North Carolina is one of the most geographically diverse states in the country. With three main regions — the Appalachian Mountains, the Piedmont, and the Coastal Plain — the Tarheel State offers a range of activities for anyone looking to visit.
While its largest city, Charlotte, often ranks as one of the fastest growing cities in the US, North Carolina still possesses lots of rural spaces — which means your money can go a long way while on vacation.
Here’s our guide to the best free things to do in North Carolina.
Drive the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway
Connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most stunning drives you’ll ever take.
Visit in the fall to see some of the area’s best foliage. The brightly colored orange, yellow and amber leaves are truly a sight to behold. Plan for lots of stops along the way, and be sure to keep your camera within arm’s reach.
Find your zen among the state’s 250 waterfalls
Grab your hiking shoes and picnic basket and hit the trails to get up close and personal with nature. The state’s 250 waterfalls can all be found throughout the western part of the state, and more specifically within Transylvania County.
The most popular falls (all in Pisgah National Forest) include: Looking Glass Falls, Sliding Rock – where you can actually slide along the rocks of the shallow falls – and Rainbow Falls, a nice reward after a 1.75-mile hike.
Support local artisans and musicians during festivals
Whether in Charlotte, Asheville or even the Outer Banks, there’s always a festival happening at any point during the year. Did you know there’s an entire event dedicated to Cheerwine soda, North Carolina's home-grown fizzy drink?
It takes place each May in Salisbury and you can indulge in everything from Cheerwine floats to Cheerwine tacos, all while listening to local musicians and checking out products from local vendors.
There’s also the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in July and, of course, the Lexington Barbecue Festival in October. Most festivals around the state are free to enter, but secondary things like food and vendor items will cost a bit of cash.
Soak in the sun on North Carolina’s beaches
Though South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach attracts around 14 million visitors a year, North Carolina’s 15 beaches offer an array of stunning sand and surf and, of course, classic seaside restaurants.
The most popular of the bunch is Carolina Beach, located along the Cape Fear River. The family friendly destination is home to shops, restaurants and an amusement park on its famed boardwalk.
Wrightsville Beach in Wilmington, pulls visitors year round thanks to its mild weather, while Nags Head in the Outer Banks appeals to hang-gliding adrenaline lovers. Bald Head Island, located between the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River, provides a peaceful haven for folks looking to avoid the crowd.
Become one with nature with a hike through the state parks
The North Carolina mountains aren’t the only areas you'll find great hiking trails in the state. Just outside of Charlotte, Crowder’s Mountain State Park is a popular area for hiking, fishing, rock climbing and picnicking.
Other popular state parks include: the 14000-acre Jordan Lake State Recreation Area in Apex, Jockey’s Ridge State Park (home of the tallest active sand dune in the state) in Nags Heads and William B. Umstead State Park and its 13 miles of bridle trails in Raleigh.
Nerd out with a visit to the museums
Mix a little fun with education with a visit to any one of North Carolina’s acclaimed museums. Whether you’re a history buff, love animals or simply want to learn a few new unique facts about the state — there’s a museum waiting to be explored.
Head up to the state’s capitol — Raleigh — where there are more than 50 museums that offer free admission to the public. The North Carolina Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the North Carolina Museum of History are guaranteed to quench your thirst for knowledge.
Peruse the fauna and flora of botanical gardens
Who doesn’t love a stroll through a beautiful garden? Many of North Carolina’s botanical gardens are free to enter, with donations welcomed. Charlotte’s UNC gardens have rare and exotic plant species like the infamous Titan Arum, better known as the “corpse flower.”
If you’re near the Raleigh-Durham area, the North Carolina Botanical Garden is filled with relaxing walks on the Piedmont Nature Trails, a picnic area and art exhibits at the DeBerry Gallery for Botanical Art & Illustration. Free admission, no reservation required.
Gallery hop around Asheville
Asheville is one of the state’s most eclectic towns. With award-winning local cuisine and nationally known breweries, it’s easy to overlook the art scene. But, driving in, you’ll find murals and graffiti art lining local buildings.
If you really want to spend a day immersing yourself in the arts, head to the River Arts District, located along the French Broad River. Here, you will find the largest concentration of graffiti art. The former industrial area is home to dozens of galleries and studios featuring the work of more than 200 local and national artists.