According to legend, Highlands, North Carolina, was formed in 1875 after developers in Kansas pulled out a map and drew two lines, one from New Orleans to New York and another from Chicago to Savannah. These routes, they believed, would soon become critical for trade, and the spot where they intersected would serve as a hub for commercial activity. Highlands never became a bustling city center, but the original predictions weren’t too far off —Atlanta is a little over two hours away.
Located within the Nantahala National Forest at the highest crest of the Western North Carolina plateau, the area now known as Highlands was a hunting ground for the Cherokee that was settled by people from around the U.S. in the late 1800s. Driving distance from major cities in the Southeast —including Charleston, Nashville, and Charlotte — modern-day Highlands is a summer retreat for those looking to escape the humidity, and it's a year-round haven for hiking, waterfall spotting, art, music, and top-tier dining and hospitality experiences.
Recently, the 1,088-person town was featured three times in the 2023 World's Best Awards with Old Edwards Inn and Spa, Half-Mile Farm, and Skyline Lodge each earning a spot on the list of the best resorts in the South. The team behind Highlander Mountain House, which opened its doors in late 2020, is also making moves in the area’s hotel scene, with plans to complete a full transformation of The Wells Hotel in the next couple of months. In early October, the property will emerge as The Outpost Inn, a 14-room motel that owner Jason Reeves calls an “immersive, peaceful experience” and a “basecamp to the outdoors.”
Highlands embraces all of the typical mountain town characteristics — a slower pace, access to natural beauty and outdoor activities, and a charming Main Street lined with local shops and restaurants — but it’s also in a category all its own. The Western North Carolina destination is simultaneously elevated and welcoming. Its location is remote yet still accessible, and its residents excel in mixing avant-garde ideas with nostalgia and a strong sense of place. Read on to discover what makes Highlands, North Carolina Travel + Leisure’s best small mountain town of 2023.
The Best Times to Visit
Vivian Littlejohn, Half-Mile Farm
Fall here is breathtaking, with every color leaf you can imagine.
— Vivian Littlejohn, Half-Mile Farm
Given its location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Highlands is a prime spot for catching fall foliage at its finest. “Fall here is breathtaking, with every color leaf you can imagine,” says Vivian Littlejohn, who manages guest services at Half-Mile Farm. Summer is also a lovely time to visit Highlands, as the weather is near-perfect. “It is lush and green, but we also enjoy lower summer high temperatures and humidity than the rest of the South,” says Littlejohn. This time of the year also signals the annual Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival and the town’s outdoor concert series that takes place on Friday and Saturday evenings from May through October.
Things to Do
Breathe in the mountain air on a hike.
“There are so many hikes, for every level, in and around Highlands,” says Maggie Braucher, a wedding photographer based in the Southeast who grew up spending summers in Highlands and frequently returns with her family. “One of Highlands' most popular hikes is Whiteside Mountain because of its accessibility and great views — you'll find many other families and groups doing the same thing.” For a trek that’s “a bit more off the beaten path,” she suggests Chinquapin Mountain Trail. “You can stop by the Highland Hiker on Main Street to get recommendations and pick up a hiking guide (and maybe a few other supplies you may need),” she adds. If you’d prefer to hike with a guide, Highland Excursion offers private hikes and tours throughout the area.
Travelers who would prefer to stay in town —and still get their steps in — can take advantage of the Highlands Plateau Greenway, a loop of trails that connects various historic, cultural, and natural sites in Highlands.
Spend a day chasing waterfalls.
Highlands is technically in a temperate rainforest, one of two in the United States. Along with an annual rainfall of around 80 inches, the granite mountains and hollows have created an amazing place with an abundance of waterfalls, which Littlejohn recommends seeing while in town. There are seven waterfalls within immediate proximity to Highlands, with Bridal Veil Falls, Glen Falls, and Dry Falls being three of the most popular to visit.
Attend Highlands Food & Wine Festival.
Now in its seventh year, Highlands Food & Wine Festival is a four-day event “dedicated to the celebration of food, wine, music, and culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” This year’s intimate and thoughtfully curated festival will take place Nov. 9 through 12, with a lineup of events featuring award-winning chefs, wine and spirits tastings, and live music performances; in 2023, End of the Line, Grace Potter, and The War & Treaty will serve as the festival’s headliners. In addition to the celebrations, a portion of the ticket proceeds are donated to local preservation and conservation groups and support the Louis Osteen Legacy Scholarship for students from the region pursuing culinary arts careers.
Visit The Bascom.
Braucher recommends a stop by The Bascom, which is described as a “center for the Visual Arts.” You’ll enter the campus through an 87-foot-long covered bridge, built in the early 19th century. From there, visitors can tour current exhibitions, listen to lectures, or take classes and workshops — pottery, painting, garden design, and more are on the 2023 schedule.
