Last Updated on July 22, 2021
Last Updated on July 22, 2021
We’ve created a bucket list of the most unique things to do in North Carolina, after years of living here and traveling throughout the state. Overall, it really is a lot of fun to look back through all the cities and towns we’ve visited, the hikes, the food, and all of the memories we’ve created.
Inside this NC bucket list guide, we’re sharing our favorite places to visit in alphabetical order, from the mountains to the sea. So buckle up for the best things to do in North Carolina and take notes for your next vacation!
If you’d like to jump to a specific part of our state, here are a few quick links to each section.
- Things to Do in North Carolina (Western)
- Things to Do in North Carolina (Central)
- Things to Do in North Carolina (Eastern)
- More Things to Do in North Carolina (Related Posts)
If you’re looking to visually plan your trips through our bucket list, please check out our travel map. We’ve also released a Bucket List book with a deeper dive into these unique things to do in North Carolina.
Things to Do in North Carolina
Also, if you think we missed a place or left something out that’s close to your heart, check our guide that cover specific things to do in North Carolina’s three main regions:
- Places to Visit in Western North Carolina
- Places to Visit in Central North Carolina
- Places to Visit in Eastern North Carolina
Things to Do in North Carolina (Western NC)
From the Foothills to the Tennessee border, Western North Carolina is largely known as “the Mountains” by those of us lucky enough to visit. It includes Asheville and the very popular High Country, but you really have to keep coming back to explore the rest of this region.
You may think we forgot about Nantahala National Forest and Pisgah National Forest, but keep in mind that many of these things to do in North Carolina’s mountains lie within those public lands.
Without further ado, here are some of the best things to do in North Carolina’s westernmost cities, towns, and landmarks.
Ashe County Cheese
One of the best things to do in North Carolina (and the first we’ll mention) is to visit the ever-so-famous Ashe County Cheese in West Jefferson. A retail shop opens for your perusing eyes and at the factory across the street, you can watch them make cheese during specific times each week!
Asheville River Arts District
Inside Asheville’s River Arts District (RAD), more than 200 artists work in former industrial buildings, providing visitors with a variety of mediums to experience in one place. You can tour the district or walk around on your own.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway headlines a wonderful collection of scenic roads in our state. Driving the 252 miles of Parkway that we share with Virginia is one of those mandatory things to do in North Carolina if you’re keeping a bucket list like us.
From its entrance into North Carolina around Cumberland Knob to its southern terminus just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance, there are innumerable stops along the way.
Some of our favorites include the following in ascending order of milepost (MP):
- Cumberland Knob (MP 217)
- Moses H Cone Memorial Park (MP 294)
- Rough Ridge Trailhead (MP 302)
- Linn Cove Viaduct (MP 304)
- Linville Falls (MP 316)
- Little Switzerland (MP 333)
- Crabtree Falls Trailhead (MP 339)
- Craggy Gardens (MP 364)
Additional scenic roads we’d include among the best things to do in North Carolina are the Cherohala Skyway, the Waterfall Byway (which we’ll mention shortly), the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, and the Outer Banks Scenic Byway.
The Carl Sandburg Home
Flat Rock is south of Hendersonville and also in the county. Here, you can explore the Carl Sandburg Home, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning author lived for the final 22 years of his life.
Tour the home, hike five miles of trails around the residence. And visit the dairy barn that houses Lilian Sandburg’s famed dairy goats.
Chimney Rock is one of North Carolina’s most iconic mountains and accessible by elevator. You can look down at Lake Lure and the Hickory Nut Gorge from the top.
The Chimney Rock access is one of the few state park attractions where admission is charged, but it goes toward the wonderful cause of maintaining the trails and keeping up the park.
Christmas Tree Farms
You can find Fraser Firs and other varieties throughout Watauga and other neighboring counties. Still, Ashe County is also known as the largest producer of Christmas trees in the US and during the holidays.
Frosty’s is one of our favorite Christmas tree farms in North Carolina, with tons to choose from!
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
Clingmans Dome is a mountain that hugs the North Carolina-Tennessee border and part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its observation tower sits on the North Carolina side, offers bucket list-worthy views, and rightfully attracts hordes of visitors every year.
DuPont State Recreational Forest
Scope out Hunger Games scenes in North Carolina, especially from the beautiful Dupont State Recreational Forest. This amazing place is shared by Transylvania and Henderson counties.
Many of our favorite waterfalls are here, including High Falls, Triple Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls.
Earl Scruggs Center
We think Cleveland County deserves some of your time while exploring Western North Carolina, too! Head there and hang out around the home of Earl Scruggs.
Fields of the Wood
Murphy sits on the western end of US-64 in North Carolina and known for more than starting the drive from “Murphy to Manteo.”
Fields of the Wood is a massive representation of the 10 Commandments. Regardless of your religious views, visiting this place is one of the most interesting things to do in North Carolina.
Fontana Lake and Fontana Dam
Not far from Cherokee and Bryson City, Fontana Lake (the largest lake in Western NC) is also in Swain County. You can rent a boat and ride on the lake throughout the year.
Fontana Dam, the tallest in the Eastern US at 480 feet, is one of the coolest things to do in North Carolina, especially around Fontana Lake. However, Lakeview at Fontana might have something to say about the best way to see the lake.
Construction on the dam began in 1942 and was completed in 1944. You can reach it via the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway that eventually merges with the famed Tail of the Dragon.
Fontana Lake and Fontana Dam are a couple of the first fun things to do in Bryson City that we’ll mention.
A visit to Grandfather Mountain at some point is one of those rights of passage things to do in North Carolina, especially in the High Country.
When you say “Grandfather Mountain” to someone, you might be referring to just the mountain, the non-profit tourist attraction with the mile-high swinging bridge, or the state park.
Of course, you should visit its mile-high swinging bridge, which requires entering the non-profit tourist attraction side. On the state park side, trails range from easy to difficult.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the NC Side)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park and half of its 522,427 acres reside in North Carolina. The southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway meets the park, where you might happen upon elk making their daily walk through the Oconaluftee Valley.
Some of North Carolina’s most beautiful waterfalls and hikes await in and around the Smokies. One shining example is the Deep Creek Trail, which will take you to three beautiful named falls.
A host of other sights await on our side of the Smokies and we hope you add it to your bucket list of things to do in North Carolina.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is an amazing reason to visit Bryson City, especially in winter when they’re running the Polar Express. During that popular ride, holiday magic takes over the attraction, as the 75-minute train ride reenacts the classic story.
Hanging Rock State Park
Hanging Rock State Park isn’t too far from Piedmont Triad cities like Winston-Salem and Greensboro. We call it our favorite mountain away from the mountains, thanks to its relatively eastern location.
Henry River Mill Village
We mentioned The Hunger Games earlier but thought you should know about the Henry River Mill Village in Burke County, too. This now abandoned planned mill community served as the movie’s location for District 12 filming scenes.
Hendersonville Apple Orchards
Hendersonville is the Henderson County seat and home to fun throughout the year. If you asked us to narrow it down among the best things to do, the Apple Festival around Labor Day would be the one.
We included it in our guide to apple picking, along with some of the area’s best apple orchards. Hopefully, you’ll include some time here during one of your trips through North Carolina.
The High Country
Other than the Black Mountains (spoiler alert!), the High Country is the only region that we’ll include among things to do in North Carolina. The conversation with this area usually starts with Boone, which is full of fun things to do, even if you’re not an App State student or alum.
You’ll find plenty of hikes (and waterfalls) in the Boone and Blowing Rock area. Our favorites include Glen Burney Trail, the Summit Trail at Elk Knob State Park, Boone Fork Trail, and Flat Top. The latter leads you to a fire tower with epic views of surrounding mountains.
We think a visit to Blowing Rock should be on anyone’s bucket list of things to do in North Carolina. Many folks come to stay at Chetola Resort and see The Blowing Rock, but there are plenty more fun things to do in this awesome mountain town.
Hot Springs Resort
A visit to Hot Springs for its hot mineral springs is one of the healthiest things to do in North Carolina. Tourists have long been traveling from all over to soak in the waters and it’s time for you to join the fun.
The Shadow of the Bear
And each fall and winter in Jackson County, don’t miss out on the truly unique Shadow of the Bear. On sunny days not at around 5:30 pm, a bear-like shadow forms over the valley below Rhodes Big View Overlook.
Lake Junaluska and Maggie Valley
Lake Junaluska is just around the corner from Maggie Valley, home to a nearly 4-mile path that encircles the namesake lake. If conditions are right in the morning, you’ll see mist rise off of the water and a glassy reflection framed by the mountains.
Back to Maggie Valley, which is one of our absolute favorite mountain towns. It’s a consistent family vacation spot for us, a great base for exploring all the things to do in North Carolina’s highest mountains.
Have the time of your life and remember that no one puts Baby in a corner! Most folks know Lake Lure for its role as a backdrop for Dirty Dancing. Filmmakers sought it out for the beauty that you’ll find when arriving in this wonderful town.
You can get out on the water with a boat tour or kick back and relax on the beach. Of course, you can always experience movie-inspired dance, music, arts, and attempt the famous lake lift at Lake Lure’s Dirty Dancing Festival. That event is typically held in September.
Lexington Style Barbecue
Barbecue is a sensitive topic in North Carolina, especially when you’re debating Lexington-style versus Eastern-style. We won’t tell you our favorite and will stick to the facts here.
Standard Lexington-style uses only the pork shoulder smoked long and slow over hickory until it is fall-apart tender. Basted with a “dip” of tomato, vinegar and perhaps some spice, the smoked meat is served traditionally with a slaw also containing tomato, making it red.
Bar-B-Q Center in Lexington is where we’d start there, but you can find Lexington-style barbecue in many places. Shelby is one great example, with Alston Bridges and Red Bridges standing out as two of the best.
Linville Gorge Wilderness Area
Linville Falls is the most popular waterfall in North Carolina and the first outdoor spot that we’ll mention in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.
From there, you can venture up to Wiseman’s View which is totally worth the rocky drive. We’ve made it up in a four-door sedan but an SUV might get up there easier.
From Wiseman’s View, you can see Table Rock Mountain and Hawksbill Mountain. Those are two amazing hikes in the Linville Gorge, among many more.
A hike in the Linville Gorge is always on our minds when thinking about things to do in Morganton and Burke County.
This place has it all, including beautiful views, amazing food, and cozy rooms. Don’t forget about Grassy Creek Falls around the corner and the Little Switzerland General Store down the road.
The latter serves up some of the finest barbecue in Western North Carolina that you’ll find.
If you’ve never tried livermush, put a plate of it on your bucket list of things to do in North Carolina, too! There are plenty of places that serve it in our state, but it’s a specialty of many restaurants in Shelby and Cleveland County.
Order it “split and dropped” and hopefully, the cooks in the back will know that this is the best way to serve up that livermush
Mast General Store
There are Mast General Stores scattered throughout North Carolina and even in neighboring states, with an REI/general store kind of vibe. Any time we’re in Boone, Mast is usually on our minds for a hiking shirt or accessory that we “need.”
All of these stores have earned our approval but you have to visit the original in Valle Crucis. It’s well-known for its collection of just about everything, moon pies, and an inviting back porch.
Spend some time in this fun little town and you might just get hooked on all the fun things to do in Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro, and elsewhere in the county.
Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains
Mount Mitchell is the tallest mountain east of the Rockies, but that’s not the only reason it make your list of things to do in North Carolina. Its surroundings in the Black Mountains host gorgeous hikes, with at least a few of them leading to some of our favorite waterfalls.
A visit to the Black Mountains is one of our favorite things to do in Burnsville and Yancey County.
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Head into Cherokee and check out the town, which is full of history and lots of outdoor adventure. Learn more about the people and the history of the area here. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is one great place to start.
Witness the retelling of 11,000-plus years of history here. With multiple permanent and rotating exhibits, this building is one you should visit if you want to find a “Model for Museums.”
Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy
Pilot Mountain stands on its own as an awesome state park, but it’s largely associated with Mount Airy. Pilot has a few short hikes to the top, but I think admiring the unique shape that gives the mountain its name is pretty fun, too.
And speaking of Mount Airy, we know time-traveling back to Mayberry might already be on your bucket list of things to do in North Carolina, but you’d yell at us if we left Mount Airy out.
Road to Nowhere
Today, the Road to Nowhere is a tourist destination but its intriguing past is also worth noting. In the 1930s, when the Federal Government built the dam to create Fontana Lake, the nearby communities, lying at what is now the bottom of the lake, were displaced.
Today, the “Road” officially ends at a quarter-mile tunnel now known as The Road to Nowhere. You can walk through it and beyond if you’re ready for a long trek.
Sugar and Beech Mountain and Cataloochee in Maggie Valley are a few of the biggest named ski resorts in North Carolina.
Most of them are nestled in the High Country or further west in the mountains around Asheville. Regardless of where you’re headed, grab your snow bibs and mittens and get ready an adventure on our snow-covered slopes.
Stone Mountain State Park
Stone Mountain State Park is a great place to hike and shared by both Wilkes and Alleghany counties. Many folks come here to climb Stone Mountain itself, to check out the namesake 200-foot Stone Mountain Falls, or to admire and have a dip at Widow’s Creek Falls.
Western North Carolina Waterfalls (Hikes and Roadside)
We’ve already mentioned a few of our favorite waterfalls but want to share more that should rank high on your bucket list of things to do in North Carolina.
Gorges State Park is another nearby waterfall hotspot, leading to Hidden Falls, Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls. All are located just outside the park’s boundaries inside Pisgah National Forest.
Drive between Franklin and Highlands along the Waterfall Byway and you’ll want to stop at one or more of the following awesome waterfalls:
- Cullasaja Falls
- Bust Your Butt Falls
- Dry Falls
- Bridal Veil Falls (not the one inside DuPont State Forest)
Yadkin Valley Wineries
We’ve visited wineries throughout the state and will mention a couple of others but think you should specifically know about the Yadkin Valley. It is the first federally approved American Viticultural Area (AVA) that is ideal for growing exceptional grapes.
Today, it covers 7 counties and hosts dozens of amazing wineries. We don’t want to play favorites but a few of them include Elkin Creek, McRitchie, and Jones von Drehle.
Those three are part of the Surry County Wine Trail, which holds about 20 of the area’s wineries. An additional one (Grassy Creek in Elkin) offers amazing wine and also serves as a trailhead that eventually leads to Carter Falls.
Central North Carolina
With all that going on in one area, it was tough to narrow it down. But we did our best to bring the best things to do in North Carolina’s center, all worthy of our NC Bucket List.
Note: If you think we missed a place or left something out that’s close to your heart, check our guide that covers Places to Visit in Central North Carolina.
Black Wall Street in Durham
Parish St and its surroundings in Durham were once known as Black Wall Street. It was a huge hub of African-American entrepreneurship, and one of the most important places to learn about Black history in North Carolina.
You can take a balloon ride throughout much of the year if you can’t make it to the festival. We mentioned that in our guide covering things to do in Statesville.
Carolina Renaissance Festival
More of our favorite outdoor things to do in the Charlotte area include Latta Plantation and Carolina Raptor Center. They’re both located in Huntersville, which is also in Mecklenburg County and one of many awesome day trips from Charlotte.
You can enjoy Huntersville year-round, but especially during the Carolina Renaissance Festival. During this fall series, nearly 1,000 artists fill a 25-acre village, along with music, theater, food and drinks, and even more.
Popular events include tournament Jousting, falconry demos, and a Living Mermaid exhibit!
Carolina Tiger Rescue
Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro is a wonderful and very important place. The non-profit sanctuary for wildcats and open to the public.
The work going on here is important in protecting previously captive animals and also in educating the public about them and their plight.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro
Hang out in Chapel Hill and grab some food at Time Out, one of the other fun places to eat on Franklin Street, or more next door in Carrboro.
The Campus of UNC-Chapel Hill itself is very nice, so please do yourself a favor and walk through it. It’s one of our favorite things to do, though there’s plenty more to explore away from campus.
Charlotte by Light Rail
Uptown Charlotte is the place for Hornets games and meals at the always-fun 7th Street Public Market. It’s also a great spot to stay and we’ve enjoyed multiple nights at both the Hilton Charlotte Center City and also, the Dunhill Hotel.
Of course, we think you need to spend time in NoDa, Southend, and Charlotte’s other awesome neighborhoods. Thanks to the LYNX Light Rail, you can do that without having to drive around and search for a parking spot.
People in the know will tell you to park at UNC Charlotte and take the train into Uptown and elsewhere from there.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Inside the main Speedway, you’ll find the 1.5-mile quad Oval, the .25 mile Short Oval, and the 2.28-mile road course (Roval). Across US 29 is zMax Dragway and the Dirt Track.
Crowders Mountain State Park
Gaston County sits on the western edge of Central North Carolina between Cleveland and Mecklenburg counties. There are quite a few fun things to do in Gastonia (county seat) and in surrounding towns like Belmont, Dallas, and others.
Crowders Mountain State Park is one of the most popular places to go, especially for views of the Charlotte skyline on clear days.
Dorothea Dix Park
When summer is flexing its muscles, head to Dix Park for a gorgeous sunflower display.
Dorothea Dix Park is one of our favorite things to do in Raleigh with kids!
Duke-Carolina (or Carolina-Duke)
Even if you’re not a college basketball fan, this is one ticket you should try for at least once in your life. Apologies to all the other institutions in North Carolina but the two regular season games (and sometimes the one ACC tournament game) between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are like the World Series and Super Bowl rolled into an evening.
Tickets at either Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham or the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill go quickly, even when the two teams aren’t at the top of their games. My best advice is to befriend an alum and hope they get word of available tickets.
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
There are quite a few ways to enjoy the outdoors in Greensboro. We think you should start with a visit to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
It’s the site of an important Revolutionary War Battle, an awesome national parks site, and a great spot to stretch your legs in Gate City.
Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve
A stop at the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is the first of a couple things to do in Cary that we’ll mention. With a rare collection of Eastern Hemlock trees that you’ll normally find in our mountains, this is for sure one of the most unique things to do in North Carolina.
If you’re searching for places to stay, check out these cool Airbnbs in Raleigh!
International Civil Rights Center
You’ve seen Greensboro‘s contribution to Revolutionary War history but Gate City is also known for its place in the Civil Rights Struggle. The famous Woolworth Sit-ins happened here and launched a movement of young African-Americans fighting to desegregate establishments throughout the south.
Lake Norman is one of the most popular getaways for Charlotte residents and rightly so. People in Statesville, Troutman, Mooresville, and elsewhere in Iredell County are lucky to claim much of North Carolina’s largest man-made lake.
Speaking of Mooresville, you really need to visit downtown and just walk around before exploring all the other things to do in and around town.
If you’re in the area between December 1 and Christmas, head over to the 600-resident town of McAdenville, which sparkles and transforms into Christmas Town USA. It’s one of our favorite collections of Christmas lights in North Carolina for a reason, ya know?
The NC Chinese Lantern Festival
This is an awesome event held each winter and easily one of the most unique things to do in North Carolina. To prepare for the festival, 25 Chinese artisans from Chicago-based Tianyu Arts & Culture hand-assemble each beautiful lantern.
The NC Music Hall of Fame
You’ll learn about the stories and backgrounds of the bands and musicians from North Carolina that are enshrined there.
The NC State Fair
The North Carolina State Fair typically kicks off in Raleigh on an October day and runs for about a week and a half. It’s our state’s biggest agricultural fair, with almost too many options to name. There are agricultural exhibits, competitions, and entertainment galore.
You’ll definitely want to come for the fireworks and all the rides, including the State Fair Flyer. We didn’t even mention the food, with tastes that are out of this world but provided by local vendors.
The NC Zoo
It’s a massive place and especially worth a visit if you’re bringing little ones along.
Chow down on Moravian cookies and harken back to the times before Winston and Old Salem combined to make one amazing Dash City. You can walk around the historic town for free or pay admission and step inside them for a closer look.
One can easily spend a day or more visiting the various shops, historic buildings, gardens, and everything else that makes up the place. One of the most fun things to do in North Carolina is to eat at Old Salem. Winkler Bakery is the way to go for some delicious Moravian cookies, bread, or both.
Raleigh is home to some of our favorite museums, including the Museum of Art and Museum of Natural Sciences. Of course, there’s also the African American Cultural Complex, which houses a unique collection of artifacts and documents.
And we can’t forget about the ahead-of-the-game art and innovative experiences await as you stroll through the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh (CAM).
Finally, across from the Museum of Natural Sciences is the North Carolina Museum of History. Here, you’ll find the “Story of North Carolina” that covers prehistory to today.
The NC Sports Hall of Fame is inside this building and recognizes inductees Michael Jordan, Richard Petty, and more legendary figures.
Reed Gold Mine
Did you know that North Carolina was home to the first gold rush in the US? You can learn about it at Reed Gold Mine in Midland, Cabarrus County.
This is the site of America’s first documented commercial gold find. Today, there’s a visitor’s center with exhibits documenting the gold rush’s history and displaying mining equipment.
For just a few dollars, you can pan for gold. If you’re lucky, you might just take something shiny home!
While in Winston-Salem, imagine life in luxury at the city’s wealthiest home, Reynolda. It was designed by Katharine Reynolds and featured along with these awesome women-owned businesses in Winston-Salem.
Check out North Carolina’s pottery capital in Seagrove, Randolph County, throughout the year. November is when the Seagrove Pottery Festival brings people from all over and many of the area’s potters together.
Southern Grace Distillery
Hang out at Southern Grace Distillery in Mount Pleasant. If delicious spirits aren’t enough, you’ll want to visit because Southern Grace is headquartered in a former prison.
This place should be one of the first distilleries you should visit!
In December, visitors can peruse 2,500 ornaments when the Holiday Ornament Sale kicks off. These pieces are all produced by local artists, so you’ll be supporting the area while also filling your home with something beautiful.
Umstead State Park Chainsaw Art
The lengthy Sycamore Trail and the scenic Company Mill Trail are two of our favorites at Umstead. However, we think the awesome chainsaw art that awaits along the Multi-Use trails should be the first thing you search for here.
US National Whitewater Center
One of the most popular outdoor things to do in North Carolina’s largest city Charlotte is to visit the US National Whitewater Center. The center is located on the raging Catawba River and has whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, zip-lining, and hiking.
You can also just relax with a meal at River’s Edge, brew at the Pump House Biergarten, or picnic in one of the many open areas. One big event there that we must mention is the Green River Revival which happens around St Patrick’s Day each year.
Yates Mill County Park
Historic Yates Mill County Park sits just 5 miles south of downtown Raleigh and is one of 70 mills in Wake County. However, it’s the last that’s still operable.
Today, you can walk the 174-acres of the park around the lake and join one of the mill’s guided tours. Yes, you can watch as they grind corn right in front of you.
Eastern North Carolina
Note: If you think we missed a place or left something out that’s close to your heart, check our guide that covers Places to Visit in Eastern North Carolina.
Airborne and Special Operations Museum
The US Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum is a tribute to the history of airborne and special operations from the 1940s to current units is put together with well-designed, interactive exhibits and memorabilia.
Greeting you at the entrance is Iron Mike, the 3,235-pound statue dedicated to all past, present, and future paratroopers.
Do not miss Veterans Park’s dog tag chandelier, made of 33,500 tags dedicated to NC veterans. Another place to take pause is in front of is the bronze statue of Constant Vigilance, the first memorial for K9 soldiers killed in action.
We mentioned these places and more in our guide that covers things to do in Fayetteville.
Ava Gardner Museum
Head to Johnston County and check out the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield. It’s a true tribute to one of Hollywood’s most famous actresses who just happened to be born in JoCo (Grabtown).
Bath is North Carolina’s oldest town and about 20 minutes from Washington. You can take tours of the town and visit St Thomas Church, North Carolina’s oldest standing Episcopal Church.
Goose Creek State Park is between Bath and Washington and a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors in Beaufort County.
Battleship North Carolina
Battleship North Carolina is just across the Cape Fear River and absolutely worth a visit. It was the first of its kind built by the US Navy and was almost lost. Luckily, it was saved and is now open to the public who come and visit it each day.
Many folks have one thing in mind when mentioning Eastern North Carolina: the beach. Of course, a visit to one of our beaches is a wonderful opportunity for a new adventure throughout much of the year.
And there are hundreds of miles of beaches that await. They either surround our many coastal towns or sit fairly isolated, accessible only via 4WD or even boat.
Here are our favorites that belong on your NC Bucket List:
- Atlantic Beach
- Bald Head Island
- Bear Island
- Carolina Beach
- Emerald Isle
- Holden Beach
- Kill Devil Hills
- Kitty Hawk
- Kure Beach
- Oak Island
- Masonboro Island
- Nags Head Beach
- Southern Shores
- Sunset Beach
- Surf City
- Topsail Beach
- Wrightsville Beach
Beaufort is also in Carteret County and a visit to the town’s waterfront alone belongs on your bucket list of things to do in North Carolina.
Many folks come to Beaufort for a look at the boats on the water and a walk along Front St. 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 and learn about the seafood industry, lifesaving stations, lighthouses, and more.
This small fishing town along the Calabash River is now known as the “Seafood Capital of the World.” Featuring lightly battered and deep-fried seafood, over 1.25 million diners have flocked to these restaurants.
And just how did this small fishing community reach this fame? Jimmy Durante, a national radio talk host let the secret out by making Calabash his signature sign-off. “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” he would say.
Carolina Bays are found throughout many parts along the east coast and are believed to have formed following meteor showers a long time ago.
Chef and the Farmer
Howard is a James Beard-recognized chef who has excelled at mixing her culinary creativity with her Lenoir County roots, elevating recipes that she grew up eating and making. And after eating at this Kinston restaurant, I can vouch for the food being dynamic and most importantly, delicious.
Another great thing about Chef and the Farmer is that the food is seasonal and as locally sourced as possible.
Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
You’ll come upon the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station while driving through Rodanthe on the Outer Banks Scenic Byway. This museum commemorates the first life-saving station along North Carolina’s coast, commissioned in late 1874.
At Chicamacomico, you can also learn about America’s only life-saving station crewed by African-Americans.
Croatan National Forest
Croatan National Forest is home to 160,000 acres of pine forests, saltwater estuaries, raised swamps, and more diverse ecosystems. It’s known as the “only true coastal forest in the East” and is defined by the Bogue Sound and tidal rivers.
There are quite a few nice watery spots and beaches, including Flanners Beach and Pine Cliff.
Enjoy a tour or lunch from The Bistro from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm on the days that the winery is open. The Bistro offers daily lunch specials and has many offerings, such as gourmet soups and salads, sandwiches, and more.
For the vinegar-based yumminess that is Eastern-Style Barbecue, there are plenty of places to visit. Greenville (B’s) and Ayden (Bum’s) in Pitt County are home to two of the best.
You’ll find great Eastern barbecue in Wilson (Parker’s), Kinston (King’s), Goldsboro (Grady’s and Wilber’s), and elsewhere between Raleigh and the coast.
Fort Fisher Historic Site
A visit to Fort Fisher Historic Site is one of the best things to do in North Carolina for Civil War history lovers. This was the site of the largest amphibious assault of the Civil War and you can learn all about it inside the Visitor’s Center.
Incredible exhibits detail the two Civil War battles that happened here. You can also learn about Wilmington’s place in history beyond the war.
Of course, you need to walk around the site because it’s amazing to see in person. Just across the street is a huge stretch of beach and walking trails that are perfect throughout the year.
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
At the bottom of Hatteras Island is the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. The museum commemorates the 2,000-plus shipwrecks sunk off the Outer Banks.
Those wrecks are how the area earned its nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. Exhibits touch upon maritime culture, history, wars, ghost ships, and more.
County seat Halifax is known for the “Halifax Resolves,” which was a North Carolina-based Declaration of Independence that predated the Continental Congress’s version by three months.
You can visit the state historic site today and learn about this event and more about the area.
Hammocks Beach State Park
Having a couple of hours on the Intracoastal Waterway and Queen’s Creek were among the most peaceful I’ve ever experienced. Walking around Bear Island was one of my all-time favorite things to do in North Carolina.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
North Carolina officially designated it as a state park in 1975, not long after the dune were in danger of being destroyed. Thankfully, we can all enjoy it today.
Lake Mattamuskeet is North Carolina’s largest natural lake and managed as a National Wildlife Refuge. Many waterfowl spend winter here, including various duck, geese, and swan species.
Lejeune Memorial Gardens
Head to Jacksonville and spend time at Lejeune Memorial Gardens. This collection of memorials reminds us of those who’ve served and died for our nation.
Tributes include the Beirut Memorial, 9/11 Memorial Beam, a Vietnam Memorial, and Montford Point Marine Memorial. Drive through Downtown toward the New River, and you’ll see Freedom Fountain next to City Hall. It honors everyone who has served and is currently serving in all branches of our military.
50 water jets recognize each state and three flag and fountain jets feature our local, state, and federal governments. On most nights, the fountain is lit up with red, white, and blue.
There are seven coastal lighthouses in North Carolina, each with a distinct outward appearance meant to help sailors. For folks traveling to see them on land, these picturesque lighthouses are perfect collector’s items from your camera lens.
Here they are from north to south:
- Bodie Island
- Cape Lookout
- Old Baldy Lighthouse (also known as Bald Head Island Lighthouse)
- Oak Island
Start your Christmas season with a trip to Mike’s Farm in Back Swamp (Beulaville). Catch one of their dinner shows, visit during one of their many annual events, or just stop by the bakery for some delicious baked goods and fudge.
