Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

North Carolina and South Carolina are two East Coast states with endless vacation possibilities. From mountain towns to big cities to quiet coastal getaways, the Carolinas offer a heaping helping of affordable destinations and Southern hospitality. To help you decide which spot in the Carolinas is right for your next getaway, U.S. News considered factors like the number of attractions, availability of accommodations and opinions of everyday travelers to select the best places to visit in the Carolinas. Vote for your favorite spot below to help determine next year's list. (Note: Some of the below destinations may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Check with the CDC and the U.S. Department of State before traveling.)

SUMMARY

Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

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    Charleston, SC

    #1 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    The charms of this coastal South Carolina city can't be understated, and travelers from across the country are taking notice. History buffs will enjoy walking tours through downtown, savvy Instagrammers can take advantage of photos ops along The Battery and Rainbow Row, and sun seekers can flock to Folly Beach and the Isle of Palms (among other nearby beaches). Plus, everyone will enjoy sampling Charleston's world-class Southern cuisine, including staples like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes and she-crab soup.

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    Great Smoky Mountains National Park

    #2 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    If you're looking for an outdoor escape, head to North Carolina's section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park, which straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border, is the most visited national park in the country – and for good reason. On the North Carolina side, you'll find stunning waterfalls like 120-foot-tall Mingo Falls and multiple hiking trails, including the Mingus Creek Trail, which takes you past a slave cemetery and other historical sites. What's more, the park features winding roads ideal for scenic drives and photo ops, such as Lakeview Drive and Newfound Gap.

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    Asheville, NC

    #3 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    This North Carolina city has gained acclaim for its vibrant arts scene and microbrew culture, but there's plenty for every type of traveler to explore. Its proximity to the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway makes it a top pick for nature enthusiasts. History buffs are sure to appreciate taking a self-guided tour of downtown's Asheville Urban Trail, which includes stops at 30 sculptures of noteworthy Asheville figures. And the massive, 250-room Biltmore Estate, built by George Vanderbilt in the late 19th century, is a must-see for architecture aficionados and romance lovers.

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    Outer Banks

    #4 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    The barrier islands that form the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina retain their small-town feel with locally owned shops and a family-friendly atmosphere. Here, visitors will find inexpensive vacation rentals and sprawling public beaches that are rarely crowded. Those trying to get away from it all can spend their days lounging on the wide, sandy beaches of OBX or exploring the numerous lighthouses that dot the islands. Meanwhile, travelers looking for more activity can venture to Jockey's Ridge State Park to try sandboarding or hang gliding.

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    Hilton Head

    #5 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Located about 100 miles southwest of Charleston, Hilton Head caters to a slightly more upscale crowd than the Outer Banks, but the leisurely pace of the island is the same. Many come to Hilton Head to relax on the island's 12-plus miles of pristine shoreline. Coligny Beach Park offers a wealth of facilities, such as adjacent shops and restaurants, but those looking for less-crowded sands should seek out the beach access point at Alder Lane. What's more, Hilton Head has earned the nickname "Golf Island" for its dozens of championship courses.

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    Myrtle Beach

    #6 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    This South Carolina beach destination is especially popular with families thanks to its wealth of kid-friendly attractions (think: miniature golf courses and Ripley's Aquarium of Myrtle Beach), but visitors of all ages will enjoy spending time by the water. Myrtle Beach's 60-mile stretch of coastline is ideal for relaxing. Plus, the gentle water makes it an excellent place to swim, fish, paddleboard and kayak. To get a dose of nature without rubbing elbows with hordes of tourists, travelers can head to Myrtle Beach State Park, which offers equestrian trails, playgrounds, a campground and a fishing pier.

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    Charlotte

    #7 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Sports fans will feel right at home in Charlotte, North Carolina. This city features the NASCAR Hall of Fame and is where professional sports teams like the NFL's Carolina Panthers and the NBA's Charlotte Hornets play. But Charlotte appeals to travelers with other interests, too. Art and history enthusiasts can spend hours perusing the exhibits at Mint Museum Uptown and the Levine Museum of the New South. Meanwhile, outdoorsy types can take advantage of Freedom Park's trails and sports courts or try more adventurous pursuits like whitewater rafting and zip lining at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

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    Greenville, SC

    #8 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Although this South Carolina city doesn’t receive throngs of visitors like other in-state destinations, such as Charleston and Myrtle Beach, it's one of the fastest growing cities in the country, meaning it may not remain a hidden gem for much longer. Greenville's location in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has helped it earn a reputation as a hub for outdoor activities. Head to Falls Park on the Reedy to walk across its impressive bridge and explore its beautiful gardens, or visit the 22-mile Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail for a leisurely bike ride.

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    Raleigh

    #9 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    North Carolina's capital city may be known as a center for research and higher education, but it's also an excellent option for an affordable vacation. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the North Carolina Museum of Art (two visitor favorites) offer a variety of complimentary exhibits worth checking out. Additionally, Raleigh features several can't-miss outdoor attractions, including William B. Umstead State Park (with multiple lakes for fishing and canoeing, plus trails for hiking, biking and riding horses) and Pullen Park (a green space that houses one of America's oldest amusement parks).

