Nicknamed the “Tar Heel State” and located in America’s Southeast, North Carolina has amazing small and large cities full of charm. Tourists and locals alike love exploring its nature, history, and culture.
As a southern coastal state, North Carolina has many sought-after beaches and vacation destinations. It’s also home to mountain ranges, ski resorts, and other natural landmarks, giving it a unique sense of geographic diversity. North Carolina’s large cities reflect these varying landscapes, as well as the state’s rich history as one of the original 13 colonies.
Here are the ten biggest cities in North Carolina, in order of the highest to lowest populations:
The bustling business and entertainment hub of North Carolina, Charlotte is the state’s most populous city. According to the 2020 census, the “Queen City” had around 874,579 residents, nearly double the population of any other NC city.
Uptown Charlotte is a very modern city center, with high-rise buildings that create the iconic city skyline. It has numerous residential buildings, shops, businesses, bars, and tourist attractions. These include the Levine Center for the Arts and Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, as well as other historic sites and museums.
Many of Charlotte’s sports teams play in the Uptown area. The Panthers NFL team plays at the Bank of America Stadium, the Hornets NBA team plays at the Spectrum Center, and the Knights Minor League Baseball team plays at Truist field.
Other neighborhoods in Charlotte provide countless additional opportunities for shopping, dining, and experiencing the city’s history and culture. NoDa is eclectic and full of creativity and art, as well as coffee shops and breweries. South End is another vibrant neighborhood with many young people, as well as art galleries, bars, and restaurants.
SouthPark is more polished and refined, with the popular SouthPark mall and luxury apartments. These are just a sampling of Charlotte’s different neighborhoods.
The Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) is located a few miles outside of the city. It is a hub for American Airlines and one of the busiest airports in the world, so people from all over commonly pass through Charlotte, even if it is just for a quick layover.
North Carolina’s capital city is Raleigh, home to 467,665 residents as of the 2020 census and a common tourist destination. It’s one of the state’s most populated areas, and an integral part of the “Research Triangle”, which recognizes the importance of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill in the research field.
Raleigh in particular is well-known for its academic institutions. North Carolina State University is NC’s largest university, with over 36,000 students in 2022, and is especially highly regarded for its STEM education. Other colleges and universities in Raleigh include Meredith College, Shaw University, and William Peace University.
One of the state’s most important historic sites, the North Carolina State Capitol, also resides here. It was completed in 1840 in a Greek Revival style of architecture and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Still the active capitol building, it’s open for self-guided and guided tours.
Raleigh’s museums attract tourists and locals of all interests. These include the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Marbles Kids Museum, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Raleigh is located near another important NC airport, the Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU). Though smaller and less busy than CLT, RDU has over 600 arrivals and departures daily.
Located in northern North Carolina, Greensboro has around 299,035 residents (2020 census). Its central location makes it an easily accessible destination for North Carolinians, especially those in the Raleigh-Durham area, as well as many Virginians.
Downtown Greensboro is undoubtedly one of the city’s most important areas. Its historic buildings and overall charm create an ambiance perfect for window shopping at boutiques and finding a bite to eat at a cafe or restaurant. Additionally, the downtown area has tourist attractions such as the International Civil Rights Center and Museum and the Greensboro History Museum.
A can’t-miss local attraction is the Greensboro Science Center. This impressive center includes a 12-acre zoo, an aquarium, and a hands-on museum. It’s an ideal place for the whole family to learn about science through interactive experiences.
No matter how much time you have here, these attractions, as well as the city’s dining and nightlife scene, are sure to keep you entertained. Greensboro has countless local restaurants where you can try some of North Carolina’s most famous foods. Plus, it has numerous nightclubs, sports bars, and live music venues perfect for a night to remember.
Durham, the “Bull City”, is a quick 30-minute drive from Raleigh and another integral part of the Research Triangle. As of the 2020 census, it had a population of 283,506 people.
Durham’s major academic institution is Duke University, a private research university ranked the 10th best national university by the U.S. News & World Report in 2022. It attracts stellar students from across the world to come to Durham for their studies. Other colleges and universities in Durham include North Carolina Central University and Durham Technical Community College.
Shopping opportunities also attract people to the city. The Streets at Southpoint is a large shopping center with over 150 shops and many restaurants. Downtown Durham has numerous boutiques and shops for people who want more local options.
Those looking for educational or family-friendly opportunities should check out some of the city’s museums. The Museum of Life + Science covers 84 acres and has several events and exhibits throughout the year. Other popular museums include the Nasher Museum of Art, the Museum of Durham History, and the Kidzu Children’s Museum.
Durham’s community is progressive and dynamic. It recognizes injustices toward its Black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ communities and has programs and events that work to make the city an inclusive place for all.
Located about a 30-minute drive west of Greensboro, Winston-Salem has just under 250,000 residents (2020 census). Its location in the Piedmont Triad region makes it a great home base for experiencing beautiful nature in the surrounding area, as well as the city’s own unique history and attractions.
Winston-Salem is often known as the “Twin City”. In 1913, Winston and Salem, two towns just a mile apart, officially merged to create what we now know as Winston-Salem. This united city also has a notable history of being involved in the tobacco industry, particularly Camel Cigarettes, giving Winston-Salem its second nickname, “the Camel City”.
Old Salem is now a charming historic downtown area. It has many shops, gardens, cafes, and other attractions to explore. The entire area also serves as a museum that teaches about the history and culture of Moravians in the area.
