If you’re planning a trip to North Carolina, you’ve made the right choice. The state is full of incredible destinations to visit. There are more than a dozen cool cities to visit along with even more cozy small towns to discover.
The scenery in North Carolina is undeniably beautiful. The state has fantastic beaches on the Outer Banks that draw visitors to their pristine, natural shores. That’s not the only unique geographical feature in the state though. North Carolina also has beautiful mountains ranges like the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I will take any opportunity I can find to visit the mountains. So it’s no surprise I particularly like North Carolina’s natural attractions, but that’s not the only thing the state has going for it. There are plenty of cultural attractions, museums, and an excellent food scene to enjoy while visiting as well.
If you’re looking for guidance on some of the best things to do in North Carolina, you’re in the right place. I’ve put together a list to help you get started planning your trip to North Carolina.
Explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park in the United States. It is located on both sides of the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The breathtaking landscape is filled with dense forests, wildflowers, streams, rivers, and waterfalls in addition to its namesake misty mountain peaks.
There are lots of great reasons to check out this part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can take the scenic Lakeview Drive to see Fontana Lake. Or you can trek the the Deep Creek waterfall hike to see Indian Creek Falls, Juney Whank Falls, and Tom Branch Falls. You have multiple options for hiking and biking within the park. If you visit the Cataloochee Valley or the Oconaluftee Valley, there’s a chance you might see the reintroduced elk herd.
If you’re interested in camping, you can camp in tents or RVs in the Smokemont campground. There are no hotels or cabins available within the park other than LeConte Lodge. However, you can find a variety of cozy cabins, hotels, and bed and breakfasts in the nearby communities.
Climb up Chimney Rock
When it comes to outdoor adventure, North Carolina delivers. One of the most popular places to escape into the mountains is Chimney Rock State Park. The park is well-known for Chimney Rock, 315-foot-high rocky outcropping that resembles a chimney. You can climb up the 499 steps to get to the top and take in the beautiful panoramic views.
Unfortunately, when I visited I could barely see anything at the top thanks to the fog after a summer rainstorm, so check the forecast before you head to the park. The photos I took did end up looking interesting though because everything was surrounded by a dense fog.
Besides climbing the stairs (or taking the elevator) at Chimney Rock, there are plenty of other things to do in this beautiful park. You can hike the Hickory Nut Falls Trail to get to one of the tallest waterfalls on this side of the Mississippi River. You might recognize the view if you’re a fan of the movie The Last of the Mohicans.
Rock climbing is another popular thing to do at this park, and you can participate no matter whether you’re a beginner or an expert.
Visit the Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain
Grandfather Mountain is part of the Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve. If you’re interested in hiking or nature, Grandfather Mountain is a must-visit. The reserve has a variety of hikes ranging from easy to strenuous, and all of the trails offer beautiful views.
You can’t visit without seeing the Mile High Swinging Bridge. It’s the highest suspension footbridge in the United States. If you’re afraid of heights, know that the mile-high part refers to the height above sea level, not the valley below. It’s only about 80 feet to the ground, which is still high but not thousands of feet. Also, the bridge is very secure and doesn’t sway that much.
Make sure to see the Nature Museum. A quick stop here will help you appreciate the area even more.
Take in the Opulence at Biltmore Estate
Biltmore Estate is possibly the closest thing to a castle you’ll find in the United States. At the very least this grand estate built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895 definitely qualifies as a chateau. The Gilded Age Mansion was lavishly furnished and used as a retreat by the family along with many distinguished guests.
The property was first opened to the public in 1930 in an attempt to revitalize tourism in Asheville and help with the costs of running the estate during the Great Depression. Today, the doors are still open to visitors who want to tour the opulent house. You can take a self-guided tour through many of the rooms which are still filled with objects collected by the house’s first owners. While the entire house is stunning, the library is one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen, especially when it’s decorated for Christmas.
Besides the mansion itself, your ticket also allows you to explore the gardens, Anter Hill Village, and the Biltmore Winery. In the spring and summer, the formal and informal gardens are absolutely beautiful. With more than 20 miles of trails to walk on the grounds, you could easily spend an entire day just admiring the outdoors.
Sit on the Shores on the Outer Banks
You can’t talk about the best things to do in North Carolina without mentioning the Outer Banks. These barrier islands start at the Virginia border and extend south all the way to Ocracoke Island. Unlike many popular beaches, the shores along the Outer Banks remain free from manmade distracts that can clog other beach towns.
The beaches are preserved by the National Park Service and the islands contain a mix of cute towns and quiet villages. The Outerbanks are also a great location for those interested in water sports. There’s a wide range of communities to visit depending on what you want your visit to be like.
