I’ve explored so much of my home state, and I want to help you do the same! So I’ve rounded up 33 of the absolute best things to do in North Carolina.
From exploring nature and visiting famous film sites to trying iconic Carolina barbecues, North Carolina is filled with fun and unique attractions and activities.
I spill a few local secrets, too, like where to find old Appalachian traditions, natural water slides, and blue ghost fireflies! No matter what kind of traveler you are, by the end of this guide, you’ll discover activities and places to visit that are perfect for you.
Disclosure: Travel Lemming is an independent reader-supported blog. You can support us by purchasing via the affiliate links on this page, which may earn us commissions. Thank you!
Best Things to Do in North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Hike, explore, and play at America’s most visited national park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is easily one of the top North Carolina attractions. With free admission and endless nature for everyone to explore, it’s kind of a no-brainer.
This family-friendly park extends from Western North Carolina into Tennessee and is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s filled with numerous hiking trails, biking trails, and campgrounds. The plant life and wildlife here are incredibly abundant. So, if you’re looking to really immerse yourself in the Appalachian Mountains’ relaxing nature, head to the Great Smokies!
📚 Related Reading: Be prepared for your Great Smoky Mountain adventure with our North Carolina Packing List.
Go Brewery Hopping
Try craft beers throughout the state, from Beer City, USA to the Outer Banks
In truth, the beer scene in North Carolina is HOPPING—pun intended. Asheville is the main hot spot for all things craft brewing, but the rest of North Carolina has its fair share of breweries, too. Over the last decade, breweries have popped up left and right.
If you’re a real beer aficionado, definitely head to Asheville to enjoy iconic breweries like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. However, places like Charlotte, Wilmington, and Durham give Asheville a run for its money with their breweries, too.
Be awestruck by the beauty of America’s largest private home and estate
Touring the Biltmore Estate is one of the best things to do in the USA, and a must for Asheville, NC visitors. This sprawling estate is a historic gem filled with countless things to do, places to see, and ways to explore.
The huge mansion will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The number of rooms to see is countless—each decorated ornately and pristinely. The estate also has an incredible greenhouse with beautifully landscaped gardens. Not to mention, there’s Antler Hill Village, the winery, multiple trails, and so much more.
For families and couples, Biltmore Estate is an incredible attraction. Whether you stay on the estate or not, there’s something here for everyone to enjoy.
Relax and rejuvenate on North Carolina’s low-key beaches and beautiful coast
Simply put, North Carolina’s Outer Banks are relaxing and charming. Full of both vibrant and quaint coastal towns and unspoiled Atlantic ocean beaches, North Carolina’s east coast has it all. Although there are countless things to do, I’ll cover a few highlights!
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is an incredible untouched coastline with opportunities for adventure. Nag’s Head is a great first-timer location with a mix of nature and classic beach fun. It’s also home to Jockey’s Ridge State Park which has the tallest living sand dunes on the east coast!
There are tons of other attractions on the North Carolina Coast, too. Visit the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, the North Carolina Maritime Museum, aquariums, and so much more.
Experience the Blue Ridge Parkway
Drive through tunnels of trees and past inspiring mountain vistas on this winding parkway
📍 Google Maps | Phone: (828) 670-1924 | Website | Entrance: Free | 👉 Private Full Day Excursion to the Blue Ridge Mountains
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 500-mile-long route that weaves through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. It’s considered “America’s favorite drive” and is one of the best things to do in North Carolina.
Via this parkway, you can visit places like Pisgah National Forest, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell State Park, and more. The Parkway is also home to countless hiking trails, waterfalls, and places for biking, rock climbing, and camping.
If you plan on visiting the western part of the state, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is a must. It’s an activity for visitors of all ages, and a memorable way to take in the stunning scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Admire everything from trickling waterfalls to powerful, rushing cascades
If you love seeing waterfalls, Western North Carolina is the place for you. Throughout this mountainous part of the state, there are hundreds of waterfalls to visit.
Think of everything from soft, trickling waterfalls to enormous, dramatic ones. There are roadside waterfalls accessible to visitors of varying mobility levels. There are also waterfalls accompanied by more challenging hiking trails. No matter your preference, there’s a cascade for you.
Pisgah National Forest is an especially great spot with over 250 waterfalls. Growing up in this particular region, I can vouch for this part of the state’s incredible scenery. Visiting the falls is one of the best things to do in North Carolina!
