Known as the “Tarheel State” or the “Old North State”, North Carolina is situated in the Southeastern region of the United States. Part of the Original Thirteen Colonies, the state is most famous for its colonial and American Civil War history, aviation, arts, culture, and picturesque scenery.
North Carolina’s tourism is strongly tied to its outdoor attractions. From the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks on the Atlantic Coast, nature and outdoor lovers will be captivated by the beauty of the local landscapes.
Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Asheville are all popular tourist destinations where visitors can take historic tours, explore the culture, see the art, or escape into nature. Alternatively, travelers may want to avoid the crowds by heading to small towns like Bryson City, Manteo, Sylva, Banner Elk, and Mount Airy.
Whether you’re searching for an adventure or want to lay back and take it easy, North Carolina has plenty of activities and attractions to suit all types of tourists. From coastal getaways to hidden mountain gems, the diversity of this state will keep you on your toes.
Livin’ La Vida North Carolina
Visit North Carolina’s Top Towns and Cities
History of “The Tarheel State”
Prior to North Carolina becoming one of the Thirteen Colonies, the state was inhabited by prehistoric indigenous cultures and Native American tribes. Evidence of the first people to live in the area more than 10,000 years ago can be found at the Hardaway Site near Badin. By 1,000 AD, historic Native American tribes like the Cherokee moved into the mountainous region.
European settlement of the region began with expeditions led by Hernando de Soto in 1540 and Captain Juan Pardo in 1567. More than a decade later, Sir Walter Raleigh would be granted land in what is now present-day North Carolina to colonize for the Crown. Raleigh ended up establishing two colonies by the late 1580s including the infamous “Lost Colony of Roanoke Island”.
One of the greatest and oldest mysteries in America, there have been many theories as to what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. After the colony’s population seemingly disappeared, the only evidence found at the scene was the word Croatoan carved into a post of the settlement’s wall.
The fate of the colony was never uncovered and modern theorists believe that the people either died of illness, were massacred, or assimilated with Native Americans.
Despite the ill fate of the first colonies, North Carolina would continue to attract settlers. In 1729, it became a crown colony. During the colonial period, the state became one of the Thirteen Colonies with South Carolina. The two states used to be known as the Province of North Carolina until they were separated in 1712.
North Carolina was an important battleground during both the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Having relied on slaves since colonial times, North Carolina became one of the last states to join the Confederacy. Fighting was fierce throughout the state with major battles at Bentonville and Wilmington.
More than a century after the end of the American Civil War, the town of Kitty Hawk became famous after Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully manned a sustained flight using their Wright Flyer aircraft in December 1903. Since then, North Carolina has been a pioneer for modern flight, as well as becoming a major tourist destination on the East Coast.
Capital City of Raleigh
The 41st most populous city in the United States with 474,069 residents as of 2020 is Raleigh, the capital city of North Carolina. Nicknamed the “City of Oaks” because of the numerous trees that line the streets, Raleigh was named after Sir Walter Raleigh who established the state’s first two British colonies.
Filled with Southern Charm, the city has become a major metropolis and tourist destination. There are various major geographic areas in Raleigh including Midtown, Downtown, East Raleigh, West Raleigh, North Raleigh, South Raleigh, and Southeast Raleigh.
Midtown features a lot of new construction and major shopping centers. In West Raleigh, tourists can visit important streets, museums, and memorials.
One of the most walkable parts of the city is Downtown Raleigh where you’ll find everything from historic neighborhoods, premier museums, world-class art, boutique shops, fantastic food, and plenty of entertainment venues. Visitors can easily navigate the Downtown business district on foot or use bikes and taxis to get around.
Sometimes called the “Smithsonian of the South”, the capital city has dozens of free museums. Some of the most popular to visit are the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Marbles Kids Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the North Carolina Museum of History.
Additional attractions include the North Carolina State Capitol, the State Farmers Public Market, JC Raulston Arboretum, and Pullen Park.
Charlotte, the Largest City in North Carolina
Supporting 874,579 residents as of 2020, Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina. Named in honor of Charlotte of Mecklenburg, the wife of King George II, the city was first founded in 1768. Having grown from humble beginnings, “The Queen City” is now a major tourist hotspot because of its museums, culture, art, history, shops, restaurants, and entertainment spaces.
Uptown is particularly famous and acts as the city center. Easy to get around on foot, by scooter or car, visitors can visit various museums, as well as shop and dine. One of the best walking tours is the self-guided Liberty Walk, which weaves its way past monuments and plaques highlighting key moments from the American Revolution.
Just outside of the downtown area, Charlotte has many attractions that depict the rich history of the area and state. For history enthusiasts, you won’t want to miss out on seeing the Charlotte Museum of History, Rosedale Plantation, Billy Graham Library, Freedom Park, and the city’s Fourth Ward.
Other fun activities in the city include the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Carowinds theme park, U.S. National Whitewater Center, Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, and the Latta Arcade. Additionally, skiers and snowboarders will be happy to know that there are 6 ski resorts near Charlotte.
Known as the “Twin City”, Winston-Salem is home to 679,948 people as of 2020. Technically beginning as two separate towns, Winston and Salem, the two became tied together in the 1880s by the US Post Office. Others may know the city as the “Camel City” because of its history with tobacco production, including the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
There are 66 neighborhoods in Winston-Salem, but the ones that draw in the most tourists are Downtown, West End, and the University Area. Downtown Winston-Salem is the city’s central business district and it has dozens of office buildings, hotels, restaurants, bars, retail spaces, and residential units.
For visitors that want an easy vacation with everything in one place, the downtown area would be a great destination. Much more residential but still filled with shops, restaurants, and parks is the West End Historic District. Bringing more comfort to urban lifestyles, this neighborhood is a fun place to explore for traveling families and couples.
Finally, travelers of all ages may be interested in the University Area, which includes numerous sports arenas and the Winston-Salem Fair Grounds. Popular fairs in the state include the Carolina Classic Fair and the North Carolina State Fair.
A smaller city with a population of 94,589 as of 2020, Asheville is situated at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers in Western North Carolina. The city is mostly famous for its Appalachian Mountain scenery and lively arts culture. There are more than 30 art galleries in the downtown area. Visitors can also hear live music and enjoy tasting new culinary delights.
Not too far from the city are the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Biltmore Estate. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic drive that winds through the Highlands of the Appalachian Mountains. Stretching for 469 miles, visitors can travel at their leisure and stop to enjoy some of the magnificent views. Nearby, there are also 7 ski resorts for those looking to hit the slopes.
Asheville is also home to the Biltmore Estate or Biltmore Mansion, as it is sometimes called. A historic home and tourist attraction, the estate’s Châteauesque-style is certainly eye-catching.
Originally built in 1889, with construction finishing in 1895, for George Washington Vanderbilt II, it’s the largest privately owned house in the US. Visitors can book a tour of the Biltmore Estate to view the house, gardens, and winery.
Most people are attracted to the big cities, but there are plenty of small towns in NC that deserve their praise too. A little more than an hour away from Asheville, Bryson City is renowned for its numerous trails, waterfalls, and views of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The national park also isn’t too far from town. Common tourist activities include hiking, fishing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and biking.
On the Atlantic Coast, Manteo is a small beach town that is filled with antique shops, a unique waterfront, and quaint bed and breakfasts. Visitors who are interested in seeing Roanoke Island and learning more about the Lost Colony should plan to stay in Manteo as the two destinations are less than 10 minutes apart.
Sylva is a tiny mountain town with a population of less than 2,000. However, each year plenty of tourists find their way to this hidden gem to enjoy the mom-and-pop shops, microbreweries, antique stores, and landscapes. Surrounding the town are the Smokies and the Tuckasegee River.
Close to the Grandfather Mountain State Park is Banner Elk, a high-country community with unique attractions. Most famous is the Swinging Bridge, which sits at an elevation of 5,282 feet. The Apple Hill Farm is a fun place to go with the family and as a working farm, youngsters can learn more about farm operations by taking a tour. It’s also a top ski town nearby Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain resorts.
Encapsulating small-town America is Mount Airy, which was an inspiration for the fictional town of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show. Visitors who love the 60s will have fun visiting retro attractions like Leon’s Burger Express. For overnight, there are many historic bed and breakfasts throughout the town for guests.
North Carolina’s two major mountain ranges are the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the greater Appalachian Mountain Range. Both famous in their own right, the federal and state government has protected much of the land by turning it into national or state parks.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is shared between North Carolina and Tennessee. As the most visited national park in the US in 2021, the Great Smoky Mountains have been internationally recognized for their biodiversity and natural beauty.
In North Carolina’s portion of the park, tourists should stop by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to learn more about the local wildlife and geology. The town of Cherokee is the closest urban area to the national park’s east entrance.
In the Blue Mountains, the two top attractions are the Grandfather Mountain State Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. The swing bridge at the state park is an iconic part of North Carolina, while the parkway has been named “one of the best scenic drives in America”.
In both parks, visitors can enjoy various activities including hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, camping, and more. Tours of the national and state parks are available or they can be self-guided. The Blue Ridge Parkway is hundreds of miles long, so most visitors will stick to driving portions that are close to the small mountain towns.
Although the mountains of North Carolina are the most talked about, the state does have some spectacular destinations on its coastline too. The most famous area on the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina is the Outer Banks. Stretching for 200 miles, the Outer Banks is a string of barrier islands that sit off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia.
There are numerous beachside towns, beaches, islands, and lighthouses to explore in the Outer Banks. Some of the more popular tourist communities are Bodie Island, Roanoke Island, Hatteras Island, and Ocracoke Island.
Beachgoers especially love viewing the old lighthouses of which there are six in the Outer Banks. Outside of the local communities, much of the land of the Outer Banks is protected by the US government. Cape Hatteras National Seashore covers 70 miles of coastline including the islands of Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke.
History of Flight
Aviation has been an important part of the state’s history beginning with the Wright Brothers. Many tourists who want to learn more about the history of flight will head to North Carolina to see the Wright Brothers National Memorial, North Carolina Aviation Museum, and the Carolinas Aviation Museum.
For those that find themselves in the Outer Banks area, you won’t want to miss visiting the small towns of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills to learn more about the Wright Brothers and their first flight.
“Firsts That Last”
If you’re looking for a new place to explore or you’re revisiting some of your old favorites, North Carolina is the perfect, picturesque destination to plan your next vacation. Packed with rich history and impressive scenery, travelers will love how much there is to see and do in this state.
Whether you’re getting ready for a backcountry adventure or heading to the barrier islands, your trip to North Carolina will be unforgettable.
After some time spent adventuring around the “Old North State”, be sure to unwind at one of North Carolina’s hot springs.
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