North Carolina is a beautiful state. Centered right in the middle of the east coast, it has something for everyone from mountains to coastal plains. It is far enough north that it does not get quite as hot as the more southern states, but it is south enough to offer some of the most delicious southern cooking you have ever had. If you are looking for a new place to explore, consider these five cities to visit in North Carolina that are off the beaten path.
5 Cities to Visit in North Carolina
Found in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, Boone gets its name from the famous pioneer and explorer, Daniel Boone. It is a laid back place with lots to do and explore. Boone is just a short drive to Grandfather Mountain, Blowing Rock, Banner Elk, and a number of other amazing hiking spots, making it one of the best cities to visit in North Carolina that are off the beaten path.
Boone is home to Appalachian State University. Right near downtown, walk through campus and check out Tomlinson Park and Duck Pond. Lounge around on Sanford Mall where students hang out between classes and you will likely see hammocks strung between trees and games of frisbee. Stop in at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts.
At the edge of the University’s campus, the Turchin Center has both a permanent collection and special exhibits. Even if you do not have time to explore the galleries, stop by and see Tetness, the Polar Bear by artist James Futral. This sculpture made out of repurposed metal stands guard outside the Turchin Center. It won the Rosen Award First Place in the 31st Rosen Outdoor Sculpture Competition & Exhibition.
After exploring the University’s campus, take a walk down King Street and visit some of the awesome shops that line this downtown street. Take in a movie, concert, or lecture at the newly renovated Appalachian Theatre. A little farther down the street, you will find Common Good Co, home to handmade goods, fine art, and fair trade crafts. Here you will find some of the most gorgeous pottery and paintings in all of Boone. The great thing about this store is that you will be supporting local artists because all of the amazing goods in this store are made by local or regional artists and craftsmen/women.
Toward the end of downtown King Street is The Mast General Store, which holds two floors of goods from clothing to gifts, hiking gear, tents, and everything in between. There is an entire section of candy including some old fashioned favorites that will take you back to your childhood.
Stop for a drink and a delicious wood-fired pizza just a block off King Street at Lost Province Brewing Co. This family-owned brewery and gastropub brews its beer on-site and regularly hosts live music. Be sure to check the specials, which can include things like wood-fired brussels sprouts!
Before leaving downtown Boone, be sure to stop at Jimmy Smith Park. If you blink, you might miss it! It is a tiny grassy area beside Boone Creek with a short paved path and a couple of benches dedicated to a former Appalachian State University professor and former Boone Town Council Member. If you visit Boone in September, you can participate in the Jimmy Smith Maranon and Street Party, which boasts a 333-foot fun run around the park (their slogan is “It’s like a marathon, but with a lot less running!”).
For more reasons to add Boone to your list of cities to visit in North Carolina, check out The Jones House, Boone’s cultural and community center, which hosts fun things to do in Boone throughout the year. Besides the tiniest run in the world, Boone hosts a Doc Watson Day; St. Patrick’s Day, 4th of July, and Christmas parades; Halloween and Christmas festivities, and both an indoor and outdoor concert series.
Just beyond the mountains, another of the great cities to visit in North Carolina that are off the beaten path is Hickory. Considered the Piedmont of North Carolina, Hickory is the furniture capital of North Carolina. It is worth a trip to the Hickory Furniture Mart. Wear your walking shoes and plan to stay for hours. It is that big. The Furniture Mart is home to different furniture retailers and manufacturers, so you can find everything from traditional to mainstream to eclectic.
Once you have had your fill of furniture shopping, take a trip to the Catawba Science Center, a science and technology children’s museum offering hands-on exhibits, salt and freshwater aquarium galleries, and a state-of-the-art planetarium. It has everything!
Sports aficionados will not want to miss the opportunity to visit Hickory Motor Speedway or to take in a baseball game at L.P. Frans Stadium. Hickory Motor Speedway is one of the most legendary short tracks in the history of American slot car racing. It widely referred to as “The Birthplace of the NASCAR Stars,” having made names of Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, and Ralph Earnhardt (father of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.). The Speedway still holds all kinds of events with vehicles ranging from slot cars to semi-trailer trucks.
If you are visiting the area during baseball season, do not miss the chance to see a Hickory Crawdads game and take a picture with the team mascot, Conrad the Crawdad.
If you are still looking for a reason to add Hickory to your list of cities to visit in North Carolina, Hickory hosts two of the biggest beer festivals in the region each year. The Hickory Hops Brewer’s Festival takes place in the spring and features more than 50 microbreweries. In the fall, experience Oktoberfest, a three-day outdoor festival featuring music, carnival rides and games, arts and crafts vendors, food, and, of course, beer.
