15 Amazing Cities in North Carolina (to Live In and Visit!)

Last Updated on July 19, 2021

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We love this state for the beauty from the mountains to the sea, but some of our favorite things to do happen in and around the best cities in North Carolina. Many folks may know a bit about Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, and Greensboro, but what about the other busy spots?

And that’s why we’re sharing those cities in North Carolina to visit and more. We’ll be highlighting things to do (including the outdoors), places to eat amazing food, and more about why you’ll find them in our NC Bucket list.

Here’s how we’ve organized this guide:

  • Cities in North Carolina (Western)
  • Cities in North Carolina (Central)
  • Cities in North Carolina (Eastern)

If your favorite place didn’t make this guide, it’s probably featured among the best small towns in North Carolina! This post is a part of our series covering the best things to do in North Carolina, where we share fun spots such as museums and breweries, and much more.

Cities in North Carolina (Western)

Asheville

North Carolina Mountains Cities Asheville Biltmore Estate Image
Biltmore Estate.

There are tons of things to do in Asheville, one of the coolest cities in North Carolina. You can hike in the beautiful mountains that surround it, drive or cycle the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, or just eat your way through a weekend Downtown.

Asheville is the first of a few cities in North Carolina that make the perfect winter getaway, too!

Settle in and walk around the famed Biltmore Estate, enjoying its accompanying gardens that amaze even the most seasoned visitors. You can spend even more time in the River Arts District and grab a beer at nearby Wedge Brewing, one of the dozens you’ll find in the area.

Quick tip: You’re also within a short drive of Brevard, which is one of our favorite small towns (especially in the mountains)!

A visit to Asheville and some of what we mentioned also appears in our bucket list of things to do in North Carolina. You can make it a weekend (or longer) with one of these awesome and unique Airbnbs in Asheville!

Hickory

There are some really fun things to do in Hickory, especially when you’re talking about its museums. Start there with the Catawba Science Center and the Hickory Aviation Museum.

Olde Hickory Brewery pumps out some of NC’s finest beer and you can also visit their three restaurant locations throughout town.

If you’re in town during baseball season, stop by L.P. Frans Stadium for a Hickory Crawdads game and soak up that Minor League atmosphere.

Hickory is the first of a few fun day trips from Greensboro that we’ll mention in this guide!

Cities in North Carolina (Central)

Cary

Things to do in Cary NC Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve Image

If many people are asked to name the third-largest city in the Research Triangle, they might respond with “Chapel Hill” instead of Cary. The town’s population has quickly grown since the 1970s, which was then around 8,000. As of the last estimate, Cary houses about 170,000 people and is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the US.

And even if you’re not looking to live here, there are plenty of things to do in Cary that will keep you coming back. That’s a part of why this is the first of many places in this post that we included in our guides to day trips from Raleigh and also, from Durham.

For starters, it’s home to WakeMed Soccer Park, the home of North Carolina FC of USL Championship, and North Carolina Courage of the NWSL. Cary is where you’ll find the USA Baseball National Training Complex. It hosts our national team and the NCAA Division II Baseball Tournament Championship.

Cary is pretty spread out and full of fun places to explore, but spend some time walking around downtown’s shops and eateries and you’ll fall in love with it.

La Farm Bakery, Bond Brothers Beer Company, and Taipei 101 are a few places that we’d start with on any trip to Cary, but Ashworth Drugs is great for a look at an old fashioned soda fountain…and hot dogs, too!

Many folks associate William B. Umstead State Park with Raleigh but the Reedy Creek Entrance sits in Cary. Company Mill Trail is our favorite there but in our guide, you can find even more.

The outdoor fun doesn’t stop with Umstead, as Cary’s Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is yet another reason to visit this town. A rare collection of hemlock trees typically found in Western North Carolina is protected here and you can see them while walking through the Preserve’s well-maintained trails.

We’ve also covered the North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival, which happens every year in Cary from November to January.

Have you ever visited this booming town? What do you enjoy doing here?

Chapel Hill

Als Burger Shack Chapel Hill NC Image
Al’s Burger Shack.

Chapel Hill is smaller than its Research Triangle counterparts Raleigh, Cary, and Durham, but it’s still full of fun stuff to do.

I mean, you have to keep all those students at UNC happy somehow, right?

Franklin Street goes above and beyond to help, with wonderful restaurants like Crooks Corner and Top of the Hill. And don’t forget about the awesome burgers at Al’s Burger Shack and on Rosemary, the amazing Southern eats at Mama Dip’s!

Note: Stay tuned for an upcoming guide to Chapel Hill Restaurants.

