In our humble opinion, North Carolina has it all. From historic and quaint colonial towns to scenic countryside, mountains, beaches and a progressive food and wine culture. In this guide, we’ll cover 25 of the best things to do in North Carolina. Whether you’re a solo traveler, traveling as a couple, with kids or simply visiting for the weekend, we can guarantee there’s no shortage of memorable activities and sights to see.
It’s a big state, so consider this travel guide to be an inspirational starting point to help you decide where you might like to establish a base on your trip. Alternatively, North Carolina makes for the perfect state to have a road trip, so you could just as easily pick out a few of these recommendations and plot a course! We include a number of additional articles throughout this guide that are more focused on various activities and regions, especially when it comes to wine!
Winston-Salem is perhaps best known for its historic roots relating to the tobacco and textile industries. Today, it’s considered a rapidly evolving center for arts and innovation and boasts a delectable culinary scene. It’s also more recently known as “The Gateway to the Yadkin Valley” wine region, which is North Carolina’s largest officially recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA). If you’re looking to plan a trip to North Carolina with a food and wine focus, Winston-Salem provides a good jumpoff point for this style of travel.
In terms of accommodation, our favorite hotel to stay at in Winston-Salem is the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel. This is the former RJ Reynold’s building, and interestingly, it was the prototype for the Empire State Building in New York City, so be sure to take a look around the outside for similarities! The Kimpton considers itself to be Winston-Salem’s first boutique hotel, but the interior provides a feeling of grandeur with its large marble facades, brass and historic charm.
There’s no shortage of restaurants and bars across the city, but if you’re staying at the Kimpton, you can dine right at the hotel at Katharine’s Brasserie & Bar patio. A few of our other favorites include Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro, Dough-Joes Doughnuts and Coffee at Reynolda Village, Sweet Potatoes — Well Shut My Mouth, A Restaurant, Miss Ora’s Kitchen, Willow’s Bistro and the Spring House Restaurant Kitchen & Bar. For breakfast, you HAVE to dine at Krankie’s. You might also consider visiting The Cobblestone Farmers Market which was recently rated as one of the best farmer’s markets in the US.
If you’re looking for drinks or feel like doing a bar crawl, Fair Witness Fancy Drinks, Incendiary Brewing, Hoots Roller Bar & Beer Co, Joymonger’s Barrel Hall, Radar Brewing and Westbend Winery & Brewery are all great options to keep you full and busy.
Go Wine Tasting: Top North Carolina Wineries To Visit
North Carolina might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about wine tasting in the United States, but that perspective is beginning to change thanks to a number of innovative winemakers and stunning properties. In fact, there are now over 200 wineries situated across the entirety of North Carolina within 5 officially recognized AVAs.
Each region brings something unique to the table, but if we had to recommend one in particular it would be the Yadkin Valley. This region spans 7 counties and is home to over 36 wineries, ranging from boutique to extravagant. There’s even a winery that’s in the process of building a concert venue. Aside from the variety of wines and experiences you can expect on a wine tasting trip through the valley, it’s also remarkably scenic.
RELATED: 22 Best Wineries & Vineyards To Visit in North Carolina
With so much optionality, it’s difficult to narrow down which wineries are worth visiting across the Yadkin Valley. Consider stopping at Childress Vineyards for a scenic and luxurious experience, Haze Gray Vineyards for a selection of great wines and exceptional hospitality, Shelton Vineyards for fine dining and stunning views, Old North State Winery/Brewery for an urban experience and Raffaldini Vineyards for Italian-inspired wines on a stunning property.
If these wonderful wineries aren’t enough for you, be sure to stop at JOLO Vineyards & Winery for a boutique experience, luxury setting, dining and beautiful view of Pilot Mountain. Also, stop at Round Peak Vineyards for French and Italian-style wines and a disc golf course, McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks for artisanal wines and cider tastings, Jones von Drehle Vineyards & Winery for its top-rated restaurant and soon-to-launch concert venue, RayLen Vineyards for its beautiful views, friendly staff, wine and slushies, and Elkin Creek Vineyard for its cabins, brick oven pizza, and delicious wines.
Winetraveler Tip: It’s also worth noting that you don’t need to visit a vineyard to taste some of North Carolina’s best juice. For a special wine bar experience that focuses on all kinds of wine styles from across the state, be sure to stop by The Wisdom Table in Elkin. Sommelier and owner Jeremy Stamps is usually on-site and able to guide you in trying the best wines in the state based on your personal preferences. It’s the perfect way to get to know North Carolina wine without having to visit each AVA.
Stay on a Vineyard
If you’re anything like the team at Winetraveler, we can’t pass up an opportunity to stay on a winery property. Not only is it extremely pleasant to wake up to acres of vineyards out your window, but the abundance of wine at your fingertips also doesn’t hurt either. In North Carolina, both vineyard resorts and boutique cabins are options.
For a boutique, relaxed and removed experience, consider staying at one of four of Elkin Creek Vineyard’s cabins. You’ll quite literally be staying on a bustling creek, just a few feet away from the vines. Elkin describes their accommodation as “a rustic get-away with modern conveniences,” and you’ll feel right at home in a cozy cabin surrounded by nature. The staff are also incredibly friendly and accommodating. On Sundays, you can try their homemade brick oven pizza!
For a step up in luxury, Banner Elk Winery and Tuscan-inspired villa awaits you in North Carolina’s high country. Here, you can expect sweeping vineyard and Blue Ridge Mountain views, a private hot tub, fireplace and privacy. At the same time, you’re only a few minutes away from the town of Banner Elk.
The Hampton Inn & Suites in Dobson isn’t your typical Hampton Inn. While it is a chain, this franchise is actually owned by nearby Shelton Vineyards, and it’s the only hotel in the portfolio that features a wine bar. It’s also quite upscale, with large, spacious rooms, incredibly comfortable beds, complimentary breakfast and a wonderful indoor and outdoor lounge downstairs. There’s a free shuttle that takes you back and forth to nearby Shelton Vineyards, where you can taste and explore wine on their beautiful and expansive property for the day, or stay for lunch or dinner.
RELATED: Top Wineries to Visit Near Asheville NC
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Hit The Beach
As we said earlier, North Carolina has it all, and there’s no shortage of beaches. If clear water, fewer crowds and shipwreck diving peak your interest, then definitely consider a stop at Emerald Isle by the central, Crystal Coast. Stay at an upscale oceanfront resort and unwind with a glass of wine by the beach for the weekend.
If history, airplanes, hiking and surfing are more your style, don’t miss Kitty Hawk in the Outer Banks. This small beach town is most famous for where the Wright brothers took their first flight, but it’s also ideal for hiking the woodland reserve, surf fishing, shelling and dining. With miles of coastline, there are also a number of beach-front bed and breakfast options to choose from.
We could go on and on about beaches, but if we had to choose one more recommendation we’d point you towards Nag’s Head. Also in the Outer Banks, this beach town is a bit more well known as a tourist hotspot, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Here, you get both oceanfront and soundfront views, a wide array of high-end restaurants, miles of sand dunes, nature walks and plenty of shopping and entertainment options in town. Vacation rentals are the dominant form of accommodation here, but the Surfside Hotel offers epic oceanfront views, high-end amenities and free breakfast.
Eat Your Way Through North Carolina on a Foodie Road Trip
If you’re having trouble deciding what town to visit in North Carolina, why not take a road trip through several? There are dozens of ways to do this, but we recommend starting your trip in Charlotte to drink and dine at Foxcroft Wine Co. and then make your way to Geno D’s Pizza for a slice of the best in the city. Keep on driving towards Asheville to experience Cúrate, Mamacita’s Taqueria, Buxton Hall Barbecue, Sunny Point Café and Green Tea Sushi Restaurant. Asheville is known for its eclectic culinary scene, so you may want to spend a few days here eating around. Once you’ve had your fill, continue onto Winston-Salem to dine at Mozzelle’s, have a taco at Crafted The Art of the Taco and have breakfast at Krankie’s. Keep on driving towards the coast to end your road trip in Nag’s Head, making stops at Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe, Fish Heads Bar & Grill and Sugar Creek Seafood Restaurant.
If you want to try a different route, consider building one with Winetraveler’s brand new itinerary builder (available on Desktop only currently). It’s still in its beta-testing phase, but you can pick a starting point in North Carolina and put together a road trip in minutes. We show you other customer ratings and reviews based on location while you build your trip, so you can feel confident in your vacation.
Go White Water Rafting
If you’re planning on spending time near the Asheville area, one fun and beginner-friendly activity to consider is white water rafting! The French Broad river runs for over 218 miles, and Section 9 starts in Marshall (just 45 minutes from Asheville) and flows through Pisgah National Forest. This guided rafting experience traverses roughly 4 miles of the river and includes both class II and class III difficulty levels. If you consider yourself or your travel companions to be adventurous, this is a unique way to get out in nature and experience some of the region’s most beautiful scenery.
Take a Segway Tour in Charlotte
Charlotte is a big city, and a Segway tour is one unique way to experience it in both an efficient and safe way. A local guide will take you through the pulsing Uptown neighborhood, stopping by a number of sites including museums, historic landmarks, The Green, famous cemeteries, and the Carolina Panthers football stadium.
Craft beer, storied history, hipster vibes, live music and chasing waterfalls are just a few of the reasons why we recommend making a stop in Asheville. We’ve already mentioned Asheville as a destination for foodies, but there is so much more to in the area. Hiking outside of the city, mountain biking and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway are some of our favorite activities.
