In my mind, I’m going to Carolina…
That song lyric from James Taylor explains my life! I was born and raised in the foothills of North Carolina, thirty minutes west of Charlotte. While I haven’t lived there in over two decades, it will always be home.
North Carolina is a wonderful vacation destination. It has beaches, mountains, big cities, small towns, and everything in between. Plus it is chock full of history from the earliest English settlement to a Gilded Age mansion.
While my list of historical sites is not exhaustive, hopefully it’s a great start to planning your North Carolina vacation! Note that sites reviewed by The History Mom are marked with * (although I’ve been to many of the sites not yet reviewed). I’ve also included hotel and restaurant recommendations when possible.
Be sure to check out North Carolina’s travel tourism site as a starting point. Civil War enthusiasts will also want to refer to the Civil War Trails map. And feel free to reach out to me with any specific questions! Once a Tarheel, always a Tarheel!
Outer Banks/Eastern North Carolina
From I-95 eastward, you’ll find amazing historical sites that go back to America’s earliest settlers. While many head here for the beautiful beaches, don’t forget to add in a visit to these unique and educational sites.
- Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – The actual site of the “Lost Colony of Roanoke”
- Roanoke Island Festival Park – A fun interactive site where your kids can learn about the Roanoke colony and the earliest English settlers. My kids loved it!
- The Lost Colony – A play discussing the Lost Colony of Roanoke. If you’re here during the summer run, get tickets! It’s on my must-see list!
- Island Farm – A living history farm from the 1850s
- Wright Brothers National Memorial (pictured above) – Visit the actual site where the first flight took place. You’ll understand why the brothers chose this sandy dune when the wind hits you! My kids loved climbing on the statue and pretending they were part of the flight.
Eastern North Carolina
- New Bern:
- Historic Edenton – A quaint town full of beautiful homes and museums that reflect its importance in the fight for independence.
- Historic Halifax – Site of the “Halifax Resolves,” the first official action by one of the colonies establishing independence from England and an official stop on the Underground Railroad Trail
- Historic Bath – The first town founded in the state, it was also home to Blackbeard. Kids will love the pirate-themed tours!
- Bentonville Battlefield – Largest Civil War battle in NC
- Historic Beaufort – This adorable coastal town will make you feel like you’re walking in your favorite beach read.
- Wilmington area
- Battleship North Carolina – We enjoyed visiting this decommissioned warship. Be careful of its tight turns!
- Bellamy Mansion Museum – A gorgeous 19th century home
- Burgwin-Wright House – This historic home is the only remaining colonial structure in the town and has a fun tie-in to Outlander (check out its podcast and upcoming events for lots of great historic references to the books and TV show!).
- Cape Fear Museum – Lots of historical artifacts and natural history
- Fort Fisher – Important Civil War site where the largest amphibious battle took place
- Wilmington Water Tours – A cruise on the river focused on history
- Civil War walking tours – Wilmington was important in the Union blockade of the Confederacy
- Brunswick Town – The colonial port town destroyed during the Revolution
- Fort Johnston (Southport) – Important Revolutionary War and Civil War site
- Moores Creek National Battlefield (Currie) – Site of important Revolutionary War battle (look for its special Outlander days!)
Dining recommendations: Eastern NC is home to some of the best seafood and barbecue in the state (although those from western NC would disagree!). Its barbecue is more vinegary and less “saucy.”
- Smithfield Chicken ‘n Bar-b-q restaurant chain: This is my favorite place to stop on any car trip through NC, and there are several in this general area.
- Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson – old school BBQ restaurant
- TV celebrity chef, Vivian Howard, lives in Eastern NC and has two restaurants – her flagship Chef and the Farmer in Kinston (currently closed) and Benny’s Big Time pizzeria in Wilmington.
Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill)
One of the busiest places in the state with the capital city, several major universities, and a huge business park, the Research Triangle is a fun place to stay. Whether you’re on a college tour or in town for a soccer tournament, there is always history to be found!
The state capital has one of the best history museums I’ve been to and many great historical sites.
- *North Carolina Museum of History – One of my favorite museums ever and it’s free!
- North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences – Located beside the history museum above and is a fun place for families.
- Executive Mansion – Home of the governor, it is open for limited tours.
- North Carolina State Capitol (currently closed) – Built in 1840; you can still visit the grounds with historical statues including the three presidents who hail (somewhat!) from NC
- Legislative Building – To see the current government in action, check its schedule.
- *President Andrew Johnson Birthplace/Mordecai Historic Park – The actual birthplace of President Johnson is in downtown Raleigh (marked with a historical sign), but the home that is thought to have been his family’s was moved to this historic park.
Home to the prestigious Duke University, this town revolves around the university but also played a surprising role in the Civil War.
- Bennett Place – The historic site where Confederate General Johnston surrendered his troops to Union General Sherman – over two weeks after Appomattox.
- Duke Homestead – The place where Washington Duke first grew his famous tobacco.
- Historic Stagville – One of the largest plantations in the state, it is now dedicated to telling the story of the enslaved.
- Duke Chapel and Basketball Museum – Visit the campus to see a beautiful Gothic chapel that will make you think you’re in Europe. Basketball fans will want to go inside Cameron Indoor to see Duke’s championship memorabilia. I totally geeked out over the Christian Laettner memorabilia!
Just a few miles down the highway from Duke is its biggest rival, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This quaint small town is also historic as the home of the oldest public university (although William and Mary and University of Georgia also claim it!).
- Morehead Planetarium and Science Center – We loved seeing the Magic Treehouse books come to life at this planetarium!
- Carolina Basketball Museum – To relive the glory days of Michael Jordan and Dean Smith, visit this wonderful museum at the Dean Center.
- Historic Hillsborough – Just a few miles from the UNC campus is the historic town of Hillsborough, site of a Revolutionary War battle (one of my ancestors fought here).
- Burwell School Historic Site – Where Elizabeth Keckley (former enslaved seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln) lived.
Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point)
This large region of North Carolina is home to many universities, battlefields, and civil rights historical sites.
- *Guilford Courthouse National Military Park – One of the most important Revolutionary War battles in the South.
- Greensboro History Museum – Includes an exhibit on First Lady Dolley Madison who was born nearby.
- International Civil Rights Center and Museum – Where the Civil Rights sit-ins at Woolworth’s began.
- Alamance Battlefield (Burlington) – Site of a famed pre-Revolutionary War battle with the Regulators (featured in Outlander!)
- Textile Heritage Museum (Burlington) – The former mill village of Glencoe is now a museum about textile history.
- Old Salem Museums and Gardens – I remember this living history site focused on the Moravians from my fourth grade field trip.
- Fort Dobbs State Historic Site – A fort from the French and Indian War.
- North Carolina Transportation Museum – Be on the lookout for its special Thomas the Tank Engine weekends.
- North Carolina Zoo – A must-see with kids! I still remember my trips there with my grandparents.
- Grandover Resort is located in a central location and is very nice.
Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina and is the banking capital of the south. I grew up going to the suburban malls and museums in Uptown (what Charlotteans call the downtown area), but it has really changed since my childhood!
- Charlotte Museum of History – A museum dedicated to telling Charlotte’s ever-changing history with Revolutionary War-era buildings.
- Levine Museum of the New South – A museum with changing exhibits on the history of the South post-Civil War. I visited its former location but haven’t made it to the new facility.
- NASCAR Hall of Fame – This museum with interactive exhibits is a must-see for any Cars movie fan. My kids had so much fun here!
- Discovery Place – My favorite science museum for kids!
- President James K. Polk State Historic Site (Pineville) – The birthplace of the nation’s 11th president.
- Reed Gold Mine (Midland) – The historical site of the first documented gold find in the United States.
- Town Creek Indian Mound (Mt. Gilead) – A ceremonial Native American site.
West of Charlotte
- Schiele Museum of Natural History – A fun museum with a planetarium and living history walk. I had my wedding reception here!
- *Kings Mountain National Battlefield Park – The site of a pivotal Revolutionary War battle, this is in my hometown! And don’t miss Liberty Mountain, the play about the battle that takes place every fall.
- Charlotte has world class restaurants. Uptown has a cute French bakery and one of my favorites, Tupelo Honey.
- West of Charlotte is full of great, home cooking restaurants. My kids’ absolute favorite is Jackson’s Cafeteria in Gastonia, and I grew up going to the area “fish camps” like Captain’s Cap. In Kings Mountain, kids will love the chicken tenders at Love’s Fish Box or a sandwich from The Sub Factory. Barbecue enthusiasts shouldn’t miss Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby.
Western North Carolina
Western North Carolina is famed for its beauty and culture. From the artsy town of Asheville to the small mountain towns with sweeping views, it’s a wonderful place in every season!
- *Biltmore – This Gilded Age mansion is a must-see while in Asheville! Even kids will be amazed at its size, the beautiful gardens, and fun farm area.
- Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace – The birthplace of a former governor, this historical site is now dedicated to telling the story of the enslaved on mountain plantations.
- Thomas Wolf Memorial – The home of one of the most famous authors from NC.
Outside of Asheville
- Chimney Rock – Kids love scrambling up its rocks!
- Lake Lure – Pretty lake where parts of Dirty Dancing were filmed!
- Grandfather Mountain – A gorgeous view awaits if you dare to brave the mile high swinging bridge! This area is also the location of the fictional Fraser’s Ridge from Outlander (check out the annual Fraser’s Ridge Homecoming nearby).
- Blue Ridge Parkway – A beautiful place to drive. Be sure to stop at the visitor center for more information on animals and the geography and the Folk Art Center for creative souvenirs.
- Oconaluftee Indian Village and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian – Learn more about the Native Americans who live here.
- Daniel Boone Trail – Follow in the footsteps of the famed pioneer.
- Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail – This trail takes you from the mountains down to the Kings Mountain Battlefield, following in the footsteps of the Overmountain Men who won the battle.
- Asheville: There are so many great restaurants here! Some of our favorites include Tupelo Honey Cafe, Early Girl Eatery, Farm Burger, and the Sunday buffet brunch at the Grove Park Inn. We also love the ice cream at Sunshine Sammies
- Outside of Asheville: You can’t go wrong with the home cooking at the Daniel Boone Inn.
- Asheville: This town is full of great hotels. Luxurious resorts like the Grove Park Inn (my favorite pictured above!) and the hotels at the Biltmore are top notch. There are also great places to stay in Biltmore Village (Grand Bohemian) and downtown (Kimpton Hotel Arras). I also recommend the rental homes by Yonder if you’re looking for more space.
- Outside Asheville: I’ve always wanted to stay at the Old Edwards Inn – looks so nice! Yonder also has many rentals available throughout the area.
This is just the tip of what North Carolina offers for a family vacation! From the beach to the mountains and everything in between, there’s a reason everyone wants to go to North Carolina!
Books to Read:
This page is continually updated.