Lush green hills and hot air balloons in a clear blue sky.

The essential guide to visiting North Carolina

Here’s everything you need to know about exploring the Tar Heel State—when to go, where to stay, what to do, and how to get around.

An aerial view of the countryside near Asheville, North Carolina, showcases the region’s verdant mountain landscape.
Photograph By KRISTA ROSSOW, Nat Geo Image Collection

Why you should visit North Carolina

Vinegary whole-hog barbecue and the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Indigenous Cherokee culture and colonial history, plus some of the East Coast’s best beaches along the Outer Banks.

Best time to visit North Carolina 

Spring: Spring is colorful in North Carolina. Buttercups paint the Blue Ridge yellow by late March, and in May, the peaks are blanketed in ethereal pink mountain laurels. Find other seasonal blooms at the waterside Elizabethan Gardens on Roanoke Island. At Biltmore estate near Asheville, roses and azaleas brighten extensive grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Summer: On North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the summer months of June through August draw families and groups of friends to rental houses and waterfront hotels. The surf and sand offer swimming, kayaking, fishing, and shoreline walks. 

Autumn: Explore the mountains from late September to early November when fiery foliage displays and cool temperatures attract hikers and campers. Canopy tours and ziplines are plentiful, offering a thrilling way to see the colors.

Winter: Elevation differences in NC mean weather ranges from mild (average high temperatures on the Outer Banks hover in the 50s) to chilly and, occasionally, snowy in the western peaks, where Beech Mountain and Blowing Rock have ski resorts. Come December, holiday lights sparkle inside the Biltmore and at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Asheville. At NASCAR’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, the car-racing oval hosts a glittering drive-thru display.

Lay of the land 

Cities: Appealing to speed lovers of all sorts, Charlotte offers prime rafting and kayaking at the National Whitewater Center, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame, with exhibits on car racing. Raleigh, the state capital, is home to storied universities (Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) as well as the North Carolina Museum of Artwhich has a large collection of work by August Rodin and a jumbo outdoor sculpture garden. 

Mountains: The Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which extends into Tennessee) offer up scenic drives and great hiking trails. The Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests also contain hundreds of miles of trails, and the New River—one of the world’s oldest rivers—appeals to kayakers, campers, and anglers.

Coastal plain: Bliss out along North Carolina’s 301-mile-long Atlantic coastline, which includes Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks with its unspoiled barrier island beaches. Come summer, beaches like Kitty Hawk and Corolla draw legions of swimmers, surfers, and sunbathers.

Getting in and around North Carolina

By plane: The state’s two largest airports are Charlotte Douglas International (CLT) and Raleigh-Durham International (RDU); both have connections to major cities across the United States and internationally. The Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) gives easy access to this artsy mountain city.

By car: North Carolina is easily accessible via several major interstates including I-40, I-85, and I-95. Two of the best road trips are the 252-mile section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with breathtaking views of the Appalachian Mountains, and the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway. The latter begins in Nags Head, then winds along the barrier islands past charming beach towns, storied lighthouses and even on two ferries before ending near Beaufort. 

By train: Service to North Carolina is available aboard Amtrak’s Crescent (from New York to New Orleans) and Silver Meteor (New York to Miami) among other routes.

By bus: Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation provides express bus and shuttle service to major cities such as Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem.

In town: Winston-Salem and Asheville both have bus systems, and Raleigh has a bike-share program. Charlotte’s LYNX light rail has 26 stations, a few of which stop near tourist attractions such as Discovery Place Science. 

Know before you go

Cultural history: This is the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee people, a number of whom still live in the town of Cherokee, where you can visit a traditional crafts center and the Oconaluftee Indian VillageHere, reenactors recreate a 1760s settlement. 

English settlers arrived in 1587, and North Carolina became one of the first 13 American colonies in 1729. Learn about colonial life at Tyron Palacea circa-1767 brick manse where George Washington once attended a ball. In Winston-Salem, Old Salem is a 18th- to 19th-century Moravian settlement that uses historic interpreters to share narratives from the past.

On the Outer Banks, the Wright Brothers National Monument in Kill Devil Hills pays tribute to the sibling inventors who launched the world’s first flight here in 1903.

Festivals: North Carolina is a southern state, meaning it loves a party. A few of the biggest? The North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, with its down-home blend of agricultural displays, carnival rides, and live music. The Wilmington Azalea Festival, held in April, fetes the blooming bushes with garden tours, a colorful parade, and outdoor concerts. In May, Asheville Beer Week showcases the mountain city’s brewing scene with tastings and other events. One of the state’s biggest annual happenings is May’s Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race that sees revved-up stock cars racing around the Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

Cuisine: North Carolina wins raves for its pork barbecue, which stars a whole hog that’s been pit-roasted, pulled off the bone, and mixed with a tangy vinegar sauce—it’s best eaten on a sandwich with coleslaw. Other homegrown fare includes Krispy Kreme Donuts and Cheerwine, a cherry-flavored soda made in Salisbury since 1917.

LGBTQ+: North Carolina ranked 33rd in a 2020 24/7 Wall St. report of the most LGBTQ+-friendly states in the U.S. Despite NC’s relatively conservative politics, cities such as Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Winston-Salem get high marks on the Human Rights Campaign 2022 Municipal Equality Index scorecard. 

How to visit North Carolina sustainably

Outdoors: Help preserve habitat by keeping on designated trails, roads, or marked spurs. Search out and support sustainable tourism businesses like eco-tours, farm stays, and wildlife refuges. The 113-page NC Guide to Sustainability Resources lists many travel-related businesses that go easy on the environment.

Dining: Look for restaurants that source food from local farmers, which helps to support the nearby economy and reduce waste. Good options? Asheville’s Farmhouse Burger, where you can get a grass-fed-beef patty topped with pimento cheese, a spicy North Carolina spread, and the Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, which puts Southeast Asian spins on homegrown ingredients such as pork and oysters. 

Foraging tours with Asheville’s No Taste Like Home venture into the surrounding countryside in search of edible greens, berries, mushrooms, and flowers.

Lodging: The state-sponsored NCGreenTravel lists sustainable hotels and ranks them via a clever one-to-three dogwood blossom rating system. Some to investigate include the Solar Farmhouse in Boone County and the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary with its locavore restaurant and extensive recycling program.

What to read

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. Homer’s Oydssey gets reset in Civil War-era North Carolina in this epic, atmospheric tale of a soldier’s long journey home.

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, by Denise Kiernan. A juicy historic romp through the construction of Asheville’s Biltmore mansion gives details on the wealthy Vanderbilt clan that built it, as well as the celebs and servants that frequented its grand, Gilded Age halls.

(For more tips on what to do in North Carolina, see our Explorer’s Guide.)

Andrew Nelson writes frequently on travel for National Geographic and other national outlets. Follow him on Instagram.

Read This Next

The essential guide to visiting Estonia
Visiting North Carolina? Here’s what the locals love
The essential guide to visiting Maine

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet