20 BEST Cities in North Carolina To Visit

The Tar Heel state is known for many things. We’ve found some favorites to be the savory barbecue, beautiful beaches, rich history, majestic mountains, stunning scenery, and craft beer culture, just to name a few. Beyond the beaches and mountain towns, another thing that people may not recognize are the incredible cities in North Carolina.

North Carolina is home to many cosmopolitan communities that combine the old school charm of the South with the amenities of the modern day. From the mountainous town of Boone that feels like a small city, to thriving Charlotte, we’re digging into some awesome NC cities to check out.

Notable Cities in North Carolina to Visit


Cities In North Carolina - Biltmore in Asheville
Population: 95,000

Asheville is one of the coolest cities on the East Coast and the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s full of fun and unusual activities to try.

With more breweries per capita than any other city in the country, you’ll always have a good time if you love beer! Its vibe is equally adventurous and laid back, focusing on the spectacular scenery and sustainability we all adore. 

Cultural attractions range from the epic, like The Grand Biltmore to the Folk Arts Center. There’s also the ethereal nearby, like in the beautiful Pisgah National Forest where you can enjoy all your hikes. Not far from the city are plenty of Asheville waterfalls, like the famous Sliding Rock where you can slide down a natural waterslide! Those after some extended time in nature should definitely try a hike or two before hopping on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Chapel Hill – Carrboro

Chapel Hill one of the great Cities In North Carolina
Population: 61,500

Chapel Hill, and its smaller, hipper neighbor Carrboro, make for a splendid North Carolina city adventure. As the two areas have grown they’ve merged seamlessly, creating a beautiful blended bubble of Southern charm and alternative artistry. 

Chapel Hill is a college town with a campus that fell out of a fairytale. Just visit and see, as a wander down Franklin Street charms any visitor. Catch a band at Cat’s Cradle, a taco at Cosmic Cantina, and a school spirit fever at any sporting event. 

Carrboro presents an easygoing and eco-friendly energy to explore. A stroll down Main Street reveals cute cafes, antique shops, thriving thrift stores, and burgeoning breweries that any beer lover will enjoy! 


Population: 527,000

One of the biggest cities in North Carolina is Durham, and although it may not sound like the most exciting place, Durham has quite a bit going for it. Durham’s recent renaissance has made it an attractive destination for Carolina travelers.

The American Tobacco Historic District is a renovated Lucky Strike Factory that has become a cultural haven for the city. The Museum of Life and Science has wonders to behold for adults and kids alike. 

Duke Gardens is a flower-filled oasis for a day of appreciating natural beauty or an intimate picnic on the stunning grounds. While Eno River State Park provides scenic forested trails which weave their way along the sparkling, flowing river. Visit Ninth Street for a taste of some of the best Durham restaurants and to shop charming storefronts. 


Hickory north carolina
Population: 45,000

The small North Carolina city of Hickory is chock full of historical and cultural heritage sites. Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s home to a warm welcoming community that helps you to feel right at home. The roots of the city lie in craftsmanship, hence the Hickory Furniture Market, a hotspot for handmade, one-of-a-kind pieces. 

For top-notch wining and dining head to Union Square, and be sure to double back there for the weekly farmers market, always full of fresh fares. Bakers Mountain Park and Lake Hickory offer outdoor exploration in exquisite natural environments. The Hickory Aviation Museum is also a must-visit for both history buffs and flight enthusiasts. 


Boone, North Carolina
Population: 18,000

One of the best things to do in North Carolina is head to this mountain town! Boone is a favorite candidate for small cities in North Carolina you should visit. It boasts a laid-back mountain vibe with plenty of outdoor adventure to be had.

A hotspot for rock climbers, this is a great place to try your hand or challenge your skills in the craggy terrain. Lucky for us, there are several breweries to taste test the local libations, the perfect refreshing reprieve after enjoying a fabulous restaurants after an active day in Boone. 

If you’re interested in hiking or biking, stop at some of the most breathtaking natural sights the North Carolina Mountains have to offer such as Grandfather Mountain, Howard’s Knob, and Greenway Trail. Skiing and snow tubing is the other popular pastime, with Appalachian Ski Mountain and Sugar Mountain Resort both serving up snow-covered slopes to experience every winter!


Wilmington, North Carolina
Population: 120,000

We have a special soft spot for this North Carolina city as we went to UNCW and I’ll forever consider it one of the best cities in North Carolina. Wilmington is an eclectic beachside city with something for everyone. It’s home to Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, Wilmington Railroad Museum, and Cameron Art Museum and for a more unique education, you can also venture to Bellamy Mansion Museum or the Museum of the Bizarre. 

The historic downtown district is home to many classic architectural achievements, while the live oaks dressed in Spanish moss make for some dreamy strolls.

The downtown Riverwalk is our favorite place to head and is a tranquil way to see the sights and explore the shops. Downtown Wilmington is also where you will find the best restaurants in Wilmington, and where the best cafes, breweries and pubs lay – it gets rowdy here on weekends with all the college kids!

Visitors are spoilt between beaches, take your pick between three nearby – Wrightsville Beach, Kure Beach, and Carolina Beach. Each have their own special, sweet seaside scene. For an extension of Wilmington beaches it’s easy to head to Topsail Island, Bald Head Island, or Figure Eight Island.


Winston Salem
Population: 250,000

Winston Salem weaves the old and the new, creating a wonderful city of historic charm and modern marvels wrapped up in Carolina culture. Visit SECCA, a contemporary art space featuring rotating exhibits of avante garde works before taking the kids to Old Salem, one of the most amazing historic sites and live museums. For the beer lovers, recommend attempting a craft draft crawl to try all of the fresh delicious brews being created in the Winston Salem breweries here. 

The North Carolina Barbecue Trail celebrates the traditional and iconic culinary creations of the South, and you can find some fantastic bbq joints in the city, like Little Richard’s Barbecue.

Be sure to take in the street art when on your adventures in the city, there’s a spray-painted surprise around every corner!


Population: 4,000 (Surf City)

Topsail Island is a beach retreat to beat the heat and the crowds just off the coast of North Carolina, it’s not a city but it’s not far from Surf City. There are miles of undisturbed sandy shores to enjoy here, and it’s also known as a sea turtle sanctuary. Serenity Point has been the site of many a stunning sunset. 

See if you can find Blackbeard’s treasure, legend has it it’s buried somewhere on the island. The Missiles and More Museum is a great in-depth look at the area through time. Quarter Moon is a cafe, gift shop, book store, and wine bar all in one.

Jolly Roger Fishing Pier is the perfect place for a big catch, while Surf City has some fantastic restaurants that are lively in the summer.


City Skyline Charlotte North Carolina
Population: 885,000

Charlotte is perhaps the most well known place in North Carolina and a bustling metropolitan city with many amenities on offer. It is the largest city in North Carolina, with a metro population over 2.5 million.

Here you’ll have your choice of a diverse range of restaurants, shopping, museums, and gardens. The Mint Museum is the oldest art museum in the state and home to an impressive collection while the NASCAR Hall of Fame is suited to all with a need for speed. 

McGill Rose Garden is a dreamy and romantic excursion for all lovers of lush flora. The downtown is the cultural center of Charlotte. The Charlotte Museum of History and the self-guided Liberty Walk are great ways to explore the heritage here. Freedom Park has hundreds of acres for outdoor activities in the warm Carolina sunshine and to make matters better Charlotte’s brewing and dining scene is alive and well!


Population: 2,500

Less of a city, but a small town noteworthy of a mention is this gem. Nestled in the majestic Smoky Mountains lies Cherokee, an often overlooked oasis of origins. Nearby you can hit up Mingo Falls for a fun waterfall hike in North Carolina that will take your breath away.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is an educational celebration of the rich indigenous heritage of the city and Qualla Arts and Crafts features an array of traditional Cherokee works. 

Oconaluftee Indian Village will allow you to observe and interact with what these cultural practices look like, all within a wooded wonderland. Paul’s Family Restaurant serves up the slow-cooked classics of Cherokee that you won’t find anywhere else, like their famous fry bread – a must try in Cherokee.


