16 Top-Rated Small Towns in North Carolina

Written by Lana Law
Updated Jun 28, 2024

Small towns in North Carolina are great destinations for summer or winter vacations, weekend escapes, and romantic getaways. Coastal towns entice families who come to enjoy the beaches in summer, but you can also find charming historical towns near the ocean. Mountain towns draw visitors year-round, whether it's to tour along the Blue Ridge Parkway, get out on the hiking trails, hit the ski slopes, fish, or see the fall colors. University and college towns are always fun places to visit if you want to see a game, shop, dine, or enjoy a change of scenery.

For ideas on where to go, have a read through our list of the best small towns in North Carolina.

1. Hendersonville

Downtown Hendersonville
Downtown Hendersonville | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Ideally situated near the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hendersonville makes a wonderful base for exploring the area's tourist attractions, including waterfalls, hiking trails, apple orchards, and the town's pedestrian-friendly Main Street. The rejuvenated downtown core is packed with restaurants, retail shops, and entertainment venues. In summer, enjoy a bit of window shopping and then stop in for lunch or dinner at one of the outside patios.

Writers and literary fans will want to swing by the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, just a short drive away. While you're in this area, you may also want to take in a show at the Flat Rock Playhouse.

Fun family things to do in Hendersonville include visiting a gem mine, the Appalachian Pinball Museum, or the Team Ecco Aquarium and Shark Lab to see a shark feeding. You'll also find lovely hiking trails at nearby Dupont State Park.

2. Blowing Rock

Blowing Rock
Blowing Rock | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

If the summer heat is getting to you, head to the highlands for a visit to Blowing Rock. Here, you'll find cooler temperatures and a dynamic small town packed with things to see and do. The pleasant main street is lined with shops and restaurants, many with leafy outdoor patios ideal for a leisurely lunch.

A large park in the center of downtown makes a nice spot for relaxing and taking in a bit of people watching. A delightful stroll down some of the small roads leading off Main Street will take you past wonderfully restored old homes with large trees and impressive gardens.

Blowing Rock is a year-round destination. In winter, it's a convenient base if you are downhill skiing at nearby Appalachian Ski Mountain, one of the best places to ski in North Carolina.

3. Edenton

Edenton waterfront
Edenton waterfront | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Once the state capital, Edenton is an undiscovered gem in the Inner Banks. The streets are lined with historical buildings and homes from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is an easy place to spend time relaxing and the perfect place for a romantic getaway.

Edenton is easily explored on foot. Sidewalks below massive old trees lead by beautiful churches and stately homes. The waterfront area is extensive, and great views out to Albemarle Sound can be had by simply strolling along the pathways. Keep an eye out for the bald cypress trees in the water, which can live to be 2,000 years old.

4. Chapel Hill

University campus in Chapel Hill
University campus in Chapel Hill | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Chapel Hill is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and many people associate the town with the basketball team. However, this city has much more to offer than just a destination to see a game. The lively downtown has a variety of retail shops and close to 100 restaurants serving local and international cuisines.

Chapel Hill has a youthful feel owing to the sheer number of university students, and there is always something going on here. You can easily spend an afternoon or evening strolling around or enjoying a meal on a patio.

A trip here would be remiss without a visit to the Carolina Basketball Museum. Admission is free, and the detailed and interactive displays are interesting even if you aren't a big fan of the sport.

5. Nags Head

Jennette's Pier in Nags Head
Jennette's Pier in Nags Head | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Outer Banks are a magnet for beach lovers and families looking for beach vacations during the summer months. The small town of Nags Head is a great option for people looking for an assortment of entertainment, on or off the beach. This town has one of the best beaches in North Carolina and also has plenty of amusements for kids.

Jennette's Pier is always a popular place along the beach, with its top-notch aquarium. Even if you don't visit the aquarium, be sure to pay the small fee to walk out onto the pier. Completely rebuilt in 2011 at a cost of $25 million, this wholly concrete structure reaches out 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. It's an ideal place to soak up amazing views up and down the coastline or to try your luck fishing. On days when the waves are large, surfers are often found riding the breaks beside the pier.

Nags Head also has a good selection of hotels, both on and off the beach. In some small towns in the Outer Banks, finding a hotel can be a problem, and sometimes the only options are vacation rentals.

