Here’s your guide to free things to do in North Carolina

Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Photo Courtesy from Sarah P. Duke Gardens

By Staff Reports

April 29, 2024

No matter where you’re located in North Carolina, you’ll be sure to find a variety of free things to do. From historic sites to beautiful gardens, there are plenty of free things to do in this beautiful state. Let’s dive into the best free places in North Carolina to visit.

Explore the Historic Sites of Raleigh

Dive into the heart of North Carolina’s heritage by exploring the historic sites of Raleigh, a city that seamlessly blends the old with the new. Whether you’re a history buff or just love to soak in the ambiance of times gone by, Raleigh has an abundance of historic landmarks that are open to the public, free of charge.

Begin your journey through time at the North Carolina State Capitol, a magnificent example of Greek Revival architecture that has stood proudly since 1840. This landmark allows you to wander through the halls where important decisions and debates have shaped the state. Free guided tours are available, offering insights into the building’s history and the pivotal moments that took place within its walls.

Just a stone’s throw away is the North Carolina Museum of History, where the state’s tales unfold across a spectrum of exhibits. Here, you can learn more about the story of North Carolina’s people, from the indigenous communities to the settlers and beyond. Interactive exhibits make it a fascinating visit for all ages.

When you’re finished learning about North Carolina’s state history, don’t forget to make a stop at the City Market. This vibrant area, with its original cobblestone streets and charming buildings, offers a glimpse into Raleigh’s bustling market life in the early 20th century. Today, it serves as a gathering spot for locals and visitors alike, with artisan shops and eateries housed in beautifully restored buildings.

For a touch of nature infused with history, visit the Historic Yates Mill County Park. Just a short drive from downtown Raleigh, this park is home to the last operable water-powered gristmill in the county. The mill’s serene setting provides a picturesque backdrop for learning about the agricultural heritage of the region, and the park’s trails offer a peaceful retreat from the city’s hustle and bustle.

Each of these sites in Raleigh tells a unique story, offering a window into the diverse chapters of North Carolina’s history. The best part? You can explore them without spending a dime.

Take a Scenic Hike in the Blue Ridge Parkway

If you’re an aficionado of the great outdoors or simply someone who relishes soaking up breathtaking vistas, then a jaunt along the Blue Ridge Parkway should be at the top of your list for free things to do in North Carolina. Dubbed as America’s favorite drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway stretches through 469 miles of Virginia and North Carolina’s most picturesque landscapes. This journey through the heart of the Appalachian Highlands will undoubtedly offer an immersive experience into the natural beauty of the region.

Starting your adventure, you’ll find that the parkway is dotted with numerous overlooks and pull-offs, each presenting its own unique panoramic view of the sprawling mountains and lush valleys. These spots are perfect for capturing those Instagram-worthy photos or simply pausing for a moment of reflection amidst the tranquility of nature. And the beauty of it? You can enjoy these vistas without spending a penny.

Hikers will be delighted to know that the Blue Ridge Parkway is a gateway to an array of trails ranging from easy walks to challenging treks. One of the most beloved hikes is the hike to Linville Falls, a majestic waterfall that cascades into a deep gorge. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that captures the raw beauty of the Appalachian landscape. The trails around Linville Falls cater to all levels of hikers, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to witness this natural wonder.

For those seeking a more leisurely stroll, the trails at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park offer a gentler terrain set against the backdrop of a historic estate. Here, you can explore miles of well-maintained paths that meander through meadows and forests, leading to stunning views and serene lakes. It’s a perfect spot for a family outing or a peaceful solo hike.

Throughout the year, the Blue Ridge Parkway reveals its ever-changing beauty. Spring brings a burst of wildflowers, summer showcases lush greenery, fall is a spectacle of fiery foliage, and winter offers stark, snow-dusted landscapes. Each season offers a new reason to visit and explore the parkway’s natural wonders.

Before you set off on your Blue Ridge Parkway adventure, it’s wise to plan ahead. Check the parkway’s website for updates on road conditions, especially during winter months when sections may be closed due to snow or ice. Also, pack plenty of water, snacks, and wear comfortable hiking shoes to ensure you’re well-prepared for a day of exploration.

Embracing the outdoors doesn’t have to come with a hefty price tag, and the Blue Ridge Parkway is a testament to that. It’s a haven for hikers, nature enthusiasts, and anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life. So, fill up your gas tank, gather your adventure buddies, or set out solo—whatever your style, the Blue Ridge Parkway awaits to offer you a memorable experience amidst the natural beauty of North Carolina.

Enjoy a Day at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Nestled within the heart of Duke University in Durham, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens beckon as a verdant retreat, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in the natural beauty and tranquility it offers. This botanical paradise spans across 55 acres and is ingeniously divided into four major areas, each boasting its unique charm and botanical wonders. The Doris Duke Center Gardens, Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, W.L. Culberson Native Plant Collection, and the Historic Gardens collectively create a mosaic of vibrant colors, textures, and scents that change with the seasons, ensuring every visit offers a new experience.

The journey through these gardens might start at the Historic Gardens, where the old-world charm of terraced flower beds and intricate stone paths pay homage to the traditional European garden design.

