Locals refer to North Carolina as the “Tarheel State” because in the past, calling someone a “rosin heel” or “tar heel” was an insult to those who worked in a lowly trade. But, during the Civil War, North Carolina soldiers brought new meaning to the term and wore the moniker of “tar heel” with pride. Then the sporting teams of the University of North Carolina adopted the name and, these days, “tar heel” is a nickname for the state and its inhabitants.
This eastern state along the Atlantic Ocean offers plenty of natural attractions, such as state parks, white sandy beaches, and the Appalachian Mountains. Of course, with all of these exciting destinations comes a decision on where exactly you want to enjoy your time in the Tarheel State. Some of the most popular towns and cities in North Carolina are Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh – but this state has plenty of hidden gems. Whether you want to enjoy mountain views or feel the breeze along the Atlantic Ocean, North Carolina has something for everyone. Here are the best towns and cities to visit in North Carolina.
- Towns And Cities In North Carolina
- 20 North Carolina Cities And Towns to Visit
Towns And Cities In North Carolina
20 North Carolina Cities And Towns to Visit
Asheville is a booming mountain town along the Blue Ridge Mountains known for its fantastic art scene, great breweries and historic architecture.
A top sight in Asheville is the Biltmore, a stunning historical museum that was once the largest privately owned home built for the Vanderbilt family.
The museum offers guided tours, picnic areas and wine tasting, making it easy to spend a whole day viewing the property.
You can also hike through Pisgah National Forest, check out the murals in the River Arts District, or sip on local brews at some of the area’s best breweries, including Wicked Weed Brewing Pub, Burial Beer Co. Asheville Taproom and Asheville Brewing Company.
A fun way to explore Ashville at night is on a ghost tour.
While the Carolinas are known for a slower-paced lifestyle, Charlotte gives out a big-city vibe.
It doesn’t matter what time of the year you’re visiting Charlotte, plan to catch a game from the local sports teams, including the Carolina Panthers, the Charlotte Hornets or Charlotte FC.
Aside from sports, this bustling city has plenty of attractions.
Visitors love riding rollercoasters at Carowinds amusement park and browsing museums such as Discovery Place Science, Mint Museum Uptown, and the Levine Museum of the New South.
If you want to enjoy the fresh outdoors, consider having a picnic in Freedom Park.
Charlotte also has a fantastic foodie scene; our favourite spot is Good Food on Montford.
The gateway to the Cape Fear Coast, Wilmington is a charming port city near beaches such as Wrightsville and Freeman Park.
Wilmington has old-world charm, with horse-drawn carriages trotting down brick-lined streets filled with historic Victorian architecture-styled homes. History and architecture walking tours are popular.
Wilmington’s Riverwalk voted America’s Best Riverfront, is filled with local boutiques, unique cafes and restaurants and exciting nightlife.
If you stop for a bite, don’t skip the sweet treats at Apple Annie’s Bake Shop.
Participate in a guided tour of the riverwalk to learn about the stories of the people who once inhabited the town and how it came to be.
Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina.
This big city is part of the Research Triangle and features many universities, corporations and learning experiences for visitors.
It is located in the mid-region of the state, about 2.5 hours from Charlotte.
Raleigh’s best scholarly attractions are the state-of-the-art James B. Hunt Library, the North Carolina Museum of Art, Marbles Kids Museum, Pope House Museum, and CAM Raleigh.
The city also has a huge focus on nature, with spots like Lake Crabtree County Park, Historic Yates Mill County Park, and the Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden to connect with wildlife and natural plant species that grow in North Carolina.
Learning and exploring can work up your appetite and fortunately, Raleigh also has some killer breweries and local restaurants to try. A fun way to see Raleigh is to book a post on the Trolley Pub Public Tour.
Greensboro is the third-most populous city in North Carolina after Charlotte and Raleigh. Not only do locals love the city, but tourists do too.
This city in North Carolina is between Winston-Salem and Durham in Guilford County.
Greensboro played a huge part in the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement, which can be appreciated at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, the Greensboro History Museum and the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
There are opportunities to enjoy the outdoors at attractions such as Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden, Greensboro Arboretum and The Bog Garden at Benjamin Park.
A great way to explore at night is on the History & Haunts Greensboro Historical Ghost Tour.
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Durham is most notably known for being the home of Duke University, but it is also known as the “City of Medicine” for its vast healthcare establishments and is part of the Research Triangle along with Raleigh.
Visitors can explore exciting places such as Duke Chapel, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke Lemur Center and the Nasher Museum of Art on campus.
Venture off campus to find plenty of other attractions in Durham, like the Museum of Life and Science and Eno River State Park.
Thanks to the array of cultures in Durham, the city has a variety of food options that you won’t find anywhere else.
Some top spots to grab a bite are Taqueria La Vaquita, Chicken Hut, and King’s Sandwich Shop.
7- Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill is the site of the University of North Carolina, which made the term “tar heel” so popular across the nation.
At UNC, basketball is the top sport to watch, so catch a game at the Dean E. Smith Center if you can. Or, you visit the Carolina Basketball Museum if you want some history of the team and the sport itself.
The campus also features attractions such as Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Ackland Art Museum, and North Carolina Botanical Garden.
The city is also the third point in the Research Triangle, with Raleigh and Durham.
These cities in North Carolina are all in close distance to each other, no more than a 45-minute drive.
It is easy to visit all three cities on a weekend to fully immerse yourself in the innovation and discovery in the Research Triangle of North Carolina.
A fun experience to enjoy with friends is the 2-Hour Crime Solving Detective Private Experience.
Winston-Salem is a city in Forsyth County just east of Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh.
This city is a hidden gem compared to the more famous cities in North Carolina.
Its unique name comes from Salem, the Hebrew word for “peace”, while Winston was added for Major Joseph Winston, a Revolutionary War hero.
The city has a fascinating history. It is known as “Camel City” because of its long historic ties to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
Winston-Salem was also the birthplace of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and although the original location does not stand today, you can visit a plaque in its honour in the Old Salem Historic District.
Many charming historic buildings date back to the Moravians who inhabited the area in the 1700s, from the Frank L. Horton Museum Center to Bethabara Historic Park.
The city lends itself well to nightly exploring on this Winston-Salem Historical Ghost Tour.
Fayetteville is in Cumberland County, just east of Charlotte.
The city is most notable as the home of Fort Bragg, a major U.S. Army installation that hosts the Airborne Corps and Airborne Division.
Because of this fact, many of Fayetteville’s population are military families.
Visitors are welcome to learn more about the base and military history at The Airborne and Special Operations Museum.
The Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex and 1897 Poe House are great places to discover the history of Fayetteville, while attractions such as the Cape Fear Botanical Garden, Lake Rim Park, Clark Park Nature Center, and Gillis Hills Farm are the top spots to enjoy the Sandhills region of southeastern North Carolina.
This quaint little city between Charlotte and Asheville at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains was once voted the most beautiful and affordable place to live in the country by Travel and Leisure.
Hickory has a rich history in stock car racing and is known as the “Birthplace of NASCAR Stars.”
Visitors enjoy visiting the Hickory Motor Speedway, named the “World’s Most Famous Short Track.” Find and book a NASCAR race here.
Hickory also has an aviation museum, art museum and the Catawba Science Center if you want to have a day full of learning.
Although you’ll find most of the locals near Union Square at restaurants and bars such as Duke’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, Olde Hickory Tap Room, or Notions.
Cary is a sister city of Raleigh, which is split between Wake and Chatham Counties.
The city was originally a railroad town named after former Ohio Senator and temperance movement leader Samuel Fenton Cary.
This North Carolina city was known as an educational centre throughout history because Cary High School was North Carolina’s first state-funded public high school.
We suggest strolling through the outdoors at either Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, Fred G. Bond Metro Park, or Downtown Cary Park to start your day.
Then visit the Cary Arts Center or the Cary Theater to appreciate the arts, then finish the day at the Chatham Hill Winery or Bond Brothers Beer Company.
You’ll find Concord to the northeast of Charlotte in Cabarrus County.
Concord attracts a lot of visitors, mainly for the Great Wolf Lodge, a massive resort with themed suites, tons of dining options, interactive games and quests and an indoor waterpark with 11 waterslides and four pools.
You could easily spend an entire weekend without leaving this fantastic resort.
If you want to venture out, Cary is also home to an interactive aquarium called SEA LIFE, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which hosts NASCAR races and personal drag races, and the Concord Mills Mall, which offers some great shopping, and The Escape Game.
13- High Point
You’ll be surprised to learn that High Point is the “Home Furnishings Capital of the World”, and the city is so dedicated to this title that they created the World’s Largest Chest of Drawers, a popular tourist attraction.
The city’s High Point Furniture Market is an event that attracts 100,000 exhibitors and buyers from around the world.
High Point is between Winston-Salem and Greensboro and is the only North Carolina city extending into four different counties.
Greenville is located in Pitt County, east of Washington, NC and the Pamlico River.
Greenville is best known as the home to East Carolina University, the third-largest university in the state.
There are two downtown districts in Greenville, Uptown and Dickson Ave.
This is where you will find most of the locals eating, drinking and socializing with friends.
Uptown has the Greenville Museum of Art, Tar River Park Walkway and Amphitheater, and restaurants like The Blackened Kraken and The Scullery Coffee House and Creamery.
While Dickson is home to Dickinson Avenue Public House, Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint and the local Farmer’s Market.
Jacksonville is located in the eastern portion of the state bordering the coast of New River, which leads to Stones Bay and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.
The most notable thing about the city is that it is home to a Marine Corps base.
A half-day city tour will help you get your bearings.
If you want the beauty of Asheville without the crowds, try Hendersonville.
This small city just south of Asheville offers a charming small-town feel with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Speaking of views, Jump Off Rock and DuPont State Recreational Forest are the best places to check out.
Hendersonville is also known for its abundance of vineyards and orchards.
Spend the day apple picking or tasting wines at Burntshirt Vineyards, Justus Orchard, Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard, or Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards.
If you’re visiting with kids, you may like this Gem Mining and Goat Farm Walking Tour.
Hendersonville also has plenty of local breweries if wine isn’t your drink.
If you want to learn something new during your trip, head to the museums in the area, including a pinball museum, mineral museum or the Henderson County Heritage Museum.
17- Forest City
Forest City is in the state’s southern portion, near the South Carolina border in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains foothills.
This city has a big focus on preserving and keeping things local, so the downtown district has plenty of mom-and-pop eateries and unique, locally-owned boutiques to browse through.
The city is scattered with great parks such as James F. Crowe Park and Charles R. Sumney Park, but one of the best attractions in Forest City is the expansive antique car museum which gives visitors an up-close look at pristinely kept cars from years ago.
18- New Bern
New Bern is a riverfront city located along the Neuse River in the southeastern portion of North Carolina.
It is considered part of the Inner Banks.
New Bern is the “Birthplace of Pepsi Cola,” as the famous drink was invented in a pharmacy in the city, now preserved as a historic landmark.
Tyron Palace, New Bern Civil War Battlefield Park, and the New Bern Firemen’s Museum are also among New Bern’s top places to visit.
19- Morehead City
Morehead City is on the eastern side of North Carolina and its main draw is that it’s a quick six minutes across the bridge to drive to Atlantic Beach.
North Carolina has a rich history, and Morehead City is no exception.
One of the biggest attractions is Fort Macon State Park, which provides the perfect backdrop to outdoor activities, including paddling, hiking, biking and fishing.
Fort Macon was once a civil and military prison, and the park puts on daily guided tours which include cannon and musket demonstrations.
For a deeper dive into the history of this area, visit the History Museum of Carteret County.
When you hear Washington, a few locations other than North Carolina may come to mind.
This city was founded in 1776, making it the first American city named after George Washington, long before the state of Washington or Washington D.C. we’re known.
For this reason, locals refer to this as “Original Washington.”
This small city in Beaufort County runs along the Pamlico River.
You can’t miss the North Carolina Estuarium, a top attraction in Washington that allows visitors to explore the river via an aquarium and riverboat rides.
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