15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in North Carolina

Written by Lana Law and Michael Law
Updated Jun 24, 2024

Authors Michael and Lana Law visit North Carolina for skiing in winter, the beaches and hiking in summer, and fun towns throughout the year to visit friends.

With mountains, forests, beaches, islands, theme parks, and cultural attractions all on offer, you'll find plenty of things to do in North Carolina no matter the season.

Mountains in the High Country provide opportunities for hiking, biking, and swimming in waterfalls during the warm months. Fall brings about an amazing display of fall colors and apples ripening in orchards. In the winter, the mountains come alive with the hoots and hollers of downhill skiers and boarders having a good time at North Carolina's ski resorts.

The beach at Avon
The beach at Avon | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Beaches and coastal attractions tempt for relaxing weekends throughout the year but especially in the summer. Swimming, fishing, surfing, kiteboarding, and other watersports attract visitors from across the country.

And the history of this state, from the famous flying Wright Brothers to the expansive Biltmore Estate and the WWII-era Battleship North Carolina, is fascinating.

Discover the best places to visit in this diverse state with our list of the top attractions in North Carolina.

1. Blue Ridge Parkway

A hiker enjoying the view over the Smoky Mountains from the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina
A hiker enjoying the view over the Smoky Mountains from the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

Nicknamed "America's favorite drive," the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is a beautiful stretch of road running through the mountains and offering fantastic outdoor opportunities, from hiking along ridges to swimming in waterfalls.

It was designed by landscape architect Stanley Abbott whose vision was to create a road that was far more than just a way to get from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Views along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Views along the Blue Ridge Parkway | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Popular with motorcyclists and bicyclists for its endless scenery, the drive itself has incredible views of the Blue Ridge mountains and the surrounding landscapes. Along the way are hundreds of miles of hiking trails that branch off from the numerous pull-offs, some leading to spectacular waterfalls. Pack a picnic lunch and stop at one of the many beautiful areas with tables ideally positioned to soak up the view. Love camping? Numerous campgrounds in spectacular settings are available along the way.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is more than just great scenery - it is also home to several visitor centers and museums. In the summer and autumn, Mabry Mill (Milepost 176) has demonstrations that include grinding corn in the original mill, cutting boards in the sawmill, and the art of blacksmithing. Mabry Mill is closed in the winter. The Folk Art Center (Milepost 382) is open year-round and includes a gallery of folk art as well as demonstrations by local craftspeople, and the Museum of North Carolina Minerals (Milepost 331) has detailed exhibits that look at the region's mineral resources and mining industry.

Blue Ridge Parkway
Blue Ridge Parkway

Wonderful small mountain towns are located near or on the Blue Ridge Parkway and are attractions themselves. They are excellent places to visit for a bite to eat or to stay a night. Many people base themselves in the city of Asheville when visiting the Parkway, where there is more going on, particularly in the evening, and plenty of things to do.

Plan your trip carefully. You'll find the parkway most crowded in October during fall colors, while summer visitors enjoy a more peaceful time as they enjoy the colors of flaming azaleas and rhododendrons. Between the months of November and March, be sure to check for weather-related road closures prior to setting out.

Location: Western North Carolina from Low Gap to Cherokee, North Carolina

2. Beaches of the Outer Banks

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

This 200-mile stretch of barrier islands is known for its fantastic beaches. Long stretches of soft sand line the coast for miles, attracting large numbers of visitors in the summer months. Families in particular flock to the Outer Banks.

Beach towns like Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Avon are just a few of the favorite destinations. Some towns, like Nags Head, offer a better selection of hotels and resorts than others, but many people choose to rent a cottage or beach house for their beach vacation.

The beach at Frisco
The beach at Frisco | Photo Copyright: Michael Law

South of Avon is Hatteras Island, where the main towns are Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras. This is a popular stop with tourists. It's also where you can catch a ferry out to Ocracoke Island; a fantastic getaway with its own outstanding beaches and a quaint village with great restaurants and accommodation.

The area also is full of things to do off the beach. You can tour lighthouses, enjoy camping, or even see a museum or two. Learn about the region at the Outer Banks History Center and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. Take a day and enjoy a drive on the Outer Banks Scenic Byway.

At Roanoke Island, not far from Nags Head, you can learn about the lost colony, visit a living history museum about farm life, and learn about the island's importance in the Underground Railroad Network. Other sightseeing attractions in the area include Elizabethan gardens at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Frisco Native American Museum.

