The small towns of North Carolina are one of our favorite aspects of the state. You have everything from sleeping seaside towns in the Outer Banks to artistic mountain havens like Boone. Whatever you’re seeking in a small town, North Carolina can likely deliver!
The best Small Towns in North Carolina
Until a craft beer and outdoor sports explosion, Saluda wasn’t much more than a truck stop with peaches in the summer and apples in the fall. The town’s proximity to exciting whitewater rafting and ziplining has kick-started a lovely downtown, with plenty of dining and shopping options on one side and a public park on the other side of the tracks.
It’ll only take you four blocks to make it through downtown Saluda, each block an eclectic mix of new shops and stores that haven’t changed in decades. You can keep walking straight from Main Street and quickly find yourself on top of Polly Mountain, and stop by a swimming hole on your way down.
This town has grown up naturally. Its greatest claim to fame is that it’s home to the steepest railroad grade in the region. To feel the heartbeat of North Carolina, spend some time in Saluda.
This small island is also the name of the southern-most town of the outer banks. The experience begins while traveling to the quirky village, as there is no road leading onto the island. A (free!) ferry takes you from Hatteras to the northern tip of the island. Once ashore, you’ll head on a one-of-a-kind drive between the dunes into downtown Ocracoke.
Park your car and make sure to remember where you put the keys; you won’t be needing them for a while. There are more golf carts than cars driving through town, and with a plethora of rental options available, you can have your choice of open-air off-road vehicles to explore the uncrowded beaches.
The town springs to life in the summer, and you can expect special events—as well as remarkable sunsets—every weekend from spring through fall.
Central North Carolina’s finest offerings come together in this small, humble town. The downtown feels different to wander through, thanks to the brick mill buildings that fuse with the natural area.
The town sits on the edge of the Haw River, close enough to major cities like Raleigh for ample accessible day trip opportunities. Its proximity to the big city hasn’t impacted this small town’s development. The Haw River Ballroom attracts nationally recognized bluegrass musicians, as well as plenty of local legends.
Many towns in North Carolina claim to be the gateway to the Smoky Mountains, but Bryson City has a serious argument. The last town before the Nantahala National Forest and Parks, Bryson City pops up out of nowhere in a valley between some of North Carolina’s most incredible outdoor spaces.
If you are looking for easy access to the Smoky Mountains, it doesn’t get much better than here. The Great Smoky Mountain train line departs from the town center, and there’s always plenty of action downtown after the sun sets.
Pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway right into Blowing Rock for an upscale dining and vacation experience. The entire downtown is surrounded by parks and the Appalachian Mountains, and serves up plenty of delicacies that are easy on the eyes. Legendary fudge shops, pubs, and fine dining establishments provide so many options; you’ll have to come back to try them all.
If you want a luxurious vacation experience, you can find it all in peaceful Blowing Rock. Weddings, anniversaries, and honeymooners love the tranquility and its arguably one of the most romantic getaways in the NC. Next time you want to treat yourself, do it in Blowing Rock.
One of the best things to do in North Carolina is enjoy world-class BBQ. While the best BBQs are often found in the hole in the wall spots along state highways, the best BBQs in the state all use Lexington sauce. The town is the home of the unique vinegar concoction that defines North Carolina.
North Carolina is one of the pork capitals of the country, and they take their BBQ seriously. Lexington lives up to its BBQ reputation by not changing a thing. The downtown shacks have been slathering up the same recipe for decades, and folks have never stopped loving it.
If you can’t get enough of the sauce, Lexington-sauce lovers flock to the town every year to sample 1,000’s of sauces made in the traditional style but full of new kicks. The town has even gone full hog and shares its spirit with pig statues located throughout downtown.
Outer Banks towns have never had tons of real estate. Most of these areas are one, two, or three roads wide, flanked on one side by a sound and the other by the Atlantic Ocean. Some of these blips are barely more than resort towns, but others, like Rodanthe, are full of flavor. You can camp right on the sand or right on the sea; every side is waterfront.
There’s a dramatic dining scene once you’ve completed your check-in. Expect to find usual favorites, plenty of pizza, and fresh seafood. The small communities have teamed up with nearby Waves and Salvo to work together on development. With Rodanthe as a base camp, you can head either north or south along the Outer Banks and find a great way to spend the afternoon.
North Carolina’s middle section is full of flat plainland, perfect for growing strawberries, and playing golf. A world-class golf course at nearby Pinehurst resort has defined the town as the golf capital of a state rich in opportunities for a tee time. Inside the clubhouse lies a museum that broadcasts more of the history of the area.
The village that has developed around this outdoor sport attracts anyone keen to rummage through authentic local wares. Bookshops, boutiques, and art galleries allow plenty of chances to find the right souvenirs.
If you’re looking for a golfing destination or an upscale small-town that invites you to relax, you’ll enjoy Pinehurst Village.
Albino squirrels dance along the open campus of Brevard College, which intermingles with the town center. Brevard is in the middle of fantastic natural settings like the Pisgah National Forest, as well as cool mountain rivers to splash in on a summer day. The area has attracted thousands of summer campers every year thanks to the variety of outdoor activities available, with Brevard as a centerpiece.
World class rafting, mountain biking, and hiking are all within a 20-minute drive of the town center, which offers plenty of grit on its own. Plenty of alumni have stuck around and built up a vibrant arts scene that emphasizes the town’s culture. Come to have easy access to the outdoors and stay to feel a part of the family.
If you have any business with the mayor of this small town, you can find him in the local tavern. You can find just about anyone in Hillsborough singing through the historic downtown streets on most nights of the week. A large chunk of the locals live within easy walking distance of the town’s authentic center.
This has created a bustling central few blocks that haven’t felt the need to change to please anyone else. Local establishments serve high-quality coffee and cuisine without trying to do anything different. Hillsborough provides plenty of history as you stroll through an authentically lovely downtown.
Beaufort is what happens when you build a small town where the land meets the sea. Right along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, Beaufort has created a wonderful Carolinian destination that showcases the sea that has given the area life.
Kayaking excursions depart from near the town center to explore vast amounts of barrier islands that make up the more natural parts of the town. There’s plenty of things to do in Beaufort for all! The area’s economic center has packed in microbreweries and homestyle meals to give you plenty of activity once you’re off the water.
Asheville’s laid-back nature doesn’t want any attention, but it has plenty to offer. This town is a great base camp for exploring Mount Mitchell, the largest mountain on the East side of the Mississippi. Black Mountain has chilled dining options and a walkable downtown area to provide a great stop on your next vacation.
The craft beer capital of the east coast is a safe Uber drive away, and some great hiking and biking depart from downtown. No matter which part of town you head to, you’ll see Black Mountain watching over you in the background.
Trapped near two industrial college towns, Durham and Chapel Hill, Carrboro is the free-spirited little sister of its larger neighbors. Carrboro has the hip feeling of Piedmont’s central triangle area but doesn’t quite conform like the other places.
Summer street festivals are a common occurrence, and most weekends will bring plenty of organic entertainment near Weaver Street Market, the prominent meeting place for the town. Its central location, only 30 minutes from the Raleigh airport, makes it fun and easy to spend some time in North Carolina.
Waynesville has plenty of mountain spirit. The local community loves their hometown, and the natural appreciation the inhabitants have for their surroundings shows in the small town’s development.
Most weekends, you’ll find the main street of this town blocked off and plenty of pedestrians strolling through art shops and shacks set up for the occasion.
The town has grown up and spread out a touch over the years, and its proximity to Asheville has rubbed off on it. There are now several popular breweries and taprooms right downtown.
Corolla is a beach town full of lively ambience. On the Northern edge of the outer banks, it hasn’t developed to favor tourism as much as other towns on the barrier banks of the state. Corolla retains wild horses and enough identity to be one of the best small beach towns in the state.
The Corolla Adventure Park provides some fun outside of the water, and a plethora of local dining options include live music. A sizable full-time residential community gives this area some authentic flavor.
Sylva is a quiet stop on your way towards Tennessee that will surprise you if you take the time to get off the highway. Downtown shops are close enough together for an afternoon walk, but each offers an eclectic, local delicacy that makes it worth a second look.
Nearby, Western North Carolina University more than doubles the population of this cute, North Carolina small town that has plenty to offer every time of the year. You can find a view of the town from the top of the historic Jackson County Public Library.
Wake Forest provides a breath of fresh air for those looking to get out of the Triangle’s hustle and bustle. The town has plenty of dining and entertainment offers, so you’ll never get bored, and has held on to its Southern charm to make it feel like home.
The area was one of the state’s industrial headquarters, and as businesses died down, warehouses and brick mill buildings morphed into a hip district worth checking out. Museums pay homage to the cotton mill upbringing of the area, and authentic Southern food establishments, like the Sugar Magnolia Cafe, give you plenty of reasons to head downtown.
Calabash proves you don’t need to drive to the outer banks for serene beachfront vacations. The town is home to sunset beach, miles of iconic sandy dunes where visitors can catch the sunrise over the sound and the sunset across the ocean.
Once the sun goes down, head to town to try their seafood dishes. Calabash has signature seafood that is lightly battered and deep-fried, and there’s always plenty of it. Downtown buffets and fine dining experiences offer refined takes on Calabash-style seafood.
Head to Semora if you’re looking for solitude. The heart of Hyco Lake has one gas station that doubles as the area’s only restaurant and boat launch. You can camp or stay at many rental homes near this small town center and enjoy everything a day on the lake has to offer.
If you want a low-key vacation, get a house on the lake in Semora for the weekend and relax in peace.
Roanoke Rapids has embraced the natural beauty of northern North Carolina to serve as a fantastic outdoor sports border town destination. Close to Virginia and entirely flanked by the Roanoke River, Downtown Roanoke Rapids has a little bit of everything you need for a quiet weekend in the woods.
Early inhabitants dug a canal here that used to power local mills. While the channel is no longer in use, the town has erected a museum and accompanying trail that allows you to get a glimpse at the industrial beginnings of the area.
Nowadays, locals have their fair share of high-quality coffee shops, local goods, and fresh eats to share with any visitors who want a low-key weekend away.