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For as long as we’ve been living here, we’ve been on a hunt for the best small towns in North Carolina. We discovered them in a variety of ways, either randomly during a road trip or while casually driving between our amazing cities. In many cases, these bucket list-worthy places have overshadowed the bigger spots that surround them.
Typically, these wonderful small towns will grab our attention with amazing hospitality, great people, and beautiful outdoor surroundings. And inside this post, we’re going to share what we think are the best. If you have a chance to visit any of them, trust us. You’re going to be in for a huge treat.
We’ve organized these NC small towns alphabetically and sorted them by region. With the exception of Western North Carolina (which is just below), you can quickly jump to the area you’re seeking.
The Best Small Towns in North Carolina
Western North Carolina
You might think that all of these small towns are near Asheville, but more than a few of them are at least a couple of hours away. Those that are within two hours were included in our guide to day trips from Asheville.
Our first walk through small town North Carolina takes us to Banner Elk. The downtown sits in a valley between two ski resorts, which bring in quite a few people from all around. We came to check out Apple Hill Farm and learned more about an awesome agritourism business from owner Lee Rankin.
Banner Elk is also surrounded by some awesome hikes that include our favorite waterfalls.
Black Mountain is about the last town you can stop in before Asheville on I-40 (westbound) and you’ll want to stop at its Town Square before deciding you need more time there. Lake Tomahawk Park is great for outdoor days and White Horse is a must-visit music venue.
We also love Black Mountain for its proximity to Catawba Falls, which is just under 10 miles away! Oh, and don’t forget about Oak and Grist, which is one of our favorite distilleries in North Carolina!
Banner Elk, Blowing Rock, and neighbor Boone are a few of the best mountain towns and all within a short drive of each other. We love visiting Blowing Rock for its downtown and the amazing scenery (including hikes and waterfalls) that surrounds it.
You can come for The Blowing Rock, shopping, their awesome restaurants, and walks around Moses H Cone Memorial Park. Or you can use Blowing Rock as your base for exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain, and more.
Gardner Webb University calls Boiling Springs home and students and parents have a beautiful campus to explore. In fact, the town gets its name from the natural spring that feeds into GW’s campus.
While driving into Boiling Springs, all the throwback-era general stores and rolling green farmland offer homey vibes that take over long before you park in town.
The nearby Broad River Greenway is another great way to get outside and enjoy yourself while in Boiling Springs.
Many folks who attended Appalachian State University (or App) will quickly share fond memories of their time living in Boone. But even if you’re not a Mountaineer, there’s plenty to see and do here, inside and outside.
Brevard is first and foremost, known as the Land of Waterfalls. However, there’s also a really cool downtown filled with shops and great places to eat. Of course, you’ll want to head over to Brevard College for a “chance” at seeing one of those famed white squirrels.
You can start your Blue Ridge Parkway adventure in Bryson City or hop on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, or do both. Some of North Carolina’s best beers are produced at Nantahala Brewing.
You can also explore the beautiful natural surroundings at Deep Creek National Park when in Bryson City.
Silver Run Falls and Rainbow Falls are just a couple of reasons to visit Cashiers, with the epic Whitewater Falls just a short drive away, too. And right in the center of town is The Village Green, which hosts events throughout the year. It’s a really wonderful place for a walk any time you stop by Cashiers.
Learn about Native American heritage in Cherokee at the Oconaluftee Indian Village or the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. There’s also Mingo Falls near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (NC side) entrance. It’s perfect for any waterfall lover, worth every step, and we’ve shared more about it here.
The epic Clingmans Dome Observation Tower is about 25 miles from Cherokee, too, and totally worth a visit.
When in Dillsboro, stop by Haywood Smokehouse for some gifts or a delicious cup. Dogwood Crafters shares the work of local artisans and then there’s the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory, who’d love to share their fine creations with you.
Franklin sits near the center of Nantahala National Forest and is a popular Appalachian Trail rest stop. It’s near quite a few waterfalls, including Rufus Morgan Falls and Dry Falls between that Macon County town and Maggie Valley.
Franklin is also fun for shopping and for catching shows at Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts.
You should head to Hendersonville for more reasons than I can name here. If you’re searching for fine NC wine, head to Burnt Shirt Vineyards.
