Set along the edge of the Cape Fear River, Fayetteville – the buzzing community of 200,000 (North Carolina’s sixth-largest city) – feels more like a welcoming small town. With an impressive array of attractions and a revitalized downtown packed with local intrigue, this oft-overlooked destination is brimming with culture and history.
Fayetteville’s inception predates the Revolutionary War. In the 1750s, the settlement consisted of two towns straddling the Cape Fear River. The towns merged in 1783 and adopted a new name that paid homage to the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who led American troops alongside George Washington. The past lives on in the 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century buildings that make up the historic architecture trail.
Fayetteville proudly embraces its rich cultural diversity. Cumberland County, which encompasses Fayetteville and its surroundings, is home to students from 70 different countries speaking more than 80 different languages.
Foreign accents and well-traveled locals add to the mystique of exploring this surprising city. Here's a round-up of some of the best things to see and do in this North Carolina underdog.
Wander the flower-lined paths of Cape Fear Botanical Garden
Just northeast of downtown, the 80-acre Cape Fear Botanical Garden sits between the Cape Fear River and the meandering Cross Creek. Here you can quickly reconnect with nature on a walk through a hardwood forest filled with birdsong (especially in the morning and late afternoon).
Some two-thirds of the botanical garden remains in a wild, natural state. The other section features beautifully manicured gardens with 2,000 varieties of flowers and ornamental plants. From spring through fall, there’s always something in bloom.
Cheer on the Fayetteville Woodpeckers at Segra Stadium
On game day, you can join locals over at Segra Stadium to see the Fayetteville Woodpeckers (the local Minor League baseball team) battle the Delmarva Shorebirds, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and other avian foes.
Sipping a cold drink and munching on ballpark fare while watching batters pound fastballs into the outfield ranks high among the top fun things to do in Fayetteville. Tickets are fairly priced (around $13), and, you can even bring your dog to some of the games.
The Woodpeckers, a feeder team for the Houston Astros, play from May through September, with roughly 60 home games a year.
Sip a craft brew at the Bright Light Brewing Company
Like so many other towns in North Carolina, Fayetteville loves its quality beer, and it's home to a half-dozen craft breweries. Festive, locally owned Bright Light Brewing Company, set in the heart of downtown, is one of Fayetteville’s best microbreweries.
Selections change frequently, but recent hits include a refreshing American-style Hefeweizen, a dark porter and an imaginative IPA with a pineapple finish. Food trucks are on hand most days, and there’s a regular lineup of live music and other events.
Go for a spin or take a stroll along the Cape Fear River Trail
One of the best free things to do in Fayetteville is to head into nature along the 7-mile-long Cape Fear River Trail. You might see deer, lizards or wild turkeys as you pass through thick forests and wetlands, including a boardwalk stretch over marshy terrain.
You’ll also cross wooden bridges and one covered bridge, with fine river views along the way. Access the trail at Clark Park Nature Center, about three miles north of downtown.
Make your own candles at Hummingbird
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Fayetteville, sign up for a candle-making experience at Hummingbird. You can choose from more than 30 scents, and a patient chandler (candlemaker) will help ensure you create a high-quality finished product.
It’s a good outing for couples or friends, and you can bring your own wine or another drink of choice. Kids age 7 and up are also welcome before 4 pm (after that it’s age 18 and up).
Soar over the treetops at Zipquest
For an adrenaline-fueled outing, head eight miles north of town to Zipquest. Amid lush rolling forests, you can glide through the treetops on ziplines and admire the view over Carver’s Falls.
The waterfall expedition takes you across eight ziplines, over three suspension bridges and up three spiral staircases. Zipquest also runs a shorter treetop excursion, plus after-dark tours, where you can glide through the forest by the light of the moon (and your own headlamp).
Zipquest is a great activity for kids age eight and up, though the minimum weight requirement is 70 pounds (maximum 250).
Watch an independent film at the Cameo Art House Theatre
The Cameo is a required stop in downtown Fayetteville. The two-screen cinema shows a mix of new releases, independent features and foreign-language films at a prime location on Hay Street.
Much-loved by locals, the Cameo played a starring role in helping to revitalize Fayetteville’s downtown after opening in 2000. Over the years, it has been branded by local media as the “coolest place downtown,” “the best movie theater in Fayetteville,” and “the best place to take a date,” among other accolades.
Learn the history of US paratroopers at the Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum
Fort Bragg, one of the world’s largest military installations, lies just outside of Fayetteville and has played a vital role in the local economy since its opening in 1918. You can get more insight into Fayetteville’s military ties at the US Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum downtown.
Interactive exhibitions at this admission-free museum explore the role airborne troops played in foreign wars over the years, from the first paratroopers of 1940 during World War II to more recent conflicts in the Middle East, with coverage of America’s involvement in Korea and Vietnam.
Side note: Fort Bragg was a major transit point for US soldiers headed to Southeast Asia in the late 1960s and ’70s and helped earn Fayetteville the nickname “Fayettenam,” which you still might hear bandied about today.
Look for cormorants and red-tailed hawks while paddling on Hope Mills Lake
Less than a 20-minute drive from downtown, you’ll find the picturesque Hope Mills Lake, an inviting setting for kayaking, swimming and birdwatching.
Get out on the water with ease with Yakalacky Outfitters, which rents out kayaks, canoes and paddle boards, and offers delivery and pick-up service.
Cool off with homemade ice cream at Gillis Hill Farm
The best ice cream in Fayetteville is made at the ninth-generation family farm, Gillis Hill Farm. Homemade ice cream is available from its vintage shop Mondays through Saturdays from April to October. Relax after a long day on rocking chairs on the porch.
You can also go for a self-guided tour of the farm and feed the horses and some of the other animals. The farm is located 12 miles west of Fayetteville.
Release your inner warlord at Axes & Armor
On the western outskirts of the city, Axes & Armor lets you try your hand at ax-throwing – a surprisingly effective stress reliever. You’ll aim for a wooden board (not unlike an oversized dartboard), and with luck, land your blade right in the bullseye. Be sure to wear close-toed shoes and pay close attention to the “axperts” as they demonstrate the proper technique.