6. Beaufort

Waterfront boardwalk in Beaufort
Waterfront boardwalk in Beaufort | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Beaufort is a delightful seaside town that has managed to hold onto its 18th-century historical roots, homes, and genteel feel. Park the car and wander around town on foot.

Stroll the streets lined with beautiful old homes, churches, and public buildings that take you back to earlier centuries. Then, head for the pretty waterfront with its boardwalk and shops, the perfect place to spend an afternoon.

One of the town's most interesting and peaceful attractions is the Old Burying Ground. Walk through this leafy, quiet cemetery and note the gravestones from the Civil War, the War of 1812, and even earlier.

The Courthouse in Beaufort
The Courthouse in Beaufort | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Beaufort has some good dining options and one of the best is the hand-tossed pizzas at Black Sheep Restaurant located right on the waterfront. Grab a patio seat and watch the boats come and go. For a bit of adventure, take a boat tour to Harker's Island or Shackleford Banks, tours leave on a regular basis.

On your way out of town, have a look at the still-operating historic Beaufort County Courthouse, built in 1786.

7. Mount Airy

Downtown Mount Airy
Downtown Mount Airy | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

This delightful town set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is perhaps best known for being the inspiration for the fictional town of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show. Mount Airy was the hometown of Andy Griffith.

If you spend a bit of time here exploring the attractions, you'll find the largest granite quarry in the world, several museums, a host of antique shops, and nearby Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock State Parks.

But if it's nostalgia for Mayberry and The Andy Griffith Show that you're looking for, you won't be disappointed. Squad car tours, the Andy Griffith Museum, Mayberry-themed restaurants and even hotels are ready and willing to take you right back to the 1950s.

8. Banner Elk

Christmas in Banner Elk
Christmas in Banner Elk | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Banner Elk is a lovely small town with a relaxed vibe. Restaurants and shops line the two main streets, and there is plenty to see and do in the surrounding mountains. The town is an ideal spot to base yourself for year-round adventures.

In winter, visitors come here to enjoy two of North Carolina's best ski resorts. Both Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain are just a short drive away and offer impressive vertical.

In the fall, Banner Elk is stunning as the leaves change to vibrant colors. Many people also come here at this time of year to experience some of the best trout fishing in North Carolina.

One of the main attractions in the area is Grandfather Mountain, where you'll find the Mile High Swing Bridge, the highest suspension bridge in America. Stunning views look out over the Blue Ridge Mountains. This park is a great place for a picnic, hike, or just soaking up the scenery. You can visit it at any time of year, but summer is particularly beautiful.

9. Lexington

Lexington | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Lexington is North Carolina's undisputed barbecue hot spot. In fact, BBQ is so big here that the town claims to be the barbecue capital of the world. You can decide for yourself at one of the many establishments serving up this tasty fare. Or, time your visit to coincide with the annual Barbecue Festival that takes place in late October every year. October is officially known as BBQ month, with all kinds of events taking place on a regular basis.

Lexington has a restored main street area with interesting stores. One of the most famous shops is the Conrad & Hinkle Food Market, established in 1919. Those with a sweet tooth should head over to the appropriately named Candy Factory – just look for the red-and-white striped awning on North Main Street.

10. Boone

Appalachian Ski Resort near Boone
Appalachian Ski Resort near Boone | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Boone is a youthful and fun college town and a great spot for a weekend getaway. You'll find a historical main street lined with good restaurants and shops. While strolling along, be sure to check out the Mast General Store for a unique retail experience.

Boone is a year-round destination. Winter attracts skiers, who come to hit the slopes at nearby Appalachian Ski Resort. This is one of the top ski resorts in North Carolina for families. Summer brings out crowds to attend the long-running outdoor play, Horn of the West, which details Daniel Boone's exploits. Another popular summer activity is driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, located a short distance away. Come fall, the trees put on a spectacular show of color.

11. OcracokeVillage

Beach on Ocracoke Island
Beach on Ocracoke Island | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

For something completely different, consider a trip out to remote Ocracoke Island. Ocracoke is home to less than 800 people but is well set up for tourists who want to enjoy this little slice of paradise.

Wander up and down the small main street of Ocracoke Village and explore its eclectic shops and numerous excellent restaurants. Check out the historical Ocracoke Lighthouse nearby.

The island is home to some of the best beaches in the Outer Banks, so grab your ocean gear and head to the seashore. Take a dip in the crystal clear water or try your hand at fishing. Own a 4X4? You are in luck, get an ORV Pass and drive on the beach to find your own perfect patch of sand.