The NASCAR Hall of Fame
Learn, interact, and admire everything NASCAR in this state-of-the-art museum
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is located in the heart of Uptown Charlotte. If you’re interested in cars and racing history, definitely add this museum to your North Carolina bucket list.
As you’d expect, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is home to all things NASCAR. There are tons of exhibits that cover the sport’s long racing history and stories of success. There is also an impressive large-screen cinema called High Octane Theater, which shares NASCAR’s story on the big screen.
A highlight of the Hall of Fame is “The Glory Road Exhibit.” This has numerous famed cars on display, with information about the drivers and crews that broke records and made history.
👉 Pro Tip: Note that the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where races take place, is in a separate location from the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Battleship North Carolina
Hear the stories and experience the history of the brave men who crewed this WWII ship
In Wilmington, NC on the Cape Fear River sits the historic Battleship North Carolina. Also known as the USS North Carolina, this battleship has a rich and significant World War II history. It was the first of 10 WWII battleships from the American Fleet and is the most decorated battleship of its era. Today, it’s a national historic landmark.
Whether or not you’re a history buff, a visit to this floating museum is worth your time. You can explore the large upper deck, sleeping quarters, mess hall, engine room, and more. Throughout the ship, you’ll also learn about the history and stories of both the vessel and its crew.
Take Day Trips
Get out and explore the charming towns and places that make up this great state
Throughout North Carolina, you’ll find that there are day trips destinations at every turn. No matter if you choose to visit the mountains, coast, or Piedmont, there will always be nearby places to explore.
Day trips from Asheville are especially popular since there are so many incredible towns in Western North Carolina. Charming spots like Hendersonville, Brevard, and Black Mountain are aplenty, and state and national parks are easy to reach.
On North Carolina’s Atlantic coast, there are just as many cute beach towns, national seashores, and protected natural areas to experience. In Piedmont, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh make for great day trip base locations.
Elijah Mountain Gem Mine
Mine for gems and uncover colorful, unique rocks with this memorable, interactive attraction
Mining for gems? A no-brainer. For kids and adults alike, gem mining is a hands-on activity that’s memorable and tons of fun. At Elijah Mountain Gem Mine in Hendersonville, NC, visitors enjoy panning for rocks, gems, and crystals. It’s one of Western North Carolina’s top tourist attractions for families, and definitely worth doing if you’ve never done it before.
Feel like a gem miner and pan through sandy buckets to uncover the treasures that lie below. You’ll find things like rubies, quartz crystals, amethysts, and more. And since this attraction is located in the mountains, it’s a fun way to immerse yourself in the old Appalachian traditions.
North Carolina Attractions & Sites
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center
Learn about the skies above at the oldest planetarium in the Southeast
📍 Google Maps | Phone: (919) 962-1236 | Website | Hours: 1 pm – 4:30 pm Friday, 10 am – 6 pm Saturday, 1 pm – 6 pm Sunday, Closed Monday – Thursday | Tickets: $16 adults, $14 children, Free for UNC students, $14+ for shows
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is the oldest planetarium in the Southeast. If you’re interested in the stars and galaxies far far away, this is a cool attraction worth visiting. It is located on UNC’s beautiful campus in Chapel Hill, NC.
The planetarium and science center is full of educational and interactive exhibits that cover all things space and earth. You’ll learn about topics ranging from the innovation of aviation history to astronomy, and even marine science.
What really takes the cake, though, are the planetarium shows. Some are live, narrated star shows while others are educational, sharing information on different solar system topics.
U.S. National Whitewater Center
Get your adventure on with activities ranging from whitewater rafting to yoga, rock climbing, and more
In a city, it can be hard to get your adventure fixed sometimes. But just half an hour outside of Charlotte, NC is the U.S. National Whitewater Center—a total adventure hotspot. This family-friendly recreation center has everything you could imagine.
As its name suggests, the center’s largest attraction is whitewater rafting. Here, you can raft on the largest man-made whitewater river in the world! Whether you’re new to rafting or are a total enthusiast, you’ll find plenty of options.
In addition, there are countless other activities. Enjoy ropes courses, ziplining, and rock climbing, plus kayaking, biking, ice skating, and more.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
See the place where the Wright Brothers’ infamous first flight took off and landed
In case you didn’t know, North Carolina is known as “first in flight.” Ohioans get a little upset about this since the Wright Brothers were from Ohio. But technically, the first flight ever recorded took place right here in North Carolina. Thus, securing us the title.
To see where this historic flight first took place, head to Kitty Hawk in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Here, in the town of Kill Devil Hills, you can see the exact spot where the first flight took off and landed.
Today, the Wright Brothers National Memorial is a national historic landmark. It’s an amazing attraction for aviation enthusiasts, and even if not, it’s still a cool site to stop and see in person.
Chimney Rock State Park
Visit a 500-million-year-old “chimney” rock formation with stunning panoramic views
Chimney Rock State Park is one of North Carolina’s biggest outdoor tourist attractions. It’s a family-friendly destination that makes for a fantastic day trip from Asheville and the surrounding areas.
Its main draw is the 500-million-year-old Chimney Rock formation that towers above the landscape. Simply put, it’s just super cool. At the top, you are greeted with sprawling views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Lake Lure down below.
The rest of Chimney Rock State Park is worth exploring, too. There’s a nature center and a number of hiking trails, including a 1.5-mile trek to Hickory Nut Falls. A stunning and dramatic waterfall, it features a 404-foot drop along a nearly vertical rock face!
Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Wander through beautifully landscaped gardens and idyllic wooded areas
You’ve probably heard of Duke University. But have you heard how beautiful its campus is? If you’re visiting the Durham area, be sure to make a stop at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. This incredible and picturesque botanical garden is one of the best in the state. Four distinct areas make up these gardens and each has its own landscaped story.
The first is the Historic Gardens, with rose gardens, Roney Fountain, a fish pond, and more. The HL Blomquist Garden of Native Plants is second, featuring plants from around the region. The Asiatic Arboretum is third, and home to the iconic red Meyer Bridge and 18 acres of Southeast Asian plants. Doris Duke Center Gardens, the fourth area, is also worth visiting.
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
Visit the home of the famous American poet, and explore relaxing farm grounds and nature
Located in the Village of Flat Rock outside of Hendersonville, NC is the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. As its name suggests, this national historic landmark was the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Carl Sandburg.
Whether you’re familiar with Sandburg’s work or not, I highly recommend visiting. Tours are offered of the home itself, which is an interesting way to learn all about the famous “poet of the people.”
This site is also home to Connemara Farms. Here, you can see dairy goats descended from Mrs. Sandburg’s original herd. All in all, it’s a beautiful site to explore and there are things to do for visitors of all ages.
Things to Do with Kids in North Carolina
Experience the fun of a natural waterslide that splashes into a cool river
Sliding Rock is exactly what it sounds like—a natural water slide you can skid down! It’s located in Pisgah National Forest just outside the town of Brevard, making it a great day trip from Asheville. Sliding Rock is situated roadside and is perfect for families.
If you’re looking for a memorable summer activity, this is it. It’s a little touristy, but it’s still incredibly unique and totally worth experiencing if you’ve never been. A lifeguard is also on duty so it’s a safe activity for visitors of all ages. Just be warned, the water is pretty cold year-round!
North Carolina Aquarium
See marine life up close at any of North Carolina’s four aquarium locations in the Outer Banks
North Carolina’s aquarium is made up of four locations. Each one is located along the North Carolina Coast and Outer Banks.
First, there’s the Roanoke Island location which has the largest shark tank in the state. The Jennette’s Pier location is nearby and is a great spot for fishing. The Pine Knoll Shores branch is located along Emerald Isle and is perfect for seeing sea turtles and all the marine life you love. Last is the Fort Fisher location which is just outside of Wilmington. This branch has touch tanks and other interactive exhibits that are great for kids.
Visiting these aquariums is one of the coolest, most family-friendly things to do in North Carolina. Each branch is educational, fun, and offers something unique!
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Dive into all things nature and science at the Southeast’s largest museum of its kind
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is located in downtown Raleigh. The largest museum of its kind in the Southeast, this museum shines a spotlight on all things nature and science. It’s a place where visitors of all ages can interact with the natural world and its history.
Displays range from dinosaur skeletons and animal habitats to exhibits that span land, sea, and space. With hands-on learning plus informational presentations and programs, there’s something for everyone. I visited this North Carolina attraction as a kid, and it’s still a favorite museum of mine!
Museum of Life & Science
Make science fun at this interactive museum which allows kids to explore to their heart’s content
The Museum of Life & Science is an interactive, expansive science center for children. Located in Durham, NC, it’s not far from other popular science museums like the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh and Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill.
With 84 acres and two levels of exhibits and displays, this museum is all about letting kids explore. Animals are especially highlighted at this museum, with tons of hands-on exhibits, habitats, and a farmyard. Popular attractions include the Butterfly House, a Dinosaur Trail, and the Red Wolf habitat. There’s something at this museum for every child’s curiosity.
Discovery Place Science
Learn and experiment at this all-ages science and technology museum
Discovery Place Science in Charlotte, North Carolina’s premier science museum. It’s a totally kid-friendly attraction with tons of cool exhibits and hands-on labs that cover a wide range of science topics. You and your family can expect everything from wildlife to technology workshops and human anatomy. There’s even a state-of-the-art IMAX theater here!
For young children to high school-aged kids, this museum is an engaging science playground. It’s a great place to spend a day, or even host a kid’s party. And since it’s located in the heart of Uptown Charlotte, it’s super accessible to other nearby attractions.
Let out your best screams on steep roller coasters and crazy rides at this Southeastern amusement park
No state is complete without a good amusement park. In Charlotte, NC, that’s Carowinds! Here, there are tons of hair-raising roller coasters, family-friendly rides, and special events throughout the year. There’s truly never a dull moment at Carowinds. My personal favorite rides are Fury 325, the Intimidator, and Nighthawk.
If you love spooky season and don’t mind a little jump scare, I highly recommend visiting in October. This is when Carowinds becomes “Scarowinds.” Not only are the rides thrilling, but actors dress up as zombies, clowns, and monsters to add a little extra edge to the night. Carowinds also puts on other special events like WinterFest during the holidays.
North Carolina Zoo
Experience incredible wildlife up close at the world’s largest natural habitat zoo
The North Carolina Zoo is the world’s largest natural habitat zoo. Located in Asheboro, NC and not far from Greensboro, NC, it’s a great family-friendly place to stop if you’re adventuring around the Piedmont.
Here, you can find animals from all over North America and Africa. There are African Elephants and Grizzly Bears, along with smaller creatures like lemurs, lizards, and turtles. More interactive experiences are also available at the North Carolina Zoo. This includes a butterfly garden, a giraffe deck, and hiking trails.
Marbles Kids Museum
Allow kids to explore these imaginative and educational exhibits, programs, and more
If you haven’t noticed, downtown Raleigh is full of museums. For children 10 and under, Marbles Kids Museum is the place to go.
Each exhibit and program is geared towards satisfying kids’ curiosity and sense of wonder. Exhibits range between science, nature, and art. There are a variety of interactive workshops and events that take place here every day, so there’s always something new for your kiddos to enjoy.
Food & Drink in North Carolina
Try North Carolina Barbecue
Get ready to let your mouth water with tasty barbecue in classic Carolina flavors
A trip to North Carolina just isn’t complete without some barbecue. Trying it is one of the best things to do in North Carolina—along with all the fixings, too!
There’s a longstanding debate about what type of North Carolina barbecue is best: eastern style or western style. Eastern style is vinegar-based, and the western style has your more traditional ketchup-based sauce. No matter where you are in North Carolina, there’s sure to be a local barbecue joint where you can put your taste buds to the test.
As an Asheville local, I recommend 12 Bones Smokehouse and Buxton Hall Barbecue. Hawg Wild Barbecue in the town of Brevard is another favorite!
Get a Taste of Southern Cuisine
Savor the bright, colorful flavors that make up the South, from the mountains to the coast
Southern cuisine is no joke in North Carolina, and luckily, there’s a lot of it. Depending on where in the state you plan on visiting, Southern cuisine will vary. On the coast, you’ll find fresh seafood like fish and crab, plus staples like shrimp and grits. Throughout the rest of the state, you’ll find all the classics like barbecue, fried green tomatoes, fruit cobblers, and so much more.
Food is its own worthwhile attraction in North Carolina. So, be sure to try some Southern cuisine during your visit. And of course, order a sweet tea while you’re at it!
Sample Local Wine
Sit back and enjoy unique glasses of wine grown across North Carolina
It may come as a surprise, but North Carolina has a fair amount of local vineyards and wineries. From east to west, there are unique grape-growing regions that produce a variety of different wines.
On the east coast, Duplin Winery is the largest and oldest winery in the state. They are known for their sweet Muscadine wines. Yadkin Valley is known as North Carolina’s official wine region, and there are countless vineyards and wineries. The mountains have their fair share of wineries, too, which can be quite scenic. Biltmore Estate Winery is the most visited winery here.
Aficionado or not, I highly recommend doing a tasting at a local vineyard! I’ve done tastings at Duplin Winery and many wineries near Asheville.
Unique Things to Do in North Carolina
Visit North Carolina Film Sites
Tour scenic places you’ve only seen on the big screen, up close and personal
From the mountains to the sea, North Carolina has been home to numerous filming locations over the years. Just to name a few, there are:
Dirty Dancing at Lake Lure; The Hunger Games and The Last of the Mohicans at DuPont State Recreational Forest; One Tree Hill and various Nicholas Sparks movies in the Outer Banks. The Andy Griffith Show was also inspired by the real town of Mount Airy, NC.
If you find yourself nearby any of the film locations I’ve mentioned, definitely visit if you can! It’s a cool thing to witness iconic places you’ve seen on the big screen, in real life.
Blue Ghost Fireflies
See rare, illuminating fireflies light up the Appalachian forest
North Carolina is home to one very cool phenomenon: blue ghost fireflies. This type of firefly is different from your typical southern lightning bug. Instead of flashing their lights, the light of these fireflies is more like a glow. Only the male fireflies glow blue, and the females glow white or yellow.
The season to see these fireflies is between late May and early June. And because they’re rare, you’ll only find them around the Southern Appalachian Mountains. This includes places in DuPont State Recreational Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Connect yourself to nature and the varied scenery that makes North Carolina so special
Did you know that you can hike from North Carolina’s mountains to the coast? The Mountains-To-Sea Trail (MST) is the official hiking trail of North Carolina! It’s also the longest trail in the state. Approximately 720 miles make up this route, and it’s an attraction that the whole family can enjoy.
MST takes you from Clingmans Dome in the mountains, through the piedmont, and to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks. You can hike the entire trail if you’re up for the challenge, but it can be enjoyed in much smaller sections, too. Overall, it’s a super unique way to see all the diverse scenery in the state.
Things to Do in North Carolina in Winter
Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snow Tubing
Get your winter sports adventure on at one of Western North Carolina’s Appalachian ski resorts
In Western North Carolina’s mountains and high country, there are a few different ski resorts for visitors and locals to enjoy.
Sugar Mountain is the largest ski resort in the state, and it’s great for skiers of different levels. Beech Mountain is another popular resort with a Swiss Alpine vibe. It’s also the highest ski resort on the east coast. Other resorts include Wolf Ridge Ski Resort, Appalachian Ski Mountain, and Cataloochee Ski Area.
📚 Related Reading: Wondering when to visit for different activities in this region? Check out our guide to the best time to visit Asheville.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
See the Great Smoky Mountains from a new perspective aboard this scenic, memorable ride
In Bryson City, NC lies one of the biggest North Carolina attractions: the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. A ride on this popular train is suitable for visitors of all ages. The railway covers 53 miles of scenic mountain countryside—weaving through forests, fields, and along rivers. It’s a great way to sit back and take in the beautiful region, all from the comfort of your train car.
If you have younger kids, I highly recommend visiting during the holidays. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad transforms into the Polar Express. This makes for a really memorable experience.
Grove Park Inn National Gingerbread House Competition
Browse the most amazing gingerbread houses at a beautiful historic inn
During the holiday season, the Omni Grove Park Inn hosts a national gingerbread house competition. People from around the region (and even the country!) create homemade, one-of-a-kind gingerbread houses. Each one is totally unique and decorated differently, which makes seeing them a fun activity for the whole family. They have different age categories, too, from young children to adults, so there’s a lot of variety.
I visit the Grove Park Inn almost every holiday season to see the gingerbread houses. I can honestly say, there is some really impressive cookie creations year after year. It’s one of the best things to do in Asheville during the holidays, so definitely visit!
📚 Related Reading: Wondering where to stay in Asheville? Read our guide! The Omni Grove Park Inn is one of Asheville’s best hotels.
Surprised by all the fun things to do in North Carolina? This list is just the beginning! Hopefully, you picked up some gems to add to your North Carolina bucket list. For more things to do and see, check out our guide on towns in Western North Carolina.
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