14 North Carolina Cities Worth Visiting or Living In

Downtown Asheville, North Carolina at Grove Arcade

Are you looking for a destination with a rich history and culture, urban and outdoor attractions, and friendly locals? Look no further than North Carolina!

Known as the “Tar Heel State,” North Carolina is a remarkable destination that offers so much to travelers. Whether you enjoy lounging on the beach, hiking over rough terrain, soaking in a hot tub in the mountains, or exploring quaint, historic towns, you’ll find plenty to do here. If you’re considering relocating, North Carolina is also a great option.

From the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains to the bustling cities of Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina has something for everyone. We’re here to guide you if you’re excited to learn more about the best cities to visit and live in this fantastic East Coast state.

So, without any further ado, here’s our list of 14 North Carolina cities worth visiting or living in.

North Carolina: A Quick Overview

North Carolina was one of the original 13 colonies and played a significant role in the American Revolution. The state was also a key player in the Civil War, with many historic sites and museums dedicated to the conflict. North Carolina is known for its thriving economy, growing population, and diverse culture.

North Carolina is located in the southeastern region of the United States, bordered by Virginia to the north, South Carolina to the south, Tennessee to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The state is approximately 53,819 square miles, making it the 28th largest state in the country. As of 2021, North Carolina has a population of over 10.5 million, making it the ninth most populous state in the U.S.

North Carolina’s climate varies depending on the region, with the western part of the state experiencing more temperate weather and the eastern part experiencing a humid subtropical climate. The best time to visit North Carolina is in the spring and fall when the weather is mild and the foliage is at its peak.

1. Asheville

Asheville is a beautiful city located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The city is a popular destination for both tourists and locals alike. About 94,000 people live in Asheville.

One of the biggest draws to Asheville is its artistic vibe. The city is home to numerous galleries, art studios, and the River Arts District. The district is filled with galleries, studios, and shops where visitors can browse and purchase local art and crafts. The city is also famous for its many music festivals and events, including the Asheville Drum Circle and the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.

Asheville is also home to the best craft breweries. The city has over 30 breweries, making it a hub for beer lovers. Some of the most popular breweries in Asheville include Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Highland Brewing Company, and Wicked Weed Brewing.

The most stunning feature of Asheville is its natural beauty. The Blue Ridge Mountains surround the city, offering visitors magnificent views and numerous outdoor recreation opportunities. Visitors can go hiking, kayaking, or tubing in the French Broad River or take a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The city is also home to the Biltmore Estate, a historic mansion.

Asheville’s downtown area is also worth exploring. Visitors can stroll through Pack Square or the Asheville City Market, a farmers market open on Saturdays.

Asheville has numerous historic sites and museums like the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and the Asheville Art Museum, too.

When it comes to food, you’ll find the best farm-to-table restaurants, serving up locally sourced ingredients in creative and delicious ways. Some of the most popular restaurants in Asheville include Cúrate and 12 Bones Smokehouse.

So, whether you’re a foodie, an art lover, or an adventure seeker, Asheville has something for everyone.

2. Charlotte

Known as the “Queen City,” Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina, with over 900,000 people. It is a significant financial hub with a bustling urban landscape. The city is home to many other industries that contribute to the city’s economy, including healthcare, technology, and energy. Charlotte is also a great place to live for those who love the outdoors.

The city is surrounded by beautiful parks and green spaces, including the 1,000-acre Freedom Park and the 98-acre Romare Bearden Park. Other popular attractions include the U.S. National Whitewater Center, which offers outdoor activities such as rafting, kayaking, and zip-lining, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

In addition to its economic and outdoor attractions, Charlotte is also a cultural hub. The city has many museums and galleries, including the Mint Museum of Art and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. No matter the time of the year you visit, you’ll find festivals and events ongoing there. Its popular festivals include the Charlotte Jazz Festival and the Charlotte Pride Festival.

Moreover, Charlotte is an ideal starting point for exploring the rest of North Carolina, including the Outer Banks and the Appalachian Mountains.

3. Durham

Durham is a small city in North Carolina with a population of around 280,000 people. Home to Duke University, Durham is a hub for innovation and education.

In addition to excellent career opportunities, the city has plenty of entertainment options. Here, you’ll find many sports events to enjoy, like college basketball and football games, off-Broadway shows, and live performances. Durham is also home to many great restaurants and bars, especially downtown.

Another must-visit destination in Durham is the American Tobacco Campus, a former tobacco factory that has been transformed into a vibrant mixed-use development.

Many beautiful parks and trails, including Duke Forest and the Eno River State Park, surround the city. Other iconic landmarks include Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Nasher Museum of Art, and Duke Lemur Center. Visitors can explore the stunning landscapes, hike, or enjoy a picnic in the city’s many green spaces.

If you want to explore beyond Durham, you can drive to Chapel Hill or Raleigh, both in the Research Triangle. Or, you can head to the beautiful North Carolina coastline just a few hours away.

4. Raleigh

Raleigh is the capital of the state of North Carolina, with a population of about 469,000. It is located in the heart of the Piedmont region. Raleigh has become desirable for families looking for quality education, people seeking more job opportunities, and those looking for lower living costs without giving up nearby amenities.

One of the most attractive aspects of Raleigh is its bustling downtown area. The city center is home to a wide variety of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, several prominent landmarks, and tourist attractions.

Great places to learn about Raleigh’s rich history include the James B. Hunt Library, Marbles Kids Museum, North Carolina Museum of Art, CAM Raleigh, the Mordecai Historic Park, and Pope House Museum.

In addition to its downtown attractions, Raleigh has many parks and natural areas, including Raleigh Rose Garden, Umstead State Park, Historic Yates Mill County Park, and Lake Johnson Park. All of these allow visitors to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy some peaceful outdoor recreation.

In a nutshell, Raleigh is a beautiful place to live, work, and visit!

5. Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill is a classic college town with a population of around 60,000, including students, families, and retirees. The city is smaller than Raleigh and Durham, its Research Triangle counterparts, but it is still a fun place to visit and live in.

One of the main attractions is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the oldest public university in the United States. The university’s basketball team is a top attraction, and you can catch a game at the Dean E. Smith Center or visit the Carolina Basketball Museum to learn about the team’s history and the sport itself.

Other must-visit attractions include the Ackland Art Museum, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, and North Carolina Botanical Gardens.

Chapel Hill is also known for its excellent dining scene. The main street, Franklin Street, is lined with many restaurants, including Al’s Burger Shack, Mama Dip’s Kitchen, and Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe.

Carrboro, a nearby small town, is also worth visiting. It has many restaurants and things to explore, so don’t miss the chance to call this beautiful town your home!

6. Wilmington

Wilmington is a beautiful city located in the southeastern part of North Carolina. It is the county seat of New Hanover County and is situated on the Cape Fear River. The city has a population of around 125,000, with people from different ethnicities and backgrounds living together.

One of the most famous attractions is the U.S.S. North Carolina Battleship Memorial, a floating museum that lets you return to World War II. The city’s historic downtown area is a must-visit sight.

Wilmington is also known for its beautiful beaches. Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach are popular beaches where visitors can enjoy swimming, surfing, and sunbathing. No matter what time of year you visit Wilmington, explore all these spots.

Regarding food, Wilmington has many popular restaurants like The George on the Riverwalk, Catch, and The Little Dipper Fondue. With its rich culture, friendly people, and natural beauty, the city is a great place to visit and live.

7. Winston-Salem

Next on our list of the best North Carolina cities is Winston-Salem! With a population of around 250,000, this city has a diverse economy, including major corporations like BB&T, HanesBrands, and Reynolds American.

But Winston-Salem is more than just a hub of commerce. Living here is affordable, the job market is stable, and excellent healthcare facilities exist. The city attracts students and young professionals because of its great colleges like the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Wake Forest University.

The city got its name from “Salem,” which means “peace” in Hebrew. They added “Winston” to honor Major Joseph Winston, a hero from the Revolutionary War. You can witness the city’s history by visiting the various charming historic buildings dating back to the 1700s, like the Bethabara Historic Park and the Frank L. Horton Museum Center.

