The waterfront in Manteo, North Carolina.

12 Must-Visit Small Towns In North Carolina

North Carolina, the 28th-largest and 9th most-populous state in the Southeastern United States, is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and by the US States of Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina in the north, west, southwest, and south respectively. As one of the original Thirteen Colonies and a constituent state of the Carolinas region of the Eastern Seaboard, North Carolina is acclaimed for its unspoiled natural beauty, rich history, vibrant cultures, and world-class recreational opportunities. Although vacationers are usually drawn in large numbers to well-known cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, etc., the innumerable small towns in this picturesque state are waiting to be discovered by tourists. Let us embark on a journey to some of the favorite small towns in the Tarheel State.


Skyline of Boone, North Carolina.
Skyline of Boone, North Carolina.

Encircled by the Blue Ridge Mountains in the state’s northwestern portion, this small town named after the legendary American pioneer Daniel Boone, is the Watauga County’s seat of government. Besides being the biggest economic and community hub of the High Country region, Boone houses the principal campus of Appalachian State University and the international headquarters of Samaritan’s Purse. Travelers can visit the Daniel Boone Native Gardens, Jones House Community Center, Grandfather Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway, Kidd-Brewer Stadium, Hickory Ridge Living History Museum, and the neighboring Elk Knob State Park. Every summer, one can enjoy a performance of the country’s oldest Revolutionary War drama at the Daniel Boone Amphitheater.

Bryson City

Nantahala River at the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City, North Carolina.
Nantahala River at the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City, North Carolina.

This year-round Great Smoky Mountain destination in Swain County is located immediately west of the junction of the Tuckasegee River and Deep Creek, roughly 65 miles from Asheville. Bryson City's location to the west of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance has made it an attractive destination for adventurers. Alluring over 200,000 passengers every year, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is one of the country’s most popular tourist railroads that offers astounding views of the Nantahala Valley. With proper guide services by Nantahala Outdoor Center, sightseers can partake in a wide variety of outdoor recreations in the Nantahala National Forest, and along the Nantahala River and the Fontana Lake. Heritage lovers must not miss the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum, Swain County Visitor Center & Heritage Museum, and Storytelling Center of the Southern Appalachians, while couples can enjoy a romantic date night at The Bistro at the Everett Hotel.


Waterfront in Beaufort, North Carolina
Waterfront in Beaufort, North Carolina.

Carteret County’s seat, Beaufort is North Carolina’s fourth oldest town, situated opposite of Morehead City on Beaufort Harbor, and connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Beaufort Inlet. Ranked “America’s Coolest Small Town,” by Budget Travel Magazine readers, this historic fishing village is home to 4,464 inhabitants as per the latest US Census. Stroll through the National Register-listed Beaufort Historic District and witness the centuries-old buildings in various architectural styles along the narrow oak-lined streets. The town’s walkable downtown containing dozens of maritime shops, galleries, coffee houses, and restaurants is considered one of the Inner Banks region’s most acclaimed town centers. The Old Burying Ground, Gibbs House, Carteret County Home, Jacob Henry House, North Carolina Maritime Museum, Beaufort Historic Site Visitor Center & Museum, Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market, and Fishtowne Brewhouse are Beaufort’s prominent attractions. Nature lovers should make a trip to the Rachel Carson Preserve, where they can do birdwatching, spot horses, and hike the primitive trails. The Island Express Ferry takes visitors to the nearby Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Blowing Rock

Broyhill Park and Mayview Lake in downtown Blowing Rock, North Carolina.
Broyhill Park and Mayview Lake in downtown Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

Spread across the Caldwell and Watauga counties on the crown of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this gorgeous mountain town has been named after a protruding rock formation that overlooks the Johns River Gorge. The Glen Marie Falls, Glen Burney Falls, Green Park Inn, Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine, Mystery Hill, Tweetsie Railroad theme park, Julian Price Memorial Park, Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, and Moses H. Cone Memorial Park on the neighboring Blue Ridge Parkway are some of the town’s outstanding sites of interest. Blowing Rock hosts the “Art in the Park,” Blowing Rock Charity Horse Show, Fourth of July festival & parade, Symphony by the Lake, Blowing Rock Winterfest, Christmas in the Park & Lighting of the Town, and the Blue Ridge Wine & Food Festival.  

Banner Elk

Downtown Banner Elk, North Carolina.
Downtown Banner Elk, North Carolina. Editorial credit: Kristi Blokhin /

A haven for Blue Ridge fans and adventure enthusiasts, this quaint mountain town sits less than 20 miles from Boone in Avery County. Thousands of vacationers flock to Banner Elk during winter to participate in skiing and snowboarding activities at the Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain ski resorts. In the warmer months, water-based recreations like boating, water-skiing, and fishing are offered along Watauga Lake, in addition to hiking, and blueberry picking activities at one of Banner Elk’s wineries. Having several fine dining spaces like the Artisanal Restaurant, Bayou Smokehouse & Grill, the Pedalin’ Pig BBQ, Stonewalls Restaurant, Sorrento’s Bistro, and LP on Main, this small town is noted for its culinary scene. Sponsored by the Avery County Chamber of Commerce and the Banner Elk Kiwanis, the Woolly Worm Festival takes place in downtown Banner Elk on the third weekend of October every year.


Brevard, North Carolina.
Brevard, North Carolina. Editorial credit: Nolichuckyjake /

The administrative center of Transylvania County, Brevard, situated at the entrance of Pisgah National Forest, is Western North Carolina’s cultural, tourism, and retirement center. Also called the “Land of Waterfalls,” holidayers visiting this area can make a trip to the adjacent woodlands to see the numerous gorgeous cascades such as the Looking Glass Falls, Moore Cove Falls, Cove Creek Falls, and Sliding Rock (also a natural waterslide). Spare some time to check out the town’s two museums: the Transylvania Heritage Museum, and the Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas, and watch a performance by top musicians at the Brevard Music Center. Locally-owned shops like the Hub & Pisgah Tavern, and the Underground Salvage Co.; galleries and studios; and eateries like Vescovo, the Square Root, Bracken Mountain Bakery, and the Falls Landing, fill Brevard’s downtown. The Downtown also serves as a venue for many annual events including the White Squirrel Festival, Fourth of July celebrations, Halloweenfest, and Twilight Tour.


King Street in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
King Street in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Editorial credit: Nolichuckyjake /

Established in 1754 by the North Carolina surveyor William Churton, this town along the Eno River in Orange County was renamed ‘Hillsborough’ in honor of Wills Hill, the 1st Earl of Hillsborough. The Downtown Hillsborough Historic District features over 100 meticulously restored structures that date back to the lake 18th and 19th centuries. Some fascinating examples include the Old Orange County Courthouse, Alexander Dickson House (presently the Hillsborough Visitor Center), Ayr Mount, Poplar Hill, the Inn at Teardrops, Green Hill, Margaret Lane Cemetery, and the Occoneechee Speedway Trail. Nature enthusiasts can spend some time amidst the greens at the Eno River State Park, Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, and the Riverwalk, a greenway that is a portion of the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The town hosts the ‘Art in the Heart of Hillsborough’ in April, the Hog Day BBQ Festival in September, and the Solstice Celebration Lantern Walk in December.


Aerial View of Downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Aerial View of Downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Traditionally referred to as “The City of Four Seasons,” Hendersonville, set at the heart of Henderson County is located around 22 miles south of Asheville. The town’s well-preserved Main Street and adjacent downtown area is brimming with uncountable antique shops, boutiques, art galleries, theaters, museums, breweries, and diners. When in town, the Henderson County Courthouse, City Hall, Mineral & Lapidary Museum, Historic Johnson Farm, Hands-On Children’s Museum, Henderson County Heritage Museum, Hendersonville Little Theatre, Oakdale Cemetery, and Western North Carolina Air Museum are must visits. Hikers are drawn to Laurel Park, about 5 miles west of Hendersonville, where the Jump Off Rock overlook provides superb views of the Blue Ridge and Pisgah mountains.

Mount Airy

Downtown Mount Airy, North Carolina.
Downtown Mount Airy, North Carolina.

An adorable Surry County town and part of the Piedmont Triad metropolitan region, Mount Airy is at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, along the Ararat River, roughly 3 miles south of the state boundary with Virginia, and 14 miles away from the Blue Ridge Parkway. As the hometown of American actor Andy Samuel Griffith, Mount Airy is believed to have been the inspiration for the fictional “Mayberry” in ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ The town’s central business district and the abutting residential and industrial portions that comprise a number of buildings constructed between 1880 and 1930 are included within the Mount Airy Historic District. Annual events like the Mayberry Days, the Autumn Leaves Festival, and the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention also lure thousands of merrymakers to Mount Airy every year.


Pinehurst, North Carolina.
Pinehurst, North Carolina.

Named for its location in an area of towering long-leaf pines at the heart of the state, Pinehurst is a pleasant New England-style village in Moore County. Widely known as the “Home of American Golf,” and the “Golf Capital of North Carolina,” a significant portion of the village including the resort complexes has been designated a National Historic Landmark District. The historic Pinehurst Resort, Pinehurst Harness Track, Sandhills Horticultural Gardens, the Country Club of North Carolina, Mystic Cottage, Tufts Archives, Camelot Playground, Carolina Hotel, and Rassie Wicker Park are Pinehurst’s noteworthy points of interest. Throughout the year, the town hosts many equestrian events, antiques fairs, street festivals, concerts, and theatrical performances.


Aerial view of Southport North Carolina water front. Located on the Cape Fear river.
Aerial view of Southport North Carolina on the Cape Fear river.

Founded in 1792 as the town of Smithville and renamed in 1887 as Southport, this lovely waterfront town is located in Brunswick County on the northwestern banks of the Cape Fear River, about 2 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Southport is renowned for its spectacular scenery, seaside charm, laid-back atmosphere, and salubrious breezes. Downtown Southport features an array of art galleries, eclectic shops, vintage stores, and eateries. History buffs must head straight to the Fort Johnston Museum & Visitors Center, NC Maritime Museum, and Old Brunswick County Jail. Film enthusiasts would not want to miss a tour of the places where popular movies and television shows like “Safe Haven,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “A Walk To Remember,” etc., were shot. The North Carolina Fourth of July Festivities at Southport draws more than 50,000 visitors to the town every year.


Aerial view of Manteo, North Carolina.
Aerial view of Manteo, North Carolina.

Christened after a Croatan Native American, this idyllic coastal town along the protected Shallowbag Bay sits on the north-central part of Roanoke Island in Dare County. Manteo’s closeness to the Outer Banks has allured vacationers for ages. The town’s downtown located along the waterfront is packed with souvenir shops, bookstores, coffee shops, bed & breakfasts, and seafood restaurants. A tour of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Elizabethan Gardens, George Washington Creef House, Island Farm, Theodore S. Meekins House, Roanoke Island Festival Park, John T. Daniels House, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, and North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, and the performance of “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama in a Waterside Theatre, are what tourists visiting Manteo sought for. The town’s annual festivals and events include the Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournament, the New World Festival of the Arts, and Dare Day celebrations.

From mountain towns like Boone to coastal retreats like Manteo, the small towns in North Carolina offer unforgettable experiences for every visitor. With magnificent surroundings, notable historical landmarks, ample recreation, colorful festivals, and welcoming locals, these gems of the Old North State are ideal places to spend your long vacations, weekends, or romantic escapes with loved ones.

  1. Home
  2. Places
  3. Cities
  4. 12 Must-Visit Small Towns In North Carolina

More in Places