A TravelMag survey of travel experts revealed the ten most charming towns and small cities in North Carolina. Located in the southeastern region of the United States, the state is home to some of the region’s most beautiful beaches, many of which are set against the backdrop of dramatic crags and cliffs. Whether you fancy riding the waves off the windswept Atlantic coast, hiking across the Appalachian Mountains or immersing yourself in the intimacy of small-town life, North Carolina has something to suit every taste.
We invited 50 travel writers, photographers and selected professionals to name their three favorite small towns and cities in North Carolina and used these results to compile our Top 10 list, presented below in alphabetical order.
Go ahead. Take time to slow down and wander. It is in these friendly communities that you’ll find North Carolina’s beating heart. The natural beauty surrounding each adds to the sense of tranquility that seems woven into the state’s DNA.
Waterside and beautiful, Beaufort is North Carolina’s third oldest town. This former pirate hangout, once frequented by Blackbeard himself, is now a charming port, replete with preserved historic buildings and maritime views. One could easily spend a peaceful morning combing the beach for shells here or exploring the Crystal Coast by surfboard or cruise ship. Among its attractions is the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve, where calming watery vistas, islands and salt marshes await for bird watching and kayaking. For a morning coffee or a dinner of blue crab at sunset, check out the collection of inviting restaurants along the waterfront.
It’s easy to see why Black Mountain is such a popular spot. Set in Buncombe County, with awe-inspiring views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this restful little town has a close, community feel and a thriving arts and crafts scene – which explains why it’s already made it into a previous list of the best small cities in North Carolina. Follow hiking and biking trails past waterfalls and babbling mountain streams and stop along the way to fish for trout or simply soak up the scenery. The path around Lake Tomahawk makes for a pleasant postprandial stroll after dining at one of a handful of local restaurants. The area also attracts golfers, with three well-regarded courses within reach.
The spectacular mountain village of Blowing Rock is a convenient base for hiking, spelunking, bouldering and skiing. The “Crown of the Blue Ridge” is also a great spot for relaxing at a spa before settling into a comfy inn or cozy cabin. Visit the famous Blowing Rock, a craggy outcrop set 4,000 feet above sea level, where you can stand and feel the curious upward lift of the wind, the ‘blowing rock’ phenomenon that gave this place its name. Also of interest is Moses Cone Memorial Park, where there are walking trails to explore and lakes for bass and trout fishing.
Named after the explorer and pioneer Daniel Boone, this town is a perfect mountain retreat. Many are drawn here by year-round adventure sports, such as skiing, whitewater rafting and hiking. Another highlight is the Blue Ridge Parkway, which becomes a particularly impressive drive with the arrival of autumn colors. Other attractions include the Daniel Boone Native Gardens, the stalactites and stalagmites of the Linville Caverns and the family-friendly Tweetsie Railroad ride. For a taste of old-time Americana, visit the Mast General Store.
This relaxed, seaside destination is a hit with visitors of all ages. The famous boardwalk offers plenty of old-fashioned seaside charm, complete with an arcade, food stalls and a Ferris wheel. If you’re looking to get out (or under) the water, local fishing charters take beginner and pro anglers out daily, and there are regular scuba diving excursions. On land, check out the hiking trails and camp facilities at Carolina Beach State Park, where you may spot a Venus flytrap. A local organization runs a series of nature talks about another natural wonder–the loggerhead sea turtles, a protected species that can be seen nesting on the beach here in the summer months.
The center of Hillsborough sits on the banks of the Eno River. Frequent historical re-enactments commemorate the town’s role as a political hub during the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods. The historic town, which was named in a previous list of the best towns in North Carolina, remains peppered with 18th and 19th century architecture, housing a close-knit community, filled with many artists and writers. Buildings of interest include the churches, Quaker-plan and plantation houses, as well as the Greek Revival style Old Orange County Courthouse.
Part of North Carolina’s attractive Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk is famous for its association with the Wright Brothers, who made their first successful powered plane flights nearby. Today the stunning stretches of coastline and unspoiled, sandy beaches draw people here. There is a family-friendly promenade with a video arcade and a mini golf course, plus an inviting full golf course with ocean views. The Kitty Hawk Woods Nature Reserve, made up of forest and wetlands, is a haven for deer and rare birdlife.
Named after Bern, Switzerland, by European settlers, New Bern is also where Pepsi Cola was invented. The waterfront town is home to a series of protected buildings, dating from the early 18th century, and a laid-back, friendly community that is proud of its history and enviable natural assets. There are myriad ways to enjoy the outdoors, from golfing to hiking in the Croatan National Forest to exploring the Trent and Neuse Rivers by boat. Visitors can also follow an educational walk at the New Bern Battlefield Park, a 30-acre site that played a part in Civil War history.
Peaceful Southport is a little hub on the banks of the Cape Fear River. Here you can find an attractive collection of restored buildings set along tree-lined streets and a tranquil pier with lovely views of the water. Uncover the history of Southport at the impressive Fort Johnston-Southport Museum & Visitors Center. Other attractions include the NC Maritime Museum, the Old Brunswick County Jail and a series of pleasant waterways, which you can explore by kayak or tour boat.
Golfers especially love this charming locale for its famous Pinehurst Resort, established in 1895. The village was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect also known for his contributions to New York’s Central Park. It features a central green space, distinctive curving lanes and plenty of whispering pine trees–hence the name. An architectural highlight is the intriguing Mystic Cottage, the former home of the village’s founding father. Other attractions include artisan shops as well as luxurious spa centers that offer treatments using local botanicals.