The best cities in North Carolina span the mountains to the coast. It is a wonderful state to visit, filled with interesting and diverse destinations.
Whether you want to spend a weekend escape hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains, visit the state capital area, or have a beach getaway, North Carolina has you covered.
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The capital of North Carolina, Raleigh, is in the middle of the state and is a fantastic place to visit. You may arrive in NC by road trip along I-95, for example, or via plane. The heart of Raleigh is a quick 20-25 minute drive from RDU International Airport.
Raleigh is known for great restaurants, including Death & Taxes and Poole’side Pies from culinary James Beard Award Nominee Chef Ashley Christensen, to great breweries, including Lynwood and Trophy Brewing Co.
You’re never too far from an art museum or college campus in Raleigh. If you like contemporary art, visit downtown Raleigh’s CAM (Contemporary Art Museum), where admission is always complimentary. Head to the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), near NC State College, which has an outdoor sculpture garden that’s free to visit. Part of the indoor museum is also free to visit, and part of it requires a ticket for admission.
The downtown area also has a pedestrian mall area that’s lined with free museums, like the Natural Museum of History and Science Museum. Kids will love the Marbles Museum, which has a minimal ticket cost to enter. It will provide them with hours of fun and entertainment.
Duke Energy Center is downtown and easy to get to for assorted ticketed performances, including traveling Broadway shows and concerts.
Just 30 minutes north of Raleigh is another incredibly popular city in North Carolina called Durham. It has a walkable downtown community with shops, restaurants, bars, and museums. Be sure to check out Chet Miller for the best souvenirs and home goods and the rooftop bar at Unscripted Durham Hotel.
If you’re in town during baseball season, a minor league game at the Durham Bulls Stadium is not-to-miss. The stadium is located at American Tobacco Campus, a popular spot to walk around and grab a meal or drink before or after the game.
Head to Dame Chicken and Waffles for the restaurant’s famous dish of the same name. Top it with hot honey for some sweetness with a kick!
Popular Durham breweries to grab beers are Fullsteam, The Glass Jug, and Hi-Wire. If you’re looking for cocktails, Kingfisher and the bar at 21c Museum Hotel both have a wonderful atmosphere.
Look up the calendar of events at Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), where there is often a traveling Broadway show or great concert happening.
Head to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina to visit Asheville. This city is known for a laid back vibe and stunning scenery. You can see glass-blowing demonstrations at Lexington Glassworks or treat yourself to a spa appointment at the Omni Grove Park Inn.
The Biltmore property is a treasure trove of things to do and see, including a historical estate still independently owned by one family, though open to the public through admission tickets. You can also go horseback riding or enjoy walking or jogging one of the onsite trails, or go to the Biltmore winery for a free wine tasting.
Head to the River Arts District to see art galleries and Asheville’s Pinball Museum, where you can play games as you admire the nostalgia they bring.
A town named Winston-Salem is between Durham and Charlotte if you’re taking a road trip along Interstate 40. This destination is one of the cities in North Carolina that flies under the radar but has a ton going on.
Head downtown to try some great Winston-Salem restaurants and bars, including The Katharine French Brasserie at the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel or Mozelle’s for their delicious tomato pie. Winston-Salem has many breweries to visit, including Wise Man Brewing and Foothills Brewing.
Old Salem is a must-visit area of Winston-Salem, where visitors are invited to walk around and discover the city’s history in an open-air setting. The Reynolda House Museum of American Art is a popular attraction for viewing art from the colonial period to today.
5. Ocracoke (Outer Banks)
A favorite North Carolina city is Ocracoke, an island in the Outer Banks reachable by ferry. It’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy the coast for a couple of vacation days.
This completely casual island has outdoor bars to enjoy live music during the peak summer season, plenty of coastlines to relax in the sand, and beautiful restaurants from casual dining to a handful of date-night establishments.
Be sure to look into surfing lessons when you’re there. It’s the perfect place to learn how to ride the waves.
6. Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill may be most well known for its famous college, the University of North Carolina (UNC). There’s fun to be had besides classes, though!
Franklin Street is known for its nightlife, from college bars to restaurants. Be sure to check out the colorful murals lining the avenue. There are plenty of restaurants, pubs, and quick-service dining options, so you can choose the dining experience appropriate for your occasion.
Be sure to look up the school’s sports schedule to inquire about tickets for a game. There’s also a planetarium called the Schiele Museum’s James H. Lynn Planetarium and Science Theater in Chapel Hill, where kids and adults will enjoy learning about the universe.
A popular destination in North Carolina, Charlotte has a major international airport that makes it incredibly convenient to arrive by air and plentiful highways to arrive by car. Additionally, Amtrak runs through the city, making train travel a cinch.
There is a ton to do in Charlotte, from sporting games (like seeing the NC Panthers football team play) to concerts, museums, and more.
From Charlotte, you can visit Lake Norman, a city with plenty of waterfront dining and cute neighborhoods to explore. You can also visit Cabarrus County, well known for NASCAR Racing and the North Carolina Renaissance Festival that takes place each fall.
Wilmington is a coastal city that’s easy to reach by car. For example, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Raleigh, so you can go for the day or overnight.
There is a fun downtown area in Wilmington with delicious restaurants and bars. Head to Seabird for some NC oysters and fresh fish; the seafood in North Carolina is sublime, especially the shrimp!
You’ll want to reserve plenty of time on your schedule for Wilmington beaches, including Wrightsville Beach, and time to explore Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
Known as the “Home of Golf,” Pinehurst is most famous for its world-renowned golf courses. They are so reputable and famous, in fact, that the Professional Golfers' Association of America decided to build a campus there.
There is more to do in Pinehurst besides golf, like enjoying great food and drinks in Pinehurst Village or nearby Southern Pines. Head to Sandhills Horticultural Gardens to enjoy the outdoors, without golf courses but filled with tons of plant life native to the state.
When you head out west to go to North Carolina’s mountains, add Boone to your list of locations to visit. It’s a small town with a lot of nature and great attractions like Linville Falls and Linville Caverns.
If you like gemstones, be sure to sift for gems at one of the area’s indoor or covered sifting businesses, which are great for kids and adults alike. There are also various art museums to explore in Boone and the nearby areas – including Blowing Rock Art & History Museum and Turchin Center – whether you like sculpture gardens or indoor multimedia art pieces.
Getting Around North Carolina
The best way to get around North Carolina is a car if you're driving from city to city. Even if you first arrive in the area by plane, you'll want to rent a car between cities. We recommend Discover Cars.
Don't Postone Renting a Car!
A visit to any of these top cities in North Carolina will provide enjoyment, entertainment, and wonderful memories; it’s a very popular United States destination with good reason!
Whether you visit on a road trip or fly to any of the state’s major airports, you’ll find it easy to explore. Plan a trip and prepare for beautiful scenery and fantastic attractions that will keep you coming back for years to come.