The 15 Most Charming Small Towns in North Carolina

·10 min read

Bordered by Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and the Atlantic Ocean, North Carolina has a mix of towering mountains, low-lying coastal areas, wetlands, dense forests and barrier islands that make it one of the most geographically diverse states in the entire country. Dotted across the Land of the Sky are countless small towns with distinct personalities, Southern hospitality and oodles of charm. In fact, the Tarheel State brims with so many tiny treasures it’s nearly impossible to highlight just a handful. But, for your benefit, we took on the herculean task of rounding up the best small towns in North Carolina. Swing by a few of these spots on your next road trip or pick one darling destination and stay a week.

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1. BANNER ELK, NC

Did you know the Tarheel State had skiing? (If you didn’t, no worries, honestly, we weren’t that familiar either.) Perched in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Banner Elk is a bonafide winter wonderland that sits between Sugar Mountain Resort and Beech Mountain Resort. Post swishing down the slopes, visitors can check out North Carolina's first alpine roller coaster! (OK, that’s super cool.) Visiting during the off-season? Go zip lining, shop for locally-made art at the galleries in downtown Banner Elk or sip vino at Linville Falls Winery.

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2. KITTY HAWK, NC

Aviation enthusiasts are no doubt familiar with Kitty Hawk. After all, this famed Outer Banks locale is where humans first took flight. That's right, the Wright Brothers made history when they successfully completed the first controlled-powered flight at Kill Devil Hills on December 17, 1903. Today, most people visit Kitty Hawk with the intention of enjoying the sandy beaches and partaking in more aquatic-oriented activities, ranging from jet skiing and kayaking to parasailing and kiteboarding. Kitty Hawk Pier boasts majestic views of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. While otters and turtles call the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve home.

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3. BLOWING ROCK, NC

Blowing Rock will literally blow your mind. Pun intended. In all seriousness, this charming little town in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, is jam-packed with outdoor adventure. Name an activity (just shout out the first thing that springs to mind)—we’d be willing to bet it exists in Blowing Rock. Hiking? Duh. Fishing? Check. Rafting? Of course. Rock climbing? You bet. Spelunking? Sure thing. Add to that mom-and-pop shops, great restaurants and the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum.

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4. PINEHURST, NC

Dubbed “the cradle of golf in America,” the entirety of Pinehurst is designated as a historic landmark. That sort of says it all. For that reason, this Moore County community has become a pilgrimage-worthy destination for people keen to hit the Donald Ross-designed fairways of Pinehurst No. 2—a course that’s hosted more championships than anywhere else in the country. OK, you’ve played 18 holes...now what? After channeling your inner Nicklaus and Palmer, play a classic lawn game like croquet or wind down with a hot stone massage.

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5. BATH, NC

Can you name North Carolina’s oldest town? If you guessed Bath, good job! Established by French Huguenots in 1705, this longstanding port has many claims to fame. Besides its eldest statesman status, Bath was also the old stomping ground of the infamous pirate Blackbeard. Learn about all sorts of seafaring lore on a walking tour. The next historic stop? The 1734-built St. Thomas Episcopal Church. A prime location near the mouth of the Pamlico River provides plenty of opportunities for swimming, sailing, fishing and chowing down on local seafood. Blue crab, anyone?

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6. HILLSBOROUGH, NC

Nestled on the leafy banks of Eno River, Hillsborough basically typifies what it means to be a quaint little town and pays homage to the past in a really lovely way. Beautiful centuries-old buildings, such as the Old Orange County Courthouse and the Romanesque-style First Baptist Church, line the streets of downtown. Other heritage-rich attractions include the Alexander Dickson House, the Orange County Historical Museum, Margaret Lane Cemetery and the Occaneechi Village Replica Site. Hillsborough is also a great spot to shop, listen to live music and get some local grub.

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7. SALUDA, NC

Saluda has quite an interesting history. The low-key mountain town really came to be when the first passenger train of the Asheville and Spartan Railroad arrived back on July 4, 1878. Since then, it’s been a popular vacation destination for folks seeking a change of pace and scenery from the city. Saluda offers charming Victorian architecture, fresh alpine air, a vibrant arts scene (think: museums, galleries and theaters), independently owned shops and a slew of outdoor activities. And, of course, the Saluda Historic Depot is a must-visit.

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8. HOT SPRINGS, NC

Need a little R&R? (Who doesn’t these days?) We’ve got the perfect spot to soak away your troubles. The aptly named resort town of Hot Springs is synonymous with peace, quiet and warm, mineral waters that come from the depths of the earth—said by the Native Americans who first discovered them to have healing powers. After taking full advantage of the area’s rejuvenating spa offerings, you’ll probably feel refreshed enough to go out and explore. Might we suggest rafting, swimming, kayaking, hanging out with llamas or hiking the Appalachian Trail?

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9. BEAUFORT, NC

Oh, beautiful and charming Beaufort, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Sorry, but it’s hard not to get positively giddy about this enchanting coastal enclave that’s packed with seafood restaurants, family-friendly parks and stores selling nautical souvenirs. Like Bath, Beaufort has a connection to the legendary swashbuckler Blackbeard. We highly recommend setting sail on a pirate-themed boat tour. Other ways to have fun on the high seas? Sailing, jet skiing, kitesurfing and kayaking are also popular pastimes. Another you’ll definitely want to do? Book a Shackleford Wild Horse and Shelling Safari.

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10. BOONE, NC

Another simply adorable small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Boone (named after the pioneer Daniel Boone) oozes rustic and rugged charm. It’s actually known as a great place to retire, but don’t think that means we’re saying Boone is sleepy. Thousands of Appalachian State University students infuse youthful energy. That’s in addition to the quaint downtown area, the beloved Hickory Ridge History Museum, Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park and panoramic views of surrounding peaks. Don’t just marvel at the natural scenery from afar, lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails.

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11. MANTEO, NC

It wouldn’t be a complete list of the most charming small towns in North Carolina without the inclusion of Manteo on Roanoke Island. A quiet alternative to many of its neighbors, this placid—though far from boring—Outer Banks destination delights travelers with its relaxed vibe, a picturesque waterfront boardwalk, beaches, a wealth of leisure activities and historic sites. Don’t miss the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse and Elizabethan Gardens. The North Carolina Aquarium is another popular attraction. Manteo also boasts the longest-running outdoor symphonic drama, The Lost Colony, which was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green and first debuted in 1937.

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12. BREVARD, NC

A bastion of natural beauty, much of outer Brevard looks as though it’s a well-kept secret save a few footprints on the many scenic trails. In reality, this Transylvania County community lost a lot of its anonymity when it became the backdrop for some memorable scenes in The Hunger Games. To answer the obvious next question...yes, you can do a guided tour to see filming locations from the movie in DuPont State Forest. Don’t forget to carve out some time to strike out alone (or with a travel buddy) and really explore the "Land of the Waterfalls."

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13. BRYSON CITY, NC

Contrary to what its name would suggest, Bryson City isn’t a city but rather a small town with a population of 1,700 residents. Now that we've gotten that all squared away, it’s time to dive into reasons to visit Bryson City. Proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is obviously a huge selling point because that translates to access to rugged trails, streams for fishing and wildflower-filled meadows. You can hike through this spectacular area or hop aboard the railroad and witness the wondrous beauty of Mother Nature from the comfort of a cushioned seat.

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14. EDENTON, NC

An under-the-radar gem in the Outer Banks, Edenton is tucked away on Albemarle Sound. That’s probably why more people don’t flock to this darling town. Fewer tourists lend a sense of serenity that just makes it feel super laid-back and vacation-y (so no one should be complaining about that). Edenton was the first Colonial capital of North Carolina, which comes with all the history you’d expect. We’re big fans of guided walking and trolley tours, and cool sites like Chowan County Courthouse. Birdwatching, boating and hiking are also popular pastimes.

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15. SOUTHPORT, NC

With a nickname like “America’s happiest seaside town,” what on earth could deter you from visiting? (Seriously, though, we’re genuinely curious.) Southport, situated near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, makes travelers grin from ear to ear with its shops, galleries, maritime history and picturesque docks. It’s such a cinematic spot that movies like A Walk To Remember and The Secret Life of Bees were actually shot in Southport. Hungry? There are also some tasty water-view restaurants. You can’t go wrong with a famous crab-cake sandwich or steamed shrimp.

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