15 Best Small Towns to Visit in North Carolina

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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North Carolina, a southeastern US state, is home to many metropolitan cities and quaint towns. Famous for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the country (The Outer Banks), North Carolina is a charming blend of native american and european roots coupled with majestic nature that is sure to entice you into staying just a little bit longer. With landscapes that range from Atlantic Ocean coastlines to impressive mountain ranges, there is a perfect vacation spot for everyone.

Check out our list of 15 best small towns to visit in North Carolina:

1. Boone, North Carolina

Boone, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Boone, North Carolina

Steeped in history and located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Boone is named for the American pioneer and explorer, Daniel Boone. If locals are to be believed, Boone used to camp at a site now within the town limits. Regardless of the exact location, the town does have a concrete connection to the Boone family: his nephews built Boone’s first church, Three Forks Baptist. You can still see it standing today.

A great destination for mountain lovers, walk across the Mile High Swinging Bridge to Grandfather Mountain or journey out to Elk Knob State Park. If you are more of a cyclist, grab your bike and head out to Pisgah National Forest to explore over 200 miles of trails. Don’t forget to stop by the Tweetsie Railroad or catch a game at the local Appalachian State University if you can. Finally, relax and enjoy some mountain air while browsing some of the shops in the quaint downtown area and spend a night or two at the Daniel Boone Inn.

2. Bath, North Carolina

Bath, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Bath, North Carolina

The oldest town in North Carolina and founded in 1705, Bath was strategically positioned at the mouth of the Pamlico River. Both rich in history and quintessentially an American town; the first settlers were French Huguenots who crossed the Atlantic in search of religious freedom. As an interesting historical anecdote, the infamous pirate Blackbeard stayed in Bath briefly following his royal pardon and before returning to his pirating ways.

The actual town itself has altered very little over the years and continues to draw those interested in heritage tourism. Wander downtown and tour the old town and historic buildings such as Bonner House and St. Thomas’ Church. While there is plenty for history buffs, Bath is also ideal for outdoors activities such as swimming and fishing because of its nearness to Pamlico Sound. Venture out to wakeboard or waterski along the river, visit Goose Creek State Park, or rent a canoe and explore the marshes and swamps. Whether you brush up on history or your physical fitness, this town has something for everyone.

3. Hillsborough, North Carolina

Hillsborough, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Hillsborough, North Carolina

Inhabited by Native Americans long before the arrival of the Europeans, Hillsborough was established where the Great Indian Trading Path meets the Eno River. The town has actually preserved a replica of the original Native American village by the Eno river, as well as over 100 buildings of buildings from the 1700s and 1800s for those interested in both Native American and more modern US history.

Explore some of the more popular downtown historic sites, such as Old Orange County Courthouse, Ayr Mount (an old plantation house), and many more listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Do some shopping downtown and relax at the Inn at Teardrops, before trying some local food. After your hearty meal, take a stroll along along the newly christened Riverwalk before stopping by the Orange County Historic Museum. Why not end the day relaxing over a drink at the Hot Tin Roof and soaking in some of the local color.

4. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Kitty Hawk, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

If the town’s name Kitty Hawk rings a bell, it’s probably because you still remember that class at school where you learned about the Wright brothers’ invention of the airplane as you tried to imagine a time when air travel didn’t exist. The Wright brothers first recorded flight occurred just a few miles outside of Kitty Hawk, and upon realizing their success, dashed back to town to telegraph the news that would change the way we travel.

Kitty Hawk remains a relaxed beach town perfect for a getaway. Hit downtown to do some shopping or have a spa day. If you’re hungry, why not go to Trio, an upscale restaurant, or try some of the local seafood. Later, you can always work off some of the calories biking or surfing along the Outer banks. For a less strenuous activity, enjoy the views and play a few rounds of golf at Seascape Golf Links. Let the sea breeze relax and revitalize you before heading back to “the real world”.

5. Pinehurst, North Carolina

Pinehurst, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Pinehurst, North Carolina

Welcome to the golfing haven of North Carolina! Home to the historic golf course, Pinehurst Resort, a significant portion of the old town has been designated a National Historic Landmark District for its design and significance in the history of golf.

Originally founded in 1895, the village was designed with golf in mind: the first golf course opened there in 1897. However, it is not just a destination for golf lovers; the resort was originally opened as a health retreat. With that in mind, enjoy the tranquil location, walk the soft sandy paths, or treat yourself to a spa day after exploring the village a little. Treat yourself to a delicious Southern meal after a relaxing day of golf or kayaking on the lake. The beautiful nature and rich history of American golf make this town a unique travel destination.

