20 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in North Carolina

Jul 22, 2021

The second-largest state in the United States of America is dominated by three unique, mountain-covered regions that provide plenty of fun for vacationers.

The North Carolina landscape takes its name from the coastal plains to the north, which once provided the Native Americans with corn, beans, and squash. To the south lies the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are at their most spectacular around Asheville. Farther south still is the Atlantic Coast, a region of wide beaches and amusement parks as well as natural wonders such as the Great Smoky Mountains and the Outer Banks.

The southeastern coast, as well, has a long, mostly uninhabited coastline of island beaches, lighthouses, and state parks. A full week in North Carolina should give you a good taste of the coast's natural beauty, and a month or so in any part of the state will give you a good sense of the American South.

Plan your vacation with the best places to visit in North Carolina with this travel guide.

Biltmore Estate

Photo of Biltmore Estate
Biltmore Estate: en.wikipedia.org

Located in Asheville, North Carolina, Biltmore is an American icon, easily the world's most famous private residence. American architect Richard Morris Hunt, commissioned by Louis Comfort Tiffany, began work on the Biltmore Estate in 1889 and it became the spectacular European-inspired mansion and estate that it is today. The building was inspired by the fine châteaux of France and built in the Romanesque style, a traditional and popular architectural style. The estate is today owned by the Bol d'Or Hotel Group, and contains guesthouses and multiple restaurants. Guided tours of the estate are available and require advance booking. Tickets for the tours can be purchased online or from the Biltmore Foundation. There are also regular tours of the estate led by guides dressed in 19th century costumes, or the estate can be viewed at night during the estate's "Behind the Gates" program.

North Carolina Museum of History

Photo of Greenville, North Carolina
Greenville, North Carolina: en.wikipedia.org

The North Carolina Museum of History is a cultural institution in North Carolina that provides the historical background of the state and country. It is located in Raleigh, a very liveable city in North Carolina, and houses a vast collection of artifacts that gives a picture of the history of North Carolina. The museum is located in the old wing of the South Carolina Statehouse and was established in 1946. The museum is owned by the state of North Carolina and is overseen by the North Carolina Historical Commission. Among the interesting items are the 6,000-year-old Catawba Indian pottery recovered in the archaeological excavations of Newton and the Pack Rat Pottery, a foundry, museum, and music library that represent the urban activities of the past. The museum offers tours of its most important exhibits. Tickets are at $14 for adults and $11 for students. Children ages 4 and under and the handicapped are free. The museum is open to the public daily and admission to the website gives access to thousands of digital documents from the museum's archive.

Cathedral of the Incarnation

Photo of Basilica Shrine of St. Mary (Wilmington, North Carolina)
Basilica Shrine of St. Mary (Wilmington, North Carolina): en.wikipedia.org

From its walls and ceiling are inlaid vivid pieces of the precious red stone known as Carthage Red granite. The cathedral was constructed between 1910 and 1940, making it the second-largest granite building in the world. Red granite is rarely used for buildings because of its high-quality carving and immense weight. The Gothic Revival architecture style cathedral is one of America's finest examples of the Beaux Arts movement. It features a grand, elaborate facade of more than 13,000 square feet with the words "Jesus Is Lord" in gold leaf on its four columns. The cathedral is also rich with mementos, such as statues, ancient crosses, and religious images.

Hickory Museum

Photo of Hickory, North Carolina
Hickory, North Carolina: en.wikipedia.org

When African American, 19th century pioneer, and abolitionist Hildreth Hickory decided to build his own home, he purchased and moved into a large plantation house located on what is now known as Hickory Museum property. Located along the Roanoke River in the town of Hickory, it was once the home of the family who bought and sold him. Following his arrival, Hickory had many visitors including former slave owners and other activists. The museum opened as a tribute to Hickory and contains displays of the daily life of the local area's residents. Today, visitors can walk through the house that Hickory lived in, pick up a part of his bed from the collection of the bed makers from the household he once lived in, and enjoy home cooking demonstrations by the farmhands who prepared meals for Hickory in the kitchen of the old plantation house.

Cape Fear Museum

Photo of Cape Fear (region)
Cape Fear (region): en.wikipedia.org

A veritable treasure trove of important local history is presented in the highly acclaimed and informative Cape Fear Museum in the Cape Fear Historical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina. Stored in glass cases and set in stately rooms of the center are exhibits such as period dresses and old farm tools, while dedicated tour guides lead visitors through the rich history of this old city, told using a well-written series of audio-visual, audio, and self-guided walking tours. The museum was established in 1957 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the governor of North Carolina in memory of slaves freed by the United States following the Civil War. There is also a collection of cultural artifacts gathered from the area, including more than 200 historical maps. A display on the Battle of Buena Vista in December of 1847 highlights the Union victory in the Mexican–American War.

Charlotte

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Charlotte, North Carolina: en.wikipedia.org

Charlotte has a wealth of charms, from its year-round festivals to its vibrant nightlife and eclectic dining scene. The Carolina Panthers play in Bank of America Stadium, a stadium that was formerly home to the Carolina Panthers. The city is the starting point for sports fans traveling to the area to watch the Carolina Hurricanes play in the RBC Center. The pleasant downtown area of Charlotte's Queen City is full of diverse experiences, from the multicultural to the eclectic. There are attractions for all ages, including major museums, an aquarium, a zoo, and the largest covered market in the South.

