Looking to explore beyond Raleigh’s alluring Southern charm? Venture into the surrounding Wake County to explore some of the Old North State’s gems with the best day trips from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Within a few hours’ drive from The City of Oaks, you’ll find beautiful state parks and charismatic cities. Soak up antebellum and Civil War history in Wilmington and watch the Durham Bulls in action in Bull City.
Enjoy an array of outdoor activities in the Falls Lake State Recreation Area and climb Big Pinnacle peak in the Pilot Mountain State Park. Pay tribute to the nation’s fallen heroes in Fayetteville and Jacksonville. Admire the exquisite period architecture of Winston-Salem’s Historic District.
Ready to head out of Raleigh and discover North Carolina and beyond? Start planning your adventures with this complete guide to the top-rated Raleigh side trips!
Looking for more vacation ideas? Check out all our other day trip guides and our North Carolina Travel Guide for more travel tips & ideas on where to go, when to visit & what to do on your vacation!
Top-rated Raleigh side trips
Hop on the I-40E and head north to Durham. An easy 30-minute drive will take you to this bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly, and dog-friendly city. Exuding a small Southern town feel, the Bull City is home to a thriving arts community and a rich cultural scene.
With loads of attractions and activities, Durham is bursting at the seams with fun things to do. Wander around the picturesque campus of Duke University and check out the magnificent neo-Gothic Duke Chapel.
Get in touch with nature at the Museum of Life + Science and see bears and lemurs in natural wildlife habitats. Admire the works of Ai Weiwei and Christian Marclay at the Museum of Life + Science. Stroll through the beautiful Duke Gardens – buy a bag of crumbs to feed the ducks!
If you love sports, catch the Durham Bulls minor league baseball or the Duke Blue Devils basketball team in action. Prefer the performing arts? See a show at the Durham Performing Arts Center and dine at one of Durham’s award-winning restaurants afterward.
Steeped in antebellum and Civil War history, Wilmington, NC, is a wonderful city to visit for the day. One hundred and thirty miles south of Raleigh, it’ll take you just under two hours on the I-40E to the pretty port city.
Set along the Cape Fear River, Wilmington is slightly smaller than its Southern sister cities of Charleston and Savannah. But there’s still plenty to see & do in Wilmington, NC. Head to the harbor to see and explore the massive WWII-era battleship North Carolina. Enjoy lunch with river views at one of the restaurants along the nearby Riverwalk.
Take a gentle stroll around the charming downtown Historic District and admire the elegant antebellum homes and mercantile blocks. Delve into the rich history of the south with a visit to the historic Poplar Grove Plantation. End the day watching the sunset on Carolina Beach or Wrightsville Beach.
Chapel Hill, NC
Head into Orange County to spend the day in the charming college town of Chapel Hill. Thirty miles northwest of Raleigh, Chapel Hill is home to a campus of the University of North Carolina and has a laid-back, youthful vibe.
Have breakfast at one of the cafés along Franklin Street to get a real feel for the town. Located in downtown Chapel Hill near the UNC campus, the bustling street is lined with boutiques and bars, restaurants, and music venues.
Stroll around the themed gardens in the North Carolina Botanical Garden, which comes alive in the spring. Take in some Asian and European art at the Ackland Art Museum and enjoy live demonstrations at the Morehead Planetarium & Science Center.
Catch the UNC Tar Heels in action at the Dean E. Smith Center. Pop into the Carolina Basketball Museum in the center before the game to brush up on your basketball know-how.
The third-largest city in North Carolina, Greensboro is a green metropolis with a rich history that is well worth exploring. Just under 80 miles northwest of Raleigh, Greensboro was once the place where the British and Revolutionary armies met during the Civil War.
If you’re a history buff, you’ll find several battlefields and monuments to explore in the city’s outer districts. Delve deeper into the American Revolution at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. Trace the civil rights struggle at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, one of the top Greensboro tourist attractions.
Unwind in nature with a stroll through the pretty Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden or the Bog Garden at Benjamin Park wetlands area. Escape the heat of summer and get soaked at the Wet ‘n Wild Emerald Pointe Water Park.
Greensboro is also known for its quirky museums like Elsewhere. Built from Jewish merchant Sylvia Gray’s three-story thrift, this living museum is also an international artist residency and collaborative learning laboratory.
Twenty miles further west than Greensboro, Winston-Salem is a charming city with a proud history dating back to the 1700s. Enjoy an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Raleigh to reach Winston-Salem and spend the day exploring the city’s culture, history, museums, and shops.
Nestled between the smoky Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, Winston-Salem exudes both beauty and charm. The West End Historic District is the best place to delve into the history of the city. The historic neighborhoods was founded by Moravians in the early 18th century.
Another lovely way to discover the cultural significance of Winston-Salem is at the community-run Old Salem Museums and Garden. Wander around historic buildings and beautiful gardens on a docent-led tour.
Admire the beautiful period architecture of Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Classic Revival style buildings in the heart of town. Visit Salem College, founded in 1772 and the oldest women’s college in the country.
