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North Carolina has so much to offer visitors and residents alike – drive east to the beautiful coast and drive west to the majestic mountains. But don’t forget the points in between, from interesting cities like Raleigh and Carrboro, restaurants to please foodies, and something for every nature lover and hiker. Not sure where to start? Here are the can’t miss things to do in North Carolina according to travel bloggers.
Mikkel, Sometimes Home
When I visited Downtown Raleigh from New York City in 2014 I knew it was the place I would move to; it was just a matter of time. Months later I transplanted myself from Astoria, Queens, to the heart of the capital of North Carolina.
Raleigh is an incredible city – the scale of it isn’t too big, but not too small. The pace of life is perfect. There’s never a bad time to go because there’s always a lot to do and see but my favorite times of year are spring and fall. (It never snows too much in Raleigh during winter, however, if it’s the only time you’re able to visit!)
There’s a ton to do from visit one of James Beard Award-Winning chef, Ashley Christensen’s, restaurants (Poole’s, Beasley’s, Chucks and Death & Taxes, Fox’s Liquor Bar and ever-expanding with Poole’side Pies very soon!) to seeing a show at the Center for the Performing Arts. There’s also a variety of events and festivals held throughout the year on Fayetteville Street, the main avenue downtown, including Artsplosure and the North Carolina Bluegrass Festival.
Be sure to keep your eyes open for wonderful murals and street art around downtown, have a craft cocktail at one of the many fantastic upscale bars, or even visit the site of the original state capital building, always open for tours. If it’s raining there’s still plenty to do in downtown Raleigh including seeing an IMAX movie or visiting the free-admission North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences or North Carolina Museum of History.
Climb Cape Lookout
Kate, Our Escape Clause
Climb to the top of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on the Cape Lookout National Seashore, and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean so grand and bright that you just might think that you’ve been transported to the Caribbean.
The view from the gorgeous 19th-century lighthouse alone would be worth adding Cape Lookout to your North Carolina bucket list, but the federally-protected national seashore has plenty more to offer.
The pristine beach on Cape Lookout provides a beautiful backdrop for swimming, shelling, fishing, and boat trips, and a visit to this gorgeous 56-mile-stretch of preserved barrier island coastline will leave you absolutely enamored with North Carolina’s Crystal Coast (also known as the Southern Outer Banks).
You can reach Cape Lookout either by private boat or by ferry from the mainland–ferries run from both Harkers Island and Beaufort, and are a treat in and of themselves: be sure to keep an eye out for both dolphins and the white ponies of Shackleford Banks on your ride over!
If you’d like to climb the lighthouse, you can do so from May to September for a price of $8/person.
Ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Karen, Postcards from Nana
Take a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad! This is a fun and unique experience for families, friends or couples. The railroad leaves from Bryson City, North Carolina and will take you on a gorgeous ride into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and back to where you started.
The railroad has two different routes. We selected the Nantahala Gorge Excursion which passes Fontana Lake on its way into the Nantahala Gorge. This one also has a stop at the Nantahala outdoor center. You might also enjoy the Tuckasegee excursion which rides along the Tuckasegee River and has a stop in the quaint town of Dillsboro.
There are a variety of classes of cars with different amenities. These range from an open-air car with bench seats to a first-class car where you are seated at tables and served lunch. On certain days you can even choose a car that offers a moonshine experience where you are able to try different types of locally distilled moonshine! Be aware that not all of the cars allow children. Prices will vary depending on the class of car that you choose but begin at about $50.
The rides are approximately 4.5 hours long and I would suggest that you buy your tickets in advance in order to select the type of car that you prefer and avoid standing in line the day of your excursion.
Admire the Wild Horses of Corolla
Julie, More Than Main Street
The Outer Banks of North Carolina and the wild horses on the beaches of Corolla should be on every NC bucket list! It is a truly unique experience to see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. The wild horses are actually quite easy to see on your own or through a guided tour. If you have a vehicle with four-wheel drive and feel comfortable driving on the beach, you can see the horses all on your own! Simply drive to the end of Highway 12 in Corolla and onto the beach and literally see the horses within minutes. (Please keep in mind it is illegal to go within 50 feet of the horses and never feed the horses.)
But, if you do not have your own four-wheel-drive vehicle or want a little more history and information about the horses, I’d suggest a guided tour. There are several tour companies to choose from offering tours between March and November for around $50- $60 USD for an adult and $30- $35 USD for a child. Tours are often in an open-air jeep or hummer and can be a hot, bumpy, but exciting ride! There are so many great things to do in Corolla, North Carolina but seeing the wild Spanish Mustangs tops my list!
Tour French Broad Chocolate Lounge
Max, Dame Cacao
I suppose it’s not that difficult to fall in love with a chocolate factory, but French Broad has built itself into so much more than that. The company finds its origins in Costa Rica, where the founders moved in the mid-2000s, coming back to the US just a few years later to settle in Asheville with their young family. From my first visit in 2013, I knew that they were doing something special; they weren’t just selling their own chocolate, but promoting the good work of others, as well. Over the last decade, the company has grown from weekly farmers’ markets to a small cafe in downtown Asheville, and now a large factory space and chocolate museum.
While the family behind the name has a great story, they also make delicious chocolate bars and truffles, brownies, and hot chocolates, and even baking ingredients, perfect to visit no matter the time of year. They also sell craft chocolate from other great makers from all around the world! The museum & factory tour portion of their shop is open daily, with 2 half-hour tours each day at 2 pm and 4 pm (hour-long tours at 10 am and 11:30 am on Saturdays), and plenty of samples on offer. Tours are $6 or $12 a person for 30 minutes and 60 minutes, respectively.
Climb Currituck Lighthouse
Theresa, Fueled by Wanderlust
The town of Corolla in North Carolina’s Outer Banks is primarily known for laid back beach days and wild horse sightings. However, did you know it also has one of the tallest lighthouses in the country?
The Outer Banks have a history of shipwrecks in the treacherous waters along the coastline. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is one of several erected over time to help sailors navigate this testy area. Since December 1, 1875, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse has helped guide passing ships to safety.
With a light beam visible for 18 nautical miles, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse still guides boats to this day. Standing at 162 feet with 220 stairs to the top, the lighthouse is open to visitors who want to walk in the footsteps of historic lighthouse keepers. This rewarding climb provides sprawling views of the Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean on either side of Corolla.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is open for climbing daily between Easter and Thanksgiving from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (check website here for exact dates). The climb costs $10 and a waiver must be signed, as the structure was built before modern building codes. Of course, you can just visit the grounds any time throughout the year for free.
Tour the Biltmore Estate
Jordan, The Solo Life
One of the best things to do while visiting North Carolina, and especially the Asheville area, is to make a day trip to the Biltmore Estate. If you like history, architecture, gardens, or anything resembling Downtown Abbey, you will love this popular attraction. The Biltmore was built and still owned by the well-known Vanderbilt family and it encompasses the mansion, gardens, the Antler Hill Village, and Winery. Admission gets you access to all that I just mentioned, as well as free parking and a free wine tasting at the winery. Daytime tickets are $59 from January-October, and $69 November-January. If you buy your tickets online 7+ days before your visit, you can save $10 on the price.
If you don’t mind spending a little more money, check out the audio tour of the house, especially if it’s your first time visiting. Also, the behind-the-scenes tours, like the rooftop tour, are a worthwhile addition. The Biltmore Estate is enjoyable in almost any season, depending on what you like. The gardens and grounds are best in spring and summer, while the house and village’s festive decorations are breathtaking during the holidays. If you want fewer crowds during your visit, fall and winter are your best bet. No matter when you visit, the Biltmore Estate is a must-see while visiting North Carolina.
Visit Sierra Nevada Brewing
Toccara, Forget Someday
There is certainly no shortage of breweries in North Carolina, and this
is especially the case in and around Asheville. Just 30 minutes south of
Asheville, in Mills River, is the wildly impressive Sierra Nevada
Brewery. This massive compound opened in 2015 and is definitely a place
you want to put on your ‘Things to Do in North Carolina’ list. It’s a
destination in and of itself! The site is located on 190 acres of
forest, along the French Broad River. Behind the brewery, you’ll find a
beer garden, amphitheater for live music, lawn games, playground for the
little ones, hiking trails, and plenty of outdoor seating! Dogs are even
welcome at the brewery, outside only.
Enjoy a meal in the Taproom, sit fireside on the Back Porch while
enjoying one of their 23 beers on tap, and take a brewery tour. There
are several tour options to choose from. If you want to explore at your
own pace, take a walk through the (free) self-guided Visitor Corridor.
The corridor includes a bird’s-eye view of their copper-clad brewhouse,
a real-time look at fermenting beer, and a peek into their warehouse and
packaging hall. Looking for something more in-depth? Check out their
full list of brewery tours and experiences here. (Guided
tours are only available to those 21 and older.) If you like beer, you
will definitely want to stop by the Sierra Nevada brewery during your
visit to North Carolina!
For more ideas of things to do in North Carolina, check out Forget Someday’s guide to Beech Mountain and beyond (including Asheville).
Kate, Thinking Travel
If you’re in the Raleigh-Durham area, come over and visit Carrboro! A former mill town settled in 1882, Carrboro is the cozy neighbor to Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina. What to do in Carrboro?
First, park your car in the garage next to the Hampton Inn hotel (for free!) so you can enjoy downtown Carrboro on foot. Once parked, you’ll have to make a decision to go east or west.
To the east of the parking garage, I recommend Shaka Shave Ice for authentic Hawaiian shave ice, Crook’s Corner for upscale southern dining, and Al’s Burger Shack for mouthwateringly delicious burgers and fries (be prepared to stand in line – Al’s is super popular).
To the west of the parking garage, I recommend Rise for fresh doughnuts and chicken biscuits (go early!), Vecino for craft beer and fun games, Cat’s Cradle for live music, Spotted Dog for vegetarian and vegan fare, Weaver Street Market for people watching, and Tandem for a delicious lunch or dinner (try the melon gazpacho soup or the poached shrimp salad), and Open Eye Café for a leisurely coffee. Then take a stroll through Carr Mill Mall in the old mill building and pop in and out of the boutiques. After that, walk across the street to Poplar Ave and wander through the cute downtown neighborhood full of vintage mill houses.
If you’re in Carrboro on a Saturday morning, keep walking west to the Farmer’s Market. Other ideas: rent a canoe at University lake, drive out to Maple View Farm and enjoy delicious ice cream with a view, or head north to Hillsborough or south to Pittsboro and visit two of our small-town neighbors.
Tour Outer Banks Distilling and Kill Devil Hills Rum
Rosanna, Life is Full of Adventures
A visit to the Outer Banks Distillery will show you the pride these craft distillers take in producing their award-winning rum. Using only distiller’s grade molasses, these craftsmen take the slogan, “ From Molasses to Glasses” seriously. This first-ever “legal” Rum distillery opened in the Outer Banks in 2015. It was started by four friends with a keen interest in rum, an affinity for the distilling process, and a respect for local history. They wanted the craft distillery to keep both the spirit of the rum history and pirate legends alive, so, it is fitting that the rum would be named Kill Devil Rum and their logo would be a stylized pirate ship.
According to legends, thousands of shipwrecks happened off the coast of the Outer Banks in the late 1800s to early 1900s; it became known as the graveyard of the Atlantic. Apparently, some of the cargo that made its way to shore were barrels containing “Kill Devil” rum; named because it was believed to be strong enough to kill the devil, and was apparently used to cure illnesses brought on by drinking tainted water. That is as far as any connection to the original name goes, as the craft distillery only produces premium spirits that have won many awards, as well as having been honored as one of the fifty best rums.
Tours are given at the Outer Banks Distillery Tuesdays through Saturday at 1 pm, and again at 3 pm on Saturdays ( only for those over 21 years). Reservations are required ( they are $10) and include a close-up look at the distillery, some local history, and a delicious tasting afterward. The rum is only available for purchase in select markets at the moment.
Old Salem – Like Traveling Back in Time
Lance and Laura, Travel Addicts
A visit to Old Salem is like stepping back in time – literally. The Old Salem Museums and Gardens are a living history museum where the past is both preserved and interpreted for contemporary visitors. It’s also a lot of fun to visit for both families and adults.
Permanently stuck in the late 1700s and early 1800s, visiting Old Salem is a window in the daily lives of one of the most vibrant Moravian communities in America. The Moravians, settlers from what is present-day Czechia, came to America looking for religious freedoms…and a better life. And they found it.
The highlights of any visit to Old Salem are the interactive and interpretive exhibits. From the bakery making bread in the exact same way for over 250 years to the blacksmith turning out useful implements (and souvenirs for visitors), engaging with the past is the best way to understand the growth of America.
Don’t forget to stop by the Tavern for some sausage and a brew (for adults). George Washington did exactly this when he visited in 1791.
The best time to visit Old Salem is Tuesday-Saturdays. During the week, school groups can be frequent, but if you come early in the day, you’ll likely have the whole place to yourself. Note: interpretive exhibits are closed on Mondays and have very limited hours on Sundays.
General all-in-one tickets are $27 for adults and $13 for students. A limited admission ticket (only allows access to two museum buildings) is available for $18 for adults and $9 for students.
Enjoy the Views at Chimney Rock State Park
Theresa, The Local Tourist
If you’re looking for a fantastic view with a dose of history, then add Chimney Rock State Park to your itinerary. Located about 25 miles southeast of Asheville, this park is easy for anyone to visit. At nearly 7,000 acres, this park offers miles of hiking, a 404-foot waterfall, and an unparalleled view of Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure.