Of course, fall visitors should head to one of their orchards for apple picking and folks seeking some nature should head to nearby Jump Off Rock and the Carl Sandburg Home.
You could easily spend all your time in Highlands, exploring the shops downtown. Theater-goers should keep an eye out for showtimes at the Highlands Playhouse. At the Museum of American Cut and Engraved Glass, you’ll learn about pieces from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Of course, you should venture out around Highlands, as it’s not too far from Dry Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Cullasaja Falls.
We first stopped in Kings Mountain when spending our first weekend in Cleveland County and really dug the vibes there. It’s the first of many small towns in this post that we included in our guide to day trips from Charlotte.
When you’re in this awesome Cleveland County town, you should spend time learning about the area at the Kings Mountain Historical Museum. Of course, you should get outside at the Gateway Trail, part of the Carolina Thread Trail.
You can also check out Crowders Mountain State Park nearby.
Both the Carolina Thread Trail and Crowders Mountain feature among our favorite outdoor things to do in Charlotte since it’s also close by.
Hop off the Blue Ridge Parkway and spend some time in Little Switzerland, which we refer to as our next mountain getaway. Don’t forget to stop by the Switzerland Cafe and General Store, where you can shop, eat, peruse, and more.
Many folks come to Shelby for a look at Bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs, who is also a Cleveland County native. What has us wanting to come back is the homey atmosphere, Hunger Games-inspired pizzas at Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille, and more that we shared here.
Visitors to Sylva will love the natural surroundings, including spots like Pinnacle Park and Wolf Creek Lake. Stick around for fun at the American Museum of the House Cat.
And if you’re into beautiful historic buildings, check out the Jackson County Public Library. A nice view of downtown awaits from up there.
Central North Carolina
Many of these spots in Central North Carolina are within quick reach of a day trip, especially from Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Some small towns we share are near Charlotte and even considered part of its metropolitan region.
You’ll see a lot of cool small towns in North Carolina as you pass through on US 1, and Aberdeen might be the first to stand out. It’s fun for shopping or perusing at spots like Seagrove Pottery of the Sandhills.
Plus, you can get some holes in at Legacy Golf Links.
Apex follows its motto, “The Peak of Good Living” with a fun Historic District that’s filled with boutique shops and restaurants. Peak Town is also close to Jordan Lake, solidifying its spot among our favorite small towns in the Research Triangle.
Asheboro brings in tons of people for the North Carolina Zoo but there’s even more to this town that sits in the heart of our state. The NC Aviation Museum and the American Classic Motorcycle Museum are two mainstays to visit. Oh, and there’s also the NC Potters Conference in March.
Carrboro is where a lot of UNC-Chapel Hill students live. It’s also home to folks who discovered that this is one of the most chill small towns in North Carolina. We long felt that way and even learned about the ties between many Carrboro restaurants during the Taste food tour we joined there.
A visit to this fun town is included in our guide covering a weekend in Chapel Hill and Orange County.
Hillsborough was one of the first small towns of North Carolina that we visited and we immediately fell in love with it. You can easily enjoy this place, and you should start with a walk on Churton Street before stopping at Wooden Nickel Pub.
You can also stroll along the Riverwalk and grab some grub at Hillsborough BBQ Company on Nash Street. Additional awesome spots for walks include the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail and of course, Ayr Mount.
NASCAR fans will know Kannapolis as the home of the late Intimidator Dale Earnhardt and you can find a statue dedicated to him along the Dale Trail. The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame is also here, and you can learn more about our state’s musical heritage and hall inductees when visiting.
Don’t forget about Douglas Vineyards if you’re interested in a tasting.
We also included a visit to Kannapolis in our guide to a weekend in Concord and Cabarrus County.
Lexington’s Barbecue Center was my first experience with red slaw and after the first spoonful, I was hooked. Sure, this town is known for its signature style of ‘cue and holds an annual festival to commemorate that.
But you should also come here to sip some wine at Childress Vineyards and enjoy the waters of High Rock Lake.
These are just a few of the fun things to do in Lexington on any weekend throughout the year!
Mebane easily lives up to its “Positively Charming” motto and remains one of our favorite places to visit in Alamance County. Clay is a great shopping street where you can find all sorts of things.
Then, you should dig into the awesome dishes served at The Mebane Downtown Table.
Many folks know Mount Airy as “Mayberry” and after checking out Downtown and the Andy Griffith Museum, you’ll see why.
Mayberry Spirits Distillery and Round Peak Vineyard are fun Mount Airy spots, too. Oh, and there’s also the amazing Pilot Mountain State Park nearby, too.
Slow down a bit at Pinehurst Resort before heading out for a day on the Cradle Par 3 Course. You can also get out and explore Pinehurst’s Sandhills Horticultural Gardens or travel to nearby Carthage for a look at murals and some grub at Pik N Pig.
We love this Chatham County town for its walkable downtown.
Pittsboro is also known for Carolina Tiger Rescue, which is doing its part in the fight against the exotic animal trade. You should also head to nearby Siler City and visit Celebrity Dairy, especially when the baby goats come out in spring.
However, we also think you should check out their five historic districts and venture a couple of miles away to the NC Transportation Museum in Spencer.
When talking about the small towns of North Carolina, Saxapahaw is our favorite one to say out loud. It’s also home to some awesome shops, including a five-star general store, Haw River Farmhouse Ales, and Haw River Ballroom.
Visit Seagrove and you’ll be smack dab in the middle of the handmade pottery capital of the United States. Be sure to spend time driving around the NC Pottery Highway (NC 705).
That way you can stop in towns like Star, Whynot, Robbins, and more along the way.
After hitting up Pinehurst and Aberdeen in the “Home of Golf,” don’t forget about Southern Pines. There’s a fun downtown to walk through, and also Reservoir Park if you feel like getting in some nature time.
Many folks come to Statesville for Carolina Balloon Fest in October, but you can come any time of year to see Fort Dobbs and Bigleaf Slopes Park. Beer and spirits connoisseurs will enjoy Fourth Creek Brewing and Southern Distilling Company, too.
We first visited Wake Forest for a now-defunct barbecue competition that we hope will return but fell in love with the community centered around White Street.
For beer lovers, White Street Brewing is a must and if you want to check out some nature, E. Carroll Joyner Park and nearby Falls Lake State Recreation Area should get a visit from you.
Eastern North Carolina
Eastern North Carolina is where you’ll find the highest concentration of historic small towns, mainly because Europeans first permanently settled down in this part of the state. Not only is there a rich heritage in this area, but there are also some of the quaintest and friendliest coastal towns right by the beach.
Atlantic Beach is the first Bogue Banks town you’ll encounter after crossing over the bridge from Morehead City. Fort Macon State Park is here, at the eastern end of Bogue Banks. Here, you’ll find a Civil War-era fort, beach access, trails, and an incredible coastal education center.
There are also some great restaurants here, including the Shark Shack (great fried seafood), as well as tasty breweries like Crystal Coast Brewing.
And if you need a place to stay nearby, check out Atlantis Lodge. Our family has been going there for years!
Bald Head Island
You could easily spend a weekend, week, or the rest of your life on Bald Head Island. When you get tired of lazying around the house, grab your golf cart and check out Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse.
Or you can explore one of the many nature trails, including Kent Mitchell, on the island.
The wild horses of the Rachel Carson Reserve were the main reason we first stopped by Beaufort, and we were hooked on the town. You can also come here for the North Carolina Maritime Museum or to just stare at the boats and water after parking on Front Street.
Also, don’t forget to grab some grub at Beaufort Grocery CO and Moonrakers.
These are just a few of the many great things to do in Beaufort!
Right at the southeast edge of the state is Calabash, which you may know for its signature style of preparing seafood. When you’re not eating all the fresh fish and other sea creatures they offer, head to nearby Sunset Beach or Bird Island for more coastal fun.
Duck is known by many as one of the first towns in The Outer Banks to visit. Its beach and boardwalk are perfect for families, couples, and solo travelers alike. We also included its Roadside in our guide to Outer Banks restaurants, if you’re coming hungry.
Edenton was the first permanent European settlement of North Carolina and its second permanent capital. The Chowan County seat is filled with history but is also worth a visit for views of Albemarle Sound and a weekend at one of their many relaxing places to stay.
Further toward the coast from Edenton, you’ll find Elizabeth City, a beautiful town that sits on the Pasquotank River.
Among the many things to do here, you should check out the Museum of the Albemarle. This is the northeastern branch of the NC Museum of History.