In Duck, you’ll find family-friendly beaches as well as a activities like shopping, dining, and kayaking. At Kitty Hawk, you’ll find friendly family-run motels and a beautiful, tranquil oceanfront. This is the place where the Wright Brothers made their first flight. Nags Head is another popular area for visits. There are over 40 public beach access points at Nags Head. Jockey’s Ridge State Park is also located here.
One of the most popular places to go in the Outer Banks is Corolla. Besides enjoying the beautiful beaches and small-town charm, you can take a tour to see the wild horses that roam the island’s shores.
Visit the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center
Located at the University of North Carolina, this center was built in 1949, and it was used for part of NASA astronaut training from 1959 to 1975. Now, the center still has an educational purpose. It’s just for a much wider audience.
The planetarium is open to the public from Friday through Sunday. A ticket to the center gives you access to shows, many educational exhibits, a STEM tinkering space, and science demonstrations.
While the center is great to visit with kids, it’s also interesting for adults. The Carolina Skies program, in particular, is very thorough and enjoyable for those who want a deep dive into astronomy.
Find Your New Favorite Book in Asheville
There are lots of great reasons to visit the undeniably cool city of Asheville in western North Carolina. However, one of the city’s many unique features is the large number of interesting bookstores located there. Book lovers have plenty of choices.
Malaprop’s Bookstore is a local favorite. At this downtown bookstore, you’ll find stacks of books ranging from bestsellers to indies. You’ll also find a great selection of books by local authors. For most cities just having a bookstore like Malaprop’s would be a big deal.
Asheville’s got even more though. At Battery Park Book Exchange, you can grab a cocktail or glass of wine while browsing through the used books. The shelves seem endless as you make your way through the store. On nice days, you can sit outside on the patio to enjoy charcuterie and sip champagne after your literary adventure.
Those are the first two bookshops I always stop by while in Asheville, but if you have time, there are even more bookstores to see. So far, my record is 4 bookstores during one weekend. Check out, Firestorm Books & Coffee, Downtown Books & News, Bagatelle Books, or Next Door Used Books.
Road trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway
If you want to take a road trip for your next getaway, you can’t pick a better route than the Blue Ridge Parkway. Called “American’s favorite drive,” the parkway makes its way from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina all the way to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
Regardless of whether you decide to drive the entire route or just a section, the parkway is filled with scenic views, hiking trails, and other attractions. A few of the highlights are Mt. Mitchell State Park, Craggy Gardens, Mount Pisgah, and Waterrock Knob. The views alone would be worth the trip, but when combined with all the different things you can do along the way, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the perfect road trip experience.
Enjoy a Glimpse of Switzerland without a Plane Ticket
While exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway, make a stop in Little Switzerland. This summer resort that was built in 1910 was named for the area’s impressive valleys and distant mountains that partially resemble the foothills of the Swiss Alps. Little Switzerland is full of buildings with distinct Swiss architectural elements.
You can eat lunch at the Switzerland Cafe and shop at the General Store. Make sure to stop by Little Switzerland Books & Beans to browse the rooms full of books and look at the art gallery showcasing work done by local artists.
Little Switzerland is the perfect place to stay overnight for a cozy mountain getaway. The largest and oldest hotel in the area is called Switzerland Inn. Here you can stay in the Main Lodge or book a rustic cottage. You can even decide to stay in a chalet-style A-frame.
Hike the Rugged Terrain at the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area
Located in the Pisgah National Forest, the Linville Gorge is often called the “Grand Canyon of East.” Along the eastern rim of the canyon, you’ll get beautiful views of the gorge. Unlike the Grand Canyon, this area is filled with a hardwood and pine forest. It’s possible to hike, backpack, rock climb, fish, and hunt in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.
Because the terrain here is so rugged, it escaped the logging that took place in other areas in the state. As a result, you can still see the old-growth forest that has disappeared elsewhere. Of course, this also means that accessing portions of the gorge can be difficult for visitors today. If you’re up for an adventurous hike, you can find some of the best views in the entire state.
Try out the Plunge Basin Trail, Linville Falls Trail, Linville Falls Overlook Trail, and Erwin’s View Trail if you’re looking for easier hikes. If you try out the other available hikes, you’ll need to be in good shape.
Discover a Natural Waterslide in Pisgah National Forest
If you’re looking for a fun outdoor activity, then head to Sliding Rock. This natural attraction in Pisgah National Forest is incredibly popular. Sliding Rock is a 60-foot natural water slide. Once you reach the bottom, you plunge into an 8-foot-deep pool of water.
There are lifeguards on duty from May to September, and the experience is family-friendly. You can also watch all the action from the viewing platforms. The area can fill up in the afternoon, so arrive early to make sure you get to try out this unique slide. If Sliding Rock is full when you arrive, you can visit Looking Glass Falls instead while you wait for the crowds to thin out a bit.
