When you visit North Carolina, make sure you have enough memory on your smartphone or camera. From fall leaves to mansions such as the Biltmore to the Atlantic’s rollicking waves cresting over miles of sandy beaches, the scenery is photoworthy, no matter when you’re visiting.
If you drive up I-85 into North Carolina from Atlanta, it’s easy to just see highway billboards without experiencing the state’s arts, culture, outdoor adventures, family activities and the dining, winery and brewery scenes. But let yourself wander, and you may end up making a visit to North Carolina an annual tradition. Consider starting with these arts and culture attractions and events.
The pictures often pop up on Facebook: Visitors dwarfed by the French Renaissance-style mansion completed in 1895 on 8,000 acres in Asheville, N.C. Getting the entire front exterior in the photos makes selfies nearly impossible. The sheer size of the Biltmore — called “America’s largest home” — commands respect, and it is one of North Carolina’s most well-known landmarks. About 1 million people visit the privately owned Biltmore annually (daytime tickets are $50-$75; children 9 and under are free).
The house, built over six years and finished in 1895 by George Washington Vanderbilt III, has 250 rooms, which includes 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and three kitchens. The cultural attraction offers a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous, as well as architecture and design. Its formal and informal gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of American landscape architecture.
In December, the 209-room Village Hotel is expected to open, joining the 201-room Inn on Biltmore Estate. You also can stay at hotels, bed and breakfast inns, and vacation rentals in Asheville and explore the city’s bohemian culture and colorful leaf season (get weekly foliage reports at fallinthemountains.com).
Throughout the year, museum exhibits relate to Biltmore history. From Feb. 12 to July 4, the estate will host “Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film,” which will feature costumes from films such as “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice.”
In addition, the Antler Hill Village has the Biltmore Winery, with tours and tastings, and a historic barn and farmyard. Activities on the site include horseback riding, biking and fly fishing.
Many people remember some part of visiting the Biltmore. My first trip was in the 1990s, on a summer vacation. I traveled with my best friend in high school and her family in a minivan some 680 miles from suburban Chicago. When we pulled up to the mansion, we were more than a little envious of all the space.
Raleigh, the state capital, offers more than 40 free attractions, including the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. It’s the largest natural history museum in the Southeast and the state’s most-visited cultural attraction, drawing 973,738 visitors in 2014, according to data from Carolina Publishing Associates.
The museum showcases the rare Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur, nicknamed the “Terror of the South,” and offers hands-on experiences with scientists and educators. A new wing adjacent to the museum opened in 2012, adding the Nature Research Center — for visitors as well as researchers and students — and the three-story SECU Daily Planet, a giant globe that holds a theater. Special exhibitions include “Extreme Mammals,” running through March 2016.
The North Carolina Museum of Art has expanded over the years and its collections include 30 works by Auguste Rodin, making it the leading repository of the artist’s work in the Southeast. A special show on M.C. Escher, running through Jan. 17, is the most comprehensive exhibition of the Dutch artist’s works ever presented in the U.S.
The 164-acre Museum Park includes gardens, bike and walking paths, and outdoor art. New accommodations in downtown Raleigh include the 135-room Aloft Raleigh.
North Carolina has been home to potters since the 18th century, when families from England settled in the region known as the Sandhills. Here, you can see potters at work in studios or attend events such as the 11th annual WNC Pottery Festival (wncpotteryfestival.com) Nov. 7 in Dillsboro, about 50 minutes southwest of Asheville. There are also displays in museums, such as Charlotte’s Mint Museum Randolph, which has one of the world’s largest permanent collections of North Carolina pottery.
One of my favorite side trips in North Carolina is stopping in pottery studios in Seagrove, which boasts the nation’s largest community of potters. Seagrove is on the north end of what’s called the Pottery Road Scenic Byway (visitnc.com/trip-idea/pottery-road-scenic-byway), which starts in Pinehurst, a golf resort village, and includes about 80 potteries. Some artisans are descendents of the area’s original potters, operating shops and studios such as Ben Owen Pottery and Jugtown Pottery.
In Seagrove, we met and chatted with potters at work. A set of glazed pottery, including an apple baker, is on display in my kitchen today, a reminder of that trip and a rural region filled with artisans.
Jackson County, N.C. (Dillsboro, Cashiers, Cherokee and Sylva), mountainloversnc.com.