Mount Olive Pickle Drop
When most people are singing Auld Lang Sang, you can count down the new year and watch the Pickle Drop in Mount Olive, at the stroke of midnight on December 31.
This event ranks high among our favorite things to do in Goldsboro and Wayne County!
One of the most popular things to do in North Carolina along the coast is to visit one of our NC Aquariums. Each one offers education, resources for rehabilitation, and research for marine creatures.
They also feature exhibits filled with marine animals commonly found in our waters. Locations include the following:
- Roanoke Island
- Pine Knoll Shores
- Fort Fisher
- Jennette’s Pier
The Pepsi Store
Its original name was Brad’s Drink, first sold out of a drugstore in New Bern in 1898. Today, you can visit the Birthplace of Pepsi in New Bern and enjoy a cold one fountain-style with some popcorn.
A visit here is one of our favorite things to do in New Bern!
Rocky Mount Mills
Rocky Mount is shared by Edgecombe and Nash counties, but more of it sits in the latter. This Tar River-adjacent city is home to many historic places and Rocky Mount Mills is one of them.
You can easily take an entire morning and afternoon strolling around Swansboro, perusing shops, and dining by the water along Front St. We love waking up to the sunrise that pops over the bridge to brighten each day in this lovely coastal town.
Another bonus is that you’ll be close to Cedar Point’s Salty Air Open Market and Emerald Isle if you feel like exploring more.
Sylvan Heights Bird Park
Visit Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck for a look at the world’s biggest collection of endangered and rare waterfowl.
2,500 birds from all corners of the world await, including ducks, geese, parrots, flamingos, and more. The aviaries are continentally themed and interactive experiences include parakeet and flamingo feedings in the Landing Zone exhibit.
Tryon Palace is one of North Carolina‘s best-known historic homes and a major part of North Carolina history. Locals have put in years of hard work to restore and manage the palace.
It was originally built as the Governor’s Palace William Tryon to serve as the first permanent capitol building of the Colony of North Carolina. Today, visitors can learn about the Palace and a variety of other historic buildings nearby through a series of tours that are organized by the Tryon Palace Foundation.
Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park
Marvel at the strange wonders of Wilson’s Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. It’s truly a fun place to just walk around and stare at the whirligigs as they get blown around by the wind.
The two-acre park features 30 kinetic sculptures created by local farm machinery repairman, Vollis Simpson. Along with those 30 whirligigs, there’s a large grass amphitheater and a pavilion for community events.
This park is the first of our favorite things to do in Wilson!
Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum
Pair your visit to Washington (or Little Washington) with a stop at the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum. Housed in a caboose, the museum’s collection shares the story of enslaved people in the area who sought freedom from slavery.
The site is designated by the National Parks Service’s “Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.”
Weeping Radish Brewery
Why? Because this place on the Outer Banks is North Carolina’s first microbrewery. Uli Bennewitz opened Weeping Radish Brewery in 1986 and his brewery remains as innovative as it was on day one.
Their beer is only brewed with four ingredients: hops, malt, yeast, and water. The restaurant follows the same principles and uses no additives and supports local North Carolina farmers.
Of course, we’ve covered many more North Carolina breweries, along with Weeping Radish, from the mountains to the sea!
When we first visited the Rachel Carson Reserve, we had one thing in mind: finding wild horses.
Of course, that’s not the only place to find them. The Shackleford Banks wild horses might be the best known in North Carolina.
Along the Outer Banks, there’s also a beautiful collection of wild horses roaming around Corolla and Carova Beach. There are also some horses in Ocracoke, kept in a pen for their protection by the National Parks Service.
Hopefully, you’ll get to see them in one (or all) of these places someday. Just remember to keep your distance and never feed them.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
Isn’t it ironic that the site that’s known for “First in Flight” is the last of our things to do in North Carolina? Yep, we’re talking about the Wright Brothers National Memorial on the Outer Banks.
What’s On Your Bucket List of Things to Do in North Carolina?
It was tough for us to narrow down this bucket list of things to do in North Carolina because we know there are more. Also, we know that you can do some of these things elsewhere, but we think you’ll enjoy yourself a little bit more here.
You might be detecting a hint of bias, but if you know us, you’ll understand that it’s all in good fun. We love this state and all the things you can do here, especially if you can’t find them anywhere else.
Of all these things to do in North Carolina, what stands out as your favorite? Got anything you’d like to add to the list? Let us know about it here!