Even if you live in the area, enjoy a stay overnight at either the Carolina Inn or the Tusan-themed Siena Hotel.

Nearby Carrboro is one of our favorite small towns in the Triangle, with tons of fun restaurants and more worth exploring! Want to know more about this area from one of its own?

We interviewed Teddy Diggs, a chef in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area who previously ran the kitchen at the Siena’s Il Palio.

Many of these places are covered in our guide to a weekend in Chapel Hill and Orange County, too!

Charlotte

Things to do in North Carolina Cities Charlotte Image

Of all the cities in North Carolina, Charlotte is the largest and home to the biggest airport. For many reasons, we think it’s the perfect spot for you to spend a weekend.

Throughout the city, there are some interesting neighborhoods filled with awesome restaurants, breweries, and more. There are also tons of lighter food options, as we covered in our guide to Charlotte eats.

You’ll also find tons of outdoor fun in Charlotte, with spots like the US National Whitewater Center and its amazing parks wildly popular during the warmer months.

And of course, the Carolina Panthers and Hornets are a big deal and the Knights play Minor League Baseball at the beautiful BB&T Ballpark.

We’ve enjoyed stays at Hilton Charlotte Center City and the Dunhill Hotel. If they are fully booked, you could try a really cool treehouse like this one.

Concord

Cities in North Carolina Concord zMax Dragway Image
zMax Dragway.

Concord is next door to the Queen City and one of many spots that we included in our guide to day trips from Charlotte. For starters, it’s known as the home of Charlotte Motor Speedway and zMax Dragway. People come from all over to catch races throughout most of the year.

Great Wolf Lodge Water Park and SEA LIFE are also here, making this Cabarrus County city a hotspot for family travelers.

There are tons of great restaurants in the area and if you’re into North Carolina’s craft beer scene, you should head to Cabarrus Brewing, which is also in Concord.

And when you want to get outside for a bit, check out the paths and scenery at Frank Liske Park.

Learn more about the area in our guide covering things to do in Concord and Cabarrus County.

Durham

American Tobacco Campus Durham NC

Durham is perfect for walks around Sarah P. Duke Gardens and Durham’s historic downtown. You can easily enjoy the outdoors here but there are some pretty fun things to do inside.

Durham’s Museum of Life and Science does a great job of combining both in ways we love. You can also chill out with a beer or two at Fullsteam (or at these awesome breweries in Durham) or relax in and around The Durham Hotel.

The city’s food scene is filled with great international restaurants and casual places to eat (including amazing pizza joints, too!), so you won’t come away hungry.

Check out our guide covering things to do in Durham if you want more details on things to do in the Bull City! If you’re in search of a fun place to stay in the area, check out these Durham Airbnbs.

Greensboro

Things to do in North Carolina Cities Greensboro NC Image

Greensboro is a busy destination for conventions. There’s also the beautiful Carolina Theatre that you should check out for a show or just to stare at from the outside.

However, even the most business-centric travelers have some pretty fun things to do in the city. Outdoor options include the Bog Garden and Bur-Mil Park.

If the weather doesn’t cooperate, head to the Greensboro Science Center and Greensboro Children’s Museum for the kids or even yourself. They both featured in our guide to children’s museums throughout the state!

And finally, if you’re interested in digging into the Greensboro food scene, head to these must-eat restaurants or join a Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tour as we did here!

There are so many things to do in Greensboro and we hope you enjoy it!

High Point

High Point is known as the “Furniture Capital of the World” and there are some interesting places to explore there. If you visit from mid-April to October, check out All-A-Flutter Farm, you can see a real working butterfly farm in person!

For day trip options, I’d recommend traveling to nearby Hanging Rock State Park. It’s beautiful from the top!

Raleigh

Places to Visit in North Carolina Raleigh NC Museum of Art Park Image
Ann and Jim Goodnight Park at the NC Museum of Art.

Seasonal Fun

Raleigh is filled with things to do for everyone, especially with kids! For starters, the city’s great museums and restaurants pair nicely, especially for a date night, and definitely for an entire weekend. If you’re in the area during the summer, a section of Dorothea Dix Park transforms into one of the state’s most beautiful sunflower fields.

We interviewed Kate Pearce from Dix Park to learn more about its past, present, and future, too!

And if you come during the colder months, there are dozens of ways to have winter fun in Raleigh.

Year-Round Things to Do in Raleigh

Throughout the year, we love getting outside at spots like Umstead State Park and the parks that surround Shelley Lake and Lake Johnson. Many of these fun activities feature in our guide to free things to do in Raleigh, too!

Eating at Ashley Christensen’s Beasley’s Chicken + Honey is another reason why Raleigh is one of the best cities in North Carolina. Here, you’ll be eating food designed by the best chef in the US.

Raleigh also has an awesome brew scene that you can understand better through the Raleigh Beer Garden‘s Guinness World Record-winning selection of drinks. We also included Beasley’s, Raleigh Beer Garden, and more in our guide to restaurants in Raleigh.

If you’re searching for places to stay, check out these cool Airbnbs in Raleigh!

Winston-Salem

Places to Visit in North Carolina Cities Winston-Salem Image
The Heritage Bridge at Old Salem.

Winston-Salem is was once two separate cities in North Carolina (hence the hyphen) and the largest in North Carolina. Many folks visit Old Salem first for a look at early America, the Moravians, some pretty delicious food, and more!

Old Salem, along with Reynolda House, and two of our favorite museums in Winston-Salem.

Before deciding to live here, enjoy yourself with a room at The Cardinal Hotel or another one of Winston-Salem’s awesome historic hotels, and don’t forget to dig into the city’s delicious restaurants and innovative breweries.

Speaking of the latter, Foothills Brewing makes some of our favorite NC beer. Their Downtown tasting room is a welcoming spot for visitors to come and try their special creations, as well as the delicious food coming out of their kitchen.

Many of these attractions prominently feature among our things to do in Winston-Salem

Cities in North Carolina (Eastern)

Fayetteville

Fayetteville is fun throughout the year, even during winter. We love all the ways you can shop local there, at spots like City Market at the Museum Downtown and Leclair’s General Store in Haymount.

Of course, you have to stroll through both the US Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum and the Cape Fear Botanical Garden. The latter is one of our favorite outdoor attractions in the city and one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in North Carolina. Both are a couple of our favorite things to do with kids in Fayetteville.

When you get hungry, there are quite a few places to eat in Fayetteville. Start with Circa 1800, especially for brunch on Saturday and Sunday and go for their Crab Cakes Benedict.

And we can’t leave Fayetteville without visiting one of the city’s veteran-owned breweries, either!

If you’re looking for a great weekend in Fayetteville, read more here.

Greenville

Greenville NC Food Bs BBQ Image
B’s.

Greenville is one of the biggest cities in North Carolina, thanks to East Carolina University. It’s also got a reputation for some of the state’s finest barbecue, which you’ll remember after visiting B’s or Parker’s.

Of course, you’ll find plenty more amazing restaurants in Greenville when you visit!

Pitt Street Brewing and Uptown Brewing are two of the best craft beer makers in the city, too.

You can get outside at River Park North and if you’re up for a short drive, Goose Creek State Park isn’t too far away.

Jacksonville

Jacksonville NC Fountain Image

Jacksonville is one of the fastest-growing small cities in the US. Known for Camp Lejeune, there’s plenty to do for folks living here and for those who come from elsewhere.

Family travelers will want to stop by Zing Zumm Children’s Museum of Jacksonville. Spirits lovers should head to Walton’s Distillery for a tasting and a tour. It’s one of our favorites in all of North Carolina!

Everyone will love the restaurants that await in Jacksonville and its surroundings. We’re particularly fond of Jeff’s and the Kettle Diner, but our opinion changes according to the time of day.

We also think that if you’re in the area, at least take a few moments to pay your respects at Lejeune Memorial Gardens. 

We think you easily find 20-plus things to do when spending a weekend in Jacksonville. Challenge accepted?

Wilmington

Wilmington NC Riverwalk Image

Wilmington is known for family-friendly fun, having some of North Carolina’s best beaches, and hosting the annual Azalea Festival. It’s also home to Untappd, the popular beer app that pairs nicely with these amazing breweries in Wilmington.

You can relax after kayaking or scuba diving with some locally caught seafood by the beach. Or you can venture into Wilmington’s historic downtown.

And did we mention the beaches near Wilmington? Yes, but let us break them down.

Carolina Beach is right around the corner. And for a scaled-down and more relaxing beach experience, I’d recommend visiting Kure Beach.

Wrightsville Beach has the most beautiful water I’ve seen in North Carolina, and that’s a pretty tough list of challengers to top! Regardless of when you visit, check out all of these things to do in Wilmington (and around it) and you can’t go wrong!

In case you’re searching for places to stay, check out these cool Airbnbs in Wilmington and its beach surroundings.

What are Your Favorite Cities in North Carolina?

We’re huge fans of these cities in North Carolina and can’t wait to keep revisiting these fun places. We’d also love to know which one(s) you like best.

And if you think there’s one missing, let us know in the comments but make sure it’s not in our guide to the wonderful small towns of our state.

More Things to Do in North Carolina

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