9 best places to visit in North Carolina from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks

9 best places to visit in North Carolina from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks

From award winning restaurants to majestic national forests, North Carolina is home to a variety of experiences © Doug Ash / Getty Images

From the towering peaks to the west to the sandy shores of the protected coastline, North Carolina is home to a variety of experiences. 

The state is where the Wright Brothers famously made their first flight and where a little soda brand called Pepsi gained international recognition. It’s also where musicians like Earl Scruggs, Nina Simone and John Coltrane were born. Driving from one end to the other is straightforward and the state has extensive airport and rail networks.

9 best places to visit in North Carolina from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks

The Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned home in America © ZakZeinert/Shutterstock

Celebrate the Gilded Age in Asheville

Start your Asheville sojourn at the Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in America. Built in the style of a French chateau for the Vanderbilt family, the Gilded Age mansion has onsite restaurants, inns and even a winery.

The Civilian Conservation Corps-built Blue Ridge Parkway traverses nearly 500 miles of undisturbed vistas between North Carolina and Virginia. Detour from the parkway to Pisgah National Forest, home to the area’s most popular hiking area and Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River.

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Visit Charlotte’s popular landmarks 

While most cities have a “downtown,” Charlotte’s hub is known as Uptown. Here you’ll find the majority of the landmarks, including the Mint Museum of Art (which has a second location in the city in a former US Mint), the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture. The artist Romare Bearden, who was born in the city, is honored with a public park nearby.

It’s also a sports fan’s paradise, home to the Carolina Panthers football team. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is a sprawling, interactive museum devoted to racing history, with drivers’ trophies and car simulators. 

The US National Whitewater Center is a 1,300-acre park with ziplines, trails and artificial rapids used for the Olympic Trials.

Best day trips from Charlotte

9 best places to visit in North Carolina from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks

Duke's Lemur Center is a world-class primate center in Durham © Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Learn about lemurs in Durham

While often lumped in with Raleigh, Durham has an atmosphere all its own. Home to famed Duke University, there’s plenty to see on and off campus. The Duke Lemur Center is a world-class primate center with the most diverse population of lemurs outside of Madagascar, open for tours by appointment. 

Roam the galleries of the Nasher Museum of Art, which has pieces from Mesoamerica along with modern works by Kehinde Wiley, painter of President Obama’s portrait. The Sarah P. Duke Gardens first opened in 1934 and has native North Carolina species like the Venus flytrap.

Best beaches in North Carolina 

Get artistic in Greensboro 

Greensboro has a long history of textile manufacturing, where Lee and Wrangler jeans has its headquarters. Leftover textiles from these factories were once sold at a downtown store, which has since been revived as the offbeat Elsewhere Museum, where artists create new work based on what’s already inside the building.

The city made history during the Civil Rights Movement when local students held a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. The original seats are part of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, which also has exhibits on the Middle Passage and voting rights. 

Dive into history in the North Carolina Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans between Tennessee and North Carolina, but the latter section is quieter. In Bryson City, visitors can ride the rails on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which runs along the Tuckasegee River. The Nantahala Outdoor Center was the original rafting outfitter in town and has grown to include a restaurant, cabins and ziplining.

The town of Cherokee honors the Native people that were forcibly removed on the Trail of Tears. The tribe shares its 11,000-year-old history at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and in the seasonal outdoor play Unto These Hills. 

9 best places to visit in North Carolina from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks

Explore North Carolina's Outer Banks, home to dozens of islands with small towns and fishing villages © David Louis Econopouly / Shutterstock

Go for a dive at the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks is home to dozens of islands with small towns and fishing villages. The 175-mile stretch is where Europeans first arrived, including the mysterious Roanoke colony that disappeared in 1587. 

Pirates trawled the waters, including Blackbeard, who met his fate on Ocracoke Island. It’s also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic for the many shipwrecks on the ocean floor, which now make for excellent diving sites.

At Kitty Hawk, visitors can see where the Wright Brothers made their first flight. Try your own luck with a glider flight at the nearby sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. The best views are from the lighthouses along the coast, including the Cape Hatteras, Currituck Beach and Bodie Island lighthouses.

Dine out in Raleigh

The capital city has an energy that attracts lovers of the arts. The North Carolina Museum of Art features the work of both the state’s creatives and internationally recognized artists. The Pour House brings in touring music acts, first opened in 1997.

Raleigh is also home to many of the state’s James Beard-nominated restaurants. Ashley Christensen was among the first, now with an empire that includes multiple restaurants but most notable among them, Poole’s Diner. St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar has authentic Louisiana cuisine, including gumbo and barbecue shrimp. Cheetie Kumar’s Indian restaurant Garland and Oscar Diaz’s The Cortez have also been honored.

Experience mini Hollywood in Wilmington

The city of Wilmington is on the Cape River, inland from the Atlantic Ocean. In the past few years, it’s also been known as a sort of mini Hollywood thanks to its nearby film studio. 

Embrace your nostalgia by visiting the filming locations from Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, and Eastbound and Down using the brochures from the visitor’s center as a guide.

Wilmington was also home to a young athlete known as Michael Jordan. The famed basketball player has an exhibit at the Cape Fear Museum of History featuring his jerseys and memorabilia. The museum also has a replica of a giant sloth that roamed during the prehistoric era.

9 best places to visit in North Carolina from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks

The original homes of Winston-Salem have been restored and operate as a living history museum called Old Salem © Lee Snider/ Shutterstock

Head to a living museum in Winston-Salem

The city known as Winston-Salem was settled by the Moravian people fleeing modern-day Czechia in search of religious freedom. Their original homes and buildings have been restored and now operate as Old Salem, a living history museum. 

The area came to prominence for its tobacco industry, which still has a presence today. RJ Reynolds established his company here and lived at a grand home near Wake Forest University called Reynolda. Today it’s an art museum with sprawling grounds. His former Art Deco office which inspired the Empire State Building) is now the stylish Kimpton Cardinal Hotel.

 
 

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