15 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 to visit in North Carolina.

Wrightsville Beach, NC
As Aussies, we love the beach!

There are some great getaway ideas from Raleigh for everyone down below, 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.

Wilmington, North Carolina
Charming home in Wilmington

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 from Raleigh: 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:

  • Coffee at Bespoke Coffee & Dry Goods
  • 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.

Related Post:

2. Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville Beach and the sound behind it
Wrightsville Beach and the sound behind it

Drive time from Raleigh: 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 getaway, 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. Alternative coffee spot is The Workshop.
  • 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. Other options include Shark Bar & Kitchen, Poe’s Tavern, South Beach Grille.
  • 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) or at the Crystal Pier section!
  • Go kayaking or paddle boarding through the salt marshes on a guided tour with Wrightsville SUP.
  • Wrightsville Beach Brewery for great beers and pub food.
  • Lighthouse Beer & Wine – one stop shop with dog-friendly Beer Garden
  • 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 (or one of the lunch place options).

Related Posts:

Wrightsville Highlights Video

3. Durham

Downtown Durham, North Carolina
Durham is also known as Bull City

Drive time from Raleigh: 30-40 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 from Raleigh: 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 

winston salem
Image by VisitWinstonSalem.com

Drive time from Raleigh: 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
  • Clayton General Store – cool milkshake bar and home decor items
  • 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 from Raleigh: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Founded in 1710, 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:

  • Visit Tryon Place, the first permanent capitol of North Carolina and home to the Tryon family.
  • Do a self-guided tour including Historic Homes Tour, Civil War Tour, Architectural tour and more.
  • Or a guided tour by trolley, boat, or ghost walk. 
  • Visit the signature Pepsi Store. Pull up to the fountain bar and enjoy a glass of Pepsi
  • Enjoy the scenic 6 acre waterfront, Union Point Park
  • Go kayaking up the Neuse River with Stillwater Kayaks
  • Cow Cafe for sandwiches, salads, and over 60 flavors of their famous HOMEMADE ICE CREAM!
  • Visit the very place Pepsi-Cola was invented. Step back in time enjoying a fountain Pepsi. 
  • Chase bears all over town. Don’t worry, these bears are made of fiberglass. 
  • The interior of Christ Episcopal Church was designed in the style of Christopher Wren, the famous English architect. A must see for visitors.
  • New Bern Battlefield Park (if you love Civil War History)
  • Firemen’s Museum – tells the story of the oldest fire company in NC
  • North Carolina History Center
  • Carolina Creations – an art gallery with artworks from over 300 local and international artists
  • Baker’s Kitchen – for delights like sweet potato biscuits, Dutch potatoes, and biscuits and gravy.
  • Morgan’s Tavern & Grill – for seafood in an historic setting.
  • Brewery99 – first brewery in Craven County.
  • Beer Army Burger Company – for unique and interesting burgers, Bacon appetizers, and tater tots.
  • Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant – expect good food and the best outdoor dining experience in town!

8. Fayetteville

Fayetteville, North Carolina

Drive time from Raleigh: 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:

9. Greenville, NC

greenville nc
Image credit: VisitGreenville

Drive time from Raleigh: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Greenville is known as a thriving cultural, educational, economic, and medical hub of Eastern North Carolina, and of course, the home of East Carolina University (ECU). It’s a place where you can experience vibrant art, live music, and the culinary scene in the Uptown Greenville and Dickinson Avenue Districts.

There’s outdoor adventures like kayaking, biking the Greenville Greenway, agricultural experiences at local farms, plus antique and boutique shopping, live music concerts and festivals.

You can taste test your way through local restaurants and breweries in the walkable Uptown and Dickinson Avenue Districts. And throughout the year there’s craft beer festivals, indoor and outdoor farmers markets, and food truck rodeos.

Suggested activities:

10. Hillsborough

hillsborough nc
Image credit: VisitHillsborough

Drive time from Raleigh: 40 minutes

Established in 1784 and located along the Eno River, Hillsborough has served as a focal point for major historic events, including the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Located in Orange County, it’s easily accessible via I-40 near Chapel Hill, and I-85 near Durham. 

Hillsborough’s downtown historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features more than 100 homes, churches, schools, and other structures from the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Today, Hillsborough is a haven for artists and writers, for barbecue lovers attending the annual Hog Day, and owntown comes alive Friday evenings with arts and entertainment during Last Fridays celebrations. 

Its scenic appeal, graceful architecture, and convenient location provide a charming getaway from Raleigh. Go and explore history, live music, unique shops, and award winning restaurants.

Suggested activities: 

11. Pilot Mountain State Park

Pilot Mountain State Park,NC
Image credit: DepositPhotos.com

Drive time from Raleigh: 2 hours

Located 20 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, Pilot Mountain State Park centers around the iconic geologic knob that serves as a beacon to the surrounding Piedmont. 

Once a navigational landmark for the Saura tribe, the Big Pinnacle can be viewed from the park’s summit area which also provides panoramic views of the Piedmont and the Sauratown and Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Pilot Mountain has miles of trails to explore, and you can journey through the park on foot, on horseback, or in a canoe.

Suggested activities:

  • Hiking – trails take hikers around the mountain base, up Little Pinnacle, and along the Yadkin River. Two of North Carolina’s state trails traverse the park:  the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail, and the Yadkin River paddle trail.
  • Bicycling – for experienced cyclists, the main park road is popular for hill climbing by bicycle. The road averages a 10 percent grade for 2.5 miles and has sections of 16 percent grade.
  • Horse riding – The Corridor Trail, Yadkin Islands Trail, and Yadkin River Park Trail are all open to horseback riding.
  • Paddling – Paddle the Yadkin River through the park on a segment of the Yadkin River State Trail
  • Rock climbing and rappelling are allowed on portions of the park’s steep cliffs.

12. Cary

Things to do in downtown Cary NC

Drive time from Raleigh:  15 – 20 minutes

The closest of our day trips from Raleigh is Cary. When we first moved to Raleigh in 2004, we never visited Cary, in fact, we didn’t even know there was a downtown Cary.

Fast forward to today and you can easily spend a full day in Cary, not just downtown but the surrounding area.

The downtown area has been through major changes in recent years and we’ve grown to love how charming and vibrant and fun downtown has become with new restaurants, breweries, bars and cafes.

Cary is now home to some of the best places to eat and drink in the Triangle, and there’s some great nature trails and parks in Cary too. If you have overlooked Cary downtown in the past, it’s time to take a look. 

Suggested activities:

13. Southern Pines (Pinehurst)

southern pines
Image credit: Weymouth Center

Drive time from Raleigh: 1 hour, 10 minutes

The small southern town of Southern Pines is a town in Moore County among the sandhills. Originally founded in 1884 as a winter health resort for northerners, the town has a rich history and has seen lots of growth in recent years. 

Internationally known as the home of American golf (the famous Pimehurst is 10 minutes away), but it’s not just for golfers! Southern Pines is also nationally known and referred to as “Horse Country” for its abundance of horse farms in the area, plus there’s nice parks and a growing number of craft breweries.

As for downtown Southern Pines, it is embodied in its unique array of shops including historic buildings. 

Suggested activities:

14. Eno River State Park

Drive time from Raleigh: 45 minutes

Located just 15-minutes northwest of Durham, Eno River State Park is composed of more than 4,200 acres and offers nearly 30 miles of trails along a swift, shallow stream. 

If you’re looking for day trips from Raleigh that involve a day in nature, there’s plenty to do here from hiking, paddling, fording the river, bouldering, picnicking, swimming/wading, hammocking, and general exploration. 

The river winds through hills and bluffs with shrubs and pines that are ready to be hiked and enjoyed through one of five access points. 

Suggested activities:

  • Hike one of the 17 trails, good for all levels
  • Canoeing and kayaking are permitted, but sometimes challenging due to shallow water.
  • Swimming: our friend’s from Durham took us to Eno Rock Quarry
  • Fishing: a great place for fly-fishing, casting lures, or baiting with the ever reliable worms and crickets
  • Picnicking: two picnic areas provide the perfect spot for enjoying a meal in the open air.
  • Camping: there’s backpack and group camping options

15. Kinston

downtown kinston nc
Image credit: KinstonChamber

Drive time from Raleigh: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Set along the banks of the Neuse River in the coastal plains region of eastern North Carolina, Kinston is one of the oldest towns in the state and has been the county seat of Lenoir County since its formation in 1791.

If you’ve heard of Vivian Haward’s Chef and the Farmer, and Mother Earth Brewing, that’s Kinston.

Here you will discover 300 years of history, an impressive food scene, arts scene, and Kinston’s musical roots run deep. 

There’s no shortage of war history, including the Tuscarora War, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, and is part of the African American Musical Heritage Trail with a fascinating music history – during its tobacco days, Kinston was a hotbed of music, and musicians traveled from all over to play in the tobacco warehouses, including James Brown.

Suggested activities:

  • Pop into the Kinston visitors center (Mon – Sat) conveniently located downtown for local advice on what to do, maps, and guides. Then take a stroll around downtown. 
  • CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center – an educational museum that tells the story of the Civil War in the United States and the CSS Neuse, one of 26 ironclad ships commissioned by the Confederate navy.
  • Middle Grounds Coffeehouse – excellent coffee, nice pastries, tons of seating as this place is HUGE, but very quaint, calm, and relaxing space.
  • Chef and the Farmer – eat at Vivian Howard’s restaurant, known for thoughtful, creative cooking rooted in this region’s ingredients and traditions.
  • Mother Earth Brewing  – a green-conscious craft brewery with a solar-powered taproom, lively beer garden, really good barrel-aged brews and interesting seasonals.
  • Community Council for the Arts (CCA) is a non-profit organization and a gallery featuring local artwork and offering educational programs
  • African American Music Trail – great way to learn more about Kinston’s African American music scene.
  • Historic Harmony Hall – a restored pre-American Revolution home built in 1772 and housed the first governor of North Carolina, Richard Caswell, served as a Civil War hospital, church, public library, and is said to be haunted.
  • King’s BBQ – offering world famous chicken and barbecue since 1936
  • Sugar Hill Pizzeria – pizza by the slice, Brooklyn style pizza
  • Boiler Room Oyster Bar- another Vivian Howard restaurant. Oysters, burgers and beer.
  • The O’Neil – a 1920s bank turned boutique hotel.
  • Pearson Park – part of the Pearson Park Trail that runs parallel to the Neuse River for about 3/8’s mile from the southern end of Pollock Street ending onto South Heritage Street. Largest part is the Loch Neuse Dragon Playground.
  • Mitchelltown Historic District – listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with fine examples of the Queen Anne, Classical and Neo-Classical Revival, Colonial Revival, Craftsman, and Spanish Mission Revival styles and numerous illustrations of the American Foursquare and the Bungalow. Northwest of the city.

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!

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