6. Saluda, North Carolina

Saluda, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Saluda, North Carolina

Saluda is located at the top of the Saluda Grade, a steep railroad line. Surrounded by green and nature all around, “Saluda” originates from the Cherokee word that means “green corn place”. Transformed by the railroad industry, Saluda became a vacation destination and has continued to be one even after the age of the railroad passed. Virtually untouched by the changing times, people can still enjoy a slower pace of life and relaxation away from the hustle of modern life.

Whether you prefer to browse the historic downtown area and shops or explore the mountains surrounding the town, there are plenty of things to keep you entertained. Many artists and craftsmen call Saluda home and have contributed to a lively arts and crafts culture. Check out the shops and galleries or catch a local theatre performance at Flat Rock Theatre. Be sure not to miss their Arts Festival, or for the dog lover, the Coon Dog festival. If you want to reconnect with nature, there are plenty of trails and hiking within driving distance:  Green River Game Lands, Dupont State Recreational Forest, and Pisgah National Forest are just a few places perfect to disconnect for awhile and travel back in time.

7. Banner Elk, North Carolina

Banner Elk, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Banner Elk, North Carolina

Located along the charming Elk River, Banner Elk was originally a Cherokee hunting ground before being settled by the Banner family in the mid 1800s. The town still retains that woodsy feel and is a perfect destination for a rustic getaway. Stop in and have a glass (or two) at the Grandfather Vineyard and Winery, and kick back at any of the local accommodations such as the Little Main Street Inn after enjoying a meal and exploring the main street area.

For the active sportsman, nearby Watauga Lake is ideal for summer sporting fun. Water ski, fish or go boating along the lake and soak up some sun. If you’re more of a winter sports type, the slopes are a perfect place to brush up on your skiing or snowboarding. Don’t forget Banner Elk’s small town charm – they host Wooly Worm festival every year. Even if it isn’t your area of interest, the festival is guaranteed to be an educational and fun experience if you overlap with it during your stay there (you can even race a wooly worm!).

8. Sylva, North Carolina

Sylva, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Sylva, North Carolina

Out in western North Carolina in the Plott Balsam Mountains, Sylva is close to the eastern band Cherokee Reservation. It would interest any movie buff to know that a few movies have been filmed within the town limits, including The Fugitive, starring Hollywood star Harrison Ford and Deliverance. Ask any of the locals and they’ll tell you about “when Hollywood came to town”!

Aside from its intriguing Hollywood past, Sylva is a perfect mountain town to relax and enjoy the relaxed rhythm of small town living. With a few parks and distinct neighborhoods, there are plenty of good reasons to get out and walk the town a little. Stretch your legs and explore the shops in the downtown area or  appreciate the historic buildings in that area and over by Courthouse Hill. If you get thirsty, stop in at any of the breweries in town or check out the many antique shops. If you’re a music lover, Sylva has a Greening Up the Mountains festival every spring. Musicians, food vendors and artisans come out en masse to create a lively spring festival well worth your time.

9. Hot Springs, North Carolina

Hot Springs, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Hot Springs, North Carolina

Just outside of the bustling city of Asheville, Hot Springs offers a relaxed setting for those seeking some peace and quiet and a spa vacation. Nestled in the Appalachians, this picturesque destination is located close to the meeting point of the French Broad River and Spring Creek, and has the only hot springs in North Carolina.

Turn this into a well-deserved weekend of luxury at the privately owned Hot Springs Resort and Spa. A true resort nature attraction, Hot Springs will renew your energy. Take a leisurely walk along the Appalachian trail, or enjoy the calming sounds of the river. Raft or kayak down the French Broad River if you’re feeling intrepid. Order a few treatments or relax in the water. There are available accommodations suited to meet anyone’s needs, and range from secluded romantic cabins to inns. Leave your work behind and take a few days to unwind at a natural spa resort.

10. Blowing Rock, North Carolina

Blowing Rock, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Blowing Rock, North Carolina

Steal away to Blowing Rock for a quaint mountain town retreat. Located on the crest of Blue Ridge, the town gets its name from a peculiarly shaped rock formation near Johns River Gorge. With cool breezes and spectacular mountain views, this town is perfect for a summer trip. A popular vacation destination since the late 1800s, Blowing Rock has welcomed many out of towners who come up to enjoy the proximity to nature and outdoors opportunities.

If you’ve already explored the downtown area and enjoy some of the many restaurants and shops, play a round of golf or two.For those hikers or aspiring photographers, check out Moses Cone Memorial Park. Don’t forget your camera at home, the mountain views are breathtaking. The Art or Wine festivals are definitely occasions you can’t miss! Blowing Rock also boasts their Blowing Rock Charity Horse show, featuring some of the best riders in the Eastern United States.