Venturing further, the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum presents a serene landscape inspired by the beauty of East Asia, which reflects elegant Japanese and Chinese gardens. The W.L. Culberson Native Plant Collection showcases an impressive array of native plants and wildflowers. This area serves as an educational resource on the importance of native plants in our ecosystems.

The Doris Duke Center Gardens wrap up the experience with a mix of formal and informal gardens, including the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, which is an organic, sustainable space that encourages hands-on learning about gardening and conservation. This garden demonstrates the role each of us can play in maintaining the health of our planet, even through the simple act of gardening.

Throughout the year, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens host a variety of free educational programs, workshops, and events designed to engage visitors of all ages in the wonders of botany and the importance of environmental stewardship. These activities provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of the plant world, fostering a connection to nature that resonates long after leaving the gardens.

A visit to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens offers a rare combination of educational opportunities and aesthetic enjoyment. Depending on what parking lots are available, you might have to pay $2/hour.

Discover the Art Scene in Asheville

Asheville, nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a city that pulsates with creative energy and an unparalleled artistic spirit. If you’re a lover of art in all its forms or simply curious about the cultural tapestry of this vibrant city, exploring Asheville’s art scene is an absolute must—and it won’t cost you a dime. The city is teeming with galleries, murals, and live demonstrations that invite visitors into the heart of its artistic community, making it a treasure trove for those seeking cultural enrichment.

Begin your artistic journey in the River Arts District, a cornerstone of Asheville’s creative community. This once-industrial area has been transformed into a dynamic enclave of artists’ studios, galleries, and workshops. As you meander through the streets, you’re likely to witness the magic of creation in real-time. Artists often leave their doors open, welcoming in curious visitors to watch as they paint, sculpt, and craft. This open-door policy not only allows for a unique behind-the-scenes look at the artistic process but also provides a platform for engaging conversations with the artists themselves. It’s a rare opportunity to gain insights into their inspirations, techniques, and the stories behind their pieces.

As you explore further, you’ll encounter an array of public art that adorns the city’s landscape. Asheville’s commitment to public art is evident in its colorful murals, whimsical sculptures, and innovative installations that dot the city. These pieces transform ordinary spaces into open-air galleries that celebrate the creative spirit of the community. Notable is the Asheville Urban Trail, a self-guided walking tour that weaves through downtown, highlighting the city’s rich history and culture through its art. Each stop on the trail is marked by a plaque, offering context and background, making it an educational as well as a visual delight.

For those interested in more traditional gallery experiences, Asheville does not disappoint. Galleries throughout the city showcase a wide range of art, from contemporary pieces by local and national artists to traditional crafts that reflect the rich cultural heritage of the region. These spaces not only display art but often host artist talks, exhibitions, and receptions that are open to the public. It’s a chance to dive deeper into the art scene, experiencing the breadth and depth of talent that Asheville harbors.

The city’s art scene is a testament to Asheville’s identity as a place where creativity is nurtured and celebrated. It’s a community that embraces the arts as a vital part of its soul, making it an endlessly fascinating place for visitors. Whether you’re an art aficionado or just looking to experience the city’s culture, Asheville’s galleries, studios, and public art offer a window into the heart of its artistic community.

Walk Through Historic Wilmington

Wilmington, with its stunning antebellum architecture and picturesque riverfront, offers a delightful journey through time that is both enlightening and entirely free.

As you meander down the tree-lined streets, you’ll encounter a collection of beautifully preserved homes that hark back to the 18th and 19th centuries. These grand residences, with their intricate designs and lush gardens, provide a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of their original inhabitants. The architectural diversity—from Greek Revival to Queen Anne style—reflects the city’s historical significance and the various cultural influences that have shaped it.

One of the highlights of your visit to Wilmington will undoubtedly be the Wilmington Riverwalk. This scenic promenade stretches along the Cape Fear River, offering stunning views and a peaceful atmosphere that encourages leisurely strolls. Along the way, you’ll find charming boutiques, cozy cafes, and informative plaques that detail Wilmington’s pivotal role in the maritime industry and its evolution over the years. The Riverwalk is not only a feast for the eyes but also a hub of activity, where local musicians and street performers add a vibrant layer to the historic backdrop.

For those intrigued by Wilmington’s storied past, the city is home to several historic sites and museums that further explore its rich heritage. While some attractions may charge an admission fee, many offer free days or pay-what-you-wish entry, making them accessible to everyone. The Latimer House Museum and the Burgwin-Wright House, for example, provide fascinating insights into daily life during different eras through well-preserved artifacts and guided tours.

Don’t miss a visit to the historic Thalian Hall, one of the oldest theaters in the United States, which still hosts performances today. Even if you don’t catch a show, the building itself is a marvel of history and design. Similarly, the Wilmington Railroad Museum, located near the Riverwalk, offers a unique perspective on the city’s industrial past and its connection to the railroads, with plenty of engaging exhibits that appeal to visitors of all ages.

As you explore Wilmington, take the time to pause and reflect on the history that surrounds you as you walk beneath the moss-draped oaks and along the river’s edge.

Read more: 8 places in North Carolina to see spring blooming in all its glory

This story was generated in part by AI and edited by Cardinal & Pine staff.

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