Pay Tribute to Baby and Johnny at Lake Lure
Lake Lure is one of the most beautiful man-made lakes in the United States. You might recognize this lake from scenes in popular films, including Dirty Dancing. In fact, each year in September, a Dirty Dancing Festival takes place at the lake. You can get tickets to enjoy the music, dancing, food, and, of course, the lake lift competition that recreates the famous scene.
During the rest of the year, there are still plenty of great reasons to visit Lake Lure. You can relax on the sandy beach or enjoy the water park on a hot summer afternoon. You can also try out one of the many walking and hiking trails in the area.
If you’re looking for something a bit more daring, check out the offerings from Lake Lure Adventure Company. If wakeboarding, wake surfing, waterskiing, or tubing sounds good to you, they’ll be able to help you set up an exciting (but safe) outing.
Hunt for Blue Ghost Fireflies
For just a few weeks a year, you can find these unusual fireflies in North Carolina forests. Called blue ghost fireflies due to the bluish-white light the insects emit to attract a mate, these fireflies light up during their mating season in late spring and early summer. The female fireflies don’t fly, and they glow instead of flash. When thousands of these fireflies glow at once, the entire ground is lit up by their bioluminescent light.
The best place to see the blue ghost fireflies is in certain areas near Asheville. The most well-known area where the blue ghost fireflies make their home is Dupont State Forest. However, the crowds are sometimes so large that the park closes off certain trails to avoid harming the blue ghost firefly population. Remember, glowing is how they find a mate, so lights from flashlights and cell phones can prevent the fireflies from finding true love, or, more accurately, stop them from reproducing.
You can spot blue ghost fireflies throughout the southern Appalachians. Pisgah National Forest has blue ghost firefly populations. The species also lives in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Chattahoochee National Forest. As long as you make sure not to disturb the firefly population, seeing the blue ghost fireflies is a very cool experience.
Wander Through Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University
If you love admiring beautiful plants, then the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University are a must-visit. The gardens were first set up in 1935 and redesigned after a flood the following year.
Admission is free to this beautiful public garden. The 55-acre garden is beautifully landscaped and has four different themed sections with over 2500 plant species. There are more than 5 miles of walkways and paths in the garden, and you’ll find plenty of places to take beautiful photos. You’ll see everything from native plants living in woodland areas to carefully gown heirloom roses and even plants from Southeast Asia like Japanese maples, irises, peonies, and cherries in the Asiatic Arboretum.
Enjoy Fine Dining at a Local Favorite
You’ll find fine dining options all across the state, but for a particularly atmospheric meal, head to Ryan’s Restaurant in Winston-Salem. This restaurant has been in business for over 40 years, and guests keep coming back for the “Steak, Chops,Seafood” promised on the restaurant’s sign. Here you’ll find dishes like steamed mussels, Oysters Rockefeller, shrimp and grits, steak, and racks of lamb.
The delicious food is only half of the draw for this restaurant. It’s surrounded by woods, so you’ll see large oaks and the rolling stream if you look out the windows. The ambiance inside has a cozy, but airy, cabin feel with comfortable sofas and a fire crackling from the fireplace during the winter. The combination of the warmth of the interior design along with the views and the food will make you want to return here again and again.
Attend the NC Apple Festival in Hendersonville
Over Labor Day weekend each year, Hendersonville hosts the North Carolina Apple Festival to celebrate the local apple crop. To me, apples mark the beginning of fall, so attending the festival a fun way to anticipate the changing season.
At the festival, you’ll find different local varieties of apples being sold by farm vendors along with a variety of other foods and handmade items. It wouldn’t be an apple festival without apple orchard tours and an apple recipe contest. You’ll be able to enjoy live music throughout the weekend, participate in an 8k and fun run, and even enjoy the King Apple Parade on Labor Day.
If you aren’t able to make it to the festival, you can visit apple orchards around Hendersonville during the late summer and early fall. Over 40 varieties of apples are grown in the area. Different orchards offer tours or allow you to pick your own apples. If you’re lucky, you might also be able to purchase caramel apples, apple cider doughnuts, or fried pies during your visit to one of Hendersonville’s apple farms.
Hit the Slopes at the Cataloochee Ski Area
Enjoy the long ski season at Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley. This ski area is one of the southernmost places to ski thanks to a combination of elevation and advanced snowmaking technology. Without snowmaking, it wouldn’t be possible to ski in the area. While there is snowfall sometimes, it’s not enough for consistent ski conditions. However, the ski area’s snowmaking equipment allows you to ski here from early November to late March.
The ski area has slopes and trails for all levels of skiers. You can also take lessons here. Besides skiing and snowboarding, it’s possible to go snow tubing nearby at Tube World in Maggie Valley. You can enjoy the restaurant and bar at the ski area when you’re not out on the slopes.
If you’re used to skiing in other areas, you may be surprised by the utilitarian nature of the amenities here. People are coming to the area in search of snow. They’re not as worried about the luxuries you might find at other ski resorts. Southern skiers are focused on the snow above all else because it’s not as easy to access good ski areas across the south as it is in some other parts of the United States.
Try the Oysters at Fin & Fino
If you love oysters, you’ll find plenty of great places serving them in Charlotte. For one of the best places to eat oysters in the city, head to Fin & Fino. You’ll find at least 12 types of oysters on the menu everyday plus variety of seafood from sustainable sources. If you’re not sure what to order or want to try a little bit of everything, you can order “the Treatment” where your server will bring you an assortment of delicious dishes picked out for you. It’s a surprising and delicious experience!
The restaurant also has an excellent wine list and a great cocktail menu. Fin & Fino is the perfect place to come on a date or with a group of friends. The atmosphere is relaxed, and you’ll feel incredibly welcomed the entire time you’re there.
Travel Back in Time at the Carolina Renaissance Festival
Whether you’re a seasoned renaissance festival attendee or new to the concept, the Carolina Renaissance Festival is a fun experience. The Carolina Renaissance Festival is one of the largest renaissance festivals in the United States. At the festival, which happens every year in Huntersville, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to medieval Europe, albeit a version that mixes fantasy with history.
During your visit to the festival, you’ll be able to enjoy a variety of performances including swimming mermaids, falconry demonstrations, jugglers, bagpipes, and, of course, jousting. You’ll also be able to shop at the market where over 100 vendors are selling different handmade items. And, no festival is complete without food. You’ll find the expected fair foods like funnels cakes and pizza alongside more medieval-inspired foods like turkey legs.
While you don’t have to dress in a costume. It’s more fun if you do. Either way, the atmosphere throughout the entire festival is fun and light-hearted. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes because you’ll want to be able to explore and enjoy everything at the festival.
Check Out a Few Museums in Charlotte
Located in Charlotte, the Levine Center for the Arts is a unique complex that contains multiple attractions including several museums and a theater. If you’re interested in exploring cultural attractions in the city, you’ll definitely want to visit at least one of the museums here. You can also purchase a pass that allows you to visit all three of the museums within 48 hours.
At the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, you’ll find mid-century modern art. The collection includes many European works along with pieces by American and British artists. A few of the most well-known artists represented in the collection are Max Ernst, Andy Warhol, Barbara Hepworth, and Pablo Picasso.
At the Harvey B. Gantt Center African-American Arts + Culture, you’ll find carefully curated exhibits that promote African-American arts, culture, and history. There’s a permanent collection on display as well as special exhibitions.
At the Mint Museum, you’ll find a collection devoted to international art and design. There are pieces made from glass, metal, fiber, wood, and clay, including jewelry and furniture. The Mint Museum Uptown branch also has a collection of American, contemporary, and European art.
Explore Beautiful Vineyards
North Carolina is home to almost 200 wineries and vineyards producing all different kinds of wines. The state is 10th in wine production, and the wines produced here are very popular. With so many wineries and vineyards, it’s hard to narrow down the list to just a few must-visit spots. Many places are open to the public, and you’ll have a lovely experience exploring vineyards and sampling wine varieties.
If you’re already visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, be sure to visit the winery there. You can take a tour to find out how the wine is produced, and set up a tasting as well. I was unable to drink during my last visit, so I was excited to find that they had non-alcolic options for sale in the shop as well. I wish I had picked up more than one bottle to take home.
If you’re looking for vineyard with a little extra excitement, visit Divine Llama Vineyards in East Bend. This property is both a vineyard and a llama farm. Its wine is award-winning, and you’re able to set up a wine tasting or try a wine flight. However, the real draw is the llama trek. You’re able to take a 2 mile hike on the property to enjoy the views while accompanied by a llama.
If you want to experience a hint of Tuscany, check out Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery in Ronda. This vineyard is owned by the Raffaldini family and uses an ancient Italian method called Appassimento to produce their wines. The process is intensive but creates a bold, complex wine. You can visit the tasting room or set up a tour of the vineyards. Raffaldini Vineyards also holds a Festa Italiana each year in September where food vendors, artists, and musicians are on-site for a celebration of all things Italian.
Enjoy Your Visit to North Carolina
Whether you decide to visit North Carolina’s beaches, its mountains, or its lively cities, you’re sure to enjoy your time in the state. There’s such a great mix of historic sites, beautiful natural landscapes, and interesting cultural attractions that you’ll never run out of things to do. If it’s you’re first time visit the state, you’ll be delighted by all the lovely sites that the locals have been quietly enjoying for years.