Cathedral of St. Joseph

Photo of Cathedral of Saint Patrick (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Cathedral of Saint Patrick (Charlotte, North Carolina): en.wikipedia.org

Cathedral of St. Joseph, one of America's most distinctive monuments, sits in the center of a city with the slightly unusual name of Jacksonville, North Carolina. Conceived by young Jesuit missionaries from France in the 1790s, this national historic landmark was designed in the Classical Revival style by architects Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge. The cathedral's entrance and main archways were constructed of rusticated granite, on a square plan surmounted by a large central dome. Visitors are welcome to explore the cathedral at their leisure, but the highlight of the visit is the elaborately designed Chapel of St. Joseph, a single-nave structure with three roof levels, buttressed at the sides, and featuring an extraordinary marble altar dating from 1476. The cathedral also houses the modest collection of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, which includes several pieces by Auguste Rodin, who lived in North Carolina at the turn of the century and designed the bronze statue of St. Peter at the head of the altar.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park: en.wikipedia.org

On the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has millions of acres of heavily wooded mountains, scenic lookouts, dramatic waterfalls, and impossibly blue lakes. Most visitors to the park arrive at the gateway town of Gatlinburg, which hosts shopping and dining opportunities as well as beautiful scenery. The park's main attractions include the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, a sightseeing train operated by the National Park Service that travels through gorgeous mountain scenery; the Cades Cove, home to Cedar Groves, one of the best preserved hamlets in America; and the spectacular Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet is North America's highest point. In addition, visitors can view historic cabins and watch white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, mountain laurel, Carolina lilies, and mountain spruce.

Fort Macon State Park

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Fort Macon State Park: en.wikipedia.org

North Carolina's state park system has a number of pleasant reserves, with each site covering an interesting subject. Macon State Park is no exception; it provides a mix of natural, recreational and historical attractions, including such main sites as Fort Macon, which was used by both the American and Confederate armies during the Civil War, and the serene Islenosah Creek Natural Area. There are several beautiful overlooks from which visitors can view the creek's landscape and wildlife. When the weather permits, hikers and nature lovers can head to the trailhead to wander through the scrub brush, pine forest and riverbed to discover North Carolina's true native beauty.

Blowing Rock

Photo of Blowing Rock, North Carolina
Blowing Rock, North Carolina: en.wikipedia.org

Blowing Rock is an unspoiled mountain town located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just 30 minutes north of Asheville. If you are on vacation in the US, a trip here will be a highlight of your trip. In Blowing Rock, one can enjoy great hiking and mountaintop views, so consider renting a bike to travel around the town and to nearby waterfalls. Some waterfalls offer the opportunity to go down a 50-foot natural waterfall.

Mount Mitchell State Park

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Mount Mitchell: en.wikipedia.org

The tallest peak in the Eastern United States rises 2,684 meters (8,840 feet) above the Blue Ridge Mountains, giving it the nickname of "the Roof of the World." Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, the tallest peak in the United States, was named by American explorer General John Mitchell after he climbed it in 1829. Mount Mitchell is located on the boundary of the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks and is part of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. One of the most heavily visited sites in the world, Mount Mitchell State Park attracts an estimated 400,000 visitors a year. One of the most famous North Carolina attractions, Mount Mitchell's peak stands as a monument to the beauty of North Carolina and the environment. The neighboring National Park also has several intriguing attractions, including the Hiawassee National Forest, the highest point in the Smokies, which is administered by the National Park Service. In addition, the Great Smoky Mountains are home to numerous primitive fire towers and other landmarks.

UNC-Charlotte

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University of North Carolina at Charlotte: en.wikipedia.org

UNC-Charlotte, a prestigious university, is located in an urban environment between the state's major cities, Raleigh and Charlotte. The main campus covers 100 acres, with the city added to that figure to provide an option for student living. The major focal point is the 45-story, glass-and-steel I Building, which is famous as an architectural symbol of downtown. Add to this the Carolina Theatre, a 757-seat performance venue, the Citizens Center, a business and event center, the Dr. James M. Baker Jr. Library and the School of Art and Design's programs in animation and visual communications and you'll have a fine cross-section of the cultural life of the campus.

Chapel Hill

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Chapel Hill, North Carolina: en.wikipedia.org

Housing the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill campus and housing the Downtown Triangle neighborhood, Chapel Hill is a smaller, more laid-back city than the university town of Chapel Hill is. Hailing from a beautiful and somewhat hilly area of North Carolina, Chapel Hill was founded in 1789 and is also the home of the university, which boasts the country's first public four-year college. With plenty of colleges and universities nearby, Chapel Hill has become a hot spot for people to visit, and much of its downtown is within easy walking distance of the campus. Here you will find quaint cafes and bookstores, as well as the excellent Durham Performing Arts Center, home to the New Black Opera Theater and one of the country's top music venues. It also has a small but lovely aviary, which hosts nightly events. There are also two interesting museums in Chapel Hill. The first, The Carolina Hosiery Mills History Center, documents the history of the textile industry and is actually located in Durham, but is a convenient 30-minute drive from Chapel Hill. The second is the Richardson Center for Theology and the Arts, which is home to the first permanent Christian bookstore in the United States, a baptist congregation, a Presbyterian church, and the Moravian Church.

Winston-Salem State University

Photo of Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Winston-Salem, North Carolina: en.wikipedia.org

Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), which was founded in 1866 as the state's first normal school, is the largest institution of higher learning in western North Carolina. In the 1980s it was the location of the historic state controversy surrounding Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. In one of the dormitories is the slave quarters, where many of King's ancestors and his parents were once housed. It is open to the public daily except for Tuesday and Wednesday when it is not staffed. Outside are a number of other historically significant buildings. Most notable are the barn that served as the sweat lodge where King meditated, and the Taylor House, a number of rooms from which demonstrations were held to demand integration of local bus and train stations. Winston-Salem also boasts the largest collection of public art outside of New York City, and the first outdoor sculpture garden on the Atlantic seaboard. The galleries and stores in the College Hill district feature a wide variety of artwork, while the North Carolina Museum of Art has the largest collection of folk art in the Southeast.

New Bern

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New Bern, North Carolina: en.wikipedia.org

Situated on the Neuse River on the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, the historic town of New Bern boasts beautiful architecture, cultural activities, and a thriving arts district. It also has a brand new family-friendly hotel and an exciting aquarium. An exploration of New Bern begins at the harbor, where the fishing industry continues to thrive and where you can learn about the area's history at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. For those who enjoy learning about art and culture, New Bern's Performing Arts Center hosts a great variety of performances and classes year-round. Be sure to check out the Herschend Family Jewelry Museum, one of the world's best collections of jewelry and watches. To experience the town at its best, opt for a stay at the five-story The New Bern Inn and Spa, a local favorite that features stunning 19th-century architecture, sophisticated décor, and a spa that makes visiting here a unique and pleasurable experience. New Bern is an easy drive from Raleigh, North Carolina, Raleigh, NC

Charlotte Motor Speedway

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Charlotte Motor Speedway: en.wikipedia.org

Visit Charlotte Motor Speedway to see an incredible tribute to racing. For 70 years, races have been held in the historic 0.55-mile oval in this United States of America southern state. The first NASCAR races took place at the speedway in 1949, when the International 500 and the United States National 500 Championships were held. Today, the speedway hosts major races like the Coca-Cola 600, one of the biggest sporting events in the US. For the NASCAR fans, this is a must-visit destination.

Southport

Photo of Southport, North Carolina
Southport, North Carolina: en.wikipedia.org

Southport (pop. 20,941) is a small village tucked away on the coast of North Carolina. Some 4 miles from the sea, the area is known as a quiet village with a wonderful beach and a nice town square. Many of the houses in Southport were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the railroad. Many still house the working class of today. One of the highlights of a visit is taking a walk along the boardwalk that travels along the beach. The Southport Boardwalk is great for strolling and exploring and is one of the most picturesque areas of the coast. One of the best attractions in Southport are the aquatic features such as Ocean Isle and a handful of water parks that have been developed on the North Carolina coast.

Carowinds

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Carowinds: en.wikipedia.org

Carowinds, a popular theme park on the southern border of North Carolina, is home to 28 thrilling rides, including the double-launch rollercoaster Wild Cat, as well as the popular Mega Zip. Many of the other rides are similar in design to popular rides such as the Twisted Timbers wooden coaster. Although the park has over a thousand acres of beautiful forest and landscaping, visitors should be warned that the place can be very hot in the summer months.

The National Gallery of Art

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North Carolina Museum of Art: en.wikipedia.org

Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is the oldest of its kind, founded in 1937. Although the building itself was designed by Jacob Eskenazi and John Russell Pope in 1937, its exhibitions have been seen by millions of visitors since its opening. The National Gallery of Art is housed in the Renwick Gallery, which features nearly 200 works of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, mostly from the French school. Although the gallery only holds 25 temporary exhibitions each year, it also hosts a number of traveling exhibits, both educational and commercial.

Cathedral of the Holy Family

Photo of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral (Raleigh, North Carolina)
Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral (Raleigh, North Carolina): en.wikipedia.org

The Cathedral of the Holy Family is a colossal grand church constructed in the city of Burlington in northern North Carolina, which is home to over 3,000 worshippers. Building the church took 12 years, and finished in 1972, with its construction overseen by the New Hope Baptist Association, and donations from a Presbyterian minister. Despite its large size, the church is modest in design, and incorporates many of the finest materials available including the walls, ceiling, and columns, which are made from clay brick, while the altar and choir chairs are made from walnut wood. Also used extensively within the cathedral are 12th century beamed vaulting and numerous other 12th century artifacts, as well as a variety of contemporary wall decorations, including a large fresco depicting the Assumption of Mary painted by Richmond-born artist Herbert Ward.