It is also a cultural hot spot, with several annual festivals drawing visitors worldwide. Some must-attend festivals are the National Black Theatre Festival and the RiverRun International Film Festival.

For those who love the great outdoors, there are plenty of parks and recreation areas to explore, like the Reynolda House Museum of American Art and the historic Old Salem Museums & Gardens. The streets are quiet, passing through neighborhoods with big, beautiful trees, stores, restaurants, and breweries.

Don’t miss out on the excitement and beauty of Winston-Salem – plan your visit today!

8. Greensboro

Greensboro is a city located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. It is the third largest city in the state, after Charlotte and Raleigh, with a population of over 298,000 people. Both locals and visitors love Greensboro.

The city played a significant role in the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Greensboro is a center for historical museums, sites, and family-friendly attractions.

You can learn about the city’s history at places like the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, the Greensboro History Museum, and the Greensboro Science Center.

For art lovers, the Greensboro Cultural Center is a must-see destination. This center is home to several art galleries, theaters, and studios showcasing the work of local and regional artists. The center also hosts various events and performances throughout the year, from concerts to plays to art exhibitions.

In addition to its cultural attractions, Greensboro is also known for its beautiful parks and outdoor places, including the Bog Garden at Benjamin Park, the Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden, the Greensboro Arboretum, and the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. Greensboro is a welcoming destination that offers something for everyone.

9. Fayetteville

Fayetteville is a great option if you’re looking for North Carolina cities worth visiting and living in. Fayetteville is the largest city in Cumberland County.

The city is also known as the “All-American City” due to its strong military presence and patriotic spirit. One of the most significant landmarks in Fayetteville is Fort Bragg, the largest U.S. Army base with the Airborne Corps and Airborne Division. The city has a population of more than 200,000 residents, most of whom are part of military families.

Besides its military significance, Fayetteville is also home to several cultural attractions. The city has a thriving arts scene, with numerous galleries and performance spaces displaying the works of local artists. The Cape Fear Botanical Garden is another popular attraction with various native plants and flowers.

Sports lovers can enjoy various activities in Fayetteville, as the city is home to several sports teams, including the Fayetteville Woodpeckers minor league baseball team and the Fayetteville Marksmen minor league hockey team. The city has several parks and recreational areas, including the Cape Fear River Trail and Lake Rim Park.

Whether you’re a military history buff, an art lover, a sports fan, or simply someone who enjoys exploring the great outdoors, Fayetteville is the perfect place to visit and live.

10. Hickory

Hickory, located between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Piedmont region, is the best city in North Carolina to visit and live in. It is the largest city in Catawba County and has around 40,000 people.

The city is home to several manufacturing companies, including furniture, textiles, and automotive industries. The strong manufacturing industry has helped to drive the local economy and provide jobs for residents. One of the most popular attractions in Hickory is the Hickory Furniture Mart, the world’s largest furniture store. Visitors can find everything from traditional to modern furniture.

For those seeking a fun and educational experience for the whole family, the Catawba Science Center is the perfect place to go. This hands-on science museum features interactive exhibits, live animals, and a planetarium.

For those who enjoy the outdoors, Hickory is home to several beautiful parks and nature preserves. One of the most popular parks is Hickory City Park, which features hiking trails, picnic areas, and a playground.

The downtown area is entirely of bright colors, with numerous small shops, craft breweries, and farm-to-table restaurants. You can reach Asheville and Charlotte in just an hour in the middle of the town.

11. Greenville

Greenville is a small yet bustling city located in the eastern part of North Carolina. Home to East Carolina University, Greenville offers a top-notch education system that attracts students worldwide. Compared to other cities in North Carolina, Greenville has a relatively low cost of living.

Greenville is a cultural hub with several art galleries, museums, and theaters. The Greenville Museum of Art is a must-visit attraction for art lovers. The city hosts numerous cultural events throughout the year, including the Pirate Fest and the East Carolina Wildlife Arts Festival.

Greenville has plenty of parks and recreational areas if you love the outdoors. The Greenville Greenway is a popular trail that spans over 3 miles and is perfect for walking, jogging, and cycling. The River Park North is another scenic area with hiking trails, fishing ponds, and a nature center. The Tar River, flowing through Greenville, is a beautiful waterway with amazing views, wildlife, hiking paths, and fun opportunities for kayaking.

When it comes to dining, Greenville has many restaurants. Dickinson Avenue is a popular food hub, home to many trendy restaurants and bars. The locals are friendly and hospitable, making it easy for newcomers to settle in and feel at home.

12. High Point

High Point, North Carolina, is an incredible place to visit and live in for many reasons. This city is located in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina and is known as the “Furniture Capital of the World.” High Point has a rich history in the furniture industry and is home to the High Point Furniture Market, the largest home furnishings trade show in the world.

The city also boasts the World’s Largest Chest of Drawers, a popular tourist attraction. There are also many parks in High Point where you can enjoy hiking, biking, or just taking a leisurely stroll. The City Lake Park is a popular destination for families.

And if you’re looking for a unique and memorable experience, you can’t miss visiting All-A-Flutter Farm. You’ll see a real working butterfly farm up close and personal! This is definitely a must-see attraction if you’re in High Point between mid-April and October.

High Point is the only city in North Carolina that extends into four different counties, making it an interesting place to visit and live in.

13. New Bern

New Bern is a charming and historic town located along the banks of the Neuse and Trent Rivers. Founded in 1710, it is the second oldest town in North Carolina. You can learn about its history by visiting many historic sites and landmarks. Some must-visit sites include Tryon Palace, the Birthplace of Pepsi Cola, and the New Bern Civil War Battlefield Park.

New Bern offers a low cost of living, making it an affordable place to live. The town has different housing options, including historic homes, modern apartments, and new construction. New Bern has several excellent schools, including Craven Community College and the public school system.

The town is surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty, including the Neuse River, Trent River, and the Croatan National Forest. Visitors and residents can enjoy kayaking, fishing, sailing, camping, and hiking. The town also hosts many festivals and events throughout the year, such as the Mumfest, the Neuse River Bridge Run, and the Bernaroo Music & Arts Festival.

The downtown area is chic, with an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants. And here’s a fun fact — the city is covered in whimsical bear statues! See if you can spot them all as you explore the town. Come and experience the magic of New Bern for yourself!

14. Cary

Cary is a beautiful town that should be on everyone’s bucket list! It is located in the heart of the Research Triangle Park, near downtown Raleigh. Long ago, Cary was a town linked to the railroad and got its name from Samuel Fenton Cary, a leader in the temperance movement from Ohio.

With its growing economy, excellent education system, and high quality of life, Cary is a top destination for tourists and residents. This North Carolina city has a strong history in education. Cary High School was the first state-funded public high school in North Carolina.

One of the main draws of Cary is its natural beauty, with over 40 parks, including the ever-popular Bond Park and the breathtaking Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve. The town hosts various cultural events and festivals throughout the year, including the Lazy Daze Arts and Crafts Festival, the Kite Festival, and the Diwali Festival of Lights. Check out the Cary Theater and the Cary Arts Center if you love art. Beer lovers can visit the Bond Brothers Beer Company or Chatham Hill Winery.

If your top priorities are a family-friendly environment, safety, and pleasant weather, Cary is a great place to visit and live in North Carolina.

The Best Cities in North Carolina

There you have it — a list of the best North Carolina cities worth visiting and living in. North Carolina has many great cities perfect for visiting or making your home. From the Asheville mountains to Wilmington’s coastal beauty, there is something for everyone.

Whether you’re interested in history, outdoor activities, or cultural exploration, North Carolina has it all. No matter which city you choose, there is no shortage of things to do and see in this beautiful state.

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Steve Cummings is the founder of the personal finance blog The Frugal Expat. As a traveler and expat, he has learned a lot about how to save money, live frugally, and invest for the future. His mission is to help people in save, invest, and reach financial independence.

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