Southeast

8 Unique Places in North Carolina to Explore

From mountain towns to island beaches, North Carolina has a wealth of farm-to-table food, craft breweries, live music, and historic sites to explore.

Before I ever visited North Carolina, I just associated it with the Wright Brothers’ early aviation experiments (our license plates say “First in Flight”), along with the tobacco industry and Southern food classics like barbecue (vinegar, please) and biscuits.

I had heard there were beautiful beaches along the Outer Banks and cool mountain drives through the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I had to move here to appreciate the state’s diversity of nature and culture. There’s a wealth of craft breweries, farm-to-table restaurants, funky arts venues and music festivals, quirky museums, and historic buildings. And if you know where to go, there are also wild horses, lush gardens, and secret waterfalls to be discovered.

Here are eight of North Carolina’s most unique places to explore, from small town to city to island. Where will you start?

Visit Asheville: Sip Craft Beer and Listen to Live Music On the French Broad River

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Perpetually at the top of lists of places both to visit and live, Asheville is the crowd pleaser of North Carolina destinations. It’s ideal for foodies, beer nerds, live-music lovers, history buffs, and especially anyone who appreciates the great outdoors.

With the most breweries per capita in the country, Asheville is sometimes called the Napa Valley of beer, as the incubator for Wicked WeedHighland Brewing, and Burial Beer, to name just a few of the breweries and taprooms in town.

Over one million visitors come every year to view the Biltmore Estate‘s 250 rooms, winery, and 8,000 acres of formal gardens and grounds designed by Central Park landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted – especially around the holidays when the estate is decked out in festive lights, ornaments, and decorated Christmas trees.

Asheville hosts more than a dozen music festivals and even more outdoor concerts, ranging from Appalachian folk to bluegrass to electronic and funk. Independent music venues like the Orange Peel and Grey Eagle have hosted big-name acts and amateur jam sessions, with a variety of open mics and intimate sets every night of the week.

It’s outside where Asheville really dazzles, as the city’s location in the French Broad River valley, under the backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains and between several national forests and parks, means it’s possible to spend a day kayaking, hiking, or mountain biking. There are also plenty of opportunities to stop for a picnic and a locally brewed beer.

Asheville is one of the gateways to the classic Blue Ridge Parkway, which has inspired many leisurely Sunday drives and photo opportunities along its scenic outlooks. The Pisgah National Forest was built on a land donation from the Biltmore Estate and within it is Mt. Mitchell, the Appalachian Mountains’ and east coast’s tallest peak at 6,500 feet, with an easily accessible observation deck.

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After a day exploring the outdoors and reveling in the nightlife, relax downtown at the 1920s Art Deco Haywood Park Inn. As a nod to its past life as a department store, fashion mannequins are displayed throughout the boutique hotel in various styles and the elevator announces each floor’s former destination (“second floor: menswear”). The hotel now caters to visitors who enjoy a touch of luxury, like turndown service with truffles from in-house chocolatier the Chocolate Fetish, and a lavish breakfast at Isa’s Bistro.

Haywood Park Hotel

Top rated
Asheville
9.1 Excellent (1471 reviews)

Visit Blowing Rock: a Small and Scenic Mountain Town

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If you enjoy the high-altitude life, but find Asheville a bit too urban, Blowing Rock might be for you. This scenic Blue Ridge mountain town is known for its spectacular views, boutiques and artisan shops, and winter skiing and snowboarding. Named after a mountain formation with legendary gusts of wind and a grief-stricken Cherokee maiden, Blowing Rock draws visitors to its outlook on Grandfather Mountain, Wild West-themed Tweetsie Railroad, and annual music festivals.

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Perched above the town on 78 acres, the Chetola Resort has accommodations ranging from hotel rooms to self-contained apartments, plus a myriad of outdoor activities, including golf, whitewater rafting, Orvis-endorsed fly fishing, hiking and horseback riding trails, and a sporting reserve for hunting, shooting, and archery.

Chetola Resort at Blowing Rock

Blowing Rock
8.9 Excellent (1204 reviews)

Visit Wilmington: Scout Movie Locations and WWII Heritage

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A historic port city on the Cape Fear river and a seashell’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington is as beloved for its cobblestoned downtown, riverfront restaurants, and vintage clothing shops nearly as much as it is for its short drive to beaches. A southern coastal town that could double as a New England fishing village, Wilmington earned the nickname of “Wilmywood” after serving as a host for shows like Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, and as inspiration for the thriller(s) Cape Fear.

The beach season in North Carolina extends well past Labor Day, as the water often stays warm enough to swim in until Halloween. Carolina Beach’s boardwalk and Wrightsville Beach’s surfing are each within twenty minutes of downtown.

Back in Wilmington, learn about the local history on a riverboat cruise, a Ghost Walk of haunted sights, or a self-guided tour of the WWII Battleship North Carolina.

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Dreamers Welcome is a high-design, modern luxury inn walkable to everything downtown. Each of the individually designed rooms has a mix of antiques and designer furniture. Yoga classes are offered on the porch, and a vegan breakfast is prepared daily.

Dreamers Welcome

Wilmington
9.3 Excellent (176 reviews)

Visit Durham: NC's Buzzy Little City is No Bull

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Far from a sleepy college town, Durham still earns acclaim for its innovative dining scene, progressive politics, and creative spirit, sustained in part by the presence of Duke University and its international mix of students and researchers.

Durham is a town where you can wake up with a fair-trade, locally roasted latte from Cocoa Cinnamon and drive a few minutes to the Eno River for a hike and a swim, followed by a wander through the galleries at Duke’s Nasher Museum and admiring what’s in season at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. You’ll still have time for a nap at your downtown hotel before a tapas dinner at Mateo, a concert at DPAC, and a nightcap at Alley Twenty Six.

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The downtown Durham Hotel is a mid-century modern marvel with the city’s best views from the rooftop bar and restaurant. The large and open lobby has a coffee shop and daytime restaurant, which also functions as an unofficial co-working and meeting space for many local entrepreneurs and tech workers. Guest rooms are outfitted with Raleigh Denim blankets, local bath products from Fillaree and Burt’s Bees, and coffee service from Counter Culture.

The Durham Hotel

Durham
8.7 Excellent (491 reviews)

Visit Hatteras: Climb the Lighthouse for Coastal Wild Beauty

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The Outer Banks are known for their pristine beaches, iconic lighthouses, and dramatic past of shipwrecks and pirates. As much of Hatteras Island is difficult to reach without your own boat, private plane, or a lot of patience along the one-lane Highway 12, it keeps the sands secluded for visitors, as well as the sea turtles who nest in the dunes. It’s the wild beauty of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that brings many visitors year after year, as well as the town’s limited development and lack of mass tourism that ensures that even in peak season, you’ll never have trouble finding a spot for your beach umbrella.

Even the black-and-white-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its 257 steps to the top, hasn’t prevented hundreds of shipwrecks in the nearby waters. Visitors can learn about the wrecks and the area’s history and culture for shipbuilding, diving, piracy, fishing, and lifesaving at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

Whether you prefer dining out or cooking your own seafood feast, fishermen still regularly supply the island’s markets with just-caught shrimp, scallops, swordfish, and other fresh catches.

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The best beach houses are convenient to town but private to neighbors, like this peaceful vacation rental near the National Seashore. Surrounded by trees and vegetation, the rustic cottage is walking distance to South Beach, with a screened-in porch, well-equipped kitchen, and bikes to explore the island.

Outer Banks Cottage - Walk To National Seashore

Frisco
8.8 Excellent (18 reviews)

Visit Greensboro: an Up-and-Coming Green City with Deep History

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While many travelers know about Asheville and Durham, don’t sleep on the Triad – a central region of the state encompassing historic tobacco town Winston-Salem, the international furniture market in High Point, and the up-and-coming arts city Greensboro.

The state’s third-largest city, Greensboro has been attracting artists with lower rents than its bigger sisters and a growing downtown. Museum musts include the International Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of the 1960 Woolworth’s sit-ins, the Greensboro Science Center with a small zoo and aquarium, and Weatherspoon Art Museum with a modern art collection encompassing Matisse and Picasso, as well as many local artists. Thousands come to the Coliseum Complex for world-class concerts and sporting events.

Living up to the “green” in the name, there are four distinct public gardens in Greenboro, including an arboretum, wetland bog garden, walking trails with a sculpture garden, and a children’s garden; all are open year-round with free admission.

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At the intersection of luxury and sustainability, Proximity Hotel is the first Platinum LEED-certified hotel and restaurant in the country, built using ultra-efficient and reused materials and offering abundant natural lighting and superior air quality. It’s also an all employee-owned hotel (along with sister property O. Henry Hotel). Guests benefit from custom-designed bedding, an outdoor pool, and the farm-to-fork Print Works Bistro.

Proximity Hotel

Greensboro
9.2 Excellent (680 reviews)

Visit Kinston: Eat the Chef's Life for a Weekend

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A small town in eastern North Carolina seems an unlikely place for a destination restaurant and hit TV show, but Chef Vivian Howard chose Kinston as the spot for her fine-dining restaurant Chef and The Farmer when she moved back to her home state from New York City. The PBS show A Chef’s Life follows Chef Howard as she sources ingredients for her restaurant from local farms and learns Southern food traditions.

Kinston’s other mainstay is Mother Earth Brewing, another local labor of love from two beer enthusiasts who grew up in town. The eco-minded, LEED-certified brewery is built from reclaimed materials and has a solar-powered tap room, with brews ranging from a hazy IPA to a seasonal ale with homegrown tomatoes, as well as new gin and whiskey distilled on site.

When not eating and drinking, visitors can explore nature trails and kayaking on the Neuse River, discover Civil War sites, or learn about the heritage of African American music in the area at the Music Park.

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The funky retro Mother Earth Motor Lodge is within walking distance to all the restaurants and bars that brought you to Kinston. Newly spiffy guestrooms feature bright colors and vintage-inspired furniture, but the real draw are the property’s public amenities, including a three-ring pool, shuffleboard, and mini-golf.

Mother Earth Motor Lodge

Kinston
9.3 Excellent (324 reviews)

Visit Beaufort: Follow the Pirate Path of Blackbeard

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One of Beaufort’s early visitors was the infamous Blackbeard the Pirate, whose ship Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground here shortly before his death in 1718. Now, the idyllic “Inner Banks” village feels a bit like a southern Nantucket Island with its busy marina, antique shops, and historical sites. You can see how the region has evolved from fishing port to pirate hideout to surfing hotspot at the NC Maritime Museum, as well as see a bit of the archaeology treasure trove excavated from Blackbeard’s shipwreck.

Beaufort’s marina and location on Taylor’s Creek makes it a popular spot to charter a boat, borrow a kayak, or just enjoy the views and fresh seafood at a waterfront restaurant. If you are more of a beach than a boat person, it’s a short drive to Atlantic Beach and Fort Macon State Park (with a restored Civil War-era fort to explore). The Rachel Carson Nature Reserve is also nearby, with an abundance of wildlife and birdwatching accessible only by boat.

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The Pecan Tree Inn is a quintessential romantic bed-and-breakfast with a rocking chair porch, afternoon tea, and garden koi pond. It’s easy walking distance to the water and many restaurants, or you borrow a bike to explore the town after a gourmet breakfast.

Pecan Tree Inn

Top rated
Beaufort
9.3 Excellent (124 reviews)

Featured photo courtesy of VisitNC.com.