From quaint towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains to relaxed beaches and bustling cities, these are the best places to visit in North Carolina for a quick trip.
Not all vacations need to be extended, expensive trips. Sometimes, a simple weekend getaway — in the form of a cozy mountain retreat, a couple of days at the beach, or a whirlwind city escape — is the perfect way to satisfy a travel itch. While there are numerous East Coast destinations to choose from, it’s sometimes easier to first narrow down the search; in this case, to North Carolina, a state with a wide range of fun, fulfilling places to explore.
“North Carolina is a really interesting, diverse state with sub-locations that are almost entities in and of themselves,” says Tiffany M. Griffin, co-owner and co-founder of Bright Black, a Durham-based retail shop. “The mountain ranges are some of the best on the East Coast (and in the country), the Outer Banks have some of the best beaches in the country, the cities are walkable and all [have] their own vibe, and the food rivals some of the best in the country.”
The state’s coastal towns — Beaufort and Emerald Isle, to name a few — frequently appeal to those searching for relaxation mixed with adventure. Others, like Matthew Weinstein, the executive chef of Oak Steakhouse in Highlands, find themselves drawn to the mountains. “Whenever I think of a weekend getaway, the first place that comes to mind is Western North Carolina… I think about hiking and camping, but I also love getting a cabin rental and disappearing into the woods,” he explains. No matter where you choose to spend your weekend, though, Griffin suggests bringing an open mind: “When you visit, don't come in with preconceived notions of ‘the South,’ because I guarantee North Carolina will not fit into any of them. It's a state difficult to describe and best experienced in real life.”
Ready to plan a quick trip? Keep reading to discover some of the best weekend getaways in North Carolina, according to locals.
For what chef Weinstein calls “small city mountain charm,” book a flight to Asheville Regional Airport. He recommends staying at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, which is in close proximity to the famed Biltmore Estate, and grabbing a meal at Cúrate, Corner Kitchen, or Buxton Hall Barbecue. While Asheville is one of the most popular spots for seeing fall foliage, it also offers year-round access to some of the best hiking trails and waterfalls in the region.
“I like to think of Black Mountain as Asheville's chiller cousin,” says Griffin. “It has the mountain vibes without the crowds. It's a bit more quaint. A bit more diverse. A bit more affordable. And if you really need a fix of the bustle of Asheville, it's only 20 minutes away.” When planning your weekend itinerary, she recommends leaving room for trips to Dripolator for coffee and Blue Ridge Biscuit Company, where you’ll find “one of the best biscuits in Western North Carolina.”
Julia Wax, a North Carolina native and the owner of Emerald Isle Realty, may call this beach town home, but she also thinks of Emerald Isle as a great weekend getaway. “Its naturally slower pace of life and…stunning crystal-clear ocean waters never cease to captivate me, even after many years of living here,” she says. If travelers are seeking peace and quiet, they’ll find it. “Our beaches are never crowded, and the serenity is complemented by the ocean’s glistening, vibrant emerald-green hues,” she explains. And, she adds, those who want adventure will find “world-class kitesurfing, deep-sea fishing, and surfing.”
Named Travel + Leisure’s best mountain town of 2023, Highlands offers lots of charm and pockets of luxury — all within driving distance of major cities like Atlanta, Nashville, and Charlotte. For a particularly romantic trip, book a suite at Old Edwards Inn & Spa, or steal away to the cozy Highlander Mountain House or mountaintop retreat Skyline Lodge. You could easily spend an entire day waterfall spotting, though many of the natural features are just a few minutes from downtown. As far as places to eat, chef Weinstein praises both Ristorante Paoletti and Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro.
Durham is a hot spot for both culinary feats and historical importance. To experience as much of the city as possible, come hungry and prepared to cover a lot of ground. Griffin recommends Saltbox Seafood Joint, coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon, Pincho Loco for ice cream and paletas, and Rose's Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets, what she calls “Durham's best bakery.” In between meals, Durham is your oyster. “Downtown Durham is fun and bustling, but there's so much more to the city. Check out historic neighborhoods like Hayti, Lakewood, the old West End, and others. Parking is also better when you leave downtown,” she says. For more family-friendly activities, check out Duke Gardens, Nasher Museum of Art, and the Museum of Life and Science.
Spending a weekend lakeside is often the antidote to a stressful workweek and everyday life. Lake Norman, the state’s largest human-made body of fresh water, is located just north of Charlotte, making it convenient for quick trips from the city. Bring your friends or family, and enjoy all kinds of leisurely, water-based activities like fishing, boating, swimming, and kayaking. There are a few hotels surrounding the lake, but your best bet will be a rental property, like an Airbnb or Vrbo.
When you want a bit of sand and saltwater, but don’t quite have enough PTO to make it to the Outer Banks, Griffin suggests planning a weekend in Wilmington, where Kure Beach, Airlie Gardens, and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher provide entertainment for travelers of all ages. Education is also an important aspect of exploring the city. “Take a Black history tour or, at the very least, read about the Black history of Wilmington. The Wilmington massacre, in particular, is a painful, bleak moment in North Carolina and U.S. history, but to prevent this from ever happening again, we must equip ourselves with a deep understanding of history,” she explains.
“One of my favorite places in Western North Carolina is Bryson City,” says chef Weinstein. Known as the “gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,“ this small town is the ideal jumping-off point for a weekend filled with fresh air and heart-pumping activities. Or, he notes, you can hop on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. “The railroad has some great tours of the region and different packages to choose from,” he says. The Raft & Rail, for example, is a full-day guided tour that includes a scenic train trip, lunch, and a whitewater trip on the Nantahala River.
For a weekend getaway where golf is the priority, Pinehurst — home to the legendary Pinehurst No. 2 course — is the place to go. Start the trip by checking into The Jefferson Inn, a 14-room property in the downtown Southern Pines Historic District (just a short drive to Pinehurst). The Pinehurst area has more than 40 courses, but leave time for a bit of exploring, too. When you’re not working on your game, have breakfast at the Pinehurst Track Restaurant or browse the shelves at The Country Bookshop.
“Forty-five minutes from the [Research] Triangle, Greensboro is a great place to visit for a day or the weekend. There's a ton of history, it's super down to earth, and it's close to a few other fun areas to visit, like High Point and Winston-Salem,” says Griffin. Book a couple of nights at O.Henry Hotel or The Historic Magnolia House — where she praises the Sunday brunch — and pencil in time at the Greensboro Science Center and International Civil Rights Center & Museum, which highlights the city’s sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.
Don’t confuse Beaufort for the South Carolina town of the same name; they’re pronounced differently — it’s “bow-fert” in North Carolina — and have different personalities and reasons to visit. “Walking the historic streets of Beaufort is like stepping back in time,” says Wax. “My day typically begins with a visit to the local coffee bar, Cru, a cherished morning tradition among Beaufort residents; by night, it transforms into a lively wine bar. Down by the waterfront, admire the 100-foot yachts and sailboats lining the shore, all while enjoying a refreshing beverage at one of my favorite ‘watering holes,’ the Rhumbar,” she shares.
“Uniquely located about equidistant from Charlotte and the Triangle, Asheboro is home to the North Carolina Zoo, a suite of Getaway tiny homes, and some yummy food options,” says Griffin. It could easily be experienced as a day trip from the surrounding larger cities, but the 27,000-person destination also has plenty of sights and events to entertain travelers of all ages. After a long day at the zoo, where Griffin says you’ll “easily rack up 15,000 steps,” pop into her favorite restaurant, Cantina Taco Loco, for a “down-to-earth” setting with “good food [and] good drinks.”
“I’d strongly advise dedicating some of your time to the enchanting Down East Carteret County, a well-kept secret nestled on the Crystal Coast,” says Wax. Down East refers to several waterfront communities in the county — including Bettie, Straits, Harkers Island, Gloucester, and Smyrna — and each embraces a slower way of life. “Here, you’ll immerse yourself in the enduring spirit of village life, a living legacy of generations sustained by the art of commercial fishing. For a deeper connection to our regional heritage, a visit to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center is a must; it’s an authentic portal to our history.”
For the type of weekend getaway where you can “disappear and disconnect from the stress of everyday life,” chef Weinstein suggests Robbinsville. “Robbinsville has a lot of good hiking trails and campsites to explore. You can also do some great stargazing in this area,” he says. If you prefer hotels to tents, consider staying at the all-inclusive resort Snowbird Mountain Lodge. No matter where you choose to lay your head for the night, though, he says travelers should be cognizant of local wildlife: “Be prepared to see bears, and make sure not to keep any food in your car.”
North Carolina has its fair share of coastal towns — making it hard to choose just one to visit for a few days — but Wax recommends adding Morehead City to your list. “Over in Morehead City, the waterfront offers a front-row seat to the arrival of deep-sea charter fishing boats,” says Wax. “You’ll see sun-kissed, contented fishermen displaying their day’s catch with pride as they pull up to the docks.” If that doesn’t convince you to come for the weekend, the food might. “Just a few steps away, you can savor the freshest oysters, shrimp, crabmeat, or grouper at nearby restaurants like Full Circle Café, Southern Salt, or Jack’s Waterfront Bar. It’s not just a meal; it’s a culinary journey that’ll make your taste buds dance with pure delight.”
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