One of the states I’ve never truly explored is North Carolina. Thankfully, Karen Dawkins from Family Travels on a Budget has offered to share her favorite spots in and around the Raleigh area. I love how she organized this post by traveler type, so no matter your travel style, one of these day trips from Raleigh is sure to fit you!
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Best Day Trips from Raleigh
When we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina eighteen years ago, we chose it to escape the long, dreary winters up north. We had no idea we had moved to vacation paradise! Over the years, we discovered that our new home state has lots to offer besides southern charm and warm, sunny days. When visiting the Raleigh area, I hope you’ll consider a day trip to discover amazing places beyond the capital city.
Raleigh day trips for the adventurers
Explore the great outdoors with a hike at many of the beautiful state and national parks in North Carolina. Our favorite for a quick trip is Raven Rock State Park in Lillington, NC. Only an hour south of Raleigh, Raven Rock State Park straddles the Cape Fear River, with a number of hiking trail options. We like the park because it’s less crowded than some of the more well known parks in the state and because of its natural beauty. Take a picnic lunch and bring the dog if you want! We usually spend four hours here, and sometimes more.
A longer drive, but worth it for the views, is Linville Falls, which offers stunning waterfall views from a number of vantage points. Use the official GPS address for the park, 717 Gurney Franklin Rd, or GPS will take you to downtown Linville Falls. The town and park are located near the Blue Ridge Parkway, so you can add a scenic drive along the parkway to your day or stop in Greensboro for dinner on your way back to Raleigh. Our favorite casual restaurants in Greensboro are Hops Burger Bar and Darryl’s Wood Fired Grill.
Places to explore for the beach bums
We make a trek to the beach every summer. It’s an easy two hour drive along I-40 from Raleigh. Locals’ tip: Visit the beach on a weekday to avoid the insane weekend traffic. Two of our favorite beaches are Wrightsville Beach (and Wilmington) and Carolina Beach.
Wrightsville Beach is popular for surfers and stand up paddle boarders. Start your day exploring the Battleship North Carolina, then head to the beach for a few hours of sand and sun before closing out the day with dinner at a casual beachfront restaurant.
For a long, easy relaxed day at the beach, our favorite is Carolina Beach. Get an early start, because public parking is harder to find as the day goes on. Carolina Beach has a gorgeous boardwalk with porch swings and park benches overlooking the dunes. Beachfront restaurants, an arcade, amusement park rides and world famous Britt’s Donuts make this our favorite beach destination in the state.
Best Raleigh day trips for history buffs
Until I moved here, I really didn’t think about North Carolina’s role in U.S. history. One of the first 13 states, North Carolina history dates back to the late 1500s and the lost colony of Roanoke. While Roanoke and the Outer Banks are a bit far for a day trip from Raleigh, there are many North Carolina historical sites nearby.
One of our favorite historical cities to visit is Durham, where tobacco was once king. Durham is part of the “Research Triangle Park” and only 30 minutes west of Raleigh. Today, the tobacco factories have given way to a hip entertainment district. Other places in and around Durham showcase the city’s history and creative vibe. Plan your day around a Durham Bulls baseball game, and explore the American Tobacco Campus as time allows. If there’s no game the day of your visit, enjoy a leisurely meal downtown, then explore the American Tobacco Campus before catching a show at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC)).
Another great spot only two hours southeast of Raleigh is New Bern, home to Tryon Palace, North Carolina’s first state capitol. The home was built in 1770 and later burned to the ground — but the carefully created replica stands to tell the story of colonial Carolina. New Bern’s also famous for being the birthplace of Pepsi Cola! Stop in the original store at 256 Middle Street, New Bern to enjoy a fountain Pepsi and learn about its history. Then, stroll through this historic town which boasts more than 150 homes on the National Register of Historic Places.
What to see outside Raleigh with family
Raleigh has been dubbed the “Smithsonian of the South” because most museums offer free admission. We’ve enjoyed them all!
Nearby Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, ranked one of the ten best public parks in the United States, is a wonderful place to go if you only have half a day. The park has formal gardens, trails through the woodlands and wide open spaces to run. Admission to the gardens is free, though you have to pay for parking.
If you have a full day to explore, head to the North Carolina Zoo, the world’s largest natural habitat zoo! The zoo sprawls over rolling terrain with more natural habitat exhibit space than any other zoo in the world. When you’ve got the world’s largest zoo, that means there’s space for Art in the Park (really cool exhibitions) and a tram to make getting from one area to another a little easier. Or, use the zoo’s recommended itinerary to see it all in one day. The zoo is located 90 minutes west of Raleigh in beautiful Asheboro, North Carolina.
After 18 years here, I still haven’t seen it all! When you visit Raleigh, take a day or two to explore beyond the city to discover the natural beauty, the history, and the fun that makes North Carolina one of the best places to live — or vacation — in the United States!
Karen Dawkins is the Owner and Creator of Family Travels on a Budget. She is an adventurous GENXer who enjoys family travel — on any budget, large or small. She is happiest exploring the world on adventures with her kids and husband, sometimes with her fur baby in tow. She created Family Travels on a Budget, an award winning family travel blog, to encourage families to experience the world, near or far. She firmly believes that with a little strategic planning, families can experience their dream vacation!