Population: 90,000

Not to be confused with Greenville, South Carolina this thriving college city of North Carolina, brings all the leisurely fun you need. The first order of business in Greenville should always be Barbecue. The Brews and Cues Trail will set you off on the right path for all the crave-worthy craft beverages and cuts of meat you could ask for. 

The Tar River is a sparkling waterway offering spectacular views, native wildlife, hiking trails, and kayaking adventures. The antique market is full of vintage treasures just waiting to be found. Greenville is also known for extreme sports, especially BMXing. Extreme Park is the perfect space to check out local talent or try your hand at some tricky tricks. 

Nags Head

Nags Head
Population: 3,300

More of a beach town than a city, but worth a mention Nags Head lies on the beloved Outer Banks. It is one of the cutest Outer Banks towns there is and it’s known for coastal recreation at its finest. Any beach pastime you can think of is lauded here. Surfing, swimming, sailing, paddleboarding, fishing, kiteboarding, jet skiing, and so much more. Nags Head Woods is a drier land alternative for any nature lovers. 

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast, and there are some nice walks and trails to enjoy here. Don’t miss Tracks in the Sand Trail or try hang gliding for the first time with Kitty Hawk Kites. Historic cottages line the sunny sandy shores, creating an idyllic landscape for a seaside sojourn, and of course a place where you can rent a beach condo for the week.

Lake Lure

Lake Lure
Population: 1,500

Frequented for its Dirty Dancing acclaim to fame, Lake Lure has so much to enthrall us. Its man-made lake of the same name is one of the most beautiful in the country, especially come fall

Surrounded by towering mountain peaks and a rushing river, there’s plenty of lush nature to explore around Lake Lure. Go for a hike, ride a bike, climb a jagged boulder, paddle away in a kayak, or simply relax on the beach of the serene, sparkling lake.


Population: 470,000

Raleigh consistently ranks as one of the best cities to live in North Carolina. Known as the city of oaks, Raleigh is the capital of the Tarheel State. You’ll find a foodie freefall at Transfer Co. Food Hall, so indulge in all kinds of culinary creations here, or check out some of Raleigh’s excellent breweries!

Okay, let’s pretend we are not hungry and stray away from food. The North Carolina Museum of Art has sprawling grounds of acres of sculpture pieces, fields of flowers ideal for photo ops, and wooded trails. It offers a lovely balance of modern and quaint and the perfect place to head on a sunny day. Though Umstead State Park is our favorite of several green spaces provided by the city.

Raleigh is also a mecca of the performing arts, as it’s home to many well-loved venues such as North Carolina Theater, North Carolina Opera, Carolina Ballet, and North Carolina Symphony making it a great city for date night.

New Bern 

new bern
Population: 32,000

New Bern is a vibrant waterfront community, and the birthplace to Pepsi. It’s one of the earliest cities in the nation and, as such, there are many historic homes and verdant gardens to wander through. Tryon Place is a beloved beacon of local history explored through extensive displays.  

New Bern lies at the heart of the Twin Rivers, Trent River, and Neuse River, which allows for miles of paddling trails. The downtown is chic with an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants. Fun fact – the city is covered in whimsical bear statues, see if you can spot them all. 


Image by Mike Renlund on Flickr / Population: 18,000

The fabled and famed golf courses of Pinehurst live up the hype. It’s also ranked as one of the safest cities in North Carolina. Whether you’re a putting guru or a novice on the links, these greens do not disappoint. There are nine world-class courses to choose from. Take a moment to stop and smell the pine, the fresh air will have you feeling like new. 

Pinehurst encourages a slowed pace of living that is ideal for a relaxing getaway. The village holds modern and vintage boutiques and galleries that are a delight to browse. Lake Pinehurst is a natural oasis to enjoy. From down-home fare to gourmet feasts, there is a diverse range of eateries available.  


Population: 15,000

One of our favorite Western Carolina haunts, Hendersonville ranks high on the cities in North Carolina you should visit. The historic downtown has quaint streets lined with adorable shopping options and al fresco dining.

We’ve mentioned too much for beer lovers, but need to include the wine lovers here. And good news, Hendersonville is known for its many fabulous wineries (our favorite is Burntshirt Vineyards). Visit the vineyards for tours and tastings and enjoy a stunning day out among the groves. 

Sometimes referred to as Apple Alley, Hendersonville is the place to check out an apple orchard and pick your own fresh produce. Home to Dupont State Forest, as well, there are many tranquil trails and cascading waterfalls to be found near Hendersonville!


things to do in beaufort, nc
Population: 5,000

It’s no surprise that beautiful Beaufort is included in our roundup of North Carolina cities. A beloved fixture on the Crystal Coast, this is paradise hidden in plain sight. Front Street is a picturesque hotspot for perusing local goods in beachy boutiques, and finding fresh seafood with a salty breeze. There’s plenty of things to do in Beaufort, NC for all.

The General Store is a shrine to kitsch and Taylor’s Creek Antiques has an abundance of relics. The North Carolina Maritime Museum is the best place to learn about the nautical heritage of the coast.

Known as the town which inspired A Walk to Remember, Beaufort is a whimsical wonder by the sea and certainly one of the most fantastic coastal cities in North Carolina!


Population: 4,500

For a romantic weekend getaway in North Carolina try heading to Southport, not far from Carolina Beach and Fort Fisher. A charming city on the mouth of Cape Fear, Southport is a little slice of heaven that’s full of surprises.

the energy is bright here, as it’s known for being an especially happy city. It has become a popular filming location, so see if you can spot any scenery from your favorite movies. 

It’s part of the Brunswick Islands, which are steeped in a rich coastal history and Southern hospitality is alive and well in this seaside oasis. Take the ferry over from Fort Fisher, you can bring your car or not – don’t worry – every street is walkable and each downtown store is special to venture into. In between your excursions we highly recommend having lunch at Provision Company, one of the best Southport restaurant!

Rocky Mount

Rocky Mount
Population: 55,000

A visit to Rocky Mount, promises an exciting and lively experience and is one of our favorite small cities in North Carolina. Situated in the eastern part of the Tarheel State within the Atlantic Coastal Plain, this small charming southern city may be perceived by some as a mere pit stop along I-95, but it offers a multitude of captivating attractions and activities.

Rocky Mount boasts a diverse range of things to see and do in its picturesque setting. The natural landscape provides opportunities for delightful outdoor adventures, and the local arts community thrives.

For those seeking culinary and beverage delights, Rocky Mount features trendy breweries and an array of enticing dining options. Whether passing through or staying for awhile, make sure to try Gardner’s Barbecue Restaurant!

Best Cities in North Carolina FAQ

Where is the best city to live in North Carolina?

Raleigh consistently ranks at the best city to live in North Carolina.

Is Raleigh or Charlotte better?

Raleigh offers strong education and tech job opportunities with a slightly lower cost of living, while Charlotte is a major financial hub with more cultural attractions and a bigger city feel.

The choice depends on your career goals and lifestyle preferences, so visit both cities and consider factors like job opportunities, cost of living, and quality of life when deciding. Talking to residents can also provide valuable insights.

Where is the prettiest place to live in North Carolina?

North Carolina has lots of beautiful gems. Some of the prettiest places along the coast include Kure Beach, Topsail Island, and Holden Beach while some of the pretties places in the North Carolina mountains are Asheville, Hendersonville, and Boone!

Where is the best city in North Carolina for beaches?

Wilmington is a fantastic city with numerous beaches all within an hours drive.

Where is the safest place to live in North Carolina?

Cary consistently ranks as one of the safest cities in the US as it has low crime rates and a strong sense of community. Another great place is Apex, known for its safety, family-friendly atmosphere, and excellent schools.

Cities in North Carolina Map

Plan For Your Trip to the South!

  • Get Around: We suggest renting a car for traveling the Carolinas. Check Prices on RentalCars.com
  • Our Favorite Travel Shoes: Our answer to this question is always Allbirds.
About Natasha

Natasha moved to North Carolina for college years ago (but she's not trying to age herself here). Her days were spent reading a book on the beach and enjoying a cold glass of sweet tea in between classes at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Upon graduation, she met her partner, Cameron, and they traveled the world together crossing 85 countries and seven continents. After, many years of international travel they settled down a bit and launched Lost in the Carolinas to share their experiences about and travel tips on South Carolina and North Carolina.

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