The beautiful state of North Carolina is known for its expansive beaches on the Atlantic Coast and Outer Banks barrier islands. It’s also known for its breathtaking mountains, forests, rivers, and diverse ecology. North Carolina is steeped in history and culture. There are both larger cities and small charming towns that are great to visit for an awesome day trip or a longer getaway. Whether you like to visit the ocean, enjoy exploring the wilderness, visit quaint small towns, or learn about historic sites, there is something for everyone in North Carolina.
20. Emerald Isle
Emerald Isle is located in southeastern North Carolina by Bogue Banks, a barrier island. The island was home to Native Americans and later whalers and fishermen. In the 1920’s owner Henry Fort tried to develop the island. It became a tourist haven in the 1970’s when a bridge was built over the inter coastal waterway. With twelve miles of shoreline, its a great place to boat, fish, paddleboard, and water sports. Family oriented, Emerald Isle is a great place to visit for all ages. The island is sparsely populated during winter months but peaks during tourist season in the summer. There are quaint local shops and restaurants as well as the Sweet Shop ice cream and candy store.
19. New Bern
New Bern is the second oldest European settlement in North Carolina. It was founded in 1710 and named for the Swiss city of Bern. New Bern is located near the coast of the Atlantic Ocean along the banks of the Trent and Neuse Riveres.. The town is famous for Pepsi being invented there in 1898 and author Nicholas Sparks’ home where many of his popular novels are set including The Notebook. There are four historic districts in New Bern to stroll, Main Street has several great restaurants to dine and boutiques to shop.
Cherokee is located in the eastern Cherokee Reservation in western North Carolina in the Oconeluftee River Valley. It’s a great day trip to learn about Cherokee culture and native American culture. There are live demonstrations about what life was like in the Cherokee Village during the eighteenth century. The Museum of Cherokee Indians provides much information about the history of the Cherokee. The village is located at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. There are many trails and campgrounds. Cherokee is home to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokey Mountains.
17. Ocracoke Island
Ocracoke is the southernmost island of the Outer Banks barrier islands. It is located near Hatteras Island, and can only be reached by ferry. The island is known for its commercial fishing. It is also known as the place where pirate Black Beard died in November 1718. It has remnants of a confederate fort, and a small cemetery where British sailors are buried after being killed by German boats during World War II. The National Parks Service owns most of the town. The village is located in a sheltered harbor called Silver Lake. Visitors to the island will enjoy strolling through locally owned shops selling handmade goods, artesian works, and antiques. There is a brewery in the village as well as bars and restaurants.
16. Ocean Isle Beach
Ocean Island Beach is a small seaside town that is a part of Myrtle Beach, Whether a day trip or a family vacation, the beach is enjoyable for relaxing, waters ports, and boat rentals. The pier is beautiful to stroll of fish. There are several beach side restaurants and nearby golf courses. There is a delicious creamery, a planetarium. Ocean Isle Beach is the home of the Museum of Coastal Carolina. There are adventure tourism and the Silver Coast Winery.
15. Pisgah National Forest
Pisgah National Forest was established in 1916 and was one of the first national forests in the eastern United States. In 1914 Edith Vanderbilt sold part of the Biltmore Estates to the federal government. The park is a popular destination. It’s thick wooded trails cover miles. Each has a different level of ability. There are many waterfalls, beautiful wilderness, and tall peaks including Black Balsam Knob, Cold Mountain, and Tennant Mountain. There are campsites including established ones and back country locations.
The capital of North Carolina, Raleigh, makes a great day trip. The city is named for Walter Raleigh, the English settler who established the first European colony in North Carolina. The “Lost Colony” completely disappeared. The city of Raleigh is called “the oak city” for its many oak trees that line the city’s streets. Raleigh was one of the first planned city following the American Revolution. The home of the “Research Triangle”, Raleigh is home to the University of North Carolina State University and its research facilities that, combined with Durham (Duke University) and Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina) formed the Research Triangle in 1959. A visit to Raleigh can include the Fayetteville Historic District, museums, shopping, dining, entertainment, and sports events.
13. Bryson City
Bryson City is an hour drive from Asheville. It’s located at the entrance of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park and is home to the Great Smokey Mountain National Railroad which offers tours of the Nantahala Valley. If you like the outdoors, you can enjoy hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding thee Tsali Trails. You can swim, kayak, or raft the rapids of the Nantahala River. Fishing is abundant in Fontana Lake. Bryson City offers small town charm with locally owned shops and bars. It’s also the location where some scenes of Harrison Ford’s movie The Fugitive were shot.
Boone us located in western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you like outdoor activities, the town is great for summer hiking and biking, and winter skiing and snowboarding. The Linvville Caverns are great for spelunking. A drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway has beautiful views of the mountains. If you like wine, the Boone Area Wine Trail is a great way to sample different types of wine. Boone is named for explorer Daniel Boone. Each year since 1952 (with the exception of 2020 due to Covid), Boone hosts the drama Horn In the West at an outdoor amphitheater. The drama looks at the early British Settlements in western North Carolina and the American Revolution.
11. Grandfather Mountain State Park
If you like the outdoors, a visit to Grandfather Mountain State Park is a must. The park offers guided hikes as well as some of the most challenging trails in the country. You can picnic, fish, boat and paddle board in the park enjoying the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains which has some of the most diverse ecology in the country. The mountain summit is located one mile above sea level. At the summit is a 220 foot suspension swinging bridge if you’re brave enough to cross it.
10. Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach is located in southern North Carolina and is part of the Wilmington metropolitan area. The town has shops, restaurants, and entertainment for all ages. A day visit to Carolina Beach can include a stroll on the sandy trails to the Cape Fear River in Carolina Beach State Park, a stroll along the beach boardwalk and pier, or a day relaxing at the beach. The town has many waterfront homes and hotels for a longer visit. These have been built over the decades since 1954’s Hurricane Hazel destroyed more than 350 buildings in this beautiful beach town.
9. Blowing Rock
The town of Blowing Rock is located off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The town is named for its unique rock formations in the mountains created by weather, erosion, and high pressure. It’s been a travel destination for Americans since the early 1930’s. The town of Bowling Rock is a charming small town with unique shops. The town hosts music festivals. A day trip should include a trip to the mountain, a stroll downtown, or a visit to the Bowling Rock art and History Museum, the Tweetsie Railroad, or the Wild West Theme Park.
Fayetteville is the home of the United States Army’s Fort Bragg and a must see for military buffs. In fact it is called “America’s Most Pro Military Town”. Patriotism runs high in Fayetteville. A day trip to the town that lays on the banks of Cape Fear River can include a visit to Fort Bragg, the Independent Light Infantry Armory and Museum, a tour oaf Averosboro Battlefield and Museum, and a visit to any of the nine historic districts.
Brevard is a mountain town located in western North Carolina. With a lot of woodland, there are a lot of outdoor activities including hiking, cycling, and rock land. There are 250 waterfalls in Brevard. The town is charming, and the locals are very friendly. Brevard has several locally owned shops and restaurants. The town also has a great music theme including a symphonic orchestra, popular bar bands, and music festivals. Brevard hosts six festivals each year and holds seasonal events.
6. Roanoke Island
Roanoke Island is best known as where the English first tried to a settlement in America. Settlers arrived from England in 1584. Elizabeth Dare gave birth to the first English child born in the Americas. Roanoke seemed like the perfect place to settle but conflicted with the native Algonquin speaking Roanoke Indians. Known as “The Lost Colony”, 200 settlers disappeared. Today Roanoke Island is a popular resort town located near Nags Head in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The island is different from other Outer Banks barrier islands because it does not have beaches. It’s known as a fun town to locals and tourists. Roanoke Island hosts the Shallowbag Shag Beach Music Festival, the Bluegrass Festival, and other festivals. There are shops, restaurants, art galleries, and a maritime museum on the island.
5. Chimney Rock Village
Chimney Rock Village is located below Chimney Rock Mountain with its chimney like rock in Hickory Nut Gorge in western North Carolina. The village is charming. There are several places to stay if you want to spend the weekend including the rustic River House. There are locally owned shops and a variety of restaurants including Bayou Billy, Coffee On the Rocks, and Burntshirt Vineyards Tasting Room and Bistro. You can enjoy a day at the state park with the entrance conveniently located on Main Street. You can kayak the Rock River and picnic on its banks. You can rock climb or hike to the mountain peak which has an elevator inside if you don’t want to make the trek to enjoy the beautiful views at the mountains peak.
4. Kill Devil Hills
Kill Devil Hills is a resort town in the state’s Outer Banks barrier islands. The beaches and Atlantic Ocean provide great beachcombing, relaxing, surfing, kayaking, and boating. Kill Devil Hills is a great place to visit for a day, a weekend, or longer. It’s close to Nags Head which has restaurants and entertainment. The best reason to visit Kill Devil Hills is a visit to Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers National Memorial. This is on the spot where the Wright Brothers built their first airplane, and there is a replica of the original prototype.
The city of Asheville is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. The city is well worth a day trip as it is filled with art, culture, and history. The city is home to the Biltmore Estate including the palatial home and beautiful gardens. Asheville is filled with historic buildings including the Art Deco style City Hall, Battery Park Hotel, and Grove Park Arcade and Inn. The Jackson Building is a fine example of Neo-Gothic style. The Montford Area historic district is filled with Victorian style homes. There is also the New Belgium Brewery and Tasting Room and the Asheville Pinball Museum.
Nestled between the Currituck Sound and Atlantic Ocean, Corolla is a town located in the northern Outer Banks. Until it was developed as a vacation town in the 1980’s, Corolla was a little known quiet beach town. Today there are 500 residents and thousands who visit during the summer. Corolla makes a great day trip during its off season or during tourist season. The town has several quaint shops and restaurants. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is one of seven along the North Carolina coast. The Whalehead Club is a 21,000 square foot home built in the early 1920’s in Art Nouveau. Many visitors stop at the beach to watch a herd of wild horses, the feral Banker horses. The Center For Wildlife Education is located in Corolla, and the National Equestrian Research Reserve is located a mile north of Corolla.
1. Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill is located in Central North Carolina and is part of what’s known as the Research Triangle including Durham and Raleigh. These cities are known as home to three major research universities in the country, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Duke University in Durham, and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. All three cities are worth a day visit. Chapel Hill is known for its museums, restaurants, and music scene. A visit to the UNC campus is a must as well as the Carolina Basketball Museum. Weaver Street Market is also worth a visit with its shops, restaurants, and live music.