By Sally Lord, North Carolina State University.
When people find out that I am an exchange student, their first question is always: so why did you choose to come to North Carolina? My reply is that I wanted to be somewhere which was well placed within the United States, so that I would have ample opportunity to travel. I also wanted to be somewhere which had a diverse range of scenery and North Carolina is perfect for that! With a beautiful coastline to the east and then the Smokey Mountains to the west, you can really experience the best of both worlds! It even gets better in the fact that NC State, which is located in Raleigh, is equidistant from the mountains and the beach, so both are really accessible.
Therefore, when I arrived in Raleigh in August I was already jumping to go and explore North Carolina and the surrounding states. I was excited to see what North Carolina had to offer and also see how North Carolina compared to the states it bordered. Four months on from when I arrived and I have now visited both the Smokey Mountains and the Atlantic coast and even ticked off six new states! It is really easy to travel here and there are a lot of really cool places, which are driving distance from Raleigh, making them great for an easy weekend away. Since most people are interested in travelling during the time abroad, I thought I would share with you my top three destinations which are within driving distance from Raleigh and are great to visit for a short break.
1. Asheville, NC
First up on the list is Asheville, which is located in the south west of North Carolina close to the start of the Smokey Mountains. Asheville is a great place to visit in the sense that it is very different to most American towns. It has a very relaxed, quirky vibe and is a very liberal city with a large artistic flair. It has lots of very nice places to eat and is a haven for vegetarians, making it noticeably unlike everywhere else in Southern America, where the only thing on the menu is chicken! It is also known for its chocolate shops, which sell everything from ice-cream to giant slabs of chocolate, to truffles and hot chocolate.
Asides from the charming little centre of downtown, Asheville is a great base for going up into the mountains and exploring the countryside. There are multiple trails which start close to Asheville and I would definitely recommend going for a hike because the scenery is BREATHTAKING! I have been twice, once in August – when it was all luscious and green, and then again in the Autumn, when everything was turning a golden orange. Both times were gorgeous and I was really glad I got to experience it in two different seasons because it almost felt like two different places! Asheville is also close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is one of the most scenic drives in the United States, especially in the Autumn when all the leaves are colouring.
2. Charleston, SC
Second on the list of best places to visit is Charleston, South Carolina. It is a quaint, historic town situated about a four hour drive away from Raleigh and boasts both beautiful beaches and a boojie downtown, with lots of independent boutique that are great for window shopping! I spent three days in Charleston over the MLK day weekend, and I would say that this is the perfect amount of time for visiting the city. On the first day you can explore the historic downtown, weaving your way through the streets lined with palms and funky coloured houses. On the second day you can visit the beach and enjoy being by the sea, making sure you stay to watch the gorgeous sunsets that can be seen there. We visited Folly Beach, which is a 20 minute drive from the downtown and is a little beach town in itself, with lots of souvenir shops, cafes and an old wooden pier, which really adds to the aesthetic! The highlight of my trip was definitely watching the sunset over the pier because it was the most gorgeous blend of purple through to yellow, and was definitely up there with my top 10 sunsets!
3. Washington DC
Finally, third on the list is DC, which is definitely more well-known than the other two, but an equally great place to visit. It is only 4 and a half hours away from Raleigh by car and is also easily accessible by both train and bus – so there is no excuse not to visit! Exploring DC is very easy, since it has a metro which is easy to use and most of the main sites are concentrated around the National Mall so everything worth seeing is pretty much within walking distance. Another bonus is that most of the things worth seeing are free, with the majority of the museums having free entry and all the main monuments being outside and so easy to explore.
DC is definitely done best across a few days. Take one day to stroll down the National Mall, starting at the Capitol Building, passing the White House and the Washington Monument, before reaching the World War II memorial and finally the most impressive of them all – the Lincoln memorial. This ticks off all the main monuments and memorials to see as well as the two most important buildings in DC – the Capitol Building and the White House. Then on day two, choose a couple of museums to explore, which won’t be difficult as DC has museums for everything, from art to natural history, a holocaust museum and a museum of African American History. Another great thing to do is visit the Capitol building, which is completely free and comes with a guided tour and a chance to visit the Senate and the House of Representatives! This was without a doubt the best thing I did in DC, because it provided such an education into American politics and the building was beautiful, just be sure to book in advance!