Kiteboarding at the Salvo Day Use Area
Kiteboarding at the Salvo Day Use Area | Photo Copyright: Michael Law

It's also worth noting that the Outer Banks is known for being one of the best kiteboarding destinations in the United States. You can find some great beaches and areas in the Outer Banks for kiting, particularly on the inside of the islands, facing Pamlico Sound. For more details read our article on Kiteboarding in the Outer Banks: What to Know and Where to Go.

3. The Biltmore Estate in Asheville

Biltmore Estate in Asheville
Biltmore Estate in Asheville

One of North Carolina's must-see attractions is the Biltmore Estate, one of the top attractions in Asheville. At the center of an 8,000-acre compound, the Vanderbilt Mansion is the largest private home in the United States. The mansion has 250 rooms with impressive artwork, antiques, and architecture, as well as collections of vintage clothing and accessories.

The estate's gardens are expansive, including the Italian Garden, with its ornate pools and sculptures, and the Rose Garden, which features more than 250 varieties. The grounds also include the first managed forest in the country, a deer park, and miles of level paths and walking trails throughout. There are many dining options throughout the estate and shopping and entertainment in Antler Hill Village.

After you've toured the Biltmore Estate head to downtown Asheville. Over the past number of years, this small city has completely revitalized its downtown core and brought its historical buildings back to life. Take a wander around, and you'll find funky restaurants, eclectic shops, and a large number of restaurants, some with sunny patios.

Address: 1 Lodge Street, Asheville, North Carolina

4. Waterfalls in North Carolina

Linville Gorge and Falls
Linville Gorge and Falls

North Carolina's mountains are full of amazing waterfalls, and many of them are easily accessible by a short walk or hike. Some of these can be combined with a visit to small mountain towns and other sights. If you want to spend some time exploring waterfalls and hiking, a couple of good options for basing yourself for a few nights are Asheville or Hendersonville.

Known as the "Grand Canyon of the East," Linville Gorge is the deepest and one of the most scenic gorges in the eastern United States. Located in the Pisgah National Forest, the Linville River enters the gorge at Linville Falls and drops 90 feet, continuing for 12 miles within the steep rock walls.

Trails to the falls are accessed at Milepost 316 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A total of four overlooks can be reached on an easily-traversed 1.6-mile round-trip hike. While visiting the Linville Falls Visitor Center, it is worth the short hike (.3 of a mile) to the small but beautiful Duggers Creek Falls. Other nearby spots include Crabtree Falls and incredible views from Table Rock Mountain and Hawksbill Mountain.

Dry Falls near Highlands
Dry Falls near Highlands | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Among other must-see waterfalls in North Carolina are the massive 811-foot-high Whitewater Falls near Cashiers; High Falls in Dupont State Park near Hendersonville; and a waterfall you can actually walk behind called Dry Falls, located near the quaint mountain town of Highlands. All of these are close enough to each other to be visited in a single day if you are up for the adventure.

5. Wilmington

The Riverwalk in Downtown Wilmington
The Riverwalk in Downtown Wilmington | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The delightful city of Wilmington is one of North Carolina's best coastal cities. Its restored brick streets are home to buildings dating from the 19th century, making the area an excellent place to wander around with no particular destination in mind. If you work up an appetite or thirst, pop into any one of the trendy restaurants for a rest and recharge.

Wilmington is located on the Cape Fear River and has made the most of its wonderful location. Be sure to take a stroll along the Wilmington Riverwalk and enjoy this lively area chock-full of all kinds of things to do.

Wilmington, North Carolina
Wilmington, North Carolina

One of the main tourist highlights of Wilmington is the Battleship North Carolina, docked just across the river from downtown. You can see it as you walk along the Riverwalk, but it's better to get a close-up look.

If museums and cultural events are your thing, you are in luck. Stop by the Cameron Art Museum for the latest show, or brush up on your local history at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science. The Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts has a regular roster of musicians, comedians, and other performers; check their website to see what's playing when you are in town.

Wilmington isn't all about urban adventure, it's also a fantastic place to hit the beach. Some of North Carolina's best beaches are nearby, including Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach. Here you'll find soft sand, warm waters in the summer, and all kinds of water sports opportunities including surfing.

6. Hatteras Island & Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Vehicles on the beach on Hatteras Island
Vehicles on the beach on Hatteras Island | Photo Copyright: Michael Law

If you head south from Bodie Island, Hatteras Island is the last place you can drive to without hopping on a ferry. It's famous for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, one of the area's key landmarks, but it's also home to fantastic stretches of beach. The main towns are Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the country's first coastal preservation area and includes sections of Bodie Island, Hatteras Island, and Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. Visitors to the area come mainly for the beaches, but also for the unique wildlife and rich history. Bird watchers can get a peek at the threatened piping plovers that nest on the beach, as well as the American Oystercatcher, gull-billed tern, and black skimmer.

