7 Small Towns to Explore in Central North Carolina

Just a short drive away, these central North Carolina towns offer countryside views, historic sites, good food, and more, all within two hours of Raleigh.
by Brian Rosenzweig

Now’s a perfect time to get out of the house and explore the many charms of small-town North Carolina. While the mountains and ocean get a lot of press, central North Carolina is still host to countless endearing towns bursting with pure North Carolinian culture. From historic streets and nature trails, to world-famous barbecue, gorgeous art galleries, and more, these seven central North Carolina towns offer accessible and easy-to-plan opportunities to get away.

For the History Lover: Hillsborough 

About 40 minutes north of Raleigh, Hillsborough is a quaint and friendly community in Orange County. With architecture that dates back to the mid 1800s, Hillsborough is a great place to spend a couples or family-focused weekend, with plenty of walking trails and historic sites like the Old Orange County Courthouse, and the sprawling Eno River Farm (where you can pick your own strawberries). Decadent treats from Matthew’s Chocolates, neapolitan pizza from Napoli Pizzeria, and stick-to-your-ribs southern food from Hillsborough BBQ Company are among downtown Hillsborough’s food musts. Grabbing a scoop at the award-winning Maple View Farm’s Ice Cream Shop before checking into the scenic Colonial Inn sounds like a great way to spend a sunny spring Saturday.

For the Artist at Heart: Pittsboro

Less than an hour out from Raleigh, this small town is known for its folksy farmland vibes and eclectic atmosphere. Spend the day browsing one of Pittsboro’s many indoor or outdoor galleries, folk art legend Clyde Jones’ Haw River Critter Crossing, or shop local at Fearrington Village. While exploring the art, enjoy Pittsboro’s equally vibrant food scene, including the postal office-turned restaurant Postal Fish Company, the sweet-tooth-tantalizing S&T Soda Shoppe, and the rustic Allen and Son BBQ.  At the end of the day, check in at one of Pittsboro’s many charming bed and breakfasts, like Small Street B&B and Rosemary House — both host to their own charming mini art galleries.

For the Golfer: Southern Pines

Just about an hour drive from Raleigh, Southern Pines is a gorgeous and close-knit town full of charming antique stores, the beloved Country Bookshop, golf courses, and of course, good Southern eats. Lunch at the decadent Sweet Basil, coffee at Swank Coffee Shoppe, and dinner at Wolcott’s are all musts while exploring the historic downtown area. Spend an afternoon at one of Southern Pine’s many award-winning golf courses, visit the historic Weymouth Center, and check in at the end of the day at the endlessly charming Tanglewood Farm Bed and Breakfast


For the Hippie: Carrboro

Known for its indie vibes and vibrant arts scene, this small town less than an hour from Raleigh is a great place to spend a weekend. Carrboro is not only home to the original Weaver Street Market, but also has its weekly farmers market, both great opportunities to stock up on fresh local produce. Stop by a gallery or two (Peel has a great shop-and-browse vibe), grab coffee and a bite at the immaculate Honeysuckle Tea House (a staple in the Triangle and almost a destination in it of itself) and get dinner at the iconic Thai Station, a train-themed thai joint where you can dine in a dining car (with no risk of motion sickness). Plus, being literally just down the street from Chapel Hill, the area is host to tons of great hotels like The Graduate and Aloft.

For the Naturalist: Saxapahaw

Just about an hour west of Raleigh, this scenic riverside village offers a chance to unwind and take it easy for a weekend. Located along the Haw River, this historic mill town is full of delights; from the sustainable goods Freehand Market, to even the opportunity to kayak the Haw. You’re always in good company food-wise thanks to the Saxapahaw General Store, an artisan American-style restaurant, grocery store, and gift shop all rolled into one, with some of the most creative burgers you’re sure to find (blueberry ketchup, English muffins, and emu patties are all popular menu items). Saxapahaw is also a great spot to stock up on local produce, with small farms like Benevolence and Rocky Run that focus on sustainable agricultural practices. Want to get a little closer to farm life? Stay and play at Terra Stay Farm, a small family farm with high end cottages, local produce, and the chance to interact with some farmland friends. We also can’t wait for the Haw River Ballroom to be up and running again, an idyllic place to see beloved North Carolina musical acts like Chatham County Line, Lone Bellow, and Mandolin Orange.

For a Trip Back in Time: Historic Glencoe Mill Village

Just about an hour’s drive from Raleigh, this historic district nestled in North Burlington is a day trip destination intersecting history and nature. Whether taking a Sunday stroll down historic main street, stopping into the Textile Heritage Museum, or exploring the riverside Great Bend Park, the Glencoe Mill Village has plenty of offerings for a low-key weekend of hiking, history, and fun. Plus, as part of Segment 9 of the Mountains-to-Sea trail, you have unparalleled access to North Carolina’s iconic hiking trail, all against the quaint historic backdrop of a once-thriving mill town, now enveloped by lush forests, historic homes, and the soft rush of the Haw River. For a more kid-friendly outdoor scene, visit the BE ACTIVE Outdoor Learning Environment, a fun space with a water flume, tire swing, “mud kitchen,” and more to keep the kids busy. In the evening, head over to Haggard Avenue to explore some of the beloved eateries of Elon University, including southern soul-food spot The Root, or the upscale Simply Thai. Settle in for the weekend at the Acorn Inn, a charming luxury hotel just off Elon’s campus with complimentary wine tastings each evening.

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For BBQ Connoisseurs: Lexington

Just under two hours west of Raleigh, this town near Winston-Salem is famous for its vibrant uptown, vineyards, and of course, classic barbecue. Start your day in the Historic Uptown District at Red Donut Shop, then explore the soda-fountain style Candy Factory, ReBorn Treasures Antiques, or the charming Black Dog Emporium. Spend an afternoon visiting the Richard Childress Racing Museum, the Childress Vineyard (yes, of the same NASCAR namesake!), or explore the 110-acre Boone’s Cave Park. And when in Lexington, be sure to stop by for lunch, dinner, or both at one of the town’s popular locations, like Smiley’s, Speedy’s, or Lexington Barbecue — on Smokehouse Lane.