The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and the Reynolda House Museum of American Art are good stops for taking in some local art.
New Bern, NC
Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the big city and escape to the peaceful riverfront town of New Bern. Nestled in the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers in Craven County, New Bern is 115 miles southeast of Raleigh.
The second-oldest European-American colonial town in the state has a laid-back vibe and plenty of attractions. In New Bern, you’ll find beautiful parks and historical sites, eclectic art galleries and museums, and charming shops.
See a replica of the state’s first capitol at the Tryon Palace complex and explore the historical homes and splendid gardens at the North Carolina History Center. Learn about the Great Fire of 1922 at the New Bern Firemen’s Museum.
History lovers should head to the New Bern Civil War Battlefield Park. The park commemorates the 1862 American Civil War Battle of New Bern and has an interpretive trail and an excellent visitor’s center.
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Be sure to pop into the drugstore where the popular drink Pepsi was invented in the 1890s. Hit one of the many hiking trails in the Croatan National Forest to seek out some local wildlife.
Pilot Mountain State Park, NC
Explore North Carolina’s rugged wilderness for a day in Pilot Mountain State Park. Located 125 miles northwest of Raleigh, Pilot Mountain State Park is a haven for outdoor recreation.
Pilot Mountain State Park is centered around the 1,400-foot-high Big Pinnacle peak that rises above the undulating countryside of the upper Piedmont plateau. Known as ‘Jomeoke’ (meaning ‘great guide’) by the Native Americans, the peak has been a navigational landmark for centuries.
When it comes to outdoor activities, you can do it all at Pilot Mountain State Park. Hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding are popular pastimes, and you can canoe, kayak, and fish on the lazy, meandering Yadkin River. Adrenaline junkies can enjoy rock climbing and rappelling on portions of the park’s towering cliffs.
Eno River State Park, NC
If you’re looking for a state park that’s closer to Raleigh, beeline for Eno River State Park. Located 10 miles northwest of downtown Durham, the Eno River State Park is home to spectacular natural scenery.
Spanning five acres along its namesake river, Eno River State Park is a lovely spot to spend the day. Winding through rolling hills and shrubby bluffs, the river flows into Falls Lake on the eastern edge of the county.
The shallow waters of the river are ideal for canoeing, fishing, and skipping stones. Relax with a picnic on the banks of the river and soak up the serenity. Explore the park’s riparian habitat on one of the many hiking trails in the park.
Declared by TIME Magazine as ‘America’s Most Pro-Military Town,’ Fayetteville is worth a visit if you love all things military. Located an hour south of Raleigh in Cumberland County, Fayetteville is home to a major U.S. Army installation, Fort Bragg.
Explore the heroic actions of airborne troops and servicemen throughout history at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum. Be sure to try the motion simulator! For local cultural heritage, visit the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex, where you can explore the 1897 late-Victorian Poe House.
Soak up the tranquil beauty of the riverside Cape Fear Botanical Garden, where the kids can let loose in a special children’s garden. Another great place for kids is Arnette Park. Spread over 100 acres, the pretty park has plenty of space for ball games, basketball courts and volleyball nets, and hiking trails.
Stretch your legs on the Cape Fear River Trail before heading back to Raleigh. Winding its way through verdant forests, lush wetlands, and carpets of wildflowers, the five-mile trail boasts beautiful views over the Cape Fear River. Keep an eye out for roaming deer.
Falls Lake State Recreation Area, NC
Beautiful woodlands and meandering waterways make up the scenic wilderness in the Falls Lake State Recreation Area. Set 21 miles north of Raleigh, this scenic gem surrounding Falls Lake is a fantastic spot to spend the day enjoying outdoor activities.
At Falls Lake State Recreation Area, you’ll find an extensive network of hiking and biking trails around the lake that wind through bottomland hardwood forests, including a portion of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail. The lake’s shoreline is dotted with lovely beaches, and the clear waters of the lake are perfect for swimming, canoeing, and fishing.
Rent a boat or a kayak and head out onto the lake to angle for bass, crappie, catfish, and perch. Keep your binoculars handy – the park is home to a wealth of bird species, including bald eagles. Migrating monarch butterflies during the spring and fall add to the beauty of the lake.
Set on the New River, 120 miles south of Raleigh, Jacksonville is a charming riverside town steeped in military history. The city in Onslow County is home to the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and the Marine Corps Air Station New River.
Experience the military pride of the town at the Lejeune Memorial Gardens. Wander around the gardens and pay tribute to the nation’s fallen heroes at several memorials. Be sure to visit the Freedom Fountain a few blocks away.
Discover the local ecology of the North Carolina barrier islands at the Hammocks Beach State Park. Rent a kayak and explore the iconic Intracoastal Waterway. Stroll along the beach to look for ancient shark teeth and seashells and soak up the spectacular views.
Find out more about the time-honored Carolina tradition of making moonshine at Walton’s Distillery. The family-owned operation produces small batches of handcrafted corn whiskey and moonshine using local ingredients.