At the western end of Bogue Banks, opposite Atlantic Beach and adjacent to Indian Beach, you’ll find Emerald Isle. It can get busy in the summer and has shops and restaurants to handle the traffic.
Head to The Point for some of the best beach views in all of North Carolina.
Come to Wayne County and you’ll discover the four Ps that run the show in Goldsboro and in its surroundings. You really have to come and walk around Downtown, eat at some area restaurants, and check out Heritage Farms General Store nearby.
Thank me later, but don’t forget to stop by Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley. It’s so good that we mentioned it in our guide to North Carolina barbecue!
Kill Devil Hills
Kill Devil Hills has been our go-to place to stay in The Outer Banks. When not at the beach or eating at Kill Devil Grill, we love visiting the Wright Brothers Memorial and Nags Head Woods, which the town co-manages with Nags Head.
Mother Earth Brewing also pumps out some of Eastern NC’s finest beers from Kinston and if you’re into Civil War history, check out the CSS Neuse II that’s on display.
Leland is one of many Brunswick County spots that you might recognize from the many movies filmed here. You’ll understand why very quickly. Cape Fear National at Brunswick Forest is a nice spot for admiring the beauty here and for a day on the links.
The Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament brings people from all over to Morehead City every summer. It’s also popular for scuba diving and many folks, including us, enjoy hanging out on Atlantic Beach just across the Bogue Sound.
We included The Big Rock among 50-plus more Summer Things to Do in North Carolina!
We’ve mentioned a few times that Mount Olive is a pretty big dill, thanks to the massive pickle company that calls it home. You can learn more about this in April during the NC Pickle Festival.
Nags Head is known for Jockeys Ridge State Park, the iconic Jennette’s Pier, and nearby Bodie Island Lighthouse. Some of our favorite places to eat in Nags Head include Grits Grill and Tortugas Lie, and there are tons more places to dig into.
Oh, and you can hunt for all the bear statues in town. There’s also the waterfront and tons of local restaurants like Persimmons, Baker’s Kitchen, and more worth exploring for at least a weekend!
Oak Island is the perfect spot to have a beach getaway and if you feel the need for more seclusion, head over to Caswell Beach next door. To get a nice panoramic view of the area, visit Oak Island Lighthouse and show off even more to friends and family.
When looking up “Outdoor Fun” in the dictionary, a picture of Oriental should come along with the definition. You can paddle, bike, boat, and just about anything else an outdoor enthusiast can do here.
You can also grab a beer at New Village Brewery and soak up some backstory at Oriental’s History Museum.
Home to the North Carolina Fourth of July Festival, Southport is worthy of all the TV shows and films that have used it as a backdrop. You can hang out by the waterfront all day long and visit one of the North Carolina Maritime Museum locations here.
Southport is also where you go to reach Bald Head Island via ferry.
When on Topsail Island and exploring the beaches there, you’ll want some time to explore Surf City. It’s got a cool fishing pier that you can walk on and watch folks as they reel in something big.
Then there’s the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, a truly fun and educational place which is open on Thursday and Saturday afternoons.
Swansboro is a Jacksonville suburb that’s known for Hammocks Beach State Park and its gorgeous waterfront. We loved walking around Front St, where you can shop and eat all day long.
You’re also close to Cedar Point’s Salty Air Open Market and Emerald Isle if you feel like getting away from this nice little town.
Swansboro also featured in our guide to a weekend in Jacksonville.
Washington (also known as “Little Washington”) sits on the Pamlico River’s northern bank, with a cozy historic waterfront for walks or picnics. Goose Creek State Park is another nice way to enjoy the outdoors here.
And if you’d like to see North Carolina’s oldest town, you can drive for about 20 minutes and reach Bath.
If you haven’t gotten to visit the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, then we know what you’re next thing to do in North Carolina should be. Lake Wilson Reservoir is another fun way to get outside in the area.
And by the way, Parker’s and Marty’s both have some of the best Eastern NC barbecue you’ll find.
We mentioned a few of these things in our guide to a weekend in Wilson, too.
What are the Best Small Towns in North Carolina?
So now that we’ve laid out the best small towns in North Carolina, we’d love to know what you have down as your favorites.
Which is the first one you want to visit when getting out and about in our state? Got any you’d like to add to the mix?
Let us know in the comments section!