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Small Towns in the North Carolina Research Triangle

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on April 22, 2024.

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Are there any cool small towns in the Research Triangle? Of course, mention this booming area in Central North Carolina and you’ll hear names like RaleighDurham, and Chapel Hill.

But aside from these amazing cities, there are wonderful places with charm and homier vibes nearby. Here are the best small towns that the Triangle has to offer, why we love each town, and why you’ll find a few of them on our NC Bucket List.

Read More: Central North Carolina (and 100+ Amazing Places to Visit)

Small Towns in the Research Triangle


Orange County, Population: 6,000

It lives in the shadow of nearby Chapel Hill but Hillsborough is one of North Carolina’s most charming historic towns. The best ways to get out in Hillsborough include the Riverwalk along the Eno (part of the Mountains to Sea Trail) and post-hike meals at Wooden Nickel or Hillsborough BBQ Company.

There’s also a nice trail at the Occoneehee Mountain State Natural Area, with a bit of an incline not commonly found in Central North Carolina. Additional walks and hikes in Hillsborough include the Historic Occoneeche Speedway Trail and of course, Ayr Mount.

Read More: 17 Amazing Eno River State Park Trails (+ Bonus Hikes)


Small Towns in the Research Triangle Carrboro NC Street Mural Image

Orange County, Population: 19,500

We love Carrboro and consider it to be even more progressive than its neighbor Chapel Hill, though the latter was ranked even higher than Asheville on the hippie radar. On some days, I’ve noticed just as many bicycles as cars rolling through the small town.

When visiting, stop for an organic soda or some beer at the original Weaver Street Market, where you’ll find a nice shaded area for passing the time. Saturdays mean you should check out the Carrboro farmer’s market, known as one of the best in the country.

We learned about it and other restaurants in Carrboro while doing a Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tour there. Also, we’re big fans of the small town’s coffee shops, including Gray Squirrel and, of course, Carrboro Coffee Roasters.

Read More: Day Trips from Durham


Small Towns in the Research Triangle Saxapahaw NC Saxaco Image

Alamance County, Population: 2,000

This Alamance County town is my favorite to pronounce and one of the quirkiest places you’ll find in the US. It’s the only place I know of with a five-star general store, and the Haw River Ballroom is one of the best-known music venues in the area.

During the warmer months, Saturdays in Saxapahaw brings people from all over the triangle to sit down outside, watch some live music, and have a nice evening out with family.

The expanding Haw River Trail comes through Saxapahaw and there’s a growing movement to keep building that up. I’d recommend Saxapahaw to anyone who’s simultaneously searching for quiet and kitsch in a destination.

Read More: Day Trips from Greensboro


Small Towns in the Research Triangle Mebane NC Image

Alamance and Orange County, Population: 13,000

Pronounced “Meh-Bun,” Mebane is an outlier of sorts because it can be considered a part of the Research Triangle and also the nearby Triad of GreensboroWinston-Salem, and High Point

Alamance and Orange Counties share Mebane, a town filled with buildings and sites found on the National Register of Historic Places. The downtown is nice to walk through, grab a bite, and do some shopping at one of many boutique stores.

Many people I’ve talked to have said that the Alamance County area will be the next part of Central North Carolina to boom, so stay tuned. I might be writing about the metropolis of Mebane someday.

Read More: Fun Museums in Greensboro (Kid-Friendly, Contemporary Art, and More!)


Small Towns in the Research Triangle Places to Visit in North Carolina Apex Image

Wake County, Population: 43,000

Apex is right at the edge of moving into non-small town status and that makes me sad. Its proximity to Research Triangle Park and Raleigh are more to blame.

Nevertheless, the Wake County town we all know as “The Peak of Good Living” has grown in size and popularity.

The Historic District houses some nice boutique stores and restaurants. Anna’s Pizzeria is one of them, and the first place you’ll see upon arrival from Highway 55.

One of my favorite food trucks, Mr. A’s Beignets, is from Apex and you’ll likely see them in town if they’re not wreaking havoc on a nearby food truck rodeo.

Read More: Day Trips from Raleigh

Holly Springs

Small Towns in the Research Triangle Holly Springs NC Image

Wake County, Population: 30,000

Holly Springs has maintained a lot of its small-town charm as surrounding towns grow. Just south of Apex and the exploding Cary, Holly Springs has an expanding Greenway system and the town is working to connect more trails in years to come.

Two of my favorite breweries (Carolina Brewing Company and Bombshell Beer Company) can be found in Holly Springs, and the Bass Lake Draft House is a great place to grab a drink and meal as well. 

Bass Lake Park hosts a 54-acre oasis that offers watersports and fishing for its visitors.

Carolina Brewing features in our collection of favorite North Carolina breweries.

Got a Favorite to Add?

Other than Pittsboro, Morrisville, and Wake Forest, I’m not sure any other small towns in the Research Triangle could make this group. Of course, things could change as people move in and out of places. Either way, I’m excited to keep visiting these awesome small towns for many years to come.

Have you ever visited this part of North Carolina? What did you think of it? We’d love to know what your favorite parts were. If you’re planning a visit to this side of the state, let us know and we’ll be glad to help you find more unique things to do during your trip!

4 thoughts on “Small Towns in the North Carolina Research Triangle”

  1. Each place looks awesome Carl! Not a ton to do there, but I enjoyed relaxing with my in-laws in Fuquay Varina. An abandoned gold course now basically a forest made for a fun hike during my last visit. Low key spot, definitely a laid back deal compared to my hectic region of the US in NJ. Thanks for sharing buddy 🙂


    • I definitely need to get down there, Ryan. Thanks for mentioning it. I guess because it’s “far” compared to others, that it gets forgotten? Anyway, thanks for stopping by and throwing that in there.

  2. Pittsboro’s iconic courthouse in the circle (it’s the county seat of Chatham) speaks to the history and charm of this place. Add a creative culture with an exciting future and you have a recipe for success. Find it in Pittsboro.


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