North Carolina attractions
Make the most of your time
North Carolina’s landscapes are dominated by the towering Appalachians in the west, the Piedmont plateau and foothills, and a 480km stretch of sandy coastline – with the scenery in between ranging from dense forest, coastal plains, subtropical swampland and canoe-able lakes and rivers. Small by US standards, but intimidatingly vast for European visitors, it’s worth taking the time to explore each region rather than rushing from highlight to highlight, no matter how pleasant the drive may be. There are some intercity trains and Greyhound coaches, with buses and trolley services in urban areas – but in true American style, a car is virtually essential for exploring North Carolina's attractions – particularly in rural areas.
Artsy, independent and proudly alternative, Asheville is packed with Art Deco architecture, galleries (in the wonderful River Arts District), craft breweries, yoga studios and vegetarian restaurants – a bold move in a land of bbq fans. Just a handful of the city’s many shops are chains, with numerous initiatives set up to promote local businesses. It’s also an outdoor sports hub, as the gateway to the mountains and its whitewater kayaking and rafting.
While North Carolina is known for its mountains, it’s a common misconception that you have to head to South Carolina for beaches. Those in NC are wilder, less developed and stunningly beautiful – as well as being sheltered by the Outer Banks. There are endless dunes, historic lighthouses, crashing surf and wrecks for divers to explore, plus you can take boat tours out to see dolphins, and hike the maritime forests.
Constructed in the 1890s, this extraordinary, chateau-style, 252-room mansion is the largest private home in the US, with a 7-storey high banquet hall, and a library housing over 10,000 books. The estate was designed to be self-sufficient, with livestock, agriculture and a winery; everything you eat in the estate’s restaurants and hotel has been produced here. Explore the 8,000 acre estate on foot, horseback or raft.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The parkway combines two of America’s quintessential experiences: the road trip and the national park. Emerging from the Smoky Mountains, the forest-lined road is a 755km linear park (split between NC and Virginia) which changes dramatically with the seasons. It tunnels through rock and traverses streams, ravines and railways, with viewpoints and places to explore along the way.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
This 110km-long strip protects barrier islands, wildlife refuges and coastal communities. Once known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the high number of shipwrecks, today, the swells make for great surfing – while the islands’ tough access has preserved their sense of wilderness, and they attract migratory birds and nesting sea turtles. The well-preserved, pretty lighthouses are another consequence of the choppy seas.
The HQ of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation sits at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains NP, and nearby attractions offer insights into traditional Cherokee life. The Indian Village gets mixed reviews – but the Museum and outdoor drama “Unto these Hills” are fascinating. Trek with a native guide to shed new light on the landscape – you won’t just spot birds, you’ll hear the legend of how they got their colourful plumage.
Greensboro is famed as the site of the 1960 sit-ins – which led to the dismantling of segregation in the South. Today, this cosmopolitan city is beloved of artists, students, musicians, foodies and self-proclaimed hippies, with South Elm Street as its creative hub. The Cultural Centre has four floors of galleries, studios and a theatre which promotes African American and Native Arts amongst others, plus there’s a child-friendly, hands-on gallery.
The mountainous terrain around Linville is a fairytale of forests, falls, canyons, rivers and hiking trails. In the Pisgah Forest, Linville Gorge, some 400m deep, is known as the “Grand Canyon of the East”, and the river is fed by the 30m-high Linville Falls. Grandfather Mountain also has scenic trails, plus more challenging ascents with ladders – and the Mile High Swinging Bridge, which spans a 25m chasm.
320km of sandy barrier islands shelter the NC coastline from the open Atlantic – and are a draw in their own right. The Outer Banks evolve with the storms and tides, and were the site of the Wright brothers’ first flight, Blackbeard’s last battle and the first English settlement; the “bankers” are said to retain an English accent to this day. Fishing, boating, watersports, birding and superb beaches are the main attractions.
The Roanoke and Cashie (pronounced Ca-shy) Rivers are swampy wildernesses whose dark waters are ideal for canoes and kayaks. Waterfowl can be seen amongst the cypresses, along with the odd black bear. For a real adventure kayak along the Roanoke River to a wooden platform where you can pitch a tent. You’ll have to be self sufficient – sleeping amid stars, cicadas and pitch darkness, with no campfire for company.
The “Smokies” are named after the plumes of fog that rise over the mountains as its dense vegetation exhales. The national park that protects them is America’s most visited, and shelters wildlife including 1,500 bears, elk and 240 bird species. But the big draw is the outdoor activities; as well as hiking and mountain biking, you can camp, kayak and raft the rapids. There are also dozens of idyllic waterfalls to cool off in.
Since 2001 the number of wineries in NC has quadrupled to over 100 with 400 vineyards – the only place in the world to produce every type of grape. While they exist across the state, the Yadkin Valley has the densest concentration, with 40 wineries. Roanoke Island is home to the enormous ‘MotherVine’ – allegedly first sighted in 1584, and still producing fruit. Vineyards host tastings, festivals, and music and craft events.
Travel times in North Carolina
The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in North Carolina.
- Asheville – Greensboro: 3hrs by car
- Asheville – Greensboro: 4hrs 10 mins by bus
- Asheville – Biltmore Estate: 10 mins by car
- Asheville – Cherokee/Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance: 1hr 15 mins
- Asheville – Linville: 1hr 30 mins
- Charlotte – Greensboro: 1hr 40 mins