If you’re visiting during the fall, don’t miss apple picking, fall foliage, and pumpkin beers. There are also a number of food and pub crawls that you can do by E-bike, or on foot that are highly recommended in various neighborhoods.
Drive Blue Ridge Parkway & See The Waterfalls
One of the best ways to experience North Carolina’s waterfalls is to simply take a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are several waterfalls that are easily accessible off this highway, and many are able to be seen without doing intense hikes. If you’re staying in or near Asheville, one of the state’s largest waterfalls is Whitewater Falls, part of the Nantahala National Forest. It’s just a quarter-mile walk on a paved path to get to the first lookout, meaning young children and those who may require a wheelchair can still experience the fall. Note that there is a small fee to enter the park.
Other beautiful waterfalls worth seeing include Linville Falls, Catawba Falls and Dry Falls. Hunger Games fans may be interested in visiting both High Falls and Triple Falls, where several memorable scenes were shot for the first movie.
If you’d like to see more waterfalls, we highly recommend scheduling a Blue Ridge Parkway hiking and waterfall experience with an expert naturalist.
RELATED: Great Wineries To Visit in the Tryon Foothills of North Carolina
Take an E-Bike Tour in the Mountains
Sticking with our Blue Ridge Parkway theme, take a break from hiking and jump on an E-Bike to experience all that the Appalachian mountains have to offer. Using an electric bike makes for a much more relaxing experience while still getting to indulge in stunning countryside scenery. There are a variety of routes and options, but we recommend biking through Asheville and then heading up Patton Mountain to see the sunset. Finish your day with a drink at a historic hotel.
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Go on a Haunted Pub Crawl
We obviously like to drink here at Winetraveler, but why not try something a bit different and go on a haunted pub crawl through Charlotte? This particular experience is both guided and walking. You’ll stop at several bars that are within historic buildings that each have at least one ghost story to tell. Listen to an engaging guide while you sip on a savory cocktail or a glass of wine.
Go Horseback Riding
Get your country on with a casual horseback ride through the Blue Ridge Mountains and fern forest. Operated by acclaimed Arrowmont Stables & Cabins, this horseback riding tour is perfect for beginners and children as it includes a safety lesson before you embark on your journey. You’ll traverse and trot trails through the forest, meadows and more while you admire the stunning natural scenery that the region has to offer.
Take a Mayberry Squad Car Tour
The small town of Mayberry is perhaps most famous thanks to The Andy Griffith Show, but it also has a storied history in music and granite mining. One unique and special way to experience Mayberry is to hop in a Squad Car at Wally’s Service Station at 625 South Main Street in Mount Airy, NC. You’ll be driven around in an authentic squad car dating back to the 60s, passing by all of Mayberry’s most famous landmarks. You’ll even drive by Andy’s old house.
Golf in the Western Highlands
The Highlands region of North Carolina is known as a luxurious country retreat area for families looking to avoid the hustle and bustle of the more populated cities in the state. It’s here where you’ll find a plethora of country clubs, golf courses, fine dining establishments and luxury vacation homes for rent. We recommend a drive through the region, stopping to play a round at Sapphire National Golf Club and then wining and dining at Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro to end your day.
If you’re considering visiting North Carolina during the winter months, there are several ski resorts and experiences we highly recommend. The Blue Ridge mountains present a wide variety of trails and difficulty levels for ski enthusiasts.
Our top pick for a ski destination is Appalachian Ski Mountain. It’s the perfect destination for families, experts and beginners alike, and it’s usually not overcrowded like so many ski resorts can be. The staff are also notoriously friendly. There are a variety of “terrain parks” which is what the mountain is most famous for. These parks vary in difficulty, and to use the parks visitors are required to complete a safety test. However, there are also several beginner slopes for new skiers.
If you’re going to visit “App,” as the mountain is called by the locals, we recommend staying in Blowing Rock. The Chetola Resort is just minutes from the base and offers luxury accommodation.
Other ski resorts we recommend include Sugar Mountain, Wolf Ridge Resort and Beech Mountain.
RELATED: 9 Romantic Winter Travel Destinations in the United States
See and Explore a Battleship
Have you ever wanted to see what it’s like aboard a World War II battleship? Explore the USS North Carolina near downtown Wilmington on a self-guided tour. The battleship experienced action in the pacific during the war, and took part in offensive operations during the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. You can visit and imagine what life was like onboard and during combat scenarios. There are 9 decks to explore beginning with the observation deck.
Visit the Zoo
Did you know that North Carolina is home to the world’s largest natural habitat zoo? There are over 500 acres of exhibits to explore that have been painstakingly designed to mimic the natural habitats of animals across two continents. Visiting this zoo will get you into the Piedmont area of NC, near the base of the Uwharrie Mountains. It’s conveniently located near the quaint town of Asheboro. It’s home to over 1,800 animals and 52,000 plant species across five miles of shaded pathways designed to give you a sense of what habitats like Africa’s grasslands and North America’s Arctic coast are like.
See Cape Hatteras
Cape Hatteras is one of the barrier islands off the coast that really allows you to get in touch with nature. Come here to rest, relax and recharge to the sound of ocean waves and take in a beautiful view of the night sky (there is minimal light pollution so you can see the stars very clearly). This is an ideal location for those who enjoy kayaking, nature walks and fishing excursions. For the best fishing opportunities, we recommend you visit during the Spring or Fall seasons. A climb to the top of the famous Bodie Lighthouse is also well worth it!
Shoot Sporting Clays or Trap
Pick up a shotgun and experience a sporting clay course or 5-stand setup at family-owned Claybreakers in Lexington. The sporting clays course has 14 different stations and 11 trap machines for 5-stand. The staff couldn’t be more accommodating and friendly whether you’re a new or experienced shooter, and the facilities are incredibly well maintained. They also offer a variation on trapshooting called Wobble Trap, which consists of 25 targets thrown from a central-located trap house. The best part? It only costs $9 for a round of trapshooting (25 shots) and sporting clays are $45 for a round of 100.
Take a Sunset Sail
From Wilmington, get out on the water aboard a 42-foot sailboat for a small group sailing adventure and witness the sunset. You’ll cruise along the waters of Wrightsville Beach, taking in the scenery of the barrier islands in a peaceful setting. You might even see some local wildlife. This is the perfect experience for couples and families. Simple refreshments like juice and bottled water are provided on the boat, and you can choose your preferred departure time. We also recommend asking if you can bring a bottle of wine along!
Visit The Biltmore Estate
No trip to North Carolina is complete without a visit to the Biltmore Estate. We might be a bit bias because we love wine so much, but the Biltmore House & Winery is the largest privately owned estate in the US which warrants a visit. Constructed in 1886 by George Washington Vanderbilt — heir to the famed “Vanderbilt Industrial Fortune,” it sits on roughly 125,000 acres of land. Visiting to see the property alone is an experience in and of itself, but the wine also isn’t half bad. The estate produces red, white and rosé wines and even offers a complimentary tasting at their tasting room. Small bites are available at the wine bar and the staff are there to guide you through wine styles and production processes. Various tours and tastings are also available, and reservations are required to be made on the day of your visit.
Go For a Hike
There are literally thousands of hiking trails across the state, so it’s impossible to cover all of them in this guide. Instead, we’ll recommend a few of our favorites based on location and scenery.
Near Asheville, look for Looking Glass Rock trailhead for an all-seasons, intermediate hike that includes a number of switchbacks and trails through gorgeous wildflower fields and stunning views of the Appalachian mountains.
For a waterfall-focused and easy hike, consider Catawba Falls Trail. It’s a short 2.3 mile jaunt near Black Mountain. Dogs are permitted on this hike as well.
Looking for a secret swimming spot? Paradise Falls near Tuckasegee should be on your list. This is a relatively difficult hike, but the reward is worth it and you’ll be avoiding crowded trails.
Near Lake Toxaway, hike to Rainbow Falls along a rushing river while you stumble on additional hidden trails and smaller waterfalls along the way.
Hike to Grassy Ridge Bald near Bakersville to find epic views of rolling hills. This hike is highly recommended either for sunrise or sunset.
Last but certainly not least, get on the Appalachian Trail and experience epic views and grassy balds, traversing trails leading to Jane’s Bald and eventually Round Bald. At 5,826ft of elevation, stop here to take in a sunset and uncork a bottle of wine.
Go Fly Fishing
Whether you’re looking to learn how to fly fish, are an experienced angler or simply want to get out in nature away from civilization, scheduling a fishing trip for the day is a great way to relax and have some fun. West Fork Anglers provides guided fly fishing opportunities for all ages and skill levels. These are full-day trips that occasionally offer encounters with other local wildlife including Deer, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and the occasional Black Bear.
Explore Chimney Rock State Park
For a complete outdoor experience that’s especially beautiful during autumn, consider a visit to Chimney Rock State Park. There are 7 diverse trails to explore at various difficulty levels. The Great Adventure Trail and the Animal Discovery Den are also perfect activities if you have little ones in tow. Rock climbing and rappelling opportunities are also available to individuals, families, and groups year-round, weather permitting.
North Carolina has no shortage of museums. From east to west and weird to eccentric, museum enthusiasts are sure to enjoy exploring all that the state has to offer. We recommend checking out Grandfather Mountain Nature Museum, the Reynolda House Museum of American Art & Gardens, Old Salem Museum & Gardens, the Asheville Pinball Museum, the Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center, The Earl Scruggs Center, Discovery Place Science (great for kids), the Raleigh Museum of Art, the US Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
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