Bodie Island Lighthouse
Bodie Island Lighthouse

The beaches here are also the nesting ground of several types of sea turtles, including the endangered loggerhead sea turtle, and in the winter months, you may see seals resting on the beach. Another favorite activity is climbing historic lighthouses, like the 1872 Bodie Island Light Station, which is on its third incarnation after the first became unstable and the second was destroyed in the Civil War.

The Cape Hatteras Light Station was first built in 1803 and rebuilt in 1870, serving as a crucial beacon on one of the most dangerous stretches of the Atlantic coast where the Gulf Stream meets the Virginia Drift, the site of hundreds of shipwrecks.

If you decide to hop on a ferry at Hatteras, you can reach Ocracoke Island in about 1.25 hours on a free ferry. Although it's a popular tourist destination, it maintains a very remote feel and is worth the trip. On this island are beaches, the charming village of Ocracoke, and the Ocracoke Lighthouse. The island is also known for its unique breed of ponies, although they are contained and do not run free.

Location: Manteo, North Carolina

7. Ocracoke Island

Ocracoke Beach near Ocracoke Island Airport
Ocracoke Beach near Ocracoke Island Airport | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

For anyone who wants to get away from the beach towns lined with chain retail stores and fast-food restaurants, but still wants good accommodation and excellent dining, Ocracoke Island is the place for you. Ocracoke Village is the only settlement on this otherwise natural island, graced with beaches and forests. This is surely one of the most romantic destinations in North Carolina.

Ocracoke Village at sunset
Ocracoke Village at sunset | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Although Ocracoke has a population of less than 800 residents, you'll find no shortage of things to do. The beach is always a popular way to spend a day, but you can also walk on a natural trail, see the Ocracoke Lighthouse, or stop by the Pony Pen to catch a glimpse of the Ocracoke Banker Ponies. Head into town to sit out on a patio, wander through interesting shops, grab some fudge or ice cream, and maybe even park your car and rent a golf cart to get around. And while you're here, be sure to make a reservation for dinner, restaurants fill up.

Driving on the beach on Ocracoke Island
Driving on the beach on Ocracoke Island | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

For a little adventure, rent a kayak at the Surf Shop and take a guided tour, or, if you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, buy a permit and drive out onto the beach.

8. Downhill Skiing

Skiing and boarding at Beech Mountain Ski Resort
Skiing and boarding at Beech Mountain Ski Resort | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

North Carolina's five ski resorts draw alpine enthusiasts from far and wide to their impressive slopes. Spread out over the mountain regions, each resort has its own vibe. The biggest ski resorts are Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain, both located near the funky town of Banner Elk. These resorts top out at over 5,000 feet and catch any storms headed toward North Carolina.

Close to the delightful mountain town of Blowing Rock is Appalachian Ski Mountain, known locally as just App. The resort is known for its three terrain parks, which are second to none in the state.

Over in the Smoky Mountain near Maggie Valley is Cataloochee Ski Area. Perhaps the most old-school of all the resorts in North Carolina, this unpretentious place has a good assortment of runs and a very laid-back atmosphere.

Forty minutes from Asheville is Wolf Ridge Ski Resort. This small resort has one of the most impressive day lodges complete with three huge fireplaces. Wolf Ridge's gentle slopes are ideal for families and for those just starting out on skis.

9. USS Battleship North Carolina

Boarding ramp on the USS Battleship North Carolina
Boarding ramp on the USS Battleship North Carolina | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Located in Wilmington, the USS North Carolina was the first of 10 battleships to join the American fleet in WWII having been commissioned on April 9, 1941. The vessel is well armed: there are nine 16-inch, 45-caliber guns in three turrets, and 20 five-inch, 38-caliber guns in ten twin mounts.

She was once the world's greatest sea weapon, and today her guns are quiet. To get an appreciation of the sheer power of this ship, wander the expansive deck to see the intimidating guns up close. Other areas of the ship are also open - be sure to visit the mess hall and tour the sailors' and officers' quarters.

Battleship North Carolina from the SECU Memorial Walkway
Battleship North Carolina from the SECU Memorial Walkway | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

A new boardwalk, the SECU Memorial Walkway, allows you to walk around all sides of the ship from the water level. This is free to the public. If you only want a look at the ship but are not up for the tour, this is a great alternative.

Address: 1 Battleship Road NE, Wilmington, North Carolina

10. North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences | zimmytws / Shutterstock.com

Dedicated to the natural history of North Carolina, this is the oldest museum in the state. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has two buildings: the Nature Exploration Center and the Nature Research Center, both of which are filled with exhibits, interactive learning opportunities, and educational presentations.