Winston-Salem is a busy center of business, and also a lovely place to live. It has a very residential feel, as well as several parks and opportunities for recreation. The Gateway Nature Preserve, Reynolda Gardens, and Bailey Park are some of the most popular outdoor areas. Additionally, the Downtown Arts District is an outdoor area full of murals, sculptures, and art installations.
Fayetteville is a city about 60 miles south of Raleigh with roughly 208,501 residents, according to the 2020 census. It has many shops, museums, events, and more, as well as a strong suburban and homey feel for its community.
The city’s community puts on various events throughout the year in Fayetteville. The International Folk Festival is an annual multicultural event that celebrates diverse arts and cultures. The Fayetteville Dogwood Festival organization puts on a variety of family-friendly festivities, including Fayetteville After Five, the Miss Fayetteville Pageant, and the spring and fall Fayetteville Dogwood Festivals.
Tourists often enjoy checking out Fayetteville’s museums as well. The Airborne and Special Operations Museum teaches about the U.S. Army’s history, and the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex focuses on cultural heritage in the local area. Additionally, the Fascinate-U Children’s Museum allows kids to participate in all the fun of an imaginary city just for children.
Outdoor lovers should be sure to stop by the Cape Fear Botanical Garden. Its 80 acres include a Children’s Garden and Butterfly Stroll, a Heritage Garden, and Camellia, Daylily, and Shade Gardens.
As a suburb of Raleigh, Cary provides proximity to everything in the state capital, as well as its own opportunities. As of the 2020 census, Cary had a population of 174,721.
Because it is located in the Triangle area, staying in Cary is an ideal home base for seeing everything in Raleigh, Durham, and other nearby cities. It’s a quick 15-minute drive into Raleigh, and the two cities are also easily connected by the bus system.
Despite all the action happening nearby, Cary has a very small-town, residential feel. Money magazine ranked it as one of the country’s best places to live in 2018, and many of its community members would attest to this.
Cary has several activities that make it a great place to live or visit. It has several sports facilities, including the USA Baseball National Training Complex and the WakeMed Soccer Park where various professional soccer teams play. The Koka Booth Amphitheatre hosts events and performances within nature. Cary is also home to the North Carolina Symphony during the summer months.
The dining scene in Cary is also exceptional. The town has over 200 dining options, including everything from a modern yet authentic boulangerie to a local diner with Coke floats and hot dogs.
Wilmington is the only coastal city that is also one of the state’s ten most inhabited cities. It has a population of around 115,451 (according to the 2020 census) and many tourists come to experience some of the best nearby beaches in the state.
There are three significant island beaches just a quick drive away from Wilmington. Wrightsville Beach is high-end and luxurious, as well as one of the world’s best surfing destinations. Kure Beach is calm and offers small-town, family-friendly vibes and a great beach area. Carolina Beach is entertaining and an exciting beach town, complete with a beachside boardwalk, fun festivals, and a state park.
Despite being the hub for so many beach vacations, Wilmington itself has a calm, residential feel. Locals enjoy their long, hot summers, easy beach access, outdoor dining, and friendly neighbors.
The Wilmington Historic District is one of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods. Its buildings are primarily recognized as 18th- and 19th-century architecture, and it is home to several boutiques, cafes, and art galleries.
Another major local historic site is the Battleship North Carolina, which was used by the U.S. Military during World War II. Visitors can explore the nine levels of the battleship on a self-guided tour. It is docked across the river from Downtown Wilmington.
High Point, NC
High Point had 114,059 residents (2020 census) and is a 20-minute drive from Greensboro in the Piedmont Triad region. It is consistently recognized as a terrific place to live, and it also has many attractions that draw in visitors from all over.
This city is primarily known for being the “Home Furnishings Capital of the World”. High Point and the surrounding area have over 100 furniture stores and outlets, as well as both the world’s largest home furnishings show and the biggest furniture store. Whether you need to outfit an entire home or just find the perfect finishing touches, High Point is the place to go.
The city is not just about furniture, it also offers many fun experiences. Learn about the area’s involvement with the Underground Railroad at the High Point Museum. Play laser tag and enjoy a high ropes course at Kersey Valley Attractions. Watch a High Point Rockers game at Truist Point Stadium. You can even bring your dog to one of the city’s pet-friendly breweries and parks.
Many people come to High Point for their studies as well. High Point University is a private university with undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs that attract students from around the world.
Finally, Concord is a wonderful suburb of Charlotte. Though it’s just a 40-minute drive from the most populated city in the state, the city also has its own attractions, as well as 105,240 residents as of the 2020 census.
Concord’s name means “harmony”, which can be seen through its history and its present. In 1796, the Germans and Scots-Irish in the area compromised to found the County seat of Cabarrus here.
Historic sites in Concord include The Old Courthouse Theatre, which has served as a church, a theater, and a cultural center over the years. Another attraction is the Charles A. Cannon House, the former home of the developer of textile giant Cannon Mills.
Downtown Concord is the place to go for shopping, dining, and events. It’s currently undergoing a revitalization process that aims to improve the infrastructure, walkability, recreation, and outdoor dining, however, its shops and restaurants are still open for business. Many people live and work in this downtown area as well.
Concord is a picturesque place to live, especially because of its numerous parks and other recreation opportunities. Most notable is Harold B. McEachern Greenway, a trail that connects the downtown Concord area with J.W. Mickey McGee Park and Les Myers Park.
From its beaches to its mountains, and its large, bustling cities to its small, cozy towns, there is something in North Carolina for everyone. This state’s nature, history, and overall culture continue to attract new residents and tourists to uncover what it has to offer.