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20 Things You Must Do Your First Year Living in North Carolina

Moving to North Carolina? The toughest part is narrowing down your Tar Heel to-do list. Let us help.

By Amy Conry Davis on November 8, 2021

North Carolina
North Carolina / iStockPhoto/aheflin

You’re going to love living in North Carolina. And once you’ve unpacked your boxes and met the neighbors, you’ll want to start exploring your new neck of the woods. The Tar Heel State is as diverse as the people who call it home, so whether it’s art, azaleas or antebellum you’re looking for, you’ll find it and then some. Before you know it, you’ll be sipping sweet tea like a local, declaring allegiance to your favorite spots to out-of-towners.

As you take off down the road, let these 20 ideas give you a general direction to start from. There’s a lot of exciting ground to cover from Albemarle to Zebulon, so enjoy checking off this list. You may even find a few to cross off more than once.

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1. Tour the Biltmore during the holidays

This former “country home” of the Vanderbilt family is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. The Biltmore Estate in Asheville is impressive any time of the year but seeing the halls decked for the holidays is especially magical. The price of admission varies according to the season but all tickets include access to the home, gardens, winery and Antler Hill Village. If you are inspired to search for other historic locations, you can visit Tryon Palace in New BernReynolda House in Winston-Salem or Poplar Grove Plantation in Wilmington

2. Learn about the Wright Brothers 

North Carolina is so proud of its role as the “First in Flight” they’ve put it on their state license plates. If you find yourself in the Outer Banks, take a break from the beach-going to learn a little history. The area’s windy weather made it a good spot for test flights and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk commemorates their endeavors. For a quirky twist, check out the Man Will Never Fly Memorial just down the road.

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Charlotte / Photo: Todd Bennett

3. Experience a NASCAR race

Some might argue that you’re not a true-blue Southerner until you’ve attended a NASCAR event. Luckily, Charlotte is the home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the famous Charlotte Motor Speedway. Their event calendar is always full of races and events year-round. For adventurous folks who want to get behind the wheel, they offer high-speed driving experiences through their racing school.

4. Hike the Mountains-To-Sea Trail

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail recently celebrated its 40th anniversary but surprisingly enough, it’s still unknown to many people. This 1,000-mile route runs from Clingmans Dome to Jockey’s Ridge, passes through 37 counties and is divided into 18 segments. If you don’t have time to do a complete thru-hike, there are plenty of sections that can be hiked (or paddled) on the weekend. It’s also a wonderful resource for connecting with the community. The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail group organizes trail meetups and cleanups through their website.

5. Head to the waterways

If your idea of a perfect weekend involves a canoe or kayak, you’ll have limitless possibilities for indulging in this pastime. Some of the favorites include the Dan River, the Catawba and the French Broad, not to mention hundreds of lakes and inlets. For a chance to gather with other enthusiasts, the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City is a fun place for craft beer and good grub. Over in Charlotte, the U.S. National Whitewater Center is an enormous action-packed facility suitable for all ages.

6. Ferry around the Outer Banks 

The Outer Banks is full of pirate lore, fresh seafood, and miles of relaxing beach. Discovering these barrier islands by ferry is a great way to get a sense of the place. All ferries require a ticket to ride with the exception of the Hatteras-Ocracoke route. While you’re there, make sure to hit the Bodie Island Lighthouse or Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for incredible views. Keep your eyes peeled and you just might spot John B and the gang.

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North Carolina / iStockPhoto/aheflin

7. Drive the backroads

A Sunday drive doesn’t get any better than spending an afternoon traveling along the lovely Blue Ridge Parkway. This winding two-lane byway is 469 miles and runs through North Carolina and Virginia. Alternatively, a road trip on scenic Highway 64 will take you through rural farmland and small towns. While this interstate originates in Arizona, the “Murphy to Manteo” part consists of 600 miles across the state. 

8. Explore Linville Gorge

The Linville Gorge Wilderness is over 11,000 acres of hiking, paddling, and camping in the Pisgah National Forest. The terrain can be pretty demanding but it’s some of the best hiking in the state. One of its most popular attractions is Linville Falls, a gorgeous waterfall. For help planning your trip, there’s a small Visitor Center off the Blue Ridge Parkway for maps and information.

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Durham / Jonathan Lee / Discover Durham

9. Spend a weekend in Durham

Durham has revitalized itself into a trendy destination with the Durham Performing Art Center (DPAC) and several boutique hotels like 21C Museum HotelUnscripted and The Durham Hotel. New restaurants, cafes and bars have cropped up all over downtown and around the thriving American Tobacco Historic District. Even more, the city is centrally located between the mountains and the beach, making it an easy trip for a girls’ weekend or romantic getaway.

10. Ride an old-fashioned steam engine

The young (and young at heart) will love a ride on Tweetsie Railroad. This three-mile railroad track takes you back and forth from Boone to Blowing Rock. Afterward, there’s a western-themed park for the little ones to enjoy. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers onboard dining and an authentic steam-engine experience not far down the road. The holiday season is particularly busy with family-friendly events. There are moonshine and beer-tasting packages for the grownups and the caboose can be booked for private parties.

11. Find a festival

North Carolinians love a good festival. And there are festivals for everyone from one end of the state to the other. On the coast, Wilmington’s Azalea Festival draws national acts or check out Burgaw’s Blueberry Festival and Southport’s long-standing Fourth of July parade. For music lovers, head to the Piedmont region for the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival and MerleFest in Wilkesboro.

12. Go behind-the-scenes

What do Last of the MohicansDawson’s Creek, and Bull Durham all have in common? They were filmed in North Carolina. For a long time, Wilmington was the “Hollywood of the East,” and EUE/Screen Gem Studios still makes movie magic and offers tours. If you’re into documentaries and indie films, check out the work of local filmmakers at Cucalorus or Full Frame.

13. Get to know your local artists

Whatever your interests, there’s a museum or gallery for every artistic inclination, from the whimsical Whirligig Park to Folk Art Center to the colorful drawings of Minnie Evans. Book lovers will want to visit the childhood homes of Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg. The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University or Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art also have ongoing exhibitions throughout the year.

14. See the Battleship North Carolina

The USS North Carolina has been a beloved tourist attraction for the Port City since the 1960s. Over the past ten years, it’s undergone significant restoration and revitalization, to include Battleship Park. Tours are available daily and special events take place on national holidays such as Flag Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. But, for something really unique, attend one of the events hosted by the local radio club of HAM operators.

15. Sleep among Wild Horses

More than 100 wild horses live on the small barrier island known as Shackleford Banks. Legend has it they are the descendants of horses who survived shipwrecks hundreds of years ago. For nature-lovers and birders, the network of marshy inlets are a delight to explore. Visitors are allowed to stay overnight on the beach but all camping is primitive.

16. Cheer on a sports team

Live in North Carolina long enough and, at some point, you’ll be asked if you’re a Blue Devils or Tarheels fan. This college rivalry is alive and well and makes for exciting, downright raucous basketball games. Plus, other major collegiate competitors include NC State in Raleigh and East Carolina University in Greenville. For a sporting event with the pros, plan a weekend that includes watching the Charlotte PanthersCarolina Hurricanes or Charlotte Hornets

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17. Discover NC breweries

Craft beer is enjoying its heyday right now and plenty of cities around the state are joining in on the festivities. The NC Brewery Map is helpful as a go-to guide but several towns are also creating unique trails of their own. For example, you’ll want to try the Beer, Wine, and Shine Trail of Johnston County, the Raleigh Beer Trail and Asheville’s Ale Trail. If you like the idea of being shuttled around between tours, head to the coast for Wilmington’s Port City Brew Bus.

18. Hit the slopes

The ski resorts in North Carolina might not be top of mind with Aspen and Vail but it’ll save you the plane ride. Beech Mountain is a popular spot, especially for beginners, and offers a variety of camps and lessons for first-timers. Tubing and ice skating are also available. Nearby Sugar Mountain is another option and a good place for those who want skiing mixed with a social scene. They hold events throughout the year like guided snowshoe tours, recreational racing, and live music performances. 

19. Watch the Highland Games

Every summer for the past 65 years, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games have been taking place in Linville. It’s a four-day family-friendly (no pets, though) event celebrating the rich history of the Scottish clans who came to the area as far back as the 1700s. This is an opportunity to see authentic dancing, enjoy whisky tasting, listen to Celtic Rock, and watch wrestling, just to name a few.

20. Get to know your barbecue

Carolina barbeque asks the important questions: Slaw or no slaw? Vinegar or tomato-based? To help you decide for yourself, The North Carolina Barbecue Society created an official BBQ Trail. All of the restaurants along the way are ‘tried and true’ BBQ joints that bring years of experience to the world of smoked meats. You’ll have 22 stops to sample, from Ayden to Burlington — that’s plenty of time to figure out if your culinary tastes fall to Team East or Team Lexington. 

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