The 12 Best Small Towns in North Carolina — From Coastal Gems to Mountain Getaways

These small towns in North Carolina offer something for every type of traveler, whether you're after an adventure or laid-back vibes.

Whether you want to ski, hike, surf, or simply drink sweet tea on a front porch somewhere, North Carolina delivers the goods. From coastal gems packed with history to mountain getaways tucked into rippling, blue-hazed peaks, sweet small towns (population: 11,000 and under) can be found in every corner of the state.

Scenic View Of Lake Against Sky During Sunset in edenton
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Here are a dozen of the best small towns in North Carolina, chosen for their laid-back pace, ample natural beauty, and big helping of Southern hospitality.

Bryson City

Country Road in the Appalachian Mountains - Summer - The Smoky Mountains - Outdoors - Near Bryson City North Carolina
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A stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Bryson City is best known for its mountain scenery (it's adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) and all the outdoor adventure fun that comes with it: hiking, whitewater rafting, tubing, mountain biking, fishing, horseback riding, and even zip lining through the treetops. There are several hiking opportunities close to the town center, including the beloved Deep Creek area with waterfall trails, rapids, and amazing views of the Smokies. Accommodation options range from motor lodges to secluded cabin rentals to the wellness-oriented Lakeview at Fontana.


The last remaining screw-pile lighthouse in North Carolina, preserved in historic Edenton.
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From its picturesque spot on Albemarle Sound to its many 18th- and 19th-century buildings, Edenton is a romantic getaway in coastal Carolina. Hop aboard a trolley tour and check out the several historic homes open to the public in the state's first colonial capital (and second-oldest town). The 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse, one of the few remaining screw-pile lighthouses in the U.S., is a must-see. Stay on theme at a stately Edenton bed-and-breakfast, like Inner Banks Inn.

Blowing Rock

Moses H. Cone country estate on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Blowing Rock, North Carolina
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Headed to the mountains? Be sure to visit this Blue Ridge Parkway town and its namesake geological formation — an ancient gneiss outcrop whose rocky bulk causes wind to blow vertically, making objects appear to float skyward. For more Blue Ridge scenery, visit the Gilded Age estate of textile tycoon Moses H. Cone, exploring its 3,600 acres of highland fields and forests on foot or horseback. Families should add the old-school Tweetsie Railroad to their itinerary, along with zipping down Sugar Mountain on skis or aboard the Wilderness Run roller coaster. The village itself is a picturesque mountain retreat offering upscale dining, boutique shopping, and charming bed-and-breakfast stays.


Seagrove-Waning Sun over NC Pottery Highway
Courtesy of Heart of NC Tourism

A rural paradise for pottery lovers, the tiny community of Seagrove is the beating heart of North Carolina's pottery tradition. Set in the pretty countryside and Uwharrie foothills are dozens (more than 100, by some counts) of ceramics shops and studios, many of them with working potters at the wheel. One such stop is Uwharrie Crystalline, whose pieces are fired with unique crystal-infused glazes.


Commemorative clock in the town of Manteo, Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
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Waterside Manteo's most obvious selling point might be its proximity to the great Outer Banks. (The Roanoke Island village is a gateway to Nags Head, Hatteras, and other prime destinations on the barrier-island chain.) But while most beach towns are little more than an endless strip of big, stilted vacation rentals, this storied location brims with antique shops, waterfront eateries, and elegant bed-and-breakfasts — some, like White Doe Inn, graced with National Register of Historic Places distinction. Speaking of history, there's a lot of it here. Roanoke Island was the site of the mysterious Lost Colony, an English settlement that vanished in the 1580s.


A statue of a confederate soldier overlooks the town of Sylva, N.C. o
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With fewer than 3,000 residents, this 19th-century mountain town has a laid-back neighborhood feel. Along with Dillsboro, Sylva's even smaller neighbor to the west, Sylva attracts outdoor enthusiasts looking to hike in the Smokies and raft or tube down the Tuckasegee River. Between excursions, there are breweries, antique stores, and mom-and-pop spots — quirky Lulu's on Main has been a go-to for decades.


Downtown Hillsborough NC
SP Murray/Courtesy of Chapel Hill

This small town is approximately a 20-minute drive from Durham and Chapel Hill, but it feels worlds away from its college-student-filled neighbors. Set near Eno River State Park and Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, Hillsborough also has its own Riverwalk, a peaceful paved greenway that's part of North Carolina's 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The historic buildings along Hillsborough's main street harbor a lively food and drink scene, including cozy trattoria Panciuto and an outpost of the ever-popular Weaver Street Market. Drive out to Maple View Farm Ice Cream for old-fashioned milkshakes and rocking-chair views of the pretty countryside.

Washington (a.k.a. "Little Washington")

Waterview of Washington, aka "Little Washington"
Courtesy of Washington Tourism

With its dreamy coastal scenery, this little riverside destination shines for small-town charm and relaxing outdoor recreation. Kayak or paddleboard on the Pamlico River, post up on a pier to reel in fresh and saltwater fish, and meander down the Palmetto Boardwalk and the nature trails of Goose Creek State Park (whose marshes and bogs were once preferred hiding spots for the pirate Blackbeard). Then, poke around the historic waterfront and wind down with crab cakes, Southern fried shrimp, and other coastal Carolina specialties.


Quarry Falls in Autumn, Highlands North Carolina
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At 4,000 feet above sea level, Highlands has long (since the 1800s) served as a summertime escape for Carolina and Georgia residents escaping the intense heat and humidity. The cooler temps and gorgeous mountain scenery still pull in vacationers looking to hike, relax, and repeat. The local natural beauty is especially rich in waterfalls, like the walk-behind Dry Falls (roaring, despite the name) and the spectacular Cullasaja River Gorge, both located in Nantahala National Forest.


Homes and patios in Pittsboro, NC
Courtesy of Pittsboro-Siler City CVB

Within easy driving distance of the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill), Pittsboro puts visitors in a quiet, convenient location with lots of local character. After exploring easygoing trails and sandy beaches at Jordan Lake, enjoy a meal at The Fearrington House Restaurant, widely considered to be one of the best fine-dining spots in the state. Or, simply grab a Gambler (skirt steak on a hot skillet) and a float at S&T's Soda Shoppe, a former pharmacy/soda shop lovingly restored to look as it did in the early 1900s. To drink, try honey wine at Starrlight Mead or North Carolina whites, reds, and ciders at Fair Game Beverage Company.

Banner Elk

From the top of Sugar Mountain looking at Tyne Castle in Banner Elk North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains
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This quaint High Country town is the gateway to Grandfather Mountain State Park. The park and its 2,500 backcountry acres feature all of the mountain splendor you would expect (spruce forests, ridgeline trails), but also some unique attractions, such as the iconic mile-high Swinging Bridge. (Elevation? A cool 5,282 feet.) Banner Elk town offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations, cozy cafes and taverns, local wineries and breweries, and working farms open for tours — say hello to the adorable alpacas and angora goats at Apple Hill Farm.

Mount Airy

Aerial View of Sunset over Mount Airy, North Carolina
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Mount Airy, a.k.a. the inspiration for Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show, is a time capsule of midcentury small-town America. Its main attractions, including the darling historic downtown, the Andy Griffith Museum, and the Mayberry Replica Courthouse, are all centered around the classic '60s sitcom and its Mount Airy-born star. Keep things retro by browsing antique stores, digging into diner fare at Leon's Burger Express, stopping for a picnic and a game of cornhole along the riverside park, and staying in one of the town's grand old bed-and-breakfasts.

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