North Carolina is a culinary behemoth. Not only are we known for some of the best restaurants in the country, but hyperlocal food and drink trails allow visitors to explore some of the tiny culinary gems you might miss on a trip to some of our state’s signature attractions. From craft beer and barbecue to fine wines and gourmet cheese, it’s easy to find a trail for every palate.
1 Johnston County BBQ Trail
1 Johnston County BBQ TrailJohnston CountySee on map
Tucked into Johnston County’s less-than 800 square miles are about 10 barbecue restaurants serving up true Eastern-style barbecue: chopped pork mixed in a vinegar-and-pepper sauce with no tomato in sight. The result is a spicy tartness enhancing the flavor of the crispy, juicy pork. In JoCo (as locals call it), your plate of barbecue will be served alongside piping hot hushpuppies, and perhaps fried okra or coleslaw. Try the Redneck BBQ Lab for pulled pork, brisket, ribs, smoked chicken, and sides like collard greens and jalapeno mac and cheese, or Stormin’ Norman’s in Kenly for hand-chopped Eastern-style N.C. barbecue and fried chicken alongside baked beans and potato salad. And while you’re in JoCo, grab a drink on the Beer, Wine and Shine Trail.
2 Yadkin River Wine Trail
2 Yadkin River Wine TrailYadkin ValleySee on map
Named North Carolina’s first American Viticultural Area – a prestigious designation given to specific regions with distinguished features such as climates, soil and elevation – in 2003, Yadkin Valley sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is as diverse as it is scenic with its four different wine trails. Try the Yadkin River Wine Trail, home to five wineries – including Divine Llama Vineyards, where you can drink award-winning wine on the Southeast’s largest llama farm – an organic vegetable farm and a Century Family Farm, making it the perfect escape for a day trip.
3 Swan Creek Wine Trail
3 Swan Creek Wine TrailYadkin ValleySee on map
Located within the Yadkin Valley wine region is the Swan Creek Wine Trail in central North Carolina. The rocky, mineral-rich soils, cooler climate, higher elevation and longer growing season of this area help produce vinifera wine grapes, making the wines from Swan Creek unique and distinctive. There are four wineries to explore on this trail, all within close proximity to one another, but we suggest exploring them over the course of a weekend so you can enjoy the peaceful countryside setting. Sip some wine in a converted 1930s milking parlor at Laurel Gray Vineyards. On cooler days at Dobbins Creek Vineyards, relax with a full-bodied glass of cabernet sauvignon in front of the stone fireplace.
4 Pitt County Brew & ‘Cue Trail
4 Pitt County Brew & ‘Cue TrailPitt CountySee on map
Grab your “PassPork” and make your way through the Pitt Country Brew & ‘Cue Trail, centered in Greenville. Created to celebrate the county’s beloved barbecue joints and new-to-the-scene craft breweries, guests can pick up their PassPork at any of the three breweries or seven restaurants on the trail, collecting official stamps from each establishment to fill their book. Once completed (either the BBQ section, brewery section or both), return it to the Pitt County Visitors Center for prizes, including either a Pitt County Brew & ‘Cue Trail T-shirt or pint glass, and to get your picture taken for the Brew & ‘Cue Wall of Fame. Nationally recognized barbecue restaurants Skylight Inn BBQ and Sam Jones BBQ are must-visits, and for a taste of the past (a la no phone or website), enjoy an undisturbed meal at B’s Barbecue, housed in an old general store with picnic tables out front.
5 Craft Your Own Barbecue Trail in Lexington
5 Craft Your Own Barbecue Trail in LexingtonLexingtonSee on map
As opposed to the barbecue mentioned in Johnston County, Lexington-style barbecue is synonymous with Western-style barbecue. In Lexington, pork shoulders are hickory-smoked and pit-cooked but coarsely chopped and never “pulled.” It’s usually served as part of a tray or as a sandwich, with the celebrated Lexington-style sauce, made with ketchup, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. There are more than a dozen Lexington-area barbecue restaurants to explore, with some dating as far back as the 1930s. While each is deserving of a visit, Speedy’s Barbecue has the gift of longevity, having opened as Tussey’s in the late 1930s. And The Barbecue Center, which opened in 1955, is also well-known for its barbecue chicken. Or pick up dinner on the go and take advantage of Lexington Barbecue's curb service.
6 Raleigh Beer Trail
6 Raleigh Beer TrailRaleighSee on map
The greater Raleigh area has dozens of craft breweries spread across Wake Forest, Raleigh, Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina. As breweries keep popping up over the years, it’s no surprise our capital city compiled them into an easy-to-follow trail for imbibers. The Raleigh Beer Trail Passport allows for guests to earn prizes based on check-ins at each brewery, with no purchase required. Visiting five breweries earns a VisitRaleigh stainless steel bottle opener, 10 breweries earns a pint glass koozie and 15 breweries earns a Raleigh Beer Trail limited edition T-shirt. All you have to do is snap a photo of your stamped passport and email the photo along with your mailing address to get your prizes.
7 Asheville Ale Trail
7 Asheville Ale TrailAshevilleSee on map
First things first, Asheville has the most breweries per capita in the United States, so pace yourself. Lucky for beer lovers, the Asheville Ale Trail is the most comprehensive guide to breweries and craft beer in western North Carolina, so it’s incredibly easy to create your own path through the huge number of breweries available. For self-guided walking and bike tours – including a tour of the South Slope, home to Wicked Weed, Hi-Wire, Twin Leaf and Greenman breweries – use the free Asheville Ale Trail app or pick up a printed field guide at more than 150 locations.
8 Western North Carolina Cheese Trail
8 Western North Carolina Cheese TrailWestern North Carolina
Cheese lovers, rejoice – a wide variety of the ultimate comfort food is expertly crafted across western N.C., offering some of the best cheeses made in the South. The Western N.C. Cheese Trail allows visitors the chance to connect directly with cheesemakers, support local and small businesses, and learn about how your favorite styles of cheese are made. You will find cow and goat milk cheese, fresh to aged, pasteurized and raw, as well as artisan and farmstead producers. Although there is a Cheese Trail map available, the map has no beginning and no end, so take your time savoring the varying terrains along the journey as well as the 15-plus stops for delicious cheese.
9 Surry Sonker Trail
9 Surry Sonker TrailSurry CountySee on map
Sonker is a kind of deep-dish cobbler in a crust (similar to a fruit pot pie) that’s popular around here. The dessert’s history is murky, but three things are pretty clear:
- Sonker is often served with what’s called a “dip,” a sugar-cream sauce poured over when serving.
- Fruit filling is commonly used, although sweet potato variations are also made.
- It’s completely delicious.
The Sonker Festival has been held annually near Mount Airy since 1980, with music and competitions for the best sonker. Get your fix the rest of the year on the Surry Sonker Trail, which highlights sonker-friendly bakeries, general stores and country restaurants.
10 Winston-Salem Moravian Cookie Trail
10 Winston-Salem Moravian Cookie TrailWinston-SalemSee on map
We saved the sweetest trail for last. Winston-Salem is known for its deep Moravian roots thanks to a group of German-speaking Protestants (also known as Moravians) who erected a settlement on the land in 1753 that eventually became Winston-Salem. In addition to their religious beliefs, the Moravians brought their culinary traditions, including the ever-popular Moravian cookie: a simple, wafer-thin cookie served in flavors such as ginger, lemon and chocolate. Sample all styles along the Moravian Cookie Trail, a collection of bakeries and restaurants that serve the tasty treat. Mrs. Hanes’ Moravian Cookies just outside of the city is a popular place for the hand-rolled cookies (Quincy Jones is a fan), or try Winkler Bakery in Old Salem for a taste of the cookies in an Old World setting.
Debbie Moose contributed to this story.
Craving more delicious adventures? Head on over to The Official 2021 North Carolina Travel Guide for other foodie experiences and much more.