North Carolina is a state of many contrasts. Historically, it’s been a state that’s caught up between North and South, meaning heavy fighting during the American Civil War. Naturally, North Carolina is a mixed bag; it has one side firmly placed adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, complete with an unfathomably complex coastline – including the famous Outer Banks area – and it tapers inland, with borders at the mighty roots of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There’s no doubt then, that the most charming towns in North Carolina possess a host of history and heritage in their foundations, with towns featuring everything from grand stately homes and hotels for America’s first New Money, to religious buildings and humble cottages. Also, the villages provide visitors access to the most beautiful and serene – as well as rugged and awe-inspiring – natural spots that this exciting mountainous coastal state has to offer.
Get your hiking boots ready, the small town of Bryson City – county seat of Swain County in western North Carolina – is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wild streams and hill-walking await intrepid explorers, whilst the Tuckasegee River is a playground for enthusiasts of white-water rafting.
If exploring the great outdoors on foot doesn’t sound like your thing, you can see the incredible scenery from the comfort of an antique train carriage, courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Further to this, if you’re a fishing enthusiast, you will love the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians – complete with displays of 19th Century equipment.
Nestled in the vast woodlands of Transylvania County in western North Carolina is the small town of Brevard. This place is famous for the outdoor activities offered in its general surroundings. Not only is Brevard a gateway to the sweeping craggy wilderness that is the Pisgah National Forest, but it’s also near DuPont State Forest.
Naturally, there are opportunities to explore these vast tracts of nature from Brevard – mountain biking is popular in both. But the world’s longest hiking-only trail, The Appalachian Trail, runs through Pisgah. Back in town, Brevard College is a collection of beautiful brick buildings that look like the quintessential American college town.
Originally settled by tough Scottish-Irish pioneers in the 18th Century, the town of Blowing Rock was later settled by soldiers who returned after having sent their families there for their own safety during the American Civil War. This area of North Carolina was known for its guerrilla warfare during that time.
Aside from its history, this town in the northwest of the state is most famous for the natural landmark that it takes its name from – Blowing Rock, a rocky outcrop with amazing views. From here, it’s easy to reach a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a road snaking through beautiful natural landscapes, ripe for road-trips.
With the nickname ‘The Home of American Golf’, you can rest assured that one of the main attractions of Pinehurst – in Moore County, south central North Carolina – is indeed golf. In fact, it is home to the historic Pinehurst Resort, a golf course and resort constructed in 1901. The central village was designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Elsewhere in Pinehurst, there’s the Sandhills Horticultural Gardens, which include collections of succulents and an English-style formal garden, amongst others. Historic buildings abound in this well-to-do town, one of which is the 1899 Mystic Cottage, but the buildings around the resort itself – America’s first – are quite something.
Southport is on the Atlantic Coast in Brunswick County, southern North Carolina. With this area having been ‘discovered’ as early as the 16th Century by Spanish explorers and then later settled by the British, there’s plenty of history in this coastal town. The 18th Century Fort Johnston, the first in North Carolina, is just one example.
Elsewhere, the sleepy town of Southport is known for being a picturesque location. Just looking back at the small collection of pretty buildings from the long, wooden fishing pier jutting out into the sea confirms that. Plus it’s used as a filming location – most famously for Dawson’s Creek, amongst other series and movies.
Picturesque Kitty Hawk is located in what is called the Outer Banks, a collection of islets along a reef that is linked by bridges on the eastern North Carolina coast, making for some amazing coastal roads. However, Kitty Hawk is actually world-famous for being the place where the Wright Brothers successfully made their first flight.
A gateway to the rest of Outer Banks and all the outdoors fun that takes place there, including yachting, exploring swamps by boat and fishing in the sea, there’s also some prime natural bounties located in Kitty Hawk itself. The wetlands of the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve is perfect for horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking.
New Bern is positively bountiful when it comes to history. This county seat features no less than four districts that are included on the US National Register of Historic Places – each one boasting myriad historic buildings. It makes a stroll around this charming old town feel like you’re wandering around an open-air museum or film set. Named by its original Swiss settlers (honoring Bern, Switzerland), New Bern is the second-oldest colonial European town in North Carolina. Its heritage buildings are far too numerous to list, but stand-out examples include the 18th Century Tryon Palace and Georgian-style Coor-Gaston House. For an added bonus, New Bern is also the birthplace of Pepsi Cola.
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The relatively large town of Asheville also features many notable examples of historic architecture. For example, there’s the imposing art deco-style Asheville City Hall to admire and the absolutely stunning Biltmore House and Estate – a château style mansion. This is the largest privately-owned house in the US and visitors can go on tours to discover this amazing landmark.
To see more of the vestiges of the past that make Asheville an utterly charming slice of North Carolina, head over to Downtown Asheville Historic District, where you’ll find 279 historic buildings to marvel at, including the impressive early 20th Century Basilica of St. Lawrence and 1920’s skyscraper of Buncombe County Courthouse.
And now we arrive at North Carolina’s oldest European colonial town, Bath. Its foundations began in the 1690’s, after European settlers began making homes near the Pamlico River, becoming the colony’s first town in 1705. Located on the eastern coast in Beaufort County, Bath naturally features its own historic district complete with charming heritage buildings.
After exploring the historic houses and buildings of the town, visitors can involve themselves in one of the town’s most famous activities – fishing. Being a coastal region, fishing is an obvious choice, and tourists will love the calm waters here. The picturesque location on the irregular coastline of Bath Creek makes for a truly beautiful spot.
Hillsborough is another stunning historic town complete with heritage buildings. From the Federal-era plantation house Ayr Mount and grand Eagle Lodge, to the famous Greek-revival building of the Old Orange County Courthouse. The small town of Hillsborough is alive and well with a thriving downtown area and vibrant restaurant scene.
Not only that, the definitively charming Hillsborough is also a good place to base yourself if you’re interested in exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding area. Eno River State Park offers up ample opportunities for camping, canoeing and fishing, whilst nearby Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area provides a wonderfully scenic location for hiking.
The small town of Beaufort is the county seat of Carteret County, on the ‘Inner Banks’ coastal area of North Carolina (specifically, Beaufort is situated just where the Outer Banks end). Its title as ‘America’s Coolest Small Town’ seems to be down to a combination of 300-years of history – complete with small historic district – and a thriving, convenient, modern-day downtown.
Not only that, but its harbor area is very pretty indeed. From here, visitors can join boat trips to explore the nearby Outer Banks or go fishing. A spot of seafood after a rewarding day trip to one of these areas of natural beauty seems like the perfect reward.
Named after the famous explorer and pioneer Daniel Boone, this sweet town tops our list of North Carolina’s most charming small towns. Besides a number of buildings appearing on the US National Register for Historic Places, Boone’s heritage also includes the play Horn In The West, performed in the town every summer since 1952.
Located in northwest North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Mountains are tantalizingly close to this pretty little urban outpost. The Blue Ridge Roadway can be accessed here, passing the vast Grandfather Mountain – climbed by the adventurous. Then there’s the Elk Knob State Park to explore nearby. Heading out into dramatic natural landscapes is easy in this idyllic town.