11. Tryon, North Carolina

Angel Oak, Tryon, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Angel Oak, Tryon, North Carolina

Originally part of the Western Cherokee Nation, some say that the area where Tryon now stands has been inhabited since the Ice Ages! The Blue Ridge Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop for this town. Tryon grew into a bustling town during railroad days and is now a popular destination for outdoorsy people and horse enthusiasts. The town symbol, the statue of a horse named Morris, has been watching over Tryon since 1928.

Visit Tryon and its impressive Tryon International Equestrian Center. This large complex hosts a wide range of equestrian competitions and is connected to an equally grand Sports Center. For more equestrian opportunities, visit the horse farms or actually ride a horse at the Foothill Equestrian Nature Center. Relax afterwards and catch up on some reading at Lanier Library Association, named after poet Sidney Lanier, or take a stroll through one of Tryon’s charming parks. There are some quaint local accommodation options, such as the Pine Crest Inn, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

12. Bryson City, North Carolina

Bryson City, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Bryson City, North Carolina

Surrounded by mountains, Bryson City is right next to the Tuckasegee River in western North Carolina. An hour away from Asheville, it is conveniently located for those in search of a quick trip away from city life. Bryson City borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and entices nature lovers, especially for aspiring fishermen.

Visit the Fly Fishing Museum and or spend a day fishing on the trout streams nearby. Or, if that is not your area of interest, there are many other pastimes at your disposal in Bryson City. Grab a raft or kayak and head over to the Nantahala River, or take a boat out on Fontana Lake and go for a swim. For those railroad enthusiasts, some picturesque railroad excursions are offered in town. Don’t forget to explore the historic downtown and have a meal at one of the local restaurants!

13. Highlands, North Carolina

Highlands, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Highlands, North Carolina

Highlands sits on a plateau in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, a small town that awakens during the winter and summer tourist seasons. Whether you are coming to enjoy the fine dining and hometown feel of Main Street, or you’re an avid golfer or outdoorsman, there is something here to please everyone.

Treat yourself to a day at the Highlands Country Club. Play a round of golf here or have a drink and relax. Explore the shops and restaurants before staying a few nights at the historic Old Edwards Inn, a hotel and spa for those in need of some serious spa time. Don’t forget your walking shoes! Take a hike out to some of the waterfalls in the surrounding areas, such as the Bridal Veil Falls or the Quarry Falls. Breathe in the  fresh mountain air and snap some photos of the incredible views.

14. Murphy, North Carolina

Murphy, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Murphy, North Carolina

Murphy is located next to the Hiwassee River where local Cherokees used to say a giant leech lived. As there have been never been any sightings to confirm this, we can safely recommend Murphy as a good tourist destination.

Take a stroll through the tree-lined streets of downtown Murphy, and check out the unique local shopping opportunities. Save some time for the Murphy River Walk, which starts in Konehete Park and winds along the Hiwassee River. You can make it a whole day activity and bring a picnic or barbecue at one of the grills, or continue back to downtown to eat at any one of the delicious restaurants. If you’re brave enough, take a refreshing dip in the river, you won’t be disappointed!

15. Franklin, North Carolina

Franklin, North CarolinaSource: flickr
Franklin, North Carolina

Standing in the Nantahala National Forest, Franklin is known as the “Gem Capital of the World”. Known for mining, the area around the town is rich in gems and minerals. For those of you in search of something sparkly, stop in for their gem and jewelry show, the Macon County Gemboree.

Once your wallet is a bit lighter, take off down the trails to explore nature. There are many trails surrounding Franklin, including the famous Appalachian Trail. Head out to Dry Falls or Cullasaja Falls for some lovely views before heading back into town to explore the downtown area. For those of you with more eclectic interests, Franklin is also home to the Scottish Tartans Museum. A small town with a lot of character, Franklin is guaranteed to send you home with some fascinating new facts to tell your friends, and maybe even some pretty trinkets!

15 Best Small Towns to Visit in North Carolina:

  • Boone, North Carolina
  • Bath, North Carolina
  • Hillsborough, North Carolina
  • Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
  • Pinehurst, North Carolina
  • Saluda, North Carolina
  • Banner Elk, North Carolina
  • Sylva, North Carolina
  • Hot Springs, North Carolina
  • Blowing Rock, North Carolina
  • Tryon, North Carolina
  • Bryson City, North Carolina
  • Highlands, North Carolina
  • Murphy, North Carolina
  • Franklin, North Carolina