We’ve been thinking about bucket list things to do in North Carolina and had a lot of fun looking back through all the places we’ve visited. There are some real treats in our state, and not just the sweet and savory ones that’ll find their way on your plate. We’ve also included our favorite outdoor spots in this epic guide.
- Statewide North Carolina Attractions (#1-#8)
- Eastern North Carolina (#9-#47)
- Central North Carolina (#48-#111)
- Western North Carolina (#112-#156)
This NC Bucket List continues to evolve as we uncover more that North Carolina has to offer. So buckle up for all the things to do in North Carolina and take notes for your next trip through our awesome state!
This guide is part of our series covering places to visit in North Carolina. It was originally created on December 11, 2018. It has been maintained and updated as of April 8, 2020.
Bucket List Things to Do in North Carolina
Statewide North Carolina Attractions
Road Trips and Barbecue
1. One of the best ways to enjoy this state is by getting out on the open highway. That’s why we think taking a scenic road trip through North Carolina is a must. Personal favorites start with the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western NC and the Outer Banks Scenic Byway along the furthest reaches along our coast. Scenic drives through North Carolina are more than just finding things to see. They lead to a lot of the things we’re going to cover in this bucket list.
2. You can debate eastern and western barbecue, but agree that they all taste pretty good. Towns in Eastern North Carolina you’ll want to visit for barbecue include Greenville, Ayden, Wilson, Kinston, and Goldsboro. In Central and Western North Carolina, eat barbecue in Lexington (aka Barbecue Capital), Shelby, Little Switzerland, and Asheville.
You can read more about where we like to eat North Carolina barbecue here. And if there are more places we need to explore, let us know and we’ll be happy to uh, investigate?
Sports and Hikes
3. Watch Minor League Baseball all over the state, from Triple-A heavyweights Durham Bulls and Charlotte Knights down to the Down East Wood Ducks and Fayetteville Woodpeckers. By the way, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run in the city and there’s a historical marker to commemorate his feat. We shared that tidbit among 50-plus more in our collection of North Carolina facts.
4. Speaking of sports, College Basketball is a big deal in North Carolina, whether you’re talking about the men or women. Duke-UNC isn’t the only rivalry that plays out every winter, but it’s certainly the biggest. Pair either of them up with NC State and Wake Forest and you should be in for a treat of a game. That can also be said for any time in-state foes meet up. Catch a game at a local pub and enjoy the atmosphere. Better yet, grab a ticket (if you’re lucky) and get ready for a true thrill ride.
5. There are great places to hike all over, especially for First Day Hikes in January. We’ve enjoyed many paths along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Appalachian Trail, and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Of course, some awesome paths await in Central and Eastern North Carolina. Our favorite places to find paths include, in no particular order, Nantahala National Forest, Eno River State Park, Pisgah National Forest, and Hanging Rock State Park. Some of the most popular individual hikes include Graveyard Fields, Linville Falls, Chimney Rock, and Rough Ridge Trail.
Our complete guide to hiking in North Carolina includes more of our favorites from the mountains to the sea.
Beer, Liquor, and Wine
6. Beer-hop North Carolina, which is packed with the most breweries per capita in the South. Yes, you can start in Asheville, but you must explore beyond that awesome Beertopia. In Central NC, you need to grab beers in Charlotte or Raleigh and nearby Durham. And in Eastern NC, check out the veteran-owned breweries of Fayetteville and the amazing Mother Earth in Kinston. We’ve included more of our favorite breweries in North Carolina here.
7. North Carolina is home to distilleries whose stories and offerings are equally diverse. You can find some of the tastiest gin, vodka, rum, whiskey, moonshine, and all other applicable spirits in this state. The people behind these establishments take great care in providing excellent products, and we cover some of the best here.
8. North Carolina’s nearly 200 wineries and 500-plus vineyards are as diverse as the terrain you’ll encounter from west to east. Our state was the first to cultivate the Scuppernong but European and French grapes are popular today, too. Five regions here have earned the designation of American Viticultural Area. They include the Appalachian High Country, Swan Creek, Upper Hiwassee Highlands, Yadkin Valley, and Haw River Valley. Popular places to taste and purchase include Biltmore Estate and Duplin Winery, which is the South’s oldest and largest.
Eastern North Carolina
9. Exploring the coast is one of the best things to do in North Carolina and for many people, that starts with Brunswick County. There, you’ll need to dig into Calabash’s amazing seafood, the beauty of Oak Island, and more.
10. We mentioned Duplin Winery but think you should explore more of Duplin County. Start 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.
Fayetteville and Cumberland County
11. We also can’t mention the eastern part of our state without talking about Fayetteville’s veteran community. It’s responsible for amazing breweries and local businesses that are truly a great part of that community.
12. Beyond the veteran impact (which is massive), Fayetteville hosts a pretty busy events calendar, and not just during spring, summer, and fall. Winter and Christmastime in Fayetteville are both jampacked with fun, as you’ll see here.
13. Fayetteville is also home to some awesome outdoor attractions and Cape Fear Botanical Garden is where you should start when seeking greenspaces in the area.
Spend at least a weekend in Fayetteville and see it all in action!
14. Fayetteville’s surroundings in Cumberland County is home to some fun small towns, including Hope Mills and Spring Lake.
15. And if you’re on I-95 driving through the area, stop off at exit 41 and enjoy a meal and a beer (if you’re not driving) at Dirtbag Ales. Its fun atmosphere complements an amazing collection of in-house brewed masterpieces and great people behind them. We shared more about it here.
Goldsboro and Wayne County
16. Since we’re talking about towns with a heavy military presence, let’s not forget Goldsboro. Trust me, you really want to spend a lot of time in this awesome place, at least a weekend. There, you’ll find an amazing collection of people and restaurants to support the rest of its four Ps—planes and pickles.
17. 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.
18. Every couple of years, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base hosts Wings Over Wayne, which is a fun all-day event filled with flyovers, food, and more fun.
We’re not done yet with Goldsboro, as you’ll see in our “Statewide” section.
21. While you’re doing that, stay at the Mother Earth Motor Lodge. For those who recognized the name, yes, it’s owned by Mother Earth Brewing owner Stephen Hill.
We shared more about our experience in our guide to a weekend in Kinston.
22. We also discussed the amazing arts scene in Kinston. You can find its footprint pretty much everywhere in and around town.
23. Kinston is home to King’s, which is an amazing barbecue restaurant that everyone there knows.
Jacksonville and Onslow County
24. Head to Jacksonville and eat a Paul Parker at Jeff’s.
25. Of course, you can’t spend time in Jacksonville without visiting Lejeune Memorial Gardens at least once. This collection of memorials reminds us of those who’ve served and died for our nation.
26. Spend at least a morning and afternoon strolling around Swansboro, perusing shops and dining by the water.
28. Head to Johnston County and check out the Ava Gardner Museum. It’s a true tribute to one of Hollywood’s most famous actresses who just happened to be born in JoCo (Grabtown).
29. If you’re driving on I-40 either to the coast or coming back from it, stop at exit 319 for some of the best food you’ll ever eat at Redneck BBQ Lab. Owner Jerry Stephenson and the folks there are doing some awesome things with competition style bbq.
Hopefully, you’ll luck out and stop by when they’re serving burnt ends.
30. And if you like fishing for big catches, you need to be in Morehead City for the Big Rock Tournament each June.
32. Visit Croatan National Forest and explore nature trails and at low tide, beautiful beaches that sit along the Neuse River.
The Outer Banks
34. Not far from there, you can see where North Carolina became “First in Flight” at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Each December, their achievements are honored during a Celebration of the First Flight.
35. Of course, you need to check out the beautiful beaches along our coast, including the Outer Banks. Technically, it’s just one long beach, ya know?
36. And while you’re in the Outer Banks, don’t forget to customize your own donut at the original Duck Donuts in, wait for it…Duck.
37. We also think you’ll love ticking off these Outer Banks Restaurants from your bucket list of things to do in North Carolina.
39. And we can’t leave out Topsail Island, which is one of our favorite spots any time of year.
40. More of our favorite beaches in North Carolina include Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington, which we’ll mention in a bit.
41. Don’t forget to spend some time downtown, shopping, eating, and strolling it off along the Riverwalk. It’s a fun place for families but also those traveling alone, with friends, or with that special someone. Here are some of our favorite things to do there.
43. 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.
44. Airlie Gardens is just a short drive away from downtown Wilmington and one of the state’s most beautiful places to visit. It’s popular for birding, home to massive oaks, and offers views of Wrightsville Beach in the distance.
45. Speaking of Wrightsville, don’t forget about the beaches around Wilmington, including Carolina and Kure, too. Our favorites always change and we’d love to know yours if you’ve ever been through this area.
46. 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.
47. Their Whirligig Festival in November brings people from all over to check out the park, but also fun put on by 200-plus vendors. It’s a no-brainer that we included it in our guide to kid-friendly events in North Carolina.
Of course, we mentioned a visit to the Whirligig Park in our guide to a weekend in Wilson.
Central North Carolina
48. Alamance county sits on the edge of the Triad and Triangle, but we’ll place it into the former for grouping purposes. It’s home to some fun day trip spots that include Burlington, Mebane, and Graham.
51. And then there’s Saxapahaw, which sits far away from it all. The former mill town has been repurposed for a new community, with restaurants, a brewery, a five-star general store, and musician-friendly Haw River Ballroom.
52. In the summer, Saturdays in Saxapahaw bring people from all around to enjoy music, food, and friendship.
54. And while we’re talking about Cary, you can stop by their Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve any time of year. It’s a rare collection of Eastern Hemlock trees that you’ll normally find in our mountains.
Chapel Hill and Orange County
56. The Campus of UNC itself is very nice, so please do yourself a favor and walk through it.
59. We also couldn’t discuss Orange County without mentioning Hillsborough, the county seat and one of our favorite small towns in the Research Triangle.
60. While you’re exploring Hillsborough, enjoy strolls through town, along the Riverwalk between River and Gold parks, and at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway.
61. We’re also fans of the Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area, with a view of the quarry ane Eno River below, offering one of the few peaks in the Triangle.
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County
63. We recommend at least a night at Hilton Charlotte Center City if you really want to enjoy the area.
67. You also have to spend time in NoDa, Southend, and Charlotte’s other awesome neighborhoods.
68. We also recommend a visit to one of the city’s many parks, including Independence Park, Freedom Park, and Reedy Creek Nature Center and Preserve.
69 & 70. 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.
71. You can enjoy this fun town year-round, but especially in November during the Carolina Rennaisance Festival.
Concord and Cabarrus County
73. 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. It was one of our favorite distilleries to visit!
74. 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. This is where the first documented commercial gold find.
75. And don’t forget about Kannapolis, which both Cabarrus County and Rowan County share! The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame is here and worth a visit, and not just because admission is free. You’ll learn about the stories and backgrounds of the bands and musicians from North Carolina that are enshrined there.
76. Kannapolis is also home to the Dale Trail, which commemorates the life and achievements of one Dale Earnhardt.
We detailed these things and more in our guide to a weekend in Concord and Cabarrus County!
77. Durham is the second-largest city in the Triangle and one we call “home.” Weekends here are awesome, especially if you’re joining a Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tour in Durham. It’s a great way to sample some awesome restaurants in Bull City.
78. Familiarize yourself with Main St and other prominent spots downtown, especially the area along Parish known as Black Wall Street. It was once a hub of African-American entrepreneurship, and you can learn more about it here.
79. Walk down the hill to the American Tobacco Campus (ATC). It was once a major player in the tobacco industry, but today it’s filled with tech startups and home to Burt’s Bees HQ.
81. The ATC also sits across from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which is one of the finest places anyone can watch a baseball game. We’ll talk more about Minor League Baseball later, but remember that there’s only one team in North Carolina with a classic movie made about it.
82. While we’re on the topic of sports, make sure you choose the right shade of blue when watching Duke battle UNC (Or vice versa. Not picking sides!) on the court in Durham or Chapel Hill. State fans in Raleigh and beyond likely root for both to lose.