To get to the top of the eponymous rock formation, you can hike up a series of stairs or take the elevator. If you take the elevator, you’ll walk through a 198-foot tunnel and markers will tell you not only the history of the shaft and elevator, but also the geology surrounding you. The elevator was completely replaced in 2018 and takes visitors 26 stories up. You’ll exit the elevator into the cafe and gift shop, and just outside is the overlook. Hikers can take the stairs up to the top of Chimney Rock and follow trails to the waterfall and other overlooks.
Admission is $17 per person for adults and $8 for youths ages 5 to 15. There’s also a Family Pass for $45, which includes admission for two adults and up to three youths.
Two tips: when you visit, be sure to take a bathroom break to see the murals, and if the hike up looks daunting, take the elevator up and walk the stairs down.
Try Hang Gliding in the Outer Banks
Bret and Mary, Green Global Travel
One of our family’s favorite things to do in North Carolina was learning how to hang glide on the massive sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks. It’s home to the tallest sand dune system in the eastern United States, which is where we went for our lessons with Kitty Hawk Kites. The area has been a haven for folks infatuated with flying for nearly 120 years now (which is why North Carolina license plates read “First in Flight”).
It was here that Orville and Wilbur Wright came in 1900 to begin their manned gliding experiments with a biplane kite, drawn to Kitty Hawk by its steady breezes and soft, sandy landing surfaces (plus the islands’ fairly remote location helped to ensured privacy from the prying eyes of the press). It was also here, in Kill Devil Hills, that they made their historic controlled, powered airplane flights on December 17, 1903. You’ll find the Wright Brothers National Memorial on that hallowed ground today as a testament to their innovations in aviation.
Hang gliding in the Outer Banks on those very same dunes today was an exhilarating experience, with our Kitty Hawk Kites instructors giving us some historical background and extensive safety training before we set foot on the sand. Because the wind was whipping at around 20 mph, they had to hold onto ropes to keep us from soaring too far. But even at just 15 to 20 feet off the ground, it was a huge rush of adrenaline to feel the power of the wind beneath you as your feet left the ground. Beginner lessons start at $99 to $119 per person for 5 flights, but going mid-week or during the off-season is the best way to get discounted deals.
Visit the Great Smoky National Park
Tatiana, Family Road Trip Guru
A trip to North Carolina would not be complete without a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Smoky Mountains NP is the most visited National Park in the United States (11 million visitors per year) so this is a gem that you simply cannot miss. The Park is located partially in Tennessee and Partially in North Carolina. Carolina’s part has several distinct attractions:
1.Waterfalls: Deep Creek area of the Park has 3 waterfalls in close proximity to each other: Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls, and Indian Creek Falls. A hike to either of them is very easy, doable even with small children.
2. Mountain Farm Museum: it is an open-air museum representing life on a farm 100 or so years ago. It is very educational and the meadow in front of the museum is frequented by elk. It is also a great place to enjoy the beauty of the Oconaluftee River.
3. Native American history: This part of the National Park is adjacent to Cherokee Indians reservation. You can stop by Cherokee Cultural Village, Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Oconaluftee Indian Village that are clustered next to each other along US-441 S. It is another great living history area where you can not only see a lot of educational exhibits but also live performances.
These attractions are enough to fill your entire day. If you want to explore the Park further, venture to the Tennessee side for more hiking and spectacular vistas.
Relax at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park
Tara, Back Road Ramblers
Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is located right off of the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 294 in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The beautiful Flat Top Manor overlooking the valley and the surrounding mountains was the summer home of Moses and Bertha Cone. Built in the late 1890s, this 20-room home was ahead of its time, with a carbide gas plant for lighting, a telephone, forced air heat, and a bowling alley.
The family donated the home, along with the sprawling estate, to the National Park Service in 1949. Today the property is known as Moses H. Cone Memorial Park and features 25 miles of carriage roads, hiking trails, an apple orchard, a family cemetery, and numerous ponds.
If you are short on time, I recommend a stroll around Bass Lake or on the Figure Eight Trail, which starts near Flat Top Manor. If you have a bit more time, definitely hike the 2.8 miles (one way) to the observation tower. Sunset from the carriage road just past the Blue Ridge Parkway underpass is fabulous. It’s also a good spot for an evening picnic. Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is such an amazing destination for history buffs, hikers, picnickers, dog walkers, and sunset lovers.
So what do you think? Have you found your “can’t miss” thing to do in North Carolina? Are you the hang gliding adventurer? Or are you the Raleigh visitor? Whether you prefer hiking, eating, drinking, or anything in between, you’re sure to find something amazing to do in North Carolina!
Annick, The Common Traveler