8 Fun Day Trips from Raleigh NC (within a 2-hour drive)

Looking for ideas about cool day trips from Raleigh? One of the things we love about living in Raleigh is its central location to so many other great places. 

Wrightsville Beach, NC
As Aussies, we love relaxing on Wrightsville Beach

There are great getaway ideas for everyone, whether you desire a beach break, you’re a foodie, or you’re into history, the arts, or sports.

Or maybe you’re looking for a romantic day out, or you just want to take a road trip to a new town, down below we’ve got a place for you! 

Whilst this site is mostly about things to do in Raleigh, and we love living here and find it hard to leave, we also love a short getaway as much as anyone and this city is a great jumping off point to explore other interesting places in North Carolina.

This guide will help you explore places within a 2-hour drive, places you can literally visit and be home again on the same day! 

I’ll have another guide coming soon about weekend getaways from Raleigh, but this post is all about interesting and cool day trips from Raleigh NC.

So let’s get you exploring. The following places are a short car ride away from the capital city. 

Day Trips from Raleigh NC

1. Wilmington

Wilmington, North Carolina
Riverwalk in Wilmington
Drive time: 2 hours

A two hour drive straight down I-40 brings you to the charming port city of Wilmington, NC. Ever since we first moved to Raleigh in 2004, Wilmington has been one of our favorite getaways from Raleigh and is one of our favorite places to visit in North Carolina. 

Located on the Cape Fear River, Historic Downtown Wilmington is one of the oldest cities on the east coast with plenty of historical attractions, funky breweries, speakeasies and wine bars, farm-to-table restaurants, galleries, museums, Victorian-era homes and gardens.

You could say that Wilmington is like a mini version of Savannah and Charleston. 

This city is very walk-able and just wandering around town is a great way to take in the pulse of the city.

When you arrive, I suggest grabbing a coffee from the cool local cafe, Bespoke Cafe, they will fuel you up for the day ahead. 

Suggested Activities:

  • Stroll the 2 mile scenic Riverwalk and enjoy a breathtaking view of the Cape Fear River. Stop in at markets, unique boutiques, art galleries and locally owned cafés and restaurants.
  • Explore the area’s historic roots on a horse-drawn carriage ride of downtown. 
  • Visit some of the finest examples of historic antebellum architecture at the Bellamy Mansion, built on the eve of the Civil War.
  • Explore The World War II Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, named one of the “Best Museum Ships” by USA TODAY.
  • End your day with drinks/dinner whilst taking in sunset at one of the fantastic restaurants along the Riverwalk such as Elijah’s, Pilot House or The George
  • Explore Wilmington’s 16 breweries on a self-guided brewery tasting tour along the Wilmington Ale Trail
  • Airlie Gardens, one of the premier gardens in the South and home to the famous nearly 500-year-old Airlie Oak.
  • Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park features a waterpark with a wave pool, speed slides and lazy river
  • Sip on classic cocktails at The Blind Elephant, a 1920’s Prohibition speakeasy tucked away in a hidden alley. 
  • Local musicians frequently play on the back deck at Ogden Tap Room, a family-friendly restaurant with 40 beers on tap and a lawn.
  • Cape Fear Riverboats offer daily, narrated one-hour sightseeing tours from March through October.

2. Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville Beach and the sound behind it
Wrightsville Beach and the sound behind it
Drive time: 2 hours

As Aussies, we’re beach people and we know a good beach town when we see one, and Wrightsville Beach is our favorite of the beach towns in North Carolina. 

So if you’re looking for a beach day trip, you can’t go wrong here. And the town has a lot more going for it than just sand and ocean!

Again, it’s an easy 2 hour drive straight down I-40 and Wrightsville is right right next door to Wilmington (12-miles from downtown). You could combine it with ½ a day in Wilmington and ½ a day in Wrightsville, but I believe there’s plenty to do in each location to warrant a full day in each.

Wrightsville Beach is a sandy barrier island only 4-miles long and 1,000 – 5,000 feet wide, it presents the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and the calmer waters of the intracoastal waterway on the other.

It has everything we love about a beach and island life – beautiful shoreline, laid back vibe, surf culture, cafes, jaw dropping sunrises and sunsets, and fresh, delicious seafood.

I know this will be one of our most taken Raleigh day trips through the summer.