83. Greensboro is the Triad’s largest city, home to amazing restaurants, and full of fun streets and neighborhoods to explore.
84. Lots of important things have happened here, including the famous Woolworth Sit-ins that launched a movement of young African-Americans fighting to desegregate establishments throughout the south.
85. Along with #84, another fun spot that we included in our guide to a weekend in Gate City is the Greensboro Science Center. It’s is a museum, zoological park, and aquarium all in one and definitely one of our favorite museums in North Carolina.
87. Proximity’s sister property O.Henry is also amazing and worth your time while in Gate City!
88. The smallest city of the three mains in the Triad is High Point, also the smallest city of the three. Still, it’s filled with enough bucket-list-worthy things to do.
89 & 90. Sure, it’s known for the Furniture Market, but you’ll enjoy City Lake Park and All-A-Flutter Butterfly Farm, too.
91. Fly into Raleigh-Durham International Airport and congratulate yourself because that’s the only place known as Raleigh-Durham. You can also watch planes take off and land at the airport’s observation tower.
92. Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro is a wonderful place that we’ll mention on the way out of the Triangle. It’s a 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.
93. The first place in Raleigh you should visit is Dorothea Dix Park, where you can get a nice view of the city’s skyline.
94. If you’re in Raleigh when summer is flexing its muscles, head to Dix Park for a gorgeous sunflower display.
96. Raleigh’s restaurant scene is always worth exploring, thanks to diverse tastes and James Beard award winners.
97. And speaking of food, don’t miss out on the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh. It’s a huge event in October and thousands of people attend each year.
We share these things to do and more in our guide to a weekend in Raleigh!
99. 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.
100. Did you know North Carolina has the world’s largest natural habitat zoo? Well, if not, then add that to your bucket list. The NC Zoo in Asheboro houses nearly 2,000 animals from over 250 species. It’s a massive place and especially worth a visit if you’re bringing little ones along.
We mentioned the NC Zoo and Seagrove in our guide covering a weekend in Asheboro and Randolph County.
104. There’s also a wonderful restaurant inside, called The Katharine. Please do yourself a favor and grab a meal and a drink there. You’ll be missing out on one of Winston-Salem’s best restaurants otherwise.
105. 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. Today, it’s an art museum and open to the public.
More Central NC Points of Interest
106. Before we leave the Triad, there are two state parks worth mentioning. The first one is Hanging Rock State Park, which we love hiking for beautiful views of surrounding mountains. It’s also a lovely spot for scoping out waterfalls and we cover it in more detail here.
107. Pilot Mountain is the second state park that we’ll mention, even though it’s largely associated with Mount Airy, which we’ll discuss in a bit. 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.
108. 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 it out.
111. In the Sandhills, head to Pinehurst and Southern Pines for more than a day at the links, even though it’s known as the Home of American Golf.
Western North Carolina
Asheville and Buncombe County
114. We included it in our guide to restaurants in Asheville. And by the way, exploring the city’s awesome food scene is another one of our favorite things to do in North Carolina, so please add that to your bucket list.
115. Visit over 200 artist studios in a 2-mile radius at Asheville’s River Arts District.
117. We couldn’t mention Robert Moog’s creation without mentioning Moogfest in Durham. This spring music festival brings together musicians, technology, and forward thinkers to Bull City each year. We took a closer look at it here.
Note: Moogfest 2020 has been postponed and we’re anxiously awaiting updates on the next edition and status of this awesome festival.
118. Explore the awesome WNC Nature Center, whether you’re young or young at heart. It’s home to over 60 species of animals who are native to Western North Carolina. For more about it, check out this post!
119. Banner Elk is the first of a few spot in Avery County that we’ll mention. It’s a fun little town that’s spread out and well-known for its proximity to skiing, but also for a nice, laid-back atmosphere.
120. Hang out with Alpacas at Banner Elk’s mountaintop Apple Hill Farm. We have and think it will relax even the most stressed-out visitors.
Blowing Rock and Boone
121. Choo! Choo! Go back in time on the Tweetsie Railroad, in Blowing Rock between there and Boone. Their Ghost Train in fall is a huge draw but the shows are pretty entertaining throughout the year. I won’t spoil them for you!