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    Beaufort

    #10 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Beaufort, South Carolina's charming oak tree-lined streets and Civil War-era homes provide a glimpse into the town's antebellum days. Sign up for a walking or horse-drawn carriage tour to take in your surroundings, then visit the Beaufort History Museum to learn more about the town's past. You'll also want to check out Penn Center to educate yourself about the area's Gullah Geechee people. Once you've gotten your fill of history, head to the Beaufort River to kayak or paddleboard, or make your way to the Cypress Wetlands for a couple of hours of bird-watching.

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    Bald Head Island

    #11 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    For a relaxing getaway, take a ferry from Southport to Bald Head Island. On this North Carolina island, you'll discover 10,000 acres of unspoiled land, including nature preserves and 14 miles of beaches. Popular pastimes here include surfing and boogie boarding at East Beach, climbing up Old Baldy (North Carolina's oldest lighthouse) and looking for sea turtles, alligators and birds at Bald Head Island Conservancy. You can also hike, bike and kayak your way around this car-free island.

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    Greensboro

    #12 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    The third-largest city (by population) in North Carolina has seen its fair share of historical events, from a major Revolutionary War battle to one of the civil rights movement's most famous lunch counter sit-ins. Today, Greensboro visitors can watch battle reenactments at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park and stop by museums like the International Civil Rights Center & Museum to get an overview of the city's past. Nature lovers should also take time to stroll through the city's beautiful gardens, while those with children won't want to miss a visit to the family-friendly Greensboro Science Center.

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    Emerald Isle

    #13 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Emerald Isle features a small-town atmosphere fitting for a leisurely family beach vacation. Its 12 miles of North Carolina coastline offers travelers a variety of options for where to sink their toes in the sand, including uncrowded beaches with superb conditions for surfing and kiteboarding. Plus, Emerald Isle is home to Bogue Inlet Pier (a prime spot for fishing), multiple championship golf courses and the Salty Pirate Water Park, giving travelers plenty of ways to pass the time on and off the sand.

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    Carolina Beach

    #14 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Visit Carolina Beach to enjoy some old-fashioned fun with every member of the family. One of this North Carolina town's highlights is its vintage boardwalk, which features an arcade, an amusement park and ample places to purchase sweets. Plus, the boardwalk hosts seasonal events every summer, such as a music festival on the beach and weekly fireworks shows. For some fun in the sun in a quieter setting, head to Carolina Beach State Park. The park offers top-notch fishing, as well as opportunities to hike past unique flora like Venus' flytrap.

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    Winston-Salem

    #15 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Founded by Moravians (a Protestant group from Eastern Europe) in the 1700s, the twin city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, draws visitors with its historical charm, eclectic art scene and tasty wine. Head to the Old Salem Museums & Gardens to see artisans at work, tour restored buildings and try Moravian pastries. Then, check out Reynolda House Museum of American Art's collections or pop into the Downtown Arts District's galleries and studios. After a day of exploring, unwind with a glass of wine at one of the nearby Yadkin Valley's 40-plus vineyards and wineries.

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    Huntington Beach State Park

    #16 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Situated less than 17 miles southeast of Myrtle Beach, Huntington Beach State Park offers an escape from the busyness of South Carolina's better-known beaches. You can swim, fish and go boating at its 3-mile-long beach. Additionally, more than 300 bird species call this park home, making it an excellent destination for bird-watching. Walk along Huntington Beach's two nature trails to access some of its best places for spotting birds and other animals like alligators. Don't forget to save time for a guided tour of Moorish-style Atalaya Castle, the former winter home of sculptor Anna Huntington and her philanthropist husband Archer.

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    Chapel Hill

    #17 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Chapel Hill may be the smallest city (by population) in the Triangle, an area in North Carolina known for its prestigious universities, but it still buzzes with the energy of a small college town. Visit the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the oldest public university in the country, to tour its impressive attractions, including the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the Carolina Basketball Museum. Then, venture to Franklin Street, the city's social hub, to check out more museums, peruse art galleries, listen to live music and dine at award-winning restaurants.

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    Wilmington, NC

    #18 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Hundreds of TV shows and movies have been filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, earning this riverfront city its nicknames of "Hollywood East" and "Wilmywood." However, Wilmington is equally well known for its historical attractions and proximity to beautiful beaches. Explore Wilmington's historic district to see old-world homes and museums like the Bellamy Mansion Museum, or take a tour of the Battleship North Carolina to get an up-close look at one of the city's most popular attractions. Also save time for a stroll along Wilmington's Riverwalk to take in your surroundings.

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    Congaree National Park

    #19 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Central South Carolina's Congaree National Park is home to the southeastern United States' largest stretch of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, making it an excellent place to go hiking. Congaree boasts more than 25 miles of trails suitable for all skill levels, including the shorter Boardwalk Loop Trail and longer paths like the Weston Lake Loop Trail and the Oakridge Trail that are havens for birds, wild turkeys and deer. When you're not exploring its beautiful forest, spend a few hours fishing in the park's lakes or canoeing or kayaking down Cedar Creek.

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    Pisgah National Forest

    #20 in Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas

    Pisgah National Forest features more than 500,000 acres of North Carolina land perfect for outdoor activities. In its three ranger districts, visitors will find waterfalls, whitewater rivers, lakes and 1,700-plus miles of hiking, bike and equestrian trails. The Pisgah Ranger District is the section to visit to see the park's waterfalls, while the Appalachian Ranger District offers some of the forest's best mountain vistas and horseback riding. Experienced hikers and rock climbers will want to head to the Grandfather Ranger District to explore the Linville Gorge Wilderness.

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