Suggested activities:

  • Start your day with an excellent coffee at the cool local cafe, SUNdays, located above the surf shop opposite Crystal Pier. 
  • Walk over from SUNdays to Crystal Pier for beautiful views of the beachfront, go for a swim, play in the sand, read a book. 
  • Adapt Kitchen & Juice Bar has the tastiest, most diversely nutritious smoothie bowls.
  • Lunch at Tower 7 Baja Mexican Grill. Popular place to eat for the locals. 
  • Beach Time at Johnny Mercer’s Pier, the only concrete fishing pier in the state of North Carolina and extends more than 1,200 feet into the Atlantic.
  • Go kayaking or paddle boarding through the salt marshes on a guided tour with Wrightsville SUP.
  • Enjoy sundowner drinks at the bar on Crystal Pier.
  • Watch the sunset at the South End. 
  • Dinner at Ceviche’s – probably the best restaurant in Wrightsville. Hello Panama, I now want to visit your country!

Related Posts:

Wrightsville Highlights Video

3. Durham

Downtown Durham, North Carolina
Durham is also known as Bull City
Drive time: 3-40 minutes

Southern Living magazine calls it “the South’s tastiest town”. And Forbes.com ranks it one of “America’s Smartest Cities”. If you haven’t given Durham much thought, pay attention because it has plenty of cool and interesting things to do, and the food scene is next level. 

This is a vibrant city, offering sports, history, the arts and a community of over 300 restaurants and 40+ annual festivals. 

Durham continues to evolve. It’s where tobacco factories have given way to a hip entertainment district. It’s where Duke University lives, where the Durham Bulls play baseball, and where top shelf musicals like Hamilton perform at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC).

Being so close, this is one of our most frequent day trips from Raleigh and we always find something new to do.

Suggested activities:

4. Chapel Hill

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina
Drive time: 40 minutes

This famous university town is known as one of the top 10 best college towns in the USA, and the “Southern Part of Heaven”.

It’s also known for its famed music scene and as “America’s Foodiest Small Town” by Bon Appetit because of the high quality of farmer’s markets, restaurants, and farms.

Home to the campus of the University of North Carolina – the nation’s first public university and its basketball team – Chapel Hill has a little bit of something for everyone.

The heart of Chapel Hill is Historic Franklin Street, home to more than 200 restaurants, bars, and retail stores.  You can spend 1/2 a day just here, but this town offers so much more and is one of our favorite day trips in NC.

Suggested activities:

5. Winston-Salem 

Drive time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Head west on I-40 for just under 2 hours and you’ll arrive in Winston-Salem, a charming city that’s home to historic attractions.

From cobblestone streets, to museums, breweries, restaurants, art galleries, eclectic shops, outdoor adventures and more than 40 wineries in the neighboring Yadkin Valley, Winston-Salem is worth a day trip from Raleigh. 

There’s interesting history here. The Moravians (Protestants who spoke German) settled this region in the 1750s. Salem is the original, if quieter, half of the twin city.

Winston-Salem is also a town built on tobacco, often referred to as “Camel City” after the world-famous cigarette brand created by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

This city is also the home of Wake Forest University, and is one of the most interesting day trips from Raleigh NC.

Suggested activities:

  • Grab a hot cup of locally roasted coffee and farm-fresh breakfast at a Winston-Salem original, Krankies.
  • Historic Bethabara Park – the very first Moravian settlement in North Carolina.
  • Old Salem – founded in 1766 and one of the country’s most well-documented historic sites.
  • Historic West End – where early 1900s Victorian-style homes meet the hustle and bustle of downtown Winston-Salem.
  • Reynolda House Museum of American Art – explore the restored 1917 mansion of Katharine and R.J. Reynolds.
  • Grab a gourmet sandwich or Moravian Chicken Pie at Muddy Creek Cafe.
  • Visit one of the 45 wineries located in neighboring Yadkin Valley.
  • Tour the city by Segway, SUP Tours, e-BIKE Tours, Trolley Sightseeing with Triad Eco Adventures
  • Take home some specialty dark chocolate from Black Mountain Chocolate.
  • The town of Bethania is the only remaining example of an open field agricultural village in NC
  • Salem God’s Acre Cemetery –  active graveyard of the Salem Congregation, a group of 12 Moravian Churches. It has been in continuous use from 1771
  • Ryan’s Restaurant – Steaks,Chops & Seafood, nestled in a wooded setting minutes from downtown
  • Drink a brew at Foothills Brewing, one of the largest craft breweries in the Southeastern USA.
  • The Tavern In Old Salem – a restored 1816 house and the waiters wear traditional Moravian costumes.

