30 Free Things to Do in North Carolina Year-Round

Feel free to build your vacation around these no-cost museums, historical sites, parks, gardens, wildlife exhibits and festivals. The memories you’ll make are priceless.

Museums and Historic Sites

Enrich your vacation by expanding your mind. Check out a hotel moonlighting as an art gallery, pan for gold at the site of the first gold discovery in the United States, or immerse yourself in history-changing battles.

1 21C Museum Hotel

Out-of-focus woman walking through art gallery

1 21C Museum Hotel

DurhamSee on mapSee on map

This contemporary boutique hotel and art museum grants visitors and sightseers access to rotating galleries and thought-provoking modern art, such as It Will Warm You Twice, a landscape crafted entirely from tobacco products.

2 Greensboro History Museum

2 Greensboro History Museum

GreensboroSee on mapSee on map

Travel back in time to early 1900s Greensboro at the interactive Gate City exhibit, which allows museum visitors of all ages to mill about town, measure ingredients at a drugstore counter, catch a silent film and field calls as an operator at the local telephone exchange.

3 High Point Museum

Exterior of old-timey buildings in outdoor museum

3 High Point Museum

High PointSee on mapSee on map

Marvel over Meredith’s Miniatures, one of which features a detailed vignette of Monet’s blue-and-white kitchen. High Point native Meredith Slane Michener crafted these meticulous displays. Or stroll through the Historical Park featuring three buildings, including a working blacksmith shop. Lastly, swing by the area showcasing jazz musician John Coltrane, another former High Point resident.

4 Reed Gold Mine

Father and son panning for gold at gold mine attraction with trees in background

4 Reed Gold Mine

MidlandSee on mapSee on map

The first gold discovery in the United States was made right here by Conrad Reed (age 12) in 1799. Pro tip: It’s worth bringing a few dollars if you’d like to try your hand at panning for gold from April through October.

5 NC Museum of Natural Sciences

5 NC Museum of Natural Sciences

Greenville/Grifton

Exhibits at two satellite locations of the Raleigh museum include a hands-on augmented reality sandbox and Discovery Forest play center at the Greenville site. Check out a stellar planetarium and scenic hikes at the 380-acre Contentnea Creek location in Grifton.

6 US Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum

Aerial view of American flags in ground in front of museum

6 US Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum

FayettevilleSee on mapSee on map

Immerse yourself in the history of the US Army’s Airborne & Special Operations units when you walk through lifelike displays depicting World War II France, Cold War-era Korea and 21st-century Afghan military bases.

7 Somerset Place State Historic Site

Historical marker in front of white fence and white historical buildings

7 Somerset Place State Historic Site

CreswellSee on mapSee on map

Walk through original 19th-century buildings at a former plantation to get the site’s entire story. Self-guided tours allow you to see a plantation hospital, a dairy and other historic structures for a taste of 1800s life.

8 Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas

8 Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas

BrevardSee on mapSee on map

An extensive collection of military artifacts and exhibits features veteran-donated weaponry, uniforms, original newspaper clippings, personal effects and a multitude of other items. It’s all presented chronologically to create a powerfully accessible storytelling experience.

Parks and Gardens

These parks and gardens invite visitors to breathe in nature and seek peace in the small things. Pause to consider the unique beauty of a jumping river fish, a giant whirligig or a meticulously manicured garden.

9 Bullington Gardens

9 Bullington Gardens

HendersonvilleSee on mapSee on map

A local resident’s not-for-profit garden has become an open-to-the-public wonderland where visitors can explore a variety of gardens and walk the Fairy Trail, a charming wooded pathway dotted with miniature displays of fairy homes and villages.

10 Cub Creek Park

Two people cycling on Cub Creek Mountain Bike Trails with sun streaming through trees in forest

10 Cub Creek Park

WilkesboroSee on mapSee on map

Find serenity while watching winged beauties in the butterfly garden or hit one of four biking trails of varying intensities and lengths. There’s also a fenced-in dog park where Fido can run free, complete with a watering station and fire hydrant.

11 De Hart Botanical Gardens

11 De Hart Botanical Gardens

LouisburgSee on mapSee on map

Have your camera handy: Beauty reveals itself in myriad ways at this nature preserve, home to botanical gardens, carefully preserved forests and two easygoing hiking trails. One trail circles a peaceful lake filled with turtles and fish, and the other leads to a small waterfall.

12 Havens Gardens Park

Person in wheelchair entering park with jungle gyms and other playground equipment

12 Havens Gardens Park

WashingtonSee on mapSee on map

Pack your tackle box for pier fishing along the brackish waters of the Pamlico River, where you can reel in speckled trout, redfish and striped bass (license required). Rent boats, paddleboards, kayaks and more across the street. Kids of all ages and abilities will enjoy the park’s wheelchair-friendly playground structures and areas.

13 NC Botanical Garden

Family walking along path in forest with green trees

13 NC Botanical Garden

Chapel HillSee on mapSee on map

Roam through rare wildflowers in the Piedmont Habitat, check out the Salamander Pool in the Coastal Plain Habitat or step into the restored cabin of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Green at this blossoming paradise dedicated to conserving native North Carolina plant species.

14 Sandhills Horticultural Gardens

14 Sandhills Horticultural Gardens

PinehurstSee on mapSee on map

Wander through a well-maintained woodland garden dotted with azaleas and rhododendrons, an interactive children’s garden where little ones can learn about growing veggies, plus other creatively cultivated spaces.