A path in Springer's Point Preserve
A path in Springer's Point Preserve | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Other fun things to do are kayak tours on Silver Lake and the secret back canals of town, a hike through low coastal forest on the Hammock Hills Nature Trail, or a visit to see Ocracoke's Banker Ponies.

Half the fun of a trip to Ocracoke is taking the free ferry from Hatteras, which takes about 75 minutes. If you are coming from the south, you can also catch a 2.5-hour ferry from Cedar Island (fee required).

Ocracoke Lighthouse
Ocracoke Lighthouse: Photo Copyright: Lana Law

12. Southport

Southport waterfront
Southport waterfront

Southport is a wonderful spot to experience history. Beautifully restored buildings from the late 1800s, quaint streets, and fresh breezes off the ocean make you think you have stepped into another time period.

Southport has a tremendous assortment of seafood restaurants, some of which are right on the waterfront. Innovative and traditional dishes are served up as you gaze out at the ocean.

The historic Southport-Fort Fisher car and passenger ferry has been providing great entertainment for a very long time. The 30- to 35-minute, six-mile journey through the mouth of the Cape Fear River offers stunning maritime scenery at a budget rate – less than $10 for a car and two passengers. Along the way, watch for three lighthouses: Oak Island, Price's Creek, and Old Baldy.

13. Bryson City

Heritage Museum in Bryson City
Heritage Museum in Bryson City | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Bryson City is set in the majestic Smoky Mountains. Whether it's fly fishing in the Tuckasegee River flowing through town, or a fall leaf tour, the small town should be on your radar.

Most of the visitors to town come for a ride on the historical Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which follows the valley bottoms and passes through several tunnels on its route to the Nantahala Gorge.

Fun summer activities include waterfall touring, hiking, and rafting or stand up paddleboarding down the Tuckasegee River. The downtown area is compact and easily walkable, and a variety of restaurants and cafés complement a wide range of shops selling local arts and crafts.

Bryson City is on Highway 19, just off Highway 74. Combine a trip here with a stop in Maggie Valley and Soco Falls, near Cherokee.

14. Morganton

Morganton | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Morganton is a dynamic and lively small city with numerous things to see and do in the historical and rejuvenated downtown area. Old brick buildings now house funky shops and unique restaurants, some with outdoor patios. Ice-cream aficionados will need to make a beeline to Toasted and Rolled, where tasty ice-cream masterpieces are created before your eyes.

If you find yourself in town on a Friday, be sure to check out the free TGIF concert series featuring local and national musicians.

15. Southern Pines

House in Southern Pines
House in Southern Pines

If you like golfing, you'll like Southern Pines. Surrounded by some of America's top-ranked golf courses, the town is a good place to base yourself as you test your skills on the fairways and greens.

The town itself is beautifully situated among pine trees and has an outdoorsy feel. Walking trails on nearby Reservoir Lake and in Weymouth Woods provide a chance to experience this firsthand.

While in town, catch a performance at the Sunrise Theater or stop in at one of the many restaurants found around town. Garden enthusiasts should stop in at the Sandhills Horticultural Gardens, which can be easily combined with a visit to Reservoir Park.

16. Duck

Shops along Currituck Sound in Duck, North Carolina
Shops along Currituck Sound in Duck, North Carolina

Duck should be on your list of small towns of North Carolina for its delightful island vibe and chilled out pace of life. Located on North Carolina's Outer Banks, this small town is wonderfully walkable, with shops and restaurants along the main street. But what makes it truly special is the long boardwalk that runs along the shoreline of Currituck Sound.

Stretching for nearly a mile, the Duck Boardwalk offers up amazing views out over the water, access to the sound, and is a great spot for bird-watching. In behind the Duck Boardwalk, you'll find Duck Town Park complete with natural areas, picnic tables, and a playground for the kids. Finish your walk along the boardwalk with a pleasant lunch at the AQUA waterfront restaurant.

Map of Small Towns in North Carolina

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Fishing in North Carolina: If you are looking to plan a trip based around catching some fish, there are a couple of options in the state. Head to the mountains to find the best rivers for trout fishing in North Carolina. Our guide offers detailed information on where to go. On the coast, try your luck deep sea fishing in the Outer Banks and areas farther south.