14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in North Carolina
Authors Michael and Lana Law visit North Carolina for skiing in winter, the beaches and hiking in summer, and fun towns throughout the year.
With museums, outdoor activities, and theme parks 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.
Beaches and coastal attractions tempt for relaxing weekends throughout the year but especially in the summer. And the entire state has a history all its own, from the famous flying Wright Brothers to the expansive Biltmore Estate and the WWII-era Battleship North Carolina.
Discover the best places to visit in this diverse state with our list of the top attractions in North Carolina.
1. Blue Ridge Parkway
Nicknamed "America's favorite drive," the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway 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, with its scenic hiking trails.
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.
Wonderful small mountain towns are located near or on the Blue Ridge Parkway and are attractions themselves. They make excellent places to visit for a bite to eat or to stay a night.
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
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 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.
Visitors to Roanoke Island 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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near the Outer Banks
3. The 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 sculpture, 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
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.
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. Downhill Skiing
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.
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, including an IMAX theater, unique restaurants, and museums.
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 and kiteboarding.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Wilmington
7. Battleship North Carolina
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.
Address: 1 Battleship Road NE, Wilmington, North Carolina
8. North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
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
- Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Raleigh
9. 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.
10. 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
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Asheboro
11. Cape Hatteras
Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the country's first coastal preservation area and includes the important barrier islands along North Carolina's coast in the Outer Banks region. Visitors to the area come 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.
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. Although it is not open to the public, the Ocracoke Light has been in operation since 1823 on the island that is also known for its unique breed of Ocracoke Ponies.
Location: Manteo, North Carolina
12. 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
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Chimney Rock State Park
13. 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
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Grandfather Mountain
14. 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
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Chapel Hill