Small Towns to Visit in North Carolina (and VA, TN, SC, and GA too)

Do you love visiting small towns? The charming downtowns, down-home cooking, friendly locals, and fun shops are hallmarks of these pieces of Americana.

We asked 15 expert travelers to let us in on their favorite small towns in North Carolina and surrounding states. With their help, we’ve got great suggestions for the best small towns you should visit in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee.

If you’re heading to one of these states, check it out and put some of these towns on your list. They may be small, but they pack a punch.

Small Towns to Visit in North Carolina

Front of Brevard Brewing Co. building

Brevard, NC

Recommended by Zack of Florida Man on the Run

If you love waterfalls, then there is no better place to set up shop than Brevard, NC. It’s the heart of Transylvania County, otherwise known as The Land of Waterfalls. Brevard is an awesome little town that’s as American as a slice of apple pie. 

It all starts with where you should stay during your time here. The Sunset Inn is a minute past downtown. Settle into one of the quaint rooms here before you head downtown. 

There are a bunch of cute shops downtown but O.P Taylor’s on the corner of Main Street will bring your inner child back. After you’ve popped into a couple of stores, walk down to Brevard Brewing for a fantastic beer brewed literally feet from where you’ll sit at the bar. At the end of the day, snag a good ol’ American burger at the Cardinal Drive-In!

For nature lovers, Brevard is also the starting point for an awesome loop through Pisgah National Forest. Featuring hundreds of miles of hikes and a ton of waterfalls along the way, the loop to the Blue Ridge Parkway and back is an awesome way to spend the day. Looking Glass falls is a real treat, while Sliding Rock is the spot to cool off on a hot day! 

Two people standing under Looking Glass Falls.

Highlands, NC

Recommended by Annick of The Common Traveler

Visitors seeking a mountain getaway in North Carolina need to look no further than Highlands. At an elevation of over 4,000 feet, Highlands is a popular summer destination for those wanting to escape the oppressive summer heat. The fall brings a colorful transformation attracting leaf-peepers. Prefer winter hikes and frozen waterfalls? Then the winter is a perfect time to visit.

Chasing waterfalls is one of the most popular things to do in Highlands NC. Bridal Veil Falls and Dry Falls are the two most popular falls and both are easily accessible. Watch the sunset from Sunset Rock on Whiteside Mountain. Or drive to Rhodes Big View Overlook at specific times of the year when the sunset creates a phenomenon that looks like the shadow of a bear crossing the valley.  

Stroll along Main Street in Highlands and visit the boutiques. Stay at the Old Edwards Spa and Inn for a romantic getaway or to treat yourself to a luxurious escape. Their restaurants serve world-class cuisine. This is true for many of Highlands’ eateries, so bring your stretchy pants!

Purple and orange sunset over Great Smoky Mountains.

Waynesville, NC

Recommended by Denise of Chef Denise

About 30 miles west of Asheville, North Carolina you’ll find the quaint town of Waynesville nestled at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains. For such a small town, it seems like there’s always a festival, block party, or parade of some kind happening. 

You can easily see all the Waynesville sights and visit the mom-and-pop shops that line Main Street in a couple of hours. But the best attraction is the gorgeous scenery nearby, and you should take a couple of days to explore it. 

If you can take the Blue Ridge Parkway there, that’s an added bonus! If not, you may want to consider a scenic drive as it’s absolutely gorgeous. But so are the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains with waterfalls, wildlife, forests, and fog-laden mountains. Of course, the fog is what makes them look smoky. 

If you want to fully immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the area, stay at The Swag where you can enjoy stunning sunrises, gourmet meals, and awesome hospitality. 

Red Barn with West Jefferson Sign.

West Jefferson, NC

Recommended by Alison at Exploration Solo

While I enjoy the beach, my heart is in the mountains, and nowhere captures that feeling of “aah” like West Jefferson. This quiet town is home to Ashe County Cheese, two breweries, a donut shop where I can do some serious damage, and several great eclectic shops.

Boone and Blowing Rock are just a half hour away if you want to explore. But with Elk Knob Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area right around the corner, you may find yourself just hanging out in West Jefferson.

There’s no shortage of food or coffee here either. Originally developed around the old “Virginia Creeper” railroad, the town managed to stay alive after the railroad business declined. The town has an active improvements plan which you can see with all the great additions to downtown including beautiful murals.  

