Best Places to Retire in North Carolina

It’s not easy to name the best places to retire in North Carolina. The Tar Heel State has so much to offer, including incredible geographical diversity. In the east, the Coastal Plain covers about 45% of the state and features some 300 miles of barrier-island beaches and two national seashores (Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout). The central third of the state comprises the Piedmont plateau – a hilly region that is the state’s most densely populated and urbanized section. Western North Carolina is characterized by four separate mountain chains, including the Great Smoky, Blue Ridge, Brushy and the Uwharrie Mountains – all of them adorned by forests of flowering rhododendron and mountain laurel in the spring and early summer and vibrant colors in the fall.

In addition to its abundant geographic diversity and natural beauty, North Carolina also offers retirees a cost of living that was 5.1% cheaper than the national average in 2020, an affordable housing market (real estate aggregator Zillow shows a median home value of $206,286, versus the $247,084 median home value for the U.S. as a whole in 2020), and a relatively friendly tax environment. If you’re still searching for a place to call home in your later years, here are five North Carolina spots to consider:

Key Takeaways

  • Asheville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has a prominent art, music, and craft-beer scene, temperate weather all year and is small but vibrant.
  • Brevard is also in western North Carolina, but smaller than Asheville; it boasts waterfalls and other outdoor beauty, and a moderate climate.
  • Davidson, a lakeside town on Lake Norman, has small-town charm but easy access to Charlotte, and all the conveniences of a large metropolis; Nearby fellow small-town Newton is also an attractive option.
  • Highlands—on a plateau in the Appalachian mountains—has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents, but 20,000 in the spring-fall tourist season.
  • New Bern, Oak Island, and Southport are all on the ocean; New Bern has an active arts and music scene, Oak Island is a beautiful barrier island, and Southport, comprised of several towns, sits along the Atlantic coast.
  • Carolina Beach blankets the Cape Fear River; it's the home of the Carolina Beach State Park and the Freeman Park.
  • Chapel Hill is rich with music, artists, restaurants, museums, bars and everything else associated with a dynamic college town.

1. Asheville

Asheville is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and is well-known for its arts, music and its thriving craft-beer scene. Asheville has more breweries per capita than any U.S. city. Retirees enjoy a four-season temperate climate, with outdoor adventures that include (hilly) biking, hiking, and golf. It has a walkable downtown area with shops, restaurants, cafés and street performers.

Asheville's bonus: the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which offers 250+ classes a year on everything from meditation to poetry. At 92,450 people (according to 2018 U.S. Census estimates), Asheville is big enough to offer notable art and culture, while small enough to remain quaint. 

North Carolina offers geographic diversity, natural beauty, a lower cost of living than the national average and an affordable housing market.

2. Brevard

Like Asheville, Brevard is nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina, but it’s a much smaller town, with a population of just over 7,900 (based on 2018 U.S. census estimates.) The city’s mission is “to promote a high quality of life, support economic prosperity, and cultivate community while honoring its heritage and culture.” And Brevard delivers, with its beautiful waterfalls, moderate climate, high walkability rating and outdoor recreation, including mountain biking (in both Pisgah National Forest and DuPont State Forest), road biking and rock climbing.

North Carolina has a little bit of something for every retiree, whether your preference is beaches, hilly regions, mountains or big cities.

3. Davidson

Davidson is a lakeside town on Lake Norman that offers the charms of small-town living and Southern hospitality, with a population of just over 12,900. At the same time, residents are less than a half hour’s drive to downtown Charlotte and its big-city conveniences, including shopping, restaurants, nightlife, an international airport (CLT) and a nationally ranked health-care system. It’s considered a very walkable town with a well-kept historic character, and many residents take full advantage of Lake Norman for boating, fishing, and other water sports, as well as hiking and biking. 

4. Highlands

Highlands has a very small population – less than 1,200 according to U.S. Census estimates – but that climbs to more than 20,000 during the tourist season, which runs from spring through fall. At 4,118 feet, Highlands is one of the highest incorporated municipalities east of the Mississippi and also one of the cooler (and less humid) spots to spend the North Carolina summers.

Highlands residents and tourists alike enjoy the beautiful scenery, hiking, fishing, golf, numerous waterfalls, fine dining, antiquing and the town’s four theaters, including the Highlands Playhouse, founded in 1938. Ample rainfall in the area forms the headwaters for the Chattooga River, simultaneously made famous and tarnished by the 1972 movie “Deliverance.” Increased river usage spurred by the movie ultimately helped the river achieve its status as a National Wild and Scenic River in 1974.

5. New Bern

New Bern, population 30,100, is a “quintessential charming small town near the sea,” according to its residents. Movie buffs will recognize its quaint streets in “The Notebook,” based on Nicholas Sparks’ well-known romance novel. History buffs will enjoy New Bern’s four historic districts, dozens of homes on the National Historic Register and its status as the second oldest town in North Carolina (and its capital during colonial days). Despite its small size, New Bern has a thriving arts and music scene, with its bimonthly ArtWalks, musical street performers and waterfront summer concerts.

6. Oak Island

With 10 miles of south-facing beaches, Oak Island offers two fishing piers, unbelievable kayaking, fun boating, and numerous swimming options. There's also easy access to Bald Head Island and Southport on the mainland. This barrier island is a great spot to spend the golden years.

7. Southport

This coastal gem has become a retirement community for many. Located on the Atlantic coast near the North Carolina’s southern end, the area is comprised of several towns: Caswell Beach, Oak Island, the Village of Bald Head Island, Boiling Springs Lakes, and the Town of St. James. Southport is located in Brunswick County. The nearest large towns are Wilmington and Myrtle Beach. 

8. Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach sits along the Cape Fear River, and Carolina Beach State Park is home to fishing spots and the Flytrap Trail, named for the carnivorous Venus Flytrap plants along its path. There are six miles of hiking trails, a marina, campsites, picnic area, and a visitor's center, featuring natural history exhibits. The Carolina Beach Boardwalk offers shops, restaurants, and amusement rides. On the Atlantic, Freeman Park offers beach camping, sand dunes, and seagrass.

9. Newton

Newton is a small town nestled between Charlotte, Statesville, and Black Mountain in North Carolina. Living out the golden years here means spending weekends at Lake Norman and camping in the mountains. Meanwhile, cultural diversity abounds in various forms of art...along with a rich railroad and music heritage. Newton offers annual events that showcase its unique variety of cultural expression, in music and art. There are also frequent art exhibitions and cool museums. 

10. Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From humble beginnings, it has become quite the hip little that is rapidly becoming a top destination for foodies. Flush with music, scenery, and flavors, a community of musicians, authors and artists keep Chapel Hill real, and Franklin Street is the epicenter of downtown life with a collection of coffee shops, restaurants, bookshops, museums, bars, and music stores. Originally founded to serve the university, Chapel Hill has since grown into a truly engaging place to spend one's retirement.

The Bottom Line

Whether your dream retirement revolves around windswept beaches, verdant mountains or vibrant cities, North Carolina has you covered. These are just a handful of places that attract retirees to North Carolina. Other spots worth considering include Beaufort and Boone. For related insight, read about other affordable retirement communities and luxury retirement communities in North Carolina.