Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on February 7, 2024.
We’ve found amazing places around every corner of the North Carolina mountains, and we’d be letting you down if they didn’t include these things to do in Sylva, Dillsboro, and elsewhere nearby.
After multiple trips here, we’ve highly considered the latter and look forward to running into you as a visitor or fellow neighbor someday.
Until we pick our next home in Jackson County, we created this guide to help you experience this wonderful small town and its surroundings. Here’s how we’ve organized this guide to the best things to do in Sylva:
- Where is Sylva?
- The History of Sylva
- Where to Stay
- The Best Things to Do in Sylva NC This Weekend
- Things to Do in Dillsboro NC
- Things to Do Near Sylva (Jackson County Surroundings and Nearby Mountain Towns)
We’ve also featured Sylva in our North Carolina Mountain Towns book, which includes more than 40 towns and surrounding destinations in Western NC. Before purchasing that book (and anything else in our shop), we hope you enjoy this Sylva NC travel guide!
Where is Sylva, North Carolina?
Sylva is the county seat of Jackson County in Western North Carolina.
Jackson County is also home to Western Carolina University, and Sylva is the main hub for dining, shopping, and events. The town is less than an hour from downtown Asheville and close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park towns of Cherokee (20 minutes away) and Bryson City (25 minutes away).
- Dillsboro (10 minutes away)
- Waynesville (25 minutes away)
- Franklin (30 minutes away)
- Maggie Valley (30 minutes away)
- Highlands (1 hour away)
- Hendersonville (1 hour 10 minutes away)
- Brevard (1 hour 20 minutes away)
You can visually travel to Sylva and these nearby places with the following maps:
History of Sylva
The Town of Sylva’s rich history dates back to the early 19th century, and the area’s roots go back even further.
- Before European settlement, the area that is now Sylva was inhabited by Native Americans.
- The Prehistoric Judacullah Rock is an excellent reminder, a sacred Cherokee site that Juaculla (an ancient giant) was believed to have jumped on while leaping around on mountains in Western NC.
- Founded in 1889, Sylva was named after William D. Sylva, a prominent citizen and businessman who played a pivotal role in its development.
- Like most Western North Carolina towns, the construction of the railroad is what spurred development, facilitating trade and bolstering its economic prospects.
- Sylva went from a small rural community to a bustling town known for its lumber industry, agriculture, and later, its role as an educational center with the establishment of Western Carolina University.
- In 1911, Sylva became the county seat of Jackson County, taking over for Webster, a town that it usurped as the largest in the area.
- During the early 20th century, Sylva was central to the logging and timber industries.
- When the logging industry declined, Sylva shifted its focus to education and tourism.
- Western Carolina University opened in the mid-20th century and breathed new life into the town, bringing academic vibrancy and attracting students and faculty.
- One intriguing historic tidbit ties Sylva to Halifax County in Eastern North Carolina. In 1981, Mike and Ali Lubbock moved from England to Sylva, where they began breeding rare and endangered waterfowl. The Lubbocks moved their collection to Scotland Neck in 1989, then called the Sylvan Heights Avian Breeding Center. Today, it’s known as the Sylvan Heights Bird Park.
Where to Stay When Visiting Today
There are lovely places to stay in Sylva and nearby.
- Budget-friendly options include the Blue Ridge Inn (756 W Main St, Sylva, NC) and the Comfort Inn (1235 E Main St, Sylva, NC).
- During a hosted trip, Christina stayed at the Best Western Plus River Escape Inn & Suites in Dillsboro (248 WBI Dr, Dillsboro, NC) and enjoyed its location and coziness.
- Harrah’s in Cherokee is 20 minutes away, and is a fabulous place to stay, even if you’re not playing the slots and tables.
- Bear Lake Reserve is another excellent option, about 45 minutes away from Sylva.
Annual Events in Sylva (and Nearby)
Some of these annual events are truly the best things to do in Sylva (and nearby). You can find many of them on our events calendar, but here’s a quick breakdown:
- April: Greening Up the Mountains is held the final Saturday of April, drawing around 10,000 attendees to Sylva. The festivities include a 5K race, engaging activities for children, arts and crafts, musical performances, and booths dedicated to environmental awareness.