When you get hungry, head to Havana Café for their Cuban sandwich or head on over to Kristin’s Hook’d on Smoke food truck. I like Smoky Mountain Barbecue, but if you know anything about North Carolina, it’s that there are differing opinions on the best barbecue.

Whatever your preference, there’s something for everyone in West Jefferson.

Canal garden at Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens in Belmont, NC.

Belmont, NC

Recommended by Rachel of Caribbean Uncovered

Belmont is a quaint, small town 15 miles outside of Charlotte, NC, and conveniently located 6 miles from the Charlotte International Airport. It’s filled with history and is a great option if you’re looking for a small-town charm with the big city option right around the corner. Even someone like me that lives in the Caribbean can appreciate Belmont.

Downtown Belmont holds a variety of local shops, festivals, and restaurants, including the Jonas Brothers family restaurant, Nellies, serving classic southern comfort food. For a date night out, try the Bottle Tree for craft cocktails and unique dishes. 

The community is also home to Holy Angels, NC, a non-profit dedicated to caring for and providing opportunities for differently abled children and adults. Visit their crew at the popular Cherubs Cafe for breakfast and the Cotton Candy Factory for dessert! 

For the adventurous souls, you can’t miss a chance to visit the US National Whitewater Center for rafting, kayaking and paddle boarding, ziplining, mountain biking, live music and events, and more! 

Belmont is such a special, hidden gem in North Carolina, you won’t be disappointed spending time in this growing little town! 

Small Towns to Visit in Virginia and Tennessee

Inside wooden wall at The Floyd Country Store.

Floyd, VA

Recommended by Cecilia of Lovicarious

Located along the Blue Ridge Mountains, Floyd is one of the most charming small towns in Virginia. In fact, according to the US Census the population stood at around 528 people in 2020. Don’t let this town’s modest size fool you because it’s packed with personality. Floyd is a popular stop along Virginia’s heritage music trail, known for its vibrant culture of music, funky arts, and Appalachian cuisine.

There are many things to do in Floyd, VA including visiting the galleries, artisanal shops, and participating in one of their renowned outdoor festivals including Floydfest, The Black Dog Music Festival, and Floyd Yoga Jam. Floyd is perhaps most famous for its Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store where musicians, dancers, and spectators gather together for an evening of live bluegrass. Don’t leave without getting an ice cream sundae from the classic Soda Fountain!

There are a number of farmhouses and inns located just minutes from Floyd, however for a truly memorable experience book a stay with Blue Ridge Yurts. This small female-owned company hosts visitors in a number of spacious yurts, each designed with a rustic but modern design. Your visit to Floyd will be complete when staying in a cozy yurt surrounded by the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Small chef statue in the middle of main street in Floyd, VA.

Clifton, Virginia

Recommended by Julie of Fun in Fairfax VA

The quaint town of Clifton Virginia is tiny, with only 300 residents, but it boasts a classic Main Street lined with local restaurants, boutique shops, and historic buildings. Clifton’s walkable downtown is a registered National Historic District, so allow time for a leisurely stroll. Signs mark restored Victorian buildings, sharing the town’s famous connections. The screenplay for the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan hit Sleepless in Seattle was written here. And notable Clifton visitors include Presidents Grant and Roosevelt, who escaped DC for the healing waters of Clifton’s springs.

Be sure to bring your appetite and enjoy a meal downtown. Enjoy burgers at the Clifton General Store, homemade ice cream at Peterson’s Depot, fresh pasta at Trattoria Villagio, and fine dining at Trummers. Shoppers can score home furnishings, locally made goods, and antiques at shops like Belle Jar Design and Virginia Mercantile.

When you’re ready to venture beyond the downtown, head to nearby Paradise Springs Winery. It’s kid and dog-friendly, and you can work up a thirst on the scenic Bull Run Occoquan Trail just down the street. There are no hotels in town, but you’ll find Clifton vacation rentals on Airbnb and VRBO.

Street view of downtown Middleburg, VA.

Middleburg, VA

Recommended by Megan of Wandertoes

Middleburg, Virginia is the Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital, and the best of small-town Virginia.  The town was founded in 1787, 24 years after the land was purchased from George Washington’s cousin, and still has less than 600 residents. I love that Middleburg has a strong history like many of the places I visit in Europe.

Middleburg is on the National Historic register.  The Red Fox Inn & Tavern founded in 1728 earns its own place on the Register as the oldest continually operated inn in the United States.  Book the Inn for your visit or stop in for a meal!

Washington Street is the hub of downtown, lined with unique boutiques, antique shops, independent coffee shops, King St. Oyster Bar, and more.  Check the upcoming Middleburg events calendar to catch local artist exhibits, farmers’ markets, or a town parade.   For a pampered experience, the Salamander Resort has a full spa, wine bar, and fine dining.

Horse farms dot the landscape for miles, and the equestrian vibe permeates the town.  Virginia has over 300 wineries and a growing collection of micro-breweries, scores of which are close enough to enjoy during your visit.  If you really want to explore, this small town is only 1 hour west of Washington, DC.

Historic court house in Winchester, VA.

Winchester, VA

Recommended by Lyndsay of The Purposely Lost

Winchester, Virginia, is one of those beautiful Southeast small towns everyone should take the opportunity to visit. It’s located in the Shenandoah Valley, about 1.5 hour drive from Washington, D.C. There is so much to do in Winchester, VA, from the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival to wandering around Old Town.

The Old Town neighborhood of downtown Winchester is comprised of gorgeous refurbished buildings that have been equipped with attractive stores and businesses. 

If you’re interested in Civil War history, the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum is housed in the former Frederick County Court House, completed in 1840 and located in the heart of Old Town. During the Civil War, the edifice housed Union and Confederate troops and acted as a hospital, jail, and barracks. 

You can also find many cute restaurants, boutiques, and local shops throughout the city’s walkable downtown. 

The renovated, historic George Washington Hotel is a fantastic spot to stay when you come to Winchester. It’s housed in a Georgian Revival brick structure on East Piccadilly Street, about a block from the heart of downtown Winchester with excellent amenities.

Baby lamb in field in Clinton, TN.

Clinton, TN

Recommended by Rachel of Bucketlist Places

Clinton is one of the best vacation destinations in Tennessee, especially if you love the small-town charm and the natural beauty of the Appalachian mountains. You can visit the Museum of Appalachia to get a glimpse into the lives of the pioneers and early settlers of the area.

The museum features an authentic mountain farm and pioneer village with historic buildings, several buildings packed with artifacts to peruse, multiple gardens, and plenty of knowledgeable staff to provide context and tell the area’s story. Plus farm animals roam the property, including the most adorable (and friendly!) sheep you’ll ever meet. Visit in spring to increase your chances of spotting a lamb.

Continue your journey through history in one of downtown Clinton’s many antique shops or hop ahead a few decades at Hoskins Drug Store– a functioning pharmacy with an authentic 1940s soda fountain serving up frosty beverages! You’ll also find local boutiques and plenty of delicious mom-and-pop restaurants in the area.

Stay at a quaint bed and breakfast in downtown Clinton, or opt for one of the commercial hotels conveniently located by the highway. Either way, you’re just a short drive to various hiking destinations and only about 24 miles from Knoxville.

Busy downtown street in Gatlinburg, TN.

Gatlinburg, TN

Recommended by Anjali of Cheerful Trails

Gatlinburg is one of the most special small towns in Tennessee. The town offers tons of recreational activities, intriguing history, cool cabin homes, and many adventurous attractions. It is also known for being the gateway to the stunning Great Smoky Mountains.

Camping under the stars in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most delightful things to do in Gatlinburg. The aerial tramway that departs from downtown Gatlinburg serves you the best opportunity to marvel over the breathtaking views of the terrains and the mountainous surroundings.

You can also head to the Gatlinburg Skylift Park and Gatlinburg Space Needle to soak in the gorgeous panoramic views of the town. A leisurely stroll through downtown Gatlinburg will introduce you to a variety of boutique stores, galleries, theaters, museums, cute cafes, and award-winning restaurants. Try the delicious churros, enchiladas, and burritos at No Way Jose’s restaurant, or dine in at the Peddler to taste the best steak in town. 

Gatlinburg is a year-round destination in Tennessee. Especially during winter when it transforms into a winter wonderland. Being home to Ober Gatlinburg which is the most iconic ski resort in Tennessee, it attracts many tourists who enjoy fun activities such as ice skating and tubing. 

Small Towns to Visit in Georgia and South Carolina

Sunset over Murrells Inlet from across the water.

Murrells Inlet, SC

Recommended by Tori of Tori Pines Travels

Small towns carry some of the most charm, and you are sure to find that in Murrells Inlet, SC. This tiny town sits on the coast and visiting it is one of the best things to do when you’re in Myrtle Beach.

The main draw is the Marshwalk, where you can eat, play, shop, and watch the wild goats and peacocks that live in the marsh. For a fun activity, send the kids off on a banana boat ride, and for the adults, you can rent a brew boat to pedal off into the sunset with a drink and some tunes.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite choose from many incredible restaurants. The best places to eat include Dead Dog Saloon, where the hush puppies are a must, and Wicked Tuna, which serves seafood and sushi with a modern flare.

The other special thing to do in Murrells Inlet is to visit Brookgreen Gardens, a massive botanical garden filled with flowers, art, and wildlife. But the best part is if you’re here in December when you can visit for the Nights of a Thousand Candles. The entire property comes to life with millions of lights, apple cider, and holiday music. It’s the locals’ favorite thing to do for the holidays.

Old tree over waterway in Edisto Island, SC.

Edisto Island, SC

Recommended by Wayne of Always on the Shore

If you’re looking for a place to relax and enjoy nature, Edisto Island in South Carolina is the perfect small town. Less than 2 hours from Hilton Head, it’s also a great place for a day trip from Charleston which is just an hour north! 

This barrier island has 3,000 residents and is home to miles of unspoiled beaches, lush maritime forests, and some of the most beautiful scenery on the East Coast. Edisto Island is a nature lover’s paradise. 

There are several activities to keep you busy, such as fishing, kayaking, and hiking. Whether you want to spend your days lounging on the beach or exploring the island’s natural beauty, Edisto Island is sure to provide an unforgettable experience.

And if golf is your game, The Plantation Golf Course offers 18 challenging holes that will test your mettle – and your putting skills.

Kids will be entertained learning about the area’s reptiles at the Serpentarium. Be ready for turtles, snakes, alligators, and more. Hours are seasonal, so be sure to check before visiting.   

Be sure to grab some food at Coot’s Bar & Grill and sit on the deck for the views!

Places to stay range from basic including the Edisto Beach State Park Campground to resorts like Club Wyndham Ocean Ridge.

Man standing on rock looking at overlook in Cloudland Canyon State Park, GA.

Rising Fawn, GA

Recommended by Jillian of Adventure Dragon

One of the best small towns in the Southeast can be found in the North Georgia Mountains just a two-hour drive from Atlanta. With a population of just under 4,000 residents, Rising Fawn is one of the smallest towns in Georgia but has one of the biggest attractions.

This charming community is home to Cloudland Canyon State Park, one of the largest parks in the state, encompassing 3,538 acres of land. It has over 60 miles of hiking trails, including one that leads to a gorgeous, turquoise-blue pool at the bottom of a 60-foot waterfall. You absolutely must visit this gem while you’re in town!

When you get hungry, stop by the Canyon Grill for a tasty dinner in Rising Fawn. They serve a variety of American cuisine, including pasta, salads, steak, chicken, and seafood. If you prefer pizza, Lookout Mountain Pizza Company serves the best in town!

There aren’t many places to stay in Rising Fawn, but if you’re hoping to turn your visit into a weekend trip to fully explore Cloudland Canyon, then your best option is to rent one of the cottages that are located directly inside the park! They come fully equipped with a well-stocked kitchen, spacious bedrooms, living areas, and a screened-in porch that provides spectacular views of nature and local wildlife.

Ruby Falls in Helen, GA.

Helen, GA

Recommended by Lanie of Make More Adventures

Though less than 1,000 people live in Helen, Georgia, there is a surprising amount of things to see and do in Helen which is best known for being modeled after a Bavarian alpine town.

Visitors can eat at any of the German restaurants on Main Street, shop in the German-themed gift shops, and even attend Oktoberfest which runs for a month each year.

Helen has an alpine coaster, river tubing, and plenty of hiking. Unicoi National Park is located in Helen, Georgia, and includes Anna Ruby Falls, which is a popular waterfall in part to the accessible paved path leading to the falls.

Helen is a beautiful small town, perfect for visiting with kids. If you do bring the kids, the Cabbage Patch Factory is in nearby Cleveland, about 15 minutes away from Helen.

Unicoi National Park has a campground, cabins, and a lodge for those who want to enjoy nature. If you would rather stay in town, keep with the town’s theme at The Heidi Motel and Windmill Suites or head to the upscale Valhalla Resort Hotel.

Don’t forget to visit Nora Mill Granary for delicious souvenirs and if you are lucky (or call ahead for hours) you can see the mill when it is running.

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve lived in the south for many years now and most of these towns are new to me. I cannot wait to check some of them out, thanks so much for this info!

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