122. We think a visit to Blowing Rock should be on anyone’s bucket list of things to do in North Carolina. Many folks come for THE Blowing Rock, but they also know that this is an awesome small town, home to amazing restaurants, and perfect for any weekend!
123. Speaking of restaurants, there are some pretty awesome places to eat in Boone.
124. Boone is a great place to hang out any weekend, even if you’re not an App State student or alum. Stay tuned for more guides to that fun town.
125. You’ll find plenty of hikes in the Boone and Blowing Rock area. Our favorites include Glen Burney Trail, Boone Fork, and Flat Top. The latter leads you to a fire tower with epic views of surrounding mountains.
126. And there are so many places to watch the sunrise in the Mountains, but Rough Ridge is hard to top.
Brevard and Transylvania County
127. You must explore the “Land of Waterfalls,” also known as Brevard and its surroundings in and around Transylvania County. Some of our favorite waterfalls near Brevard include Looking Glass, Moore Cove, and French Broad.
You can read about them and others here.
128. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is an amazing reason to visit Bryson City, especially in winter when they’re running the Polar Express.
129. Visit Burke County and explore the small towns and beautiful spots that surround Morganton, also an interesting place to visit, starting at its historic district.
130. We’re big fans of many spots in this county, including the lovely community of Linville, which we’ll mention more shortly.
131. Over in Cherokee, Mingo Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls we’ve seen yet. Try to convince us otherwise.
132. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is also worth a stop so you can learn more about the town’s namesake people.
133. Western North Carolina is hard to define, but we think Cleveland County is a part of it, too. Head there and hang out around the home of Earl Scruggs. His memory lives on forever at the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby.
134. If you’ve never tried livermush, put that 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.
135. We also think you should bounce around all the towns in Cleveland County, including Kings Mountain and Boiling Springs.
138. Plus, there’s the best-nicknamed team in Minor League Baseball, the Crawdads, that you should check out during the season.
139. We mentioned Jackson County earlier when sharing Whitewater Falls, but think there’s plenty to explore here. You can start with Deep Creek National Park, the Tunnel to Nowhere, and kick back with a beer at Nantahala Brewing Company.
140. 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.
141. Linville is a small community that livens up during summer when folks come to relax in the mountains.
142. Each July, it hosts the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, the largest of its kind in North Carolina.
144. Linville Falls is the most popular waterfall in the Blue Ridge mountains.
145. 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.
146. Before you do either, spend some time at the local general store or grab a nice, home-cooked breakfast at Famous Louise’s. It’s an interesting place, with tables sitting in three different counties!
147. Drive the Diamondback that leads into Little Switzerland or get there via the Blue Ridge Parkway.
148. Either way, spend at least a night at the Switzerland Inn. This place has it all, including beautiful views, amazing food, and cozy rooms.
149. We mentioned the barbecue that you’ll find at the Switzerland Café, but the book store that’s connected to it offers a homey atmosphere for a coffee and for browsing books.
150. Just down the road from Little Switzerland is Grassy Creek Falls, a 25-foot multi-level cascade waterfall. This amazing waterfall sits on private property but remains open to the public, and is absolutely worth the short walk to reach it.
151. Each year in April, Merlefest takes over Wilkesboro with bands galore, but spend some time in this fun little town and you might just get hooked. We interviewed Merlefest founder B Townes, if you’re interested in learning more about how that awesome music festival came to be.
152. Another fun time to visit Wilkesboro is in January when Moonshine Heritage Day takes over the town.
More Outdoors in Western North Carolina
153. You must pretend to dance like Baby at Lake Lure’s Dirty Dancing Festival.
155. At the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, you can enjoy 360-degree views of the Great Smoky Mountains at Clingmans Dome.
156. And finally, drive on the Cherohala Skyway before crossing over into Tennessee. This high road begins near Lake Santeetlah and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. There are plenty of scenic overlooks to enjoy along the way, including Huckleberry Knob and Santeetlah Overlook among the best.
What’s On Your NC Bucket List?
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!