Brush up on your fly fishing skills.
Fly fishing is on both Braucher and Littlejohn’s to-do list when in Highlands. If it’s your first time throwing a line (or you want to fish with the best), book a trip with Brookings Anglers, whose guides bring guests on half-day and full-day adventures in the area.
Where to Stay
Highlander Mountain House
Highlander Mountain House has only been around for three years, but its “equal parts Appalachian lodge and refined English country estate” atmosphere quickly solidified itself as one of the most sought-after bookings in Highlands. The property’s rooms are well-appointed —Bellino linens, Malin + Goetz toiletries, curated vintage decor, and charming wallpaper — but its common spaces are where Highlander Mountain House truly shines. “If it's winter, I'd get cozy by the fire with a good book and a drink,” says Braucher, who recommends settling in on the kilim sofa in the hotel’s main lobby.
Old Edwards Inn and Spa
Old Edwards Inn and Spa is one of those historic hotels that manages to feel storied and special but also refreshing and modern at the same time. You’ll find serenity around every corner at the 84-room, multi-acre Relais & Chateaux property, but nowhere is more relaxing than the award-winning spa. Bring a book and grab a cup of tea before or after your treatment as you enjoy some quiet moments on the oversized chaise lounges in the solarium.
The sister property to Old Edwards Inn, Half-Mile Farm is billed as a “Napa-style setting and inn” on 14 acres of lush North Carolina beauty. It’s a decidedly romantic retreat, thanks to its adults-only rule and location just outside downtown Highlands. Each guest room and suite can be described as rustic-chic with touches of luxury, although you’ll have a slightly different experience if you choose to stay in the historic inn, the courtyard, a cabin, or one of the Woodland Suites; the latter is outfitted with fireplaces, heated marble bathroom floors, soaking tubs, balconies, and wet bars.
Flat Mountain Farm
If you’re looking for a more private getaway, consider booking one of the two cabins —The Wren and The Kingfisher — at Flat Mountain Farm. The current owners, Margaret and Chris Shutze, purchased the property (previously a rhododendron nursery) in 2019 and have since turned it into a micro-resort that can also host up to 200 guests for weddings, rehearsal dinners, and large corporate events. “They put so much thought into each design element in their houses, not to mention the roaming property is beautiful,” says Braucher.
Travel + Leisure readers deemed Skyline Lodge the second-best resort in the South, a title earned following its complete renovation in 2021. The 40-room boutique hotel is casual while thoughtful and expertly blends its history (it was originally designed in the 1930s by Arthur J. Kelsey, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) with updated amenities and features —most notably, its courtyard, fire pits, and restaurant, Oak Steakhouse.
Where to Eat and Drink
Mountain Fresh Grocery
All of the essentials can be found at Mountain Fresh Grocery, a specialty food and wine store in downtown Highlands. If you’re fueling up for a big day of hiking, pick up a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit for the road — or snag a “dinner-to-go” when you’re headed home.
Four65 Bistro is known for its “woodfire pizza and atmosphere,” notes Braucher, but the restaurant also offers fresh salads, cast-iron sandwiches, and rosé. When the weather is nice, you’ll want to dine alfresco on the terrace.
“The truly unique, locally sourced items and elevated service” set Madison’s Restaurant apart, says Littlejohn. Located inside Old Edwards Inn, the fine dining establishment is open to the public for lunch and dinner, and its menu features items like braised short rib pasta, grilled octopus, and a bacon-wrapped sausage-stuffed pork chop.
Blue Bike Cafe
Open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day barring Sundays, Blue Bike Cafe has an all-day menu composed of next-level brunch favorites — including cinnamon roll pancakes, biscuits and gravy, chorizo grits bowls, and caramel apple French toast.
Highlands may have more tolerable summer temperatures than the rest of the Southeast, but ice cream is still on the docket at SweeTreats. “You choose your flavor(s) and toppings, and they'll mix it all up right there for you. [It was] one of my favorite spots as a kid,” says Braucher.
Highlands Farmers Market
Weekends in Highlands are complemented by the farmers market, open most Saturdays from April through October. Make your way to Kelsey-Hutchinson Park from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. for baked goods, plants, local produce, and more.
Where to Shop
If you’re looking for a tasteful souvenir to bring home from Highlands, stop by CK Swan on North 4th Street. “[It] has a beautiful selection of curated home goods, art, jewelry, and more,” says Littlejohn.
“I love shopping at Vivace for clothing — they have a mix of classic and hip clothes. Not too old and not too young,” says Braucher. The women’s boutique is located on South 4th Street, just a couple blocks down from Old Edwards Inn and Spa.
Littlejohn also recommends stopping at Mountain Findings, a thrift store and nonprofit “where you'll find a variety of gems,” says Littlejohn, including art, linens, and furniture.