Located in the heart of North Carolina is another of the amazing cities to visit in North Carolina that are off the beaten path. Located just 70 miles from both Raleigh and Charlotte, Asheboro’s main attraction is the North Carolina Zoo, the world’s largest natural habitat zoo. More than 1,800 animals call the zoo home, including polar bears, arctic foxes, ocelots, elk, bison, chimpanzees, lemurs, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and zebras. The zoo hosts fun events throughout the year including a daytime Halloween celebration called Boo at the Zoo, Eggstravaganza to celebrate spring, and the Run Wild 5k which raises money for conservation efforts.
If you are looking to stay off the beaten path, visit the Uwharrie National Forest. Here you can visit the historic Pisgah Covered Bridge, one of only two remaining covered bridges in North Carolina. The bridge crosses the West Fork Branch of the Little River and was built in 1911 for a whopping $40.
Since North Carolina is “First in Flight,” another spot to check out in Asheboro is the North Carolina Aviation Museum and Hall of Fame. This museum is home to military artifacts and civilian memorabilia that includes a collection of military vehicles, weapons, equipment, and uniforms from World War I to the present. It also boasts a flight simulator and a Piper J-3 “Flitfire” that was flown by Orville Wright.
Take a break from exploring and step into one of the unique shops on downtown’s Sunset Avenue. There you will find the Randolph Arts Guild Gift Shop, Brightside Gallery, and an entire row of thrift and antique shops like Collector’s Antique Mall, featuring more than 30,000 square feet of antiques and collectibles.
After exploring downtown, stop for a drink at Four Saints Brewing Company, a local craft brewery. Then grab some southern fried chicken at Magnolia 23, which was voted one of “America’s 75 Best Fried Chicken Spots” by TheDailyMeal.com. There is also The Table, which serves seasonal farm to table food for breakfast, lunch, brunch, and dinner. Or if you are just looking for something to satisfy your sweet tooth, try Central Bakery, a local bakery that has been baking a variety of fresh baked goods every day for over 70 years.
Asheboro is one of those cities to visit in North Carolina that you can plan on visiting any time of the year because there are plenty of fun things to do throughout the year in Asheboro such as an annual fall festival, a Christmas parade, a summer concert series, and a Trick or Treat in the Park event.
Kinston is a hidden gem found in Eastern North Carolina about an hour and a half from the coast. It should definitely be included on your list of cities to visit in North Carolina that are off the beaten path because it is home to a minor league baseball team, some amazing art, a brewery, and a famous chef.
You cannot visit Eastern North Carolina without trying some of the amazing Eastern Carolina-style barbecue for which this region is known. Stop by one of the three Kings Restaurant locations in Kinston for lunch. Kings has been around for over 75 years and serves hand-chopped barbecue pork, fried chicken, and slow-roasted ribs alongside fried fish, oysters, and shrimp. Try the BBQ plate if you want a taste of their famous hand-chopped pork barbecue in their secret barbecue sauce.
After you have filled up at lunch, walk around downtown Kinston and check out all the first-class art around town from murals on the sides of buildings to amazing sculptures, including Flue by famous sculptor Thomas Sayre, which is made up of seven 28-foot-tall Earthcasted tobacco barn facades. Even if you visit it during the day, be sure to see it at night when it is all lit up. It is gorgeous.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays stop by the Lenoir County Farmers Market located along the Neuse River right in the heart of downtown Kinston. It is an open-air market featuring farm-fresh local produce, baked goods, meats, and crafts.
While walking around downtown, stop by the Mother Earth Brewing Tap Room. Fun fact: the Tap Room is 100% solar-powered! Using their own locally grown hops, you can always find their four flagship beers on tap with a number of small batch and seasonal offerings as well, along with friendly bartenders and locals.
Once you have enjoyed a beer or two at Mother Earth, take a walk across the street and down a narrow alley to The Boiler Room for a quick bite to eat. Modeled after the Eastern North Carolina oyster bars she remembers her parents taking her to in her youth, chef Vivian Howard offers oysters, burgers, and a raw bar. If the name Vivian Howard rings a bell, that is because she’s an award-winning chef and TV personality. Her PBS show A Chef’s Life was on for five seasons and is the only television show to ever win a Peabody, an Emmy, and a James Beard Award. The Boiler Room is her casual offering in Kinston.
For a more upscale dining experience make a reservation at Chef Vivian Howard’s flagship restaurant Chef and the Farmer. Chef and the Farmer offers a seasonally changing menu of thoughtful, creative cooking based on Eastern North Carolina ingredients. It alone is the reason that many people add Kinston to their list of cities to visit in North Carolina. It serves some of the most delicious southern food you have ever eaten, but with an amazing modern twist.
If visiting while the Down East Wood Ducks are in town, be sure to take in a minor league baseball game at Grainger Stadium. If you still need an excuse to add Kinston to your list of cities to visit in North Carolina and you are a runner, check out the Mother Earth Brewing Ironclad Half Marathon and 5k. This race starts outside Grainger Stadium and has runners finish inside the baseball stadium by running onto the warning track to round the bases.
Along the coast of North Carolina, the town of Manteo wraps around Shallowbag Bay on the eastern side of Roanoke Island. While in Manteo, you can get the day’s weather report in the form of a signal flag flying from a restored US Weather Bureau tower or get lost in the history that this coastal community is so rooted in. Manteo is a must-include addition to your cities to visit in North Carolina that are off the beaten path. It is, after all, the site where the first settlers who came to America chose to live, and what became one of the country’s greatest mysteries.
Start off in the heart of downtown Manteo at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum which is home to the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. This small museum is located in a working boathouse and is free to visit. After visiting the museum, walk Manteo’s waterfront where you will find a gazebo, playground, and picnic areas. Visit some of the nearby shops like Wanchese Pottery and Sisters Boutique and Gifts.
Stop for lunch at the Lost Colony Brewery and Cafe where you can taste on of their award-winning British and Irish-style beers (their specialties) or try some amazingly fresh seafood (they also serve burgers, steak, and sandwiches).
After you have filled up on lunch, take a short drive to The Outer Banks Christmas Shop. This shop has been a Manteo institution since 1967. Do not let the name deceive you. This store is way more than Christmas. Along with the Christmas decorations, The Christmas Shop offers art, gifts, jewelry, candy, and a lot more. Be careful though because you might just get lost wandering through room after room after room (literally!).
Once you manage to find your way out of The Christmas Shop, visit The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. The aquarium is open year-round and is home to sea turtles, otters, stingrays, alligators, and the largest group of sharks in the state. The coolest part of the aquarium might just be the 285,000-gallon tank called The Graveyard of the Atlantic, where you can see a nurse shark, sand tiger and sandbar sharks along with other giant fish. If you are lucky, you might get to see the divers in the giant tank and ask them questions – while they are underwater – about the sharks and other animals who live there.
If you want to spend some time outdoors and learn about the history of the area, visit Roanoke Island Festival Park, which features a recreation of an early American colony. Explore the settler’s village with demonstrations of the lives of early settlers, and the Native American camp with interactive displays of the lives of Native Americans before English settlers arrived. There’s also a replica of the Elizabeth II, a replica of the ship that brought the original colonists to Manteo. During the summer, visitors can actually explore the ship with costumed interpreters as your guide.
The Roanoke Island Festival Park is also home to the Roanoke Adventure Museum and the Outer Banks History Center, both of which are treasure troves of Outer Banks information and history. The park also features an outdoor pavilion that hosts concerts, festivals, and live entertainment during the warmer months.
Finally, no trip to Manteo is complete without a visit to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Fort Raleigh is home to The Elizabethan Gardens and The Lost Colony’s Waterside Theatre. The Elizabethan Gardens is a beautiful 10-acre garden inspired by the elaborate gardens that were kept to entertain Queen Elizabeth I. Wander through acres of perfectly manicured gardens and sculptures, as well as wild-growing native species of plants, flowers and trees. It is a beautiful sight to see. The garden is open year-round and hosts a number of special events throughout the year such as the Butterfly Festival, Easter Eggstravaganza, and Winterlights.
Next to the Gardens is The Waterside Theatre which pays tribute to one of the biggest mysteries of America. The Lost Colony was one of the original English settlements in America. It was founded in 1587 and made up of 117 English men, women and children, but just three years later when English ships returned to bring supplies, they found the island deserted with no sign of the colonists. After nearly 450 years, the mystery of what happened to the colonists is still a mystery. Today you can watch the story unfold for yourself.
Every year from May to August, The Lost Colony is performed nightly as a spectacular outdoor play with over 100 actors, dancers, singers, and technicians. The Lost Colony also has a children’s show and Royal Tea, which lets you drink tea and eat sweets with Queen Elizabeth I. What better reason to add Manteo to your list of cities to visit in North Carolina than tea with the queen?
There are so many amazing cities to visit in North Carolina. However, it is always fun to visit somewhere off the beaten path. Whether you have been to North Carolina before or you are considering your first trip to the state, you should consider these five amazing destinations for your list of cities to visit in North Carolina. From the mountains to the coast, you will not be disappointed in whichever one you choose.
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Photo credits: unsplash.com, Catawba Science Center, HD Carolina, VivianHoward.com, The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island