- Easter: The Easter Hat Parade in Dillsboro, the Sunday before Easter (March or April, depending on the year), is an exciting display of the best hats!
- September: Mountain Heritage Day is the last Saturday in September at Western Carolina University. A traditional old-time mountain harvest festival, visitors can expect a celebration of Appalachian arts and music, including clogging, arts, crafts and food vendors, and family fun!
- Fall Colors: Based on our experiences, we think fall is the best time to visit Sylva, especially for hiking and enjoying the scenery.
- October: Looking for fine art? ColorFest is an annual event in Dillsboro where vendors set up along Front Street.
- November: Another fantastic art festival happens every year in Dillsboro during the WNC Pottery Festival. Dedicated to all things clay, visitors can watch the Clay Olympics and cheer on a potter who can throw the biggest bowl!
- December: The Annual Dillsboro Lights & Luminaries have brightened spirits since 1983! Downtown Dillsboro lights up for two weekends in December, and visitors are encouraged to walk around the local shops for special treats and performances.
The Best Things to Do in Sylva North Carolina This Weekend
Those annual events are worth a spot on your personal calendar, but these are certainly the best things to do in Sylva this weekend and throughout most of the year!
- Self-Guided Walking Tour of Sylva
- Jackson County Public Library
- Shopping in Downtown Sylva
- American Museum of the House Cat
- Outdoor Activities
- Hiking Trails Near Sylva
- Poteet Park
- Waterfall Hikes Near Sylva
- River Activities in Sylva
- Wayehutta OHV Riding Area
- Wine and Cocktail Spots
Self-Guided Walking Tour of Sylva
Learn more about the history of Sylva while walking downtown. If you look at the buildings, take note of the plaques.
This is part of the Sylva Heritage Walk that allows visitors to enjoy a self-guided tour of Sylva’s history.
For more in-depth experience, the Jackson County Historical Association holds guided tours on the fourth Saturday in April during the annual Greening Up the Mountains Festival.
Read More: 2023’s Best of North Carolina Awards Winners
Jackson County Public Library
Address: 310 Keener St, Sylva, NC
It isn’t often that a public library makes the list, but when thinking about the top things to do in Sylva, we can make an exception with a building like this one.
It is worth climbing the stairs for a beautiful view if you are visiting. Inside is an interactive children’s area and cozy spots to read or work.
Shopping in Downtown Sylva
Sylva has some incredible locally-owned shops that line Main Street! This includes a plethora of bookstores.
- Baxley’s Chocolate (546 W Main St, Sylva, NC): Do you have a sweet tooth? Stop in Baxley’s Chocolate, where you’ll find unique chocolates, including a muscadine truffle! Everything is handcrafted in small batches in their kitchen, and they have been making confectionaries for three generations!
- City Lights Bookstore (3 E Jackson St, Sylva, NC) has been a longstanding feature in downtown Sylva since 1985 and has some of the best collections of books in Western North Carolina. I’ve bought a few from here and will always consider City Lights one of the best bookstores in NC.
- Attached to it is also the City Lights Cafe, which is a delightful place to enjoy a nosh and your new book.
- Harry Alter Books (528 W Main St, Sylva, NC): Another great bookstore in Sylva is Harry Alter Books, which carries scholarly and rare books. Piles of used books line the shelves, and I could spend hours searching the shelves for my next treasure!
American Museum of the House Cat
Address: 5063 US Highway 441 South, Sylva, NC
This museum in Sylva is probably one of the most unique that I’ve ever stepped foot in. The American House Cat Museum is quirky, but we are down for it!
The curator has spent the last 40 years collecting artifacts that pertain to cats. From a cat carousel to a mummified cat, there is so much to explore in the 3,000-square-foot building!
Learn about the history of the house cat, and if you’re lucky, there might be a snuggly visitor to greet you too! Admission is $10, and all the proceeds go toward supporting animals in a local no-kill shelter.
Nearby Outdoor Activities
These outdoor activities are hands down some of the best things to do in Sylva! We’ve broken them down into the following sections:
- Hiking Trails near Sylva
- River Activities in Sylva
- Waterfalls near Sylva
- Poteet Park
- Wayehutta OHV Riding Area
Hiking Trails near Sylva
Here are some of our personal favorites:
- Waterrock Knob: located at MP 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this is one of the 20 highest peaks in the Eastern US. The Trail is 1.2 miles out and back and has spectacular views.
- Black Balsam Knob: Another Blue Ridge Parkway hike is Black Balsam Knob (MP 420), a mountain bald hike near Sylva. The 1-mile out-and-back gains 300 feet in elevation and follows the Art Loeb Trail.
- Pinnacle Park: This trail near Sylva is more challenging, clocking in at 7 miles with a steep climb at the beginning. A total of 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and it will take your breath away!
- Whiteside Mountain: with one of the highest vertical cliffs in the Eastern US, Whiteside Mountain often has climbers scaling the 750-foot cliffs. We recommend going clockwise for a more straightforward 2-mile ascent.
River Activities in Sylva (Paddling Tours)
During the summer, Sylva and Dillsboro fill with river rats, a.k.a. paddlers! Dillsboro River Company (18 Macktown Rd, Sylva, NC) is an outfitter who can provide equipment and excursions down the Tuckasegee River.
Whether you are a first-time boater or looking for a relaxing tube down the river, check out Sylva as your base!
Waterfalls Near Sylva
The hiking trails near Sylva are exquisite, and many lead to some of NC’s most beautiful waterfalls.
- Rainbow Falls: The 1.5-mile Rainbow Falls Trail takes you outside Gorges State Park’s boundaries into Pisgah National Forest. Rainbow Falls is an impressive 150-foot waterfall with multiple vantage points along the trail. The same hike will take you past Hidden Falls and the dangerous Turtleback Falls.
- Schoolhouse Falls: This waterfall near Sylva is located in Panthertown Valley and is one of our favorite kid-friendly waterfall hikes! The 25-foot waterfall pours into a shallow pool and is accessed from a 1.4-mile hike.
- Silver Run Falls: This Jackson County waterfall can be found outside Cashiers from an easy quarter-mile trail. Bring your swimming clothes!
- Whitewater Falls: is the tallest waterfall in the Eastern US at 411 feet. The hike to view it is a gravel half-mile walk and then several stairs to a platform for additional viewing.
Address: 29 Central St, Sylva, NC
Sure, it’s a playground… but it’s a WOODEN playground! Its beautiful castle features make this a wonderful way for the kids to get some energy out. Check out the live music schedule on Friday nights during the summer!
Wayehutta OHV Riding Area
Address: State Rd 1731, Sylva, NC
Adventure seekers visiting Sylva must check out the Wayehutta OHV Riding Area in Nantahala National Forest. They have 28 miles of loop trails and provide seasonal and day passes.
Note that you cannot rent ATVs or dirt bikes here; the season lasts from April 1 to December 15.
Choosing the best restaurant in Sylva is hard, but this is a pretty strong lineup!
- Dalaya Thai Cuisine (1084 W Main St, Sylva, NC): This Sylva restaurant is a true hidden gem. Dalaya is highly spoken of by locals and visitors from all over the state. The menu is traditional Southern Thai and is only open for dine-in for dinner. There aren’t many tables, and Dalaya doesn’t take reservations, so arrive early for dinner and expect a wait.
- Ilda (462 W Main St, Sylva, NC): If you are looking for fine dining in Sylva, Ilda’s is the spot! The husband/wife power team, Chef Santiago Guzzetti, and Sommelier Crystal Pace blend their heritage for an impressive menu that calls back to grandma’s dinner table.
- Lulu’s on Main (678 W Main St, Sylva, NC): With everything from hand-cut steaks to sandwiches, Lulu’s on Main is a classic Sylva restaurant serving Jackson County since 1989. Priding themselves on local, hormone- and GMO-free ingredients, expect fresh and delicious meals. Lulu’s on Main also has a covered dog-friendly outdoor terrace, which becomes very popular in the summer!
- Meatballs Pizzeria (414 W Main St, Sylva, NC): Meatballs Pizzeria is a causal wood-fired pizza reservation in Sylva, owned by the same dynamic duo as Ilda.
- White Moon Cafe & Dark Moon Cocktail Bar (545 Mill St, Sylva, NC): Cafe and coffee by day, hidden speakeasy by night! White Moon Cafe uses high-quality ingredients for simple dishes. Think smoothies with goji berry, cacao nibs, and cashew milk, and homemade biscuits with a strawberry-rhubarb-jalapeno jam.
Western NC has a strong beer reputation, and Sylva has a strong claim to some of the area’s best breweries.
- Balsam Falls Brewing (506 W Main St, Sylva, NC): Balsam Falls is known for its great atmosphere, coupled with live music events, making it a beloved spot for both locals and visitors in Sylva. They also have a great food menu with smash burgers if you are looking for a bite to eat, too!
- Innovation Brewing (414 W Main St, Sylva, NC): Find Innovation Brewing all across Jackson County! With locations in Sylva, Dillsboro, and Cullowhee, the taps always flow, and the yeast ferment.
- Lazy Hiker Brewing Company (617 W Main St, Sylva, NC): This Franklin brewery opened up a second location in Sylva with a restaurant, Batter Kitchen, and includes a game lounge and outdoor patio.
Wine and Cocktails in Sylva (Nightime Fun!)
These two spots are excellent things to do in Sylva at night:
- Sante Wine Bar (470 W Main St, Sylva, NC): Next door to Ilda, Santé sells unique, top-shelf wines by the glass or the bottle. Pair your selection with tapas and charcuterie from Ilda.
- The Cut Cocktail Lounge (486 W Main St, Sylva, NC): This craft cocktail bar also offers cheap beer and late-night bites. The star of the show is the fresh and local ingredients that produce The Cut’s amazing cocktails.
While Dillsboro isn’t as large as Sylva, the small town is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Sylva! We highly recommend visiting Dillsboro during your trip to Sylva and browsing the quaint shops.
Here are a few of them, including some other fun things to do in Sylva’s neighboring town:
- Dogwood Crafters (90 Webster St, Dillsboro, NC): Make sure to stop into Dogwood Crafters, which is an artist co-op with lots of handmade items like pottery, jewelry, and more.
- Nancy Tuts Christmas Shop (488 Haywood Rd, Dillsboro, NC): Nancy is also a fantastic place to shop! The Christmas store is open from Memorial Day through the end of the year and has made festive memories for many for over 50 years!
- Appalachian Women’s Museum (100 W Hometown Pl, Dillsboro, NC): Step back into time at the former Monteith Farmstead. The 100-year-old house is now the Appalachian Women’s Museum and is filled with stories of women who made their mark on the land. There are handmade quilts, furniture, and more snippets of life in the early 20th century. You can also walk the trails or cast a pole into the river from here!
- Dillsboro Chocolate Factory (28 Church St, Dillsboro, NC): One of the best-known businesses in Dillsboro is the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory. Hand-dipped chocolate, fudge, truffles, and more are on our mind from this amazing place.
- Haywood Smokehouse (403 Haywood Rd, Dillsboro, NC): Haywood Smokehouse has multiple locations in the area, including one in Dillsboro. Ask any barbecue lovers across the state and they’ll approve of this place. This restaurant has some of the most succulent ribs and meaty brisket alongside awesome side dishes.
- Jackson County Green Energy Park (100 Green Energy Park Rd, Dillsboro, NC): While the name suggests that Green Energy Park is an outdoor location, it is actually an art studio! Green Energy Park runs on renewable energy and serves as a workshop for everything from glass blowing to blacksmithing! When visiting you can often see artists working and they are happy to discuss their practices with renewable energy.
More Things to Do Near Sylva NC
The next section includes more things to do near Sylva beyond Dillsboro, including towns in neighboring counties and outdoor activities in Jackson County and elsewhere.
