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.
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
2 Greensboro History Museum
2 Greensboro History MuseumGreensboroSee 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
3 High Point MuseumHigh PointSee 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
5 NC Museum of Natural Sciences
5 NC Museum of Natural SciencesGreenville/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
6 US Army Airborne & Special Operations MuseumFayettevilleSee 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
7 Somerset Place State Historic SiteCreswellSee 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 CarolinasBrevardSee 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 GardensHendersonvilleSee 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
10 Cub Creek ParkWilkesboroSee 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 GardensLouisburgSee 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
12 Havens Gardens ParkWashingtonSee 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
13 NC Botanical GardenChapel HillSee 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
15 Ramsey Creek Park
15 Ramsey Creek ParkCorneliusSee 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
17 Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park
17 Vollis Simpson Whirligig ParkWilsonSee 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.
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
18 Wild HorsesCorolla and CarovaSee 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 AquariumBryson CitySee 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
20 Cataloochee ValleyWaynesvilleSee 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.
Encounter swashbuckling pirates, spectacular kite creatures and perhaps even Bigfoot.
21 Carolina Alpaca Celebrations
22 PiratefestGreenville; Every AprilSee 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 FestivalMarion; Every MaySee 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
26 Outer Banks Watermelon Festival
26 Outer Banks Watermelon FestivalNags Head; Every AugustSee 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 ParadeCharlotte; Every AugustSee 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 FestivalNorth Wilkesboro; Every October See 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
29 Cape Fear Kite FestivalKure Beach; Every November See 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 WonderlandWendell; Every December See 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.