic cultural and educational landmark.
An iconic nature park with a mile high swinging bridge and tons of outdoor exploration
Grandfather Mountain is a nature park located an hour and a half northeast of Asheville and just south of Boone. This park is often photographed for its iconic mile-high swinging bridge which is the highest suspension footbridge in America. At 5,946 feet above sea level, you’ll tower over the surrounding mountains for spectacular views.
The park also has walking trails and plenty of educational exhibits and programs at the Grandfather Mountain Nature Museum, making it a great family destination. If you plan on having lunch here, they have tons of areas for picnicking, or you can eat at Mildred’s Grill.
The perfect luxury mountain retreat
Lake Toxaway is a quaint, yet luxurious, mountain town nestled in the southwestern corner of North Carolina, not far from the South Carolina border. This mountain retreat has the largest private lake in the state and is one of the more hidden places to visit in North Carolina.
Visitors can stay at the Greystone Inn or rent vacation cottages along or near the lake. Kayaking, paddleboarding, and boating are popular ways to enjoy the lake, and many waterfall trails dot the area. Downtown Lake Toxaway has charming shops and restaurants as well. This is an ideal destination for those seeking a more private, luxury mountain experience.
Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
A designated area that celebrates southern Appalachian culture and tradition
The Appalachian Mountains have a rich history—one of arts, crafts, culture, and music tradition, as well as natural beauty that’s worth protecting. If you’re seeking local culture and a real taste of southern Appalachia, this federally designated area in North Carolina is the place to be.
Throughout the 25 most western counties in North Carolina, you’ll find everything that makes this region unique. Think farmers markets and gem mines, Appalachian art and folklore, and unique mountain towns. And of course, you can’t forget about the obvious natural beauty and outdoor attractions that make this region so special.
Linville Gorge and Falls
Visit “the Grand Canyon of the East” within Pisgah National Forest
As one of the most well-known and photographed areas in Western North Carolina, it’s safe to say that Linville Gorge and Falls is captivating. The gorge itself is 12 miles long and Linville Falls has a 90-foot drop.
If you’re a more experienced hiker, this area is especially fantastic. Tons of challenging hiking trails offer rewarding views and there are plenty of places for camping and backpacking. If you’re looking for easier hikes, five viewing areas can be reached by two trails near the Visitors Center. Be sure to read my North Carolina packing list to make sure you come prepared!
Merchant’s Millpond State Park
An enchanting park full of trails, swamps, and Spanish moss
Looking for something a little different? Take a trip to this enchanting state park full of walking trails surrounded by hardwood forest and swamps with Spanish moss. Merchant’s Millpond has remained seemingly unchanged throughout time, and still maintains its unique environment of plant life and wildlife.
Popular activities include canoeing through the swamp, picnicking on the grounds, and even fishing. Because this state park is located only 45 minutes west of Elizabeth City, it’s a great day trip to make from the North Carolina coast and Outer Banks.
A small, local gem nestled high in the mountains, perfect for couples
Located a bit off the beaten path of the Blue Ridge Parkway is Little Switzerland. This tiny community is quaint, cute, and meant to be a relaxing getaway. It’s especially ideal for couples looking to escape into the relaxing mountain atmosphere.
Only a few inns and shops make up Little Switzerland, making nature the real star of the show. Still, visitors can enjoy a nice meal with mountain views at Switzerland Inn, or go casual with a barbecue at Switzerland Cafe & General Store. The town also has a great little coffee shop and bookstore called Books and Beans. And of course, there are tons of trails and outdoor activities nearby.
A slice of Outer Banks heaven known for its gigantic living sand dunes
Nags Head is an iconic Outer Banks town you’re sure to fall in love with. Located in the northern section of the Outer Banks islands, it has beautiful, sunny beaches with windblown dunes and grasses, and activities for the whole family to enjoy. It’s the kind of place where you can settle in for an extended vacation and let the hours pass by without a care.
One of the top attractions on Nags Head is Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which has the tallest living sand dunes on the east coast. Whether you plan on taking part in water sports and activities or just enjoying slow-paced coastal life, Nags Head is the perfect Carolina beach town.
A mountain town with endless opportunities to adventure and explore
Located in North Carolina’s high country, Boone is an adventure lover’s dream. This college mountain town is nestled in the midst of the Blue Ridge Mountains and has tons of outdoor attractions and activities. And although its proximity to Appalachian State University gives it a bit of a college vibe, the area is still family-friendly.
Just like other mountain towns in North Carolina, Boone offers a plethora of hiking trails and incredible mountain scenery. Attractions like Grandfather Mountain (as mentioned in this article) and Blowing Rock are nearby, offering opportunities for outdoor adventure.
Tweetsie Railroad is here, too, which is a fun theme park for kids. Boone is also home to a ton of ski resorts, making it a great winter sports destination.
⛰️ Read Next: Best Western North Carolina Towns
That’s a wrap on the 29 best places to visit in North Carolina! I hope this guide has helped you narrow down your choices on where to go in the Tar Heel state. For more information on North Carolina, check out our ultimate North Carolina Guide.
Have fun discovering the best North Carolina destinations!
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