The 15 Best Small Towns in North Carolina

These places make visitors wish they were residents.

By Jill Gleeson, CountryLiving

The Tarheel State is a land of many features: to the east, the stunning beaches of the Outer Banks; to the west, spectacular mountain ranges including the Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains. In between the sea and the summits are some of the nation's most enticing small towns—the kind of places that are so appealing visitors wish they were residents.

Banner Elk

[post_ads]North Carolina has skiing? Six individual downhill areas, in fact, and Banner Elk sits between two of them, Beech and Sugar Mountains. There's plenty to do before ski season too, from sampling adult beverages at the Banner Elk Winery and Flat Top Mountain Brewery to checking out October's Wooly Worm Festival, a quirky event celebrating the winter caterpillar that draws some 20,000 people annually.


Established in 1705 by French Huguenots, Bath is North Carolina's oldest town. It's also the former residence of the infamous pirate Blackbeard. Head to nearby Pamlico Sound to kayak, sail, fish or swim—and don't forget to sample locally-caught seafood specialties like blue crab at dinner. 


One of the prettiest places not just in North Carolina but the whole U.S., seaside Beaufort was founded in 1709. Like Bath, it also has ties to Blackbeard: The town's maritime museum, houses more than 300 artifacts including Blackbeard's ship, which sank in the Beaufort Inlet. Hop a ferry to barrier island Shackleford Banks to watch wild horses at play. 


Tiny Bethania, pop. 350, roughly 10 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, provides a peek into an historical community of Moravians, the Protestant sect that grew from a religious reform movement in 15th-century Europe. Self-guided walking tour maps will take you to gems like the Alpha Chapel, built in 1894, and the restored 1790s Wolff-Moser House (pictured above), now a museum. 


Blowing Rock

Nested in the Blue Ridge Mountains along the fabled Blue Ridge Parkway, Blowing Rock offers nearly every outdoor activity imaginable, from fly fishing and spelunking, to rafting and rock climbing. Downtown, there are more than 100 independent shops, plus favorite eateries like The Best Cellar, a mainstay since 1975. For stellar mountain views, walk the trails of The Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.


Famous as the setting for many scenes in The Hunger Games, the Brevard area offers guided tours of the movie's locations in DuPont State Forest, which, along with nearby Pisgah National Forest (pictured), are part of what's called "The Land of the Waterfalls"—making hiking through these dramatic landscapes rewarding whether you care about Katniss and her buddies or not. 

Bryson City

Sitting astride the magnificent Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City is a must for nature lovers. Deep Creek Recreation Area, with tubing, fishing and gorgeous waterfalls, is right next door, as is the Nantahala River, great for rafting and kayaking. In town, you'll find galleries, bookshops, museums, a brewery, and a train station from which some of the most gorgeous scenic rail excursions in the country depart. 



Stashed away on Albemarle Sound, Edenton was the first Colonial capital of North Carolina. Both walking and trolley tours are available with stops at sights like the Roanoke River Lighthouse, built in 1886, and the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse (pictured). Boats tours take visitors around Edenton Bay, or pilot your own kayak or canoe, or hit the local trails for birding or hiking.

Hot Springs

As you might have guessed, there are natural hot springs in this little town, and you can soak in them at Hot Springs Resort and Spa on the banks of the French Broad River and Spring Creek. Landlubbers can hike the Appalachian Trail that runs through town or celebrate the river on dry ground with the French Broad River Festival, held the first weekend in May each year.



Hillsborough, ensconced along the forested banks of the Eno River, pays tribute to its heritage with a replica of the Native American village that once sat where the town does today. Downtown, historical buildings like the Old Orange County Courthouse and the Inn at Teardrops, erected in 1769, await. Take a hike on the Riverwalk or nearby Eno River State Park's trails.

Kitty Hawk

Perched on North Carolina's famed Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk is where humans learned to fly. The Wright Brothers lived and conducted their glider tests in the town at the dawn of the 20th century, making history when they completed the first powered flight in 1903. More than a century later, Kitty Hawk offers fabulous beaches; a watersports center for parasailing, kiteboarding, and more; and the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve with 1,800-plus pristine acres to explore.


Downright quiet for an Outer Banks town, Manteo is rich with spots dedicated to its heritage, including the 16th-century replica ship Elizabeth II at Roanoke Island Festival Park, the Roanoke Island Maritime Center's Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse (pictured), and summertime performances at Waterside Theatre of The Lost Colony, the nation's oldest outdoor symphonic drama. There's all of this, plus a boardwalk and beautiful beaches too.



Not just a town but a whole island, Ocracoke is only accessible by plane or ferry. There aren't any chain restaurants, movie theaters, or traffic lights either, for that matter. Blackbeard, who made Ocracoke his hideout, is remembered at the end of October every year at Blackbeard's Pirate Jamboree, which features an historically accurate pirate encampment and ships recreating the bloody battle that cost the pirate his life.


The only community designated as a historic landmark for its role in U.S. golfing history, Pinehurst was created at the end of the 19th century with the help of Frederick Law Olmstead, the legendary landscape designer of New York City's Central Park. Pinehurst Resort's Donald Ross-designed No. 2 course has hosted more single championships than anywhere else in America.



Funky mountain town Saluda was born in 1878, when the the Spartanburg and Asheville Railroad arrived. Vacationers seeking relief from the heat flocked to it in summer, business boomed, and soon Saluda had the reputation of a laid-back little resort town, which it still is today. There are plenty of cozy lodges to bunk in, like the historic Orchard Inn; a thriving arts scene; not one but two old-fashioned general stores; and even an annual Coon Dog Day Celebration, during which the canines are honored with a parade, a 5K run, and more.


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Travel Magazine: The 15 Best Small Towns in North Carolina
The 15 Best Small Towns in North Carolina
These places make visitors wish they were residents.
Travel Magazine
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