North Carolina Travel Guide: Essential Tips for a Memorable Trip

North Carolina offers a diverse landscape filled with opportunities for unforgettable vacations. From the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains to the historic cities, the state holds a rich history and exciting modern attractions for visitors to explore. As you plan your trip, we are glad to offer this North Carolina Travel Guide to ease your adventures.

We’ll provide a comprehensive guide to fascinating historical sites, breathtaking outdoor adventures, and entertaining events that take place throughout the year. Whether you want to enjoy outdoor activities or visit local attractions, this guide will help pave the way for an unforgettable experience in the Tar Heel State.

North Carolina Travel Guide: Key Takeaways

  • North Carolina offers diverse experiences ranging from coastal adventures to mountain explorations. From wild horses on sandy beaches to long hikes along the Appalachian Trail, North Carolina is an adventurer’s dream.
  • There is no shortage of modern amenities or historical attractions to explore across the state. Prepare to decide whether you prefer small towns or big cities.
  • North Carolina experiences all four seasons and some of the most beautiful foliage in the country. Each season offers unique opportunities and reasons to visit.

Going to North Carolina

In the words of the talented James Taylor, “In my mind, I’m gone to Carolina.” I was born in Florida and lived in Arkansas after college, but my family and I settled in North Carolina. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We live in Charlotte, but we are only a short drive from the mountains or the beach. How awesome is that?!

From picturesque coastal regions to the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s no shortage of stunning scenery to explore. If you love outdoor adventures, don’t miss the chance to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains or take a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In contrast, the state’s coastal region offers beautiful beaches perfect for relaxing or enjoying activities like surfing, kayaking, and fishing. A popular destination is the Outer Banks, which is known for wild horses, naturally pristine beaches, and an iconic lighthouse at Cape Hatteras.

For those who appreciate history, North Carolina boasts numerous historical sites and attractions. Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial to learn about the world’s first powered flight, or explore the USS North Carolina Battleship, which played a major role in World War II.

We’ve organized this North Carolina travel guide by section, so let’s dive in so that you can consider all of the potential options for your next adventure.

Cities in North Carolina

Charlotte

Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina, is bustling with activities and attractions for all types of visitors. You’ll find diverse dining, vibrant nightlife, and a rich art scene in this thriving city. There are so many things to do in Charlotte that the biggest challenge will be narrowing down your list.

Sports enthusiasts can catch a game at the Bank of America Stadium or the Spectrum Center. Families can spend a day at Carowinds Amusement Park or the Discovery Place Science Museum. But our favorite activity is visiting the U.S. National Whitewater Center. It features whitewater rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, and more.

To get to know the city more, go for a walk on Charlotte’s Rail Trail or grab a bite to eat at Optimist Hall. In our guide to Charlotte, we also recommend spending some time strolling around Freedom Park.

In considering your North Carolina Travel Guide, Charlotte is undeniably a must-visit destination.

Raleigh

As the capital city of North Carolina, Raleigh offers a blend of history, culture, and modern entertainment. Visit the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences or the North Carolina Museum of Art for the city’s rich cultural scene. For outdoor enthusiasts, Pullen Park is a favorite spot to spend time under the sun.

In comparing Charlotte vs. Raleigh, Charlotte is a little more urban. Three professional sports teams and nearly 20 Fortune 1000 companies point toward Charlotte being the economic and geographical center of the Carolinas. In contrast, Raleigh has a more institutional and suburban feel, which is largely driven by the prevalence of the state government and many local universities.

Still, Raleigh is a great place to live, work, and play, and you will find plenty to do.

Sir Raleigh in downtown Raleigh.

Durham

Known as the “Bull City,” Durham is a hub for innovation, technology, and education in North Carolina. Explore the prestigious Duke University campus, or visit the beautiful Sarah P. Duke Gardens to experience the city’s natural beauty. Durham is also a food lover’s paradise, boasting a thriving culinary scene with an abundance of gourmet restaurants and local eateries.

Durham is close to Raleigh and forms the second point of the Research Triangle. In comparing Durham vs. Raleigh, Durham has more adaptive reuse mills, whereas Raleigh is full of midrises and highrises. The personalities match these vibes. Both are great, but they are different, and you will find something for everyone.

Downtown Durham

Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina, is a charming college town with a lively atmosphere. UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, and Duke University are all within about 30 minutes of each other. With this in mind, Chapel Hill anchors the third corner of the Research Triangle.

Stroll along Franklin Street to explore shops, cafes, and restaurants, or catch a show at Cat’s Cradle, a renowned live music venue. Sports fans should be sure to visit the Carolina Basketball Museum to learn about the storied history of UNC’s basketball program.

Greensboro

Greensboro offers a mix of art, history, and outdoor experiences for visitors. Discover the city’s rich history at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, or catch a performance at the Carolina Theatre. Outdoor lovers will enjoy exploring the Greensboro Arboretum or walking around the scenic Lake Brandt.

In comparing Charlotte vs. Greensboro, Charlotte offers more to do, but Greensboro is known for its distinct charm and historical significance. Both are great cities to visit.

Asheville

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is known for its vibrant arts scene, beautiful vistas, and historic architecture. It is also the best-known mountain town in North Carolina.

No visit to Asheville is complete without a trip to the famous Biltmore Estate, America’s largest privately owned home. For nature enthusiasts, Asheville provides easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where you can hike, bike, or simply take in the breathtaking scenery.

Historical Attractions

Biltmore Estate

While we just referenced the Biltmore Estate, it is much more significant than simply a place to visit in Asheville. It’s worth a road trip in its own right. If you’re interested in the history of North Carolina, visiting the Biltmore Estate is a must.

Built by George Vanderbilt in 1895, this grand mansion showcases the Gilded Age’s opulence and architectural beauty. As you tour the magnificent rooms and gardens, you’ll gain insights into the lives of the Vanderbilt family and the estate’s rich history.

The Biltmore Estate will transport you to a time gone by while showcasing all of the modern conveniences you should expect from a luxurious destination. If you can arrange your visit around the holidays, Christmas at Biltmore is fantastic.

NASCAR Hall of Fame

Your first thought here might be something along the lines of: “Is the NASCAR Hall of Fame really a historical attraction?” Great Question. The Hall of Fame isn’t. It is in an office tower in Charlotte’s central business district. Still, the Hall of Fame tells a history of running moonshine and beachside races that is captivating.

For those passionate about motorsports, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is an essential stop on your North Carolina journey. This interactive attraction pays homage to NASCAR’s gripping history and its legendary drivers. Immerse yourself in the sport’s fascinating story and experience authentic racing simulators to satisfy your need for speed.

Nascar Hall of Fame

Wright Brothers National Monument

At the Wright Brothers National Monument, you can witness where aviation history was made. Visit the site in Kill Devil Hills, where Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the world’s first powered flight in 1903. Explore the interactive exhibits, reconstructed camp buildings, and a life-size replica of their plane while learning about the incredible obstacles they overcame to achieve their dream of human flight.

Kill Devil Hills is on the Outer Banks, so visiting is a great opportunity to see historic lighthouses along the coast. Did you know that the National Park Service moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 2,900 feet in 1999 to avoid beachside erosion?

Exploring the Mountains

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a must-experience drive when exploring the North Carolina mountains. This scenic roadway offers breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is the perfect starting point for your mountain adventures. Along the way, you’ll find seemingly countless hiking trails, picnic spots, and stunning overlooks.

Take your time to soak in the beauty of this area, as autumn is a particularly wonderful time to visit, with the fiery foliage displays and cool temperatures. We recommend visiting Moses Cone Manor, which features carriage trails, beautiful lakes, and awesome views. This is our favorite place in North Carolina to see fall foliage.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Smoky Mountains in North Carolina are another great destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Home to a portion of the Appalachian Trail, these mountains offer ample opportunities for hiking and camping.

You can also explore many canopy tours and ziplines for a thrilling experience above the treetops. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must-visit for any nature lover.

Did you know that The Great Smokies are located within a day’s drive of half of the United States population? This makes the park one of the most-visited national parks in the country.

Beech Mountain

No North Carolina Travel Guide would be complete without mention of Beech Mountain, a popular ski destination in the high country of North Carolina. The resorts on Beech Mountain offer various winter sports options, such as skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing.

Outside of the winter season, Beech Mountain also offers excellent hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor activities.

There are several charming towns nearby that feature shops and restaurants where you can refuel after a day spent outdoors. Towns like Boone and Blowing Rock are about 45 minutes from Beech Mountain, mainly because the mountain roads traverse slowly. Still, Banner Elk is only 15 minutes away.

If you aren’t ready for snowboarding or snow tubing, you can also visit the Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster. You won’t regret the experience.

The Blue Ridge Parkway

Touching the Coast

Outer Banks

The Outer Banks is a unique stretch of coastline in North Carolina that boasts a series of charming beach communities and pristine natural landscapes. As you explore this area, you’ll discover beautiful beaches and scenic drives that offer a perfect escape.

The Outer Banks differs from almost any other beach destination in the Carolinas. For instance, a little further south you will find Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Myrtle Beach is very popular with beach tourists. Still, when you compare the Outer Banks vs. Myrtle Beach, you find that the Outer Banks are much more subdued, natural, and relaxing.

If you are looking for tourist boardwalks, Ferris wheels, and roller coasters, look to Myrtle Beach. In contrast, for a rustic yet unique beach experience, go to the Outer Banks. There are very few places with horses running wild on the beaches, and that is a good representation of the lifestyle you will find in the Outer Banks.

Wilmington / Wrightsville Beach

Wilmington is one of the largest cities along the North Carolina coastline. The historic town features a charming river district and downtown, featuring countless restaurants, river cruises, and downtown tours. We also recommend that you visit Battleship North Carolina, a famous World War II battleship that serves as a top attraction today.

Visiting Battleship North Carolina is one of the best road trips in North Carolina in its own right.

Still, Wilmington might be most popular because of the beautiful waterfronts along the Cape Fear River. For those who enjoy watersports, the Cape Fear River is perfect for kayaking or rowing. And while Wilmington doesn’t have a beachfront, it is just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Wrightsville Beach.

Visitors will note the distinct vibes that Wrightsville Beach offers compared to Wilmington. The former is a chilled-out beach town, while the latter is brimming with southern charm.

Holden Beach / Oak Island

Comparatively, Holden Beach is quaint, which is one reason that is so popular with vacationing families. Holden Beach sits between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, about 40 minutes from each. This is primarily a residential community, so you the area is as popular for what it doesn’t have as it is for what it does have.

Holden Beach features a small commercial area with restaurants and shopping. Other than that, this is where to visit when you want to cook your own food and enjoy the beach life.

Oak Island is just a few miles up the coastline. It is very similar to Holden Beach, but it does offer a distinct vibe. On Oak Island, you will find the Oak Island Pier and Oak Island Lighthouse. So when you are ready to explore, you will find a few more things to do. Still, both of these communities are all about the laid-back beach vibe.

The beaches in North Carolina are beautiful.

Fun Activities

Hiking

North Carolina offers a wide range of hiking opportunities, from the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains to the lush forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can find trails for all skill levels and interests.

Not-to-miss hikes include Clingmans Dome Observation Tower and the Dupont State Forest. Lace up your hiking boots and explore the diverse landscapes of North Carolina on foot.

Also keep in mind that there are waterfalls within driving distance of Charlotte, just as there are waterfalls near Raleigh and Durham. You are never far from an adventure in North Carolina.

Fishing

Fishing enthusiasts will find plenty to love in North Carolina. The state is home to numerous rivers, lakes, and streams where you can cast your line and reel in a variety of fish species. Whether you are a seasoned angler or a beginner, grab your fishing gear and head to one of North Carolina’s prime fishing spots.

Even Micahel Jordan (yes, that Michael Jordan, a Wilmington native) participates in fishing tournaments with his crew on the Catch 23 yacht.

Kayaking / Whitewater Rafting

While this might be surprising initially, we recommend starting in Charlotte if you want whitewater rafting. The manmade whitewater channels at the Whitewater Center offer a controlled environment for inexperienced rafters. And you can kayak in the nearby flatwater Catawba River.

Truly, while you can also go whitewater rafting up in the mountains, you can go kayaking in nearly any city across the state. There are countless rivers and lakes that are perfect for kayaking. Still, the Intracoastal Waterway near cities like Wilmington might be the most picturesque place along the East Coast to go kayaking.

Biking

Cyclists will be thrilled by the array of biking opportunities in North Carolina. From scenic road cycling to adrenaline-pumping mountain biking, you’ll find plenty of trails and routes to suit your preferences. Grab your bike and hit the trails while taking in the breathtaking scenery North Carolina has to offer.

Whether you prefer road cycling or mountain biking, there are endless adventures across North Carolina.

Skiing

Although North Carolina may not be the first place that comes to mind when considering skiing, the state is home to several ski resorts, providing snowy fun for the whole family. Hit the slopes during the winter months at destinations like Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain.

Bundle up, strap on your skis or snowboard, and enjoy the thrill of skiing in North Carolina. If you aren’t quite ready for skiing and snowboarding, consider snow tubing instead.

Whitewater Center in Charlotte

North Carolina Travel Guide – Awesome Events

North Carolina is a fantastic destination for experiencing various events and festivals. Pack your bags and head to the Tar Heel State to enjoy both cultural and entertaining attractions that will leave a lasting impression.

One event you shouldn’t miss is the John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival, which takes place annually during Labor Day weekend. This renowned festival celebrates the life and legacy of the great jazz musician John Coltrane, featuring multiple live performances by talented artists across several genres.

Down in Charlotte, check out the Build Your Own Boat competition. Teams make their own boat and take them down the rapids at the manmade Whitewater Center river. Boats have to be human-powered but can’t include any wood, metal, pre-made straps, or pre-sold parts (like floaties or inner tubes).

In September, you can also attend the NC Hot Sauce Contest and Festival in Oxford, where local hot sauce makers showcase their culinary skills, and visitors get to taste, vote, and even purchase their favorite hot sauces and products.

For the wine lovers, plan a visit to Burntshirt Vineyards’ Grape Stomp festival that occurs in early September. Have fun stomping grapes and enjoy wine tastings, live music, and fantastic food in a beautiful vineyard setting.

If you’re a fan of Italian culture, make sure to check out Festa Italiana at Raffaldini Vineyards held mid-September. Experience a day filled with authentic Italian food, live music, wine tastings, and various arts and crafts exhibits that showcase Italy’s rich heritage.

These are just a few of the awesome events that North Carolina has to offer. Whatever your interests, there’s always something happening for you to enjoy in this vibrant and diverse state.

North Carolina Travel Guide – Where to Stay

When planning your trip to North Carolina, finding the perfect accommodations is essential for a memorable experience. From luxurious hotels to cozy bed and breakfasts, North Carolina offers diverse options to cater to your needs and preferences.

The state is home to several world-class hotels, including the renowned Omni Grove Park Inn, which offers rustic, antique, and elegant d├ęcor. Nestled amid the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, this luxurious hotel is an ideal choice for couples seeking a romantic getaway in Asheville.

Another exceptional option is the Inn on Biltmore Estate. This elegant property, located in the stunning Biltmore Estate, offers breathtaking views and top-notch service, making it perfect for a relaxing and indulgent stay.

For a more urban experience, consider The Ivey’s Hotel in Charlotte. The luxury boutique hotel in Uptown Charlotte features an exclusive 47 rooms, where athletes and celebrities often stay. Amenities include The Library, where you can grab a drink or do some work, and a 1,500 sq foot fitness center.

Beach lovers may prefer a seaside retreat in one of the many vacation rentals available along the beautiful North Carolina coastline. Take advantage of the warm sun and pristine sands as you unwind in your very own beach cottage.

For the more adventurous travelers, North Carolina’s scenic campsites and cabin rentals offer a fantastic way to connect with nature and immerse yourself in the state’s stunning landscapes. These options are available in various locations, providing you with the opportunity to explore the majestic mountains or the serene beachscapes during your stay.

In considering your North Carolina Travel Guide, you have to pick somewhere to stay before you plan too many activities! Whatever your preference or budget, North Carolina’s vast array of accommodations ensures that you’ll find the perfect place to make your visit truly unforgettable.

The Ivey's Hotel is luxury boutique hotel in Uptown Charlotte that you should look at when considering this North Carolina Travel Guide.

In Summary: Your North Carolina Travel Guide

As you plan your trip to North Carolina, consider the type of traveler you are and the season you want to visit in. The state offers various experiences, from vibrant cities to serene natural landscapes.

During summer, you can enjoy warm temperatures and outdoor activities along the coast. Kayaking, fishing, and shoreline walks are great ways to experience North Carolina’s beautiful beaches. Additionally, the bustling cities offer plenty of culinary and cultural experiences for those who enjoy a more urban experience.

In winter, North Carolina’s mountains transform into a snow-covered wonderland for skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports. Recognize that the temperatures can get quite low, so pack appropriate clothing for braving the cold.

Spring is an ideal time to visit the state’s famous gardens and parks, as the landscapes come alive with blooming flowers and lush greenery. The mild weather makes it a perfect time to explore beautiful trails for hiking and biking.

To gather more information and enhance your travel planning, consider using Travel Brochures from local partners in addition to this North Carolina travel guide. You can also refer to the North Carolina Tourbook Guide or even the National Geographic Travel Guide for comprehensive details.

Remember, the key to a successful journey is preparation. By understanding your preferences and researching relevant information, you can craft an unforgettable North Carolina travel experience tailored to your desires.

Jeremiah moved to the Charlotte area with his wife, Erin, back in 2013. The family has grown over the years, and they now call the Carolinas home. They enjoy hiking and adventures, road trips, backyard fire pits, and pizza night. Jeremiah loves to explore, and looks forward to sharing tips, tricks, and resources for your next trip.