6. Johnston County (Clayton, Benson, Smithfield)

Clayton, North Carolina
House in Clayton, Johnston County
Drive time – Clayton: 25 mins, Smithfield: 40 mins, Benson: 35 mins

Don’t overlook Johnston County (JoCo) when looking for things to do near Raleigh NC.

JoCo is one of the biggest counties in North Carolina, and the next county south of Raleigh. The I-95, running along the north-south corridor of the country runs close by and I-40 running the east-west corridor of the country crosses through JoCo.

So it’s location is important, but you don’t want to make it just a place to grab some fuel and pass on through. JoCo is worth stopping in for a while.

The below three towns you could easily incorporate into one day trip, going in a triangle like direction from Raleigh > Clayton > Smithfiled > Benson > Raleigh.

Clayton

Clayton is a small town community that has been booming with transplants and where you’ll find boutique stores, historic buildings, charming southern homes, and hipster cafes and bars. 

Suggested activities:

  • The Market at Three Little Birds – a store selling unique, handcrafted items from over 70 local artists.
  • Boulevard West – hipster café experience where you’ll find locals on their laptops at the bar drinking all manners of coffee concoctions.
  • Nancy Jo’s Homemade – a local’s favorite for many years. Famous for its chicken salad
  • Main Street Community Market – Volunteers help maintain this tranquil, artistic space

Smithfield

Doentown Smithfield, North Carilna
Downtown Smithfield

Smithfield has small-town charm. Situated along the Neuse River, it’s the seat of the county and the hub of business activity.
70 million visitors enjoy the savings at Carolina Premium Outlets every year. So while you are popping in to shop while you drop, be sure to visit these other places.

Suggested activities:

  • Ava Gardner Museum – known as the most beautiful movie star of the 40’s and 50’s. Ava was from JoCo and this museum is dedicated to telling the story of her life, loves and careers.
  • Simple Twist – one of the most popular restaurants in Smithfield NC
  • Oak City Collection – filled with local artist’s creations of signs, T-Shirts and jewelry.
  • Double Barley Brewery – If you’re looking for local craft brew, this family-friendly brewery has won multiple awards for their beers.
  • Bentonville Battlefield – The largest Civil War battle happened near Bentonville and it’s now an historic site and part of the Civil War Trail.

Benson

Benson is well known for hosting Mule Day on the 4th Saturday of September, a festival that attracts over 60,000 people each year.

Suggested activities:

  • Jp’s Pastry – a thriving bakery business that is the only certified gluten free bakery in North and South Carolina.
  • Dixie Divas Boutique – women’s clothing store. Check out the boots!
  • Salvaged Heirlooms – an eclectic little general store is filled with local artists that remind you of the warmth. 
  • Cornerstone Cafe & Coffee – known for its waffles, mac & cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches.
  • Redneck BBQ Lab – award winning BBQ joint, everything smoked on the property, nothing is grilled or fried.

7. New Bern

Drive time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Historic New Bern (named after Bern, Switzerland) is a charming riverfront town set along the picturesque Trent and Neuse Rivers, and was the first state capital of NC.

Home to Tryon Palace and the birthplace of Pepsi Cola, New Bern is also filled with quaint restaurants and cafes, art galleries, antique stores, riverfront attractions and outdoor activities and offers something for everyone.

Romantic movie lovers will be interested to know that in 1996 The Notebook was set in New Bern and written by New Bern resident, Nicholas Sparks!

Bern is the old Germanic word for Bear, and the bear became the symbol of the city.

Suggested activities:

8. Fayetteville

Fayetteville, North Carolina
Drive time: 1 hour

Fayetteville’s tourism slogan is, “Welcome to America’s Hometown: History, Heroes, A Hometown Feeling!”

You might know of Fayetteville as home to the U.S. Army’s most populous base, Fort Bragg. And the community wears this distinction proudly and shows its appreciation by actively pursuing the freedoms those soldiers protect.

Here you will find museums and monuments dedicated to telling the story of the service of many of the men and women in the area who sacrificed, and they are one of the most moving things to see in North Carolina.

But Fayetteville’s ongoing revitalization also offers a vibrant and modern city with interesting cultural activities, historic sites and natural beauty.

Suggested activities:

I hope this list of day trips from Raleigh helped you find some interesting and fun getaway ideas?

We’ll be adding to this list over time, so be sure to subscribe to our email so you don’t miss updates!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *