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Top 12 things to do in North Carolina: from mountain escapes to the Outer Banks and grand castles

North Carolina is one of the most geographically diverse states in the country. With three main regions – the Appalachian Mountains, the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain – the Tar Heel state offers a range of activities for anyone planning a visit. 

Whether you’re a foodie, a nature lover or simply looking for a new beach for the annual family vacation, here are the top things to do and see across North Carolina.


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Oak Island Lighthouse in Caswell Beach
Located in Caswell Beach, the Oak Island Lighthouse was built in 1958 ©JillLang/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Best things to do in the Coastal Plain

Make your way out of the sand mazes at the Brunswick Islands

North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands are often overlooked for more popular beach destinations like Carolina Beach. But if you’re looking for a unique experience, check out this coastal destination to see the creations of local resident Hunter Gibbes, who goes by the name of the Sunset Beach Maze Man. Follow him on social media to find the exact location of the day’s maze – which he carves into the sand – and see how long it takes you to get to the finish line.

Beyond the mazes, check out the Oak Island Lighthouse, said to be the last lighthouse built in the state.

Bring along your furry friends – there’s even a hashtag, #dogsofncbi, dedicated to your pups and their beach experience. 

Best beaches in North Carolina 

Take an island cruise from Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach’s sunsets are unmatched. That’s why booking a sunset cruise tour with a local operator like Island Cruises is a must. Take in the sunset from the water while you sip on your favorite cocktail.

If you’re visiting during holiday season, check out the annual Holiday Floatilla, a floating light parade on the water. Dinner is included with your ticket, and there’s also a full cash bar on board. 

Sand dunes during a winter sunrise on a beach in the Outer Banks
Watch a baby sea turtle make its trek to the water at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. ©Allison Jehlicka/Shutterstock

Watch baby sea turtles hatch at the Outer Banks

Around mid- to early-summer, sea turtles come to the shores of the Outer Banks to lay their eggs. A month and a half later, the eggs begin to hatch, and the beaches are full of baby turtles preparing to make their way into the waters. 

An important note: never disturb the eggs or the babies. Give them the space they need and avoid handling them. 

Indulge in local oysters with a Wrightsville Beach bites tour

What’s a trip to the beach without getting in on some of the local grub? A good place to start is Wrightsville Beach, located about 15 minutes east of Wilmington.

Fan favorites include the bagel sandwiches from The Workshop, oysters from Shark Bar and Kitchen and the blue panda shake from The Original Ice Cream Stand

Sea-lion swimming upside down
A harbor seal swims at the North Carolina Zoo ©Brandon Christopher Warren/Getty Images

Best things to do in the Piedmont

Get wild at the North Carolina Zoo

Head to Asheboro, the heart of Carolina, to check out the state zoo’s more than 1800 animals. You’ll also find hiking trails, a carousel and even a safari on the grounds.

There are food stands and plenty of places to stop and take a break when needed. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes; there will be a lot of walking during your visit. 

Step into your own version of Bridgerton at Tryon Palace

Step back into time at the Tryon Palace. Located in New Bern (about two hours from Raleigh), the palace was the first permanent capitol building in the state. Built in 1770, the structure was renovated in 1959 and now is a historic American site highlighting the life and times of the people who lived there. 

Explore the grounds’ stunning gardens, stately historic homes, museum and more, and you’ll feel like you’re on the set of a period tv show.

Discover North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Rock out with one of the state’s most famous musicians at the Dreamville Festival

Rapper J. Cole – a native of Fayetteville, North Carolina – launched his wildly successful Dreamville Festival in Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park less than five years ago. 

Although postponed during the pandemic, the multi-day music event returned in April of 2022. People from all across the country visited Raleigh to see performances from Cole and other artists from his Dreamville label, along with other popular R&B and rap artists.

Enjoy a meal at a James Beard-nominated restaurant in Charlotte 

Chef Greg Collier and his wife and business partner, Subrina, are helping put Charlotte on the culinary map as a designated foodie city. The couple owns Leah & Louise. They are also behind the area’s Bayhaven Food and Wine Festival.

Leah & Louise has been nominated several times by the James Beard Foundation

Other popular restaurants to try in the Queen City include: What The Fries (a loaded french fry concept), Para (a tapas-style restaurant and home to the city’s first Afro Latina bar manager, Yashira Mejia), Day & Night Cereal Bar (a favorite for Charlotte Hornets superstar Lomelo Ball) and a plethora of unique food trucks and carts dotted throughout the city. 

Mountain biker flies through the lush forest greenery on the trail in Lake James park, North Carolina.
Mountain biking is one of the top things to do in North Carolina © Charles Collard/ Shutterstock

Best things to do in the mountains

Cycle through one of the country’s top spots for mountain biking

Fontana Lake in Bryson City (located about an hour south of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park) has more than 46 miles of stunning scenic trails along the Tsali Recreation Area. Mountain biking buffs can spend days navigating the challenging – but not overly technical  – trails. 

If you prefer other outdoor activities, there are also hiking and horse riding tours along the trails.

Shred fresh powder at Appalachian Ski Mountain

North Carolina’s Appalachian Ski Mountain provides endless fun for the entire family. There’s a slope for every skill level, from novice to expert skiers and snowboarders. Want to try your hand at other winter sports? Book an ice-skating session in the arena to perfect your triple toe or just casually glide across the ice. 

Book a cabin rental with one of the resort’s local accommodation partners to spend a few extra days.

Blue Ridge Mountains at Sunrise
Camp in high style with views like this on your visit to Asheville ©jaredkay/Getty Images

Sleep under the stars in a luxury yurt

Take your Asheville visit from good to great by booking a luxury pod with Asheville Glamping. Just a short 20-minute drive from downtown, you can unplug while sleeping under the stars – literally. The see-through geodesic domes are always sold out, so be sure to book in advance.

During the day, you can easily pop back into town for the dozens of craft breweries or for a bite to eat. Or, stay where you are and roast s’mores by the fire at one of the property’s firepits. 

Dome 3, the most popular among guests, not only comes complete with everything you need for a luxury camping experience, but it also features a slide from the loft area down to the main level. Dome 6 was recently renovated to include a slide as well. The brand also offers treehouse accommodations and tents if the domes aren’t for you.

Live out your own fairytale at Smithmore Castle

If you’re brave enough to make the steep drive up English Knob mountain, revel in the beauty of Spruce Pine’s Smithmore Castle. The working hotel also has a restaurant and offers private dining experiences as well.

While there, take an archery lesson, private cooking class or guided hike, and visit Cave Bruce – an abandoned mine once filled with gemstones and other treasures. 

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