15 Ramsey Creek Park

Gazebo jutting out into lake with sun shining into camera

15 Ramsey Creek Park

CorneliusSee on mapSee on map

Perch at the pier, play a game of volleyball or let your pooch run leash-free at the dog area within this 43-acre waterfront park. There’s also a swimming area with lifeguards on duty during beach hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

16 Treasure Point Park

16 Treasure Point Park

CamdenSee on mapSee on map

Locals love this park for its quiet atmosphere, stunning views and peaceful bass fishing in the coastal waters of the Pasquotank River. Bring your watercraft of choice and a picnic for a full day of waterfront relaxation.

17 Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

Friends standing in front of whirligig park and water tower in background

17 Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

WilsonSee on mapSee on map

Thirty wind-powered kinetic sculptures designed by Wilson County native and farm gear repairman Vollis Simpson blow visitors away at this eye-catching park, which spans 2 acres. The site also hosts concerts and farmers markets throughout the year.

Animal Adventures

What do salamanders, wild horses and elk have in common? They all call North Carolina home, and it’s easy to spot them if you know where to look.

18 Wild Horses

Two wild horses grazing in sand dunes by beach

18 Wild Horses

Corolla and CarovaSee on mapSee on map

This northern Outer Banks swath of sand is a designated sanctuary for Colonial Spanish Mustangs that roam freely. Visitors are welcome to walk around the beaches and dunes of Corolla to view the horses, but you must keep a distance of at least 50 feet at all times. It’s the law.

19 Appalachian Rivers Aquarium

19 Appalachian Rivers Aquarium

Bryson CitySee on mapSee on map

Spend an afternoon surveying the aquarium’s 13 tanks, three terrariums, and an exhibit showcasing the diverse species of frogs, turtles and salamanders (including the protected Eastern hellbender species) that inhabit the Southern Appalachians.

20 Cataloochee Valley

Mom and daughter sitting on bank of road watching elk graze in the distance

20 Cataloochee Valley

WaynesvilleSee on mapSee on map

Drive through this valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to spot wild elk from Heintooga Spur Road. To increase your chances of seeing these majestic creatures, explore in the early morning, late evening, on cloudy summer days, and before or after a storm.

Exciting Celebrations

Encounter swashbuckling pirates, spectacular kite creatures and perhaps even Bigfoot.

21 Carolina Alpaca Celebrations

21 Carolina Alpaca Celebrations

Concord; Every FebruarySee on mapSee on map

It’s all about the alpacas at this two-day celebration with an alpaca parade and walking show with hundreds of them competing. You can also find vendors selling a variety of alpaca fiber items to take home.

22 Piratefest

Two actors dressed as pirates swordfighting with crowd watching in background
photo credit: City of Greenville

22 Piratefest

Greenville; Every AprilSee on mapSee on map

Shake your (pirate) booty during concerts and stroll through a marauders encampment without worry of being kidnapped or walking the plank. More swashbuckling attractions: costumed characters, food vendors, sword fighting, and a beer and wine garden.

23 WNC Bigfoot Festival

23 WNC Bigfoot Festival

Marion; Every MaySee on mapSee on map

“Come a skeptic, leave a believer” is the motto here. Enter the Bigfoot Calling Contest (and see if the beast actually shows up) or stomp over to vendors for themed grub, such as a chocolate-drizzled doughnut dubbed Bigfoot Droppings.

24 Art on the Greene

24 Art on the Greene

Banner Elk; Every May, July, August, SeptemberSee on mapSee on map

Local and national artisans sell high-quality handcrafted goods like jewelry, pottery, furniture and one-of-a-kind art pieces at this seasonal market held at the historic Banner Elk School.

25 Bugfest

Child watching a bug crawl on her shoulder at bug festival

25 Bugfest

Raleigh; Every SeptemberSee on mapSee on map

Make a beeline for this tiny-creature extravaganza, where visitors can interact with entomologists, participate in the Arthropod Olympics, enjoy a street carnival and munch on chef-prepared, bug-based dishes at Cafe Insecta.

26 Outer Banks Watermelon Festival

26 Outer Banks Watermelon Festival

Nags Head; Every AugustSee on mapSee on map

Take part in cheer-worthy traditions such as watermelon bowling and watermelon-eating competitions, and you may just come home with a prize. Cool off with a scoop of festival-inspired ice cream for that perfect watermelon sugar high.

27 Charlotte Pride Festival and Parade

27 Charlotte Pride Festival and Parade

Charlotte; Every AugustSee on mapSee on map

At Charlotte’s biggest celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, wear your rainbow colors proudly during the annual parade and high-energy performances. A designated area for youth and families offers activities for ages 20 and younger.

28 Brushy Mountain Apple Festival

28 Brushy Mountain Apple Festival

North Wilkesboro; Every October See on mapSee on map

Sip cider, sample apple-based dishes, and peruse handcrafted products such as pottery and baskets. Go early if you can – it gets pretty crowded when guests, hundreds of vendors and four live music stages fill downtown streets.

29 Cape Fear Kite Festival

Many kites flying in air at kite festival

29 Cape Fear Kite Festival

Kure Beach; Every November See on mapSee on map

Giant seahorses, flying pigs, dragons and other fantastical creations float through the shoreline sky at this colorful aerial spectacular. Well-behaved, leashed dogs may join the fun with their humans. Live bands and food trucks keep things buzzing at ground level.

30 Wendell Wonderland

30 Wendell Wonderland

Wendell; Every December See on mapSee on map

Take a trolley ride through historic downtown Wendell, see a synchronized light show, catch one of multiple holiday song-and-dance performances, or kick-start your holiday shopping at the handmade market. Santa sightings are possible too.

Discover more priceless experiences in The Official 2024 North Carolina Travel Guide

Updated January 29, 2023
About the Author

Hilary Braaksma

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