- North Carolina
North Carolinians share their fresh take on southern hospitality
With its eclectic economy, enticing quality of life and fantastic food culture, North Carolina can feel like a modern, southern utopia. Once known as tobacco country, the Tar Heel State now grows innovation of all kinds, attracting outsiders with big dreams and creative ambition, and welcoming them with its New South charm and over-the-top hospitality.
Go Coastal in Wilmington
Walking through Wilmington’s historic downtown, strolling along its scenic river or riding the locally beloved River to the Sea Bikeway trails, it’s easy to see how some people visit this photogenic small city and never leave. They come for the Carolina Beach Music Festival, to see the sea turtles at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher or to ride waves at Wilmington area beaches (among the U.S. East Coast’s best surf spots) and get charmed by the city’s welcoming community, live music every night of the week and irresistible wholesomeness. Who wouldn’t want to bring the whole family to a place like this?
For a minimalist, beachy, surf shack vibe, head to Carolina Beach’s Surf House, where you’ll find fresh oysters, “dealer’s choice” cocktails, a boat-to-fork menu and that sweet North Carolina good life. Nearby in Wrightsville, Oceanic is where locals go for special occasions. The historic seafront restaurant, which celebrated its 80th birthday in 2019, has invested heavily in its future by restoring its 145-meter Crystal Pier, a favorite spot for public-access fishing and romantic sunset strolls. If you’re in the area for one of the best breaks on the Eastern seaboard, stop by Sweetwater Surf Shop. A local institution that’s also one of the oldest surf shops on the East Coast, Sweetwater sells everything you need to get out on the water, plus some sweet surf-centric duds to help you look the part.
Jamming to a live band in the sand at the Carolina Beach Music Festival
Down on the Boardwalk
Downtown, the nearly 3-kilometer Riverwalk is the star of Wilmington’s lively waterfront. Not far from the banks of the Cape Fear River, you’ll find local hot spots like Manna, an upscale restaurant with a quirky sensibility. From its punny menu (“Looking to Meat Elsewhere” or “Berry Manna Loaf”) to its “Bourgie Nights” lounge events such as Burlesque, disco and stand-up comedy, manna is a great opener to Wilmington’s unexpected nightlife. When the weather warms, hop from the Wilmington Riverwalk to the Carolina Beach boardwalk, where the seasonal Britts Donut Shop has been selling its glazed donuts to an enthusiastic cash-only crowd since 1939.
Serving up a fresh glazed donut at Britts Donut Shop
It’s not every city of 120,000 that offers a prolific performing arts scene centered around one of the oldest theaters in the country. Wilmington’s grand, gorgeous Thalian Hall – in continuous operation since the mid-1800s – hosts hundreds of events each year, including film screenings, ballet performances and concerts. For something very different, the SeaWitch Café & Tiki Bar offers kitschy entertainment, colorful cocktails and Da Howlies, the self-proclaimed “Southern-fried Hawaiian band.” Outside the city limits, Greenfield Lake Amphitheater sits on the banks of the Cape Fear River with 180-degree views of the water and century-old cypress trees. You’ll find something for everyone in this gem of a town.
College Town Cool in Raleigh
Drive 2 hours (about 208 kilometers) northwest to Raleigh, a historic southern city and North Carolina’s capital. It attracts people from far and wide with its innovation-driven atmosphere, energetic nightlife and fantastic food. But while Raleigh opens its arms to outsiders, it rejects big national chains in favor of home-grown businesses. A tech hub and college town, this tip of the Research Triangle is home to a new generation of creators, builders and makers.
As one of the largest tech hubs in the USA that’s home to several major international universities, the “Research Triangle” includes Raleigh and neighboring cities Durham and Chapel Hill. The Triangle is connected by a web of bike paths and trails, providing links to nature between urban pockets. Raleigh itself has a youthful vibe and a spirited bar and live music scene. For an edgy yet cozy experience featuring seasonal craft cocktails, local beers and tasty homemade bar snacks, head for the low-lit ambience of Neptunes Parlour. A local favorite for interesting experimental music, art happenings and DJ sets, the subterranean vibe is always comfortable and unassuming. Head upstairs to Kings for a larger – but still intimate – event space that hosts everything from comedy and folk music to hip hop and heavy metal. Both spaces are part of a trio of businesses owned by award-winning chef Cheetie Kumar, herself a rock musician and owner of Garland restaurant, which features Asian-Indian cuisine with a Southern twist.
Outside CAM Raleigh, a city museum that features contemporary art and design
Raleigh’s diverse community turns out equally diverse cuisine, rocketing the city’s status as a foodie haven to new levels. For gorgeous French pastries and confections, try the irresistible macarons, gateau claires and pain au chocolat at LucetteGrace. Or, for mezcal and tasty drinking snacks, head to the amusingly named Gallo Pelon (the Bald Rooster) and its sister restaurant, Centro, which serves a modern Mexican menu on a pretty patio. With an eclectic menu of farmers market specials, Asian and Latin America-inspired entress, and meat-free riffs on regional dishes – think fried (mock) chicken and waffles or a vegan rendition of Eastern North Carolina-style BBQ pulled “pork” – Fiction Kitchen is the plant-based restaurant of your dreams. Locals will rightfully insist that you stop by Poole’s, one of Ashley Christiansen’s several beloved restaurants. This casual new school diner features chalkboard menus and comfort food dishes with modern southern attitude. Also not to be missed is the work of Vanvisa Nolintha who opened Bida Manda to serve her native Laotian dishes, and then partnered with Patrick Woodson to open Brewery Bhavana, an unlikely combination of dim sum restaurant, craft brewery, flower shop and bookstore in one. It’s an only-in-Raleigh institution that deserves all the national acclaim it gets.
Patio dining at Morgan Street Food Hall
What’s Old is New Again
In recent decades, downtown’s once dilapidated historic Warehouse District has morphed into a modern manufacturing and mixed-use hub. The heart of the neighborhood is CAM Raleigh, the soul of the area’s contemporary art scene. Raleigh Denim, which brought the textile industry back to the city with its “artistic adventure” in beautifully crafted raw denim jeans, is based here too. So is Humble Pie, an ahead-of-its-time local institution that’s been serving tapas-style small plates made from North Carolina ingredients since before it was cool (it was still cool). Then there are the newer stylish spots, which have been opening one after the next. Among them is the Father and Son antique store and thrift shop, which local collectors love as “one of the only spots remaining where you can still buy old things for a bargain.” Go get it, Americana enthusiasts.