Permanent exhibits at the Nature Exploration Center include topics from the coastal regions of North Carolina to an exhibit that explores the history of gemstones in the state. You can also find sections that explore the habitats of the tropics and rainforest, where you can hang out with the resident two-toed sloth. This is also where you will find the "Terror of the South," nicknamed Acro, the only genuine Acrocanthosaurus skeleton on display in the world, which is the centerpiece of the Prehistoric North Carolina exhibit.

Next door, the Nature Research Center focuses on the science and exploration that are crucial to learning about the natural world. Exhibits here cover everything from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to the exploration of deep space and include the study of things as small as DNA to the massive science of weather patterns.

Address: 11 West Jones Street, Raleigh, North Carolina

11. North Carolina Aquarium

North Carolina Aquarium
North Carolina Aquarium

The North Carolina Aquarium has four coastal locations at Roanoke Island, Pine Knoll Shores, Fort Fisher, and Jennette's Pier. While Jennette's Pier is not an actual aquarium, it does offer views of marine animals like humpback whales in their natural habitat. (Check with the aquarium to find out what marine life might be passing through during your trip.)

The Roanoke Island location, situated close to Jennette's Pier, features the largest collection of sharks in the state. At Pine Knoll Shores, visitors learn about the state's varied marine life, while Fort Fisher introduces the freshwater streams, swamps, and open ocean of Cape Fear.

12. North Carolina Zoo

North Carolina Zoo
North Carolina Zoo

Home to 1,600 animals and 52,000 plants, the North Carolina Zoo is a must-see family attraction in Asheboro. The animals represent species from Africa (elephants, rhinos, ostriches, lions, chimps, zebras, and giraffes) and North America (cougars, alligators, bobcats, red wolves, bison, elk, roadrunners, and grizzly and black bears). Exhibits are designed to resemble the natural habitat.

Feeding times are some of the most exciting moments in the zoo. Each day, the times are posted online, so plan your visit to make sure you see at least a few. In addition to the wildlife, the zoo also features an array of hiking trails through the surrounding forests. Dogs on leash are allowed.

If the kids are running out of energy and need a fun boost, take them for a ride on the Endangered Species Carousel. Or, if they have too much energy, swing by the 5,625-square-foot Garden Friends Playground or take to the skies on the Air Hike Ropes Course.

Address: 4401 Zoo Pkwy, Asheboro, North Carolina

13. Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock State Park
Chimney Rock State Park

Twenty-five miles southeast of Asheville, a 315-foot granite spire rises to an elevation of more than 2,280 feet in Chimney Rock State Park. Don't worry about the stress and strain of getting to the top — there is a 26-story elevator built inside the mountain, making the trip to the top an easy excursion for tourists.

Also within the park, the Hickory Nut Falls Trail is a moderate, mostly-level trail to the base of the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls. This impressive waterfall tumbles off a flat ledge down a sheer red-rock face vanishing into the trees below.

Address: 431 Main Street, Chimney Rock, North Carolina

14. Grandfather Mountain

Grandfather Mountain
Grandfather Mountain

Hiking at Grandfather Mountain in Linville ranges from leisurely trails with picturesque views to challenging treks that could include ladders and reward with expansive, mountainous panoramas. Visitors can also learn about local flora, or catch a glimpse of wildlife. Plan a walk across the park's well-known Mile High Swinging Bridge, a highlight that has been in place since 1952 and offers 360-degree views.

Grandfather Mountain is also within easy driving distance of the small towns of Banner Elk and Blowing Rock. Stop in at either one and grab a bite to eat for lunch or dinner on a sunny patio.

Address: 2050 Blowing Rock Hwy, Linville North Carolina

15. Morehead Planetarium and Science Center

Morehead Planetarium and Science Center
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center | Photo Copyright: Morehead Planetarium and Science Center

The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, located at the University of North Carolina in the heart of Chapel Hill, has been a stop for more than 10 million guests since first opening in 1949. In 2020 the historic institution completed a $9 million renovation that transformed its public spaces into an interactive museum experience for all ages. Morehead presents a variety of planetarium shows covering fun and educational topics like black holes, the human brain, astronauts, and more.

Permanent exhibits in the science center explore the planetarium's proud history as a training center for astronauts-from 1959 through 1975, more than 60 astronauts learned about celestial navigation here, including the majority of those who walked on the moon.

Other exhibits present cutting-edge research by UNC scientists including Wearable Robotics, an exhibit that explores biomedical engineering through prosthetics, and Natural Navigators, which illustrates how sea turtles use their unique magnetic ability to find their way back home.

Address: 250 East Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, North Carolina