Whether you are looking to have an exciting mountain adventure or a lazy day on the beach, North Carolina is a state that has something for everyone. Here’s a North Carolina Travel Guide for those hoping to explore the state!
North Carolina Travel Guide
I spent the first 30ish years of my life living in North Carolina. Whether you are a Duke or Carolina fan or you can’t decide between your love for the mountains over the beach, you’ll find something to love about the Old North State!
Toward the west you’ll find mountain ranges to hike and to the east you’ll be able to dip your toes in the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to its outdoor offerings, North Carolina is also home to some of the best historical sites in the country, as well as great restaurants and shopping for the more modern sensibilities (I’m looking at you Charlotte!).
As it is such a great spot to visit, I’ve decided to share a travel guide to help you plan and make the most of your North Carolina trip.
My guide to North Carolina is made up of where to travel to, what to do once you are there, and where to stay during your visit. This guide will help you plan your best trip to North Carolina to ensure you don’t miss anything this state has to offer.
While planning ahead, it’s always good to think about the weather. I love that NC has four distinct seasons, but you’ll need to dress appropriately for them. Due to its location in the southern United States, North Carolina is best to visit in early April to mid June and early September to late November. This will help ensure you encounter the best temperatures, as well as the prettiest views when hiking.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Table of Contents
- Where to go
- What to do
- Where to stay
Where to Travel in North Carolina
Asheville is a fun city offering a vibrant downtown with lots of great restaurants. The Laughing Seed was always one of our favorites!
Outside the downtown area, you’ll find great options for outdoor lovers with great hikes nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains plus lots of craft breweries. It’s also an ideal spot to visit in the fall, as you can expect cooler weather and colorful leaves.
As you get closer to the city, history buffs will enjoy stopping by The Biltmore, America’s largest privately owned and maintained estate (more on that later). While there, wine lovers can stop and enjoy a tasting at America’s most visited winery, Biltmore Winery.
Once you hit the city itself, you’ll find a vibrant art scene in the River Arts District. If food and beer are more your vibe, there are a ton of great restaurants and breweries all walkable in the downtown area. It’s no surprise this is a popular destination for Bachelorette parties or for couples looking for a fun weekend away.
Blog post: Kath and Jenna do Asheville
Blog post: Mountain Meghann
Located just 3 ½ hours from Charlottesville, VA, Winston-Salem, NC makes for a great weekend getaway or a nice stop on the way to Asheville. This city is similar to other North Carolina cities like Charlotte and Asheville in that you’ll find a mix of outdoor activities, cool breweries (like Fiddlin’ Fish), and good food.
Another fun aspect of this area is Old Salem. This popular historic district allows people to learn about the Moravians of North Carolina. While you can walk around Old Salem for free, you can also opt to stop at the Visitor Center to purchase tickets for interactive exhibits.. You can also sample Moravian food, like cookies at Winkler Bakery
Charlotte is North Carolina’s largest city so it’s no surprise you can find plenty to do while you are here, from museums to restaurants and beyond. I lived there for five years after college and worked for a visitor’s magazine, so I learned a lot about the area!
You’ll also find plenty of breweries in Charlotte and their food scene has been gaining traction in recent years, making it a fun location for foodies and beer lovers.
I went to Davidson College just north of Charlotte, and the town of Davidson and whole Lake Norman area is also worth a visit in itself!
Optimist Hall is a great place for lunch or dinner!
Blog post: Weekend in Charlotte
North Carolina’s capital city, Raleigh, is also referred to as the Smithsonian of the South due to the number of free museums you can visit. Here you’ll find the North Carolina Museum of Art (also the first major museum collection to be formed by state legislation and funding), the North Carolina Museum of History (affiliated with the Smithsonian), the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. This is just some of what Raleigh has to offer, so if you like to explore museums while you travel, this is a great city for you.
Concert in Raleigh!
Just 30 minutes from Raleigh, you’ll stumble upon Durham. These would make great places to pair together for a trip!
Durham, NC isn’t just home to Duke University. It’s a city with a rich history (from tobacco to the Civil Rights Movement, it has an interesting past) and it has been revitalized in recent years to such an extent that Vogue magazine refers to it as “North Carolina’s Hippest City.” With boutique hotels to great restaurants, this destination is perfect for a romantic weekend getaway. Check out the American Tobacco warehouses which are restored into restaurants and cool spaces.
If you have kids, you must go to the Museum of Life and Science! It’s a mostly-outside museum meets zoo meets play center.
If your tastes align more with having a coastal adventure, you’ll want to check out Wilmington, NC.
In Wilmington proper, you can explore the historic river district. Spanning the famed Cape Fear River, people who enjoy the southern charm of Savannah and Charleston will feel at home here. Enjoy the many shops and restaurants along the riverside or consider taking a river cruise for a new perspective of the sights.
If you want a vintage boardwalk feel, visit Carolina Beach. Located just 15 minutes from Wilmington, you’ll be able to have a relaxing beach vacation with plenty of places to find tropical drinks and fresh fish.
And be sure to take note of Bald Head Island off the coast! Catch the ferry over for the day from Southport or plan a summer vacay. There are no cars allowed – golf carts only – and BHI is a beautiful nature preserve surrounded by both marsh and ocean.
For a beach getaway with the flash of a resort town, opt for the Outer Banks. A chain of narrow barrier islands (stretches of land running parallel to coastlines), this area will be more your speed if you want lowkey. Known mainly for its vast beachfronts, this is your spot if you want a relaxing beach vacation where you simply enjoy your surroundings.
Also of note are the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and its sister park, The Camp Lookout National Seashore. You’ll get two very different experiences with these, as Cape Hatteras is better known and far less rustic. Depending on what you are looking for in your visit, you’ll want to see what both have to offer.
Of course, if you are looking for something more to do than strolling the beach, you can check out the Wright Brothers Memorial, one (or all) of the five lighthouses, or take in a game of mini golf (it’s a putt putt lover’s dream destination).
Blog post: Fall Trip to OBX
Blog post: Jockey’s Ridge
Things to Do in North Carolina
Boasting over 900 miles of trails, North Carolina is a great state for people who love to hike. You can check out this list of the 21 best hikes, which also includes elevation, length, difficulty, location, and anything you’ll need to know about what to bring or how to prepare. You’ll be able to find something to fit any skill level.
If you want to experience the best of both worlds, consider visiting the Pisgah National Forest, just outside of Asheville. With more than 500,000 acres of hardwood forest, whitewater rivers, and more, there is a lot to explore. You can take in the beautiful nature before heading back into the city for a beer and live music.
Other great hiking spots to add to your list are Chimney Rock State Park (about 25 miles outside of Asheville), Great Smoky Mountains National Park (about 70 miles outside of Asheville and the most-visited national park), and the Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain (near Linville, NC).
Speaking of Asheville, the Biltmore Estate is a national historic landmark and a definite item to put on your to-do list if you are in the area. Built by George Washington Vanderbilt II, this home is the quintessential example of the gilded age in America. Today, you can take a guided tour of the home or take time on your own perusing the vast gardens on the estate. The land is also home to restaurants, shops, a luxury hotel, and their popular winery. You can easily spend a weekend exploring the estate.
I’m partial to anything involving the Blue Ridge Mountains, as these are a key part of the Virginia landscape as well. In addition to being something you can drive in VA, The Blue Ridge Parkway actually spans 252 miles of western North Carolina. It’s a beautiful scenic drive, and it is just one of many. If you love driving through the mountains, check out the many scenic drives you can take through the state.
US National Whitewater Center
This is the perfect spot for anyone who loves outdoor adventures. Located in Charlotte, NC, the US National Whitewater Center is home to 1,300 acres where you can run, paddle, ride, climb, and more. From whitewater rafting and kayaking to ziplines, your adventurous spirit will be right at home here. Be sure and check out their site for booking your adventures.
Check out their events calendar as well, as you’ll often find live music, festivals, and more.
Visit Bald Head Island
Take a 20 minute ferry ride from Southport, NC, to Bald Head Island. If you are a history buff, you can take a historic tour to learn all about the Island’s role during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. If you love to golf, be sure and schedule your visit so you can take an adventure of their famed course. This is also just a fun place to explore no matter your interests. You can learn more about it if you check out my post on Bald Head Island.
Best Places to Stay in North Carolina
Since there are so many kinds of places to visit in North Carolina, it’s not surprising there are tons of different options when it comes to the best places to stay. Here are a few ideas regarding where to stay for your trip:
Inn on Biltmore Estate (Asheville)
If you are fully immersing yourself in exploring the Biltmore, you’ll probably want to stay at their onsite premises. The Inn on Biltmore Estate is a luxury hotel offering beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While here, you can take in all of the sites of the house and gardens, as well as enjoy wine, food, and spa services. If you are looking to explore the Biltmore and Asheville, you could consider doing a night here before heading into the city to stay (though this is a close Uber ride away).
The Princess Anne Hotel (Asheville)
The Princess Ann Hotel is a fun option for Asheville because it takes the best parts of a bed & breakfast and marries it with the best parts of a hotel to create a great place to stay. You’ll have choices of lovely guest rooms with their own bathrooms, wine and hors d’oeuvres, and made-to-order breakfast.
While this is located downtown, it’s tucked away on a quiet street and even has a lovely private garden so you feel a break from the city itself.
Glamping Collective (Asheville)
If you are looking to have more of the outdoor experience in Asheville, why not consider the Glamping Collective? This private mountaintop is home to luxury glamping services just twenty minutes outside of Asheville and a little over an hour from Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You can also just decompress here, as there are private hikes and breathtaking views.
Glamping accommodations include options like a Luxe Dome with a hot tub and mountain views or a glass cabin with a private deck. Bring a book, open a bottle of wine, and enjoy complete relaxation.
Kimpton Cardinal Hotel (Winston-Salem)
The Kimpton Cardinal Hotel is located right downtown in the historic RJ Reynolds building. This chic art deco building once was home to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company. Now it is a chic and comfortable hotel that is walking distance from restaurants, breweries, and shops.
When staying at chains (Kimpton is part of IHG), it’s always a good idea to see how you can take advantage of credit card travel rewards. Be sure and reference my post where I offer up some tips on how to do so.
21C Museum Hotels (Durham)
21C Museum Hotels refers to a contemporary art museum and boutique hotel chain. Their fourth location opened in Durham in 2015 and is conveniently located in the downtown area.
While staying at this hotel, be sure and check out the large exhibition space (more than 10,500 square feet) featuring contemporary art. The exhibitions rotate, so you can see something different each time you visit.
The Iveys (Charlotte)
Boutique hotels can be fun because they usually offer cool amenities and a fun ambience. The Iveys is no different. There is a Library Lounge with all-day snacks that also serves complimentary cheese, charcuterie, wine, and champagne in the evening and you can enjoy craft cocktails in the lounge.
In addition to being a cool spot, it’s conveniently located so you can walk to museums, restaurants, and even nightlife.
Graystone Inn (Wilmington)
If you are visiting the historic river district in Wilmington, why not go all in on the southern charm and stay at a lovely bed & breakfast?
The Graystone Inn has been renovated so includes all modern amenities in a historic space. Additionally, you’ll have great views of the Cape Fear River and you will be walking distance of the Wilmington Riverwalk.
If you are headed to the Outer Banks, why not fully embrace the quiet beach life by booking a vacation rental? CondeNast Traveler has a great list of twelve rentals to choose from, whether you want a romantic getaway in Kitty Hawk or a bar crawl in Duck. Check them out here.
There you have it – my North Carolina Travel Guide! I hope you have fun exploring all of the fun cities to see, things to do, and places to stay.
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