- Jackson County Towns
- More Nearby Mountain Towns
Before we leave Jackson County, we think you should know about these towns near Sylva and Dillsboro:
- Cashiers: Cashiers is an adorable small town with easy access to many trails and North Carolina waterfalls. Walk around the beautiful Village Green, visit the Farmers Market, and enjoy a pint at Whiteside Brewing.
- Cullowhee: The community of Cullowhee is the home of Western Carolina University. The Judacullah Rock, as mentioned earlier, is near Cullowhee and is an important place in Cherokee history.
- Sapphire: If you visit during the winter as we have, enjoy skiing at Sapphire Valley Ski Area and snow tubing at Sapphire Valley Resort. Head to Sapphire in the summer and enjoy Sapphire National Golf Course or zip-lining through the valley at Sapphire Valley Resort.
Read More: 15 of the Best Day Trips in North Carolina
More Nearby Mountain Towns
Beyond the Jackson County line, there are some wonderful things to do near Sylva. These mountain towns are responsible for the majority of them:
- Cherokee (20 minutes away): Cherokee is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, with several opportunities to learn about the history and culture of the tribe. Start at the Museum of the Cherokee People or the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Check out the shops filled with local crafts and popular tourist attractions like Harrah’s Casino. Of course, we couldn’t leave out our favorite waterfalls in Cherokee—Mingo Falls and nearby Soco Falls.
- Bryson City (25 minutes away): There are some wonderful ways to explore Bryson City and its surroundings. Favorites include the Deep Creek Loop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the scenic Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and the mysterious Road to Nowhere.
- Waynesville (25 minutes away): Waynesville is the largest town in Haywood County, home to adorable shops, delicious restaurants, beautiful outdoor surroundings, and The Swag (an amazing luxury resort).
- Franklin (30 minutes away): Franklin is an adorable mountain town situated atop a steep hill. You can enjoy a local beer at the original Lazy Hiker before or after walking through the various downtown shops. Some of our favorites include Outdoor 76 and Books Unlimited. Of course, you have to visit the Scottish Tartans Museum, an excellent place to learn about tartan and Highland dress and heritage.
- Maggie Valley (30 minutes away): One of our absolute favorite North Carolina mountain towns near Sylva is Maggie Valley, a consistent family vacation spot. Near many great waterfalls (like Soco Falls!), Maggie Valley draws tons of tourists each year. Enjoy creekside beers at BearWaters Brewing, dance at Stompin’ Ground, and zoom through the iconic Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum. Downtown, you’ll find vintage motels, lots of motorcyclists, and the best pancakes of your life at Joey’s Pancake House! Right down the road from Maggie Valley is Lake Junaluska, a lovely community with a trail that takes you around its namesake lake.
- Asheville (50 minutes away): Asheville is the largest city in the NC mountains and home to the most things to do near Sylva. You could easily spend a day away from Sylva relaxing in luxury at Biltmore Estate or The Omni Grove Park Inn. You’ll also love eating around town, visiting breweries, and exploring the area’s arts scene (in the River Arts District and the Asheville Art Museum).
- Highlands (1 hour away): The outskirts of Highlands are known for spectacular waterfalls, but this small town is equally beautiful! Spend a luxurious weekend at The Old Edwards Inn and roam the charming shops. Speaking of beautiful surroundings, don’t forget to visit Dry Falls, an accessible waterfall that you can walk behind. It’s one of many falls along the famed Waterfall Byway. That scenic route is another reason we rank Highlands among the best mountain towns near Sylva!
What are Your Favorite Things to Do in Sylva and Dillsboro (+ Nearby!)?
With so many fun things to do in Sylva, Dillsboro, and nearby, it’s difficult to pick favorites. While we continue visiting the area to help with our decision, we’d love to hear from you and your thoughts.
If you’ve experienced these places, let us know in the comments. Also, tell us which are at the top of your list.
Remember to share your Sylva NC travel adventures in our Facebook Group. Photos are welcome!
More Things to Do in Sylva NC and Nearby
We’ve featured many of the best things to do in Sylva and nearby in our NC Travel Guides collection. Here are a few of them: