Highlands NC is a beautiful mountain town set at what the founders at the time thought would be the ideal intersection of Midwestern and NorthEastern train travel. Little did they realize that their hamlet of mountain heaven was set between mountains that were difficult to blast through and thus the railroad intersection never came to fruition. However, their dream of a luxe mountain retreat still prevailed. If you’re in search of a luxe mountain retreat, find everything you need to do in this Highlands NC travel guide.
Today Highlands NC is home to a delightful town square brimming with antique shops, world-class resorts, surrounded by breathtaking hikes and excellent restaurants. In my 5 years of traveling here, I’ve seen it all, done it twice, and am putting together the best Highlands NC travel guide for you to use on your next weekend retreat up there. If you’re planning on visiting, make sure you check out our Cashiers NC travel guide as well.
Things to Do:
There are a variety of excellent shops in Downtown Highlands, you really can’t go wrong with any of them. The vast majority of Highlands NC downtown area is walkable so park somewhere on either end and wear comfortable shoes to pop into some of my favorites.
CK Swan is a beautiful store for home goods and accessories. I love to pop in here for new cocktail napkins or their fun selection of homewares.
Dutchman Designs is an eclectic store filled with home goods, antiques, and new pieces to fill your home with. It’s two floors of delightfully curated home furnishings and home accessories.
Mirror Lake Antiques is set on the hill across from the Ugly Dog and is a delightful little shop filled with fun antique curiosities. It’s pretty well priced for the majority of their items.
Mountain Findings Thrift Store is undoubtedly the most amazing thrift shop I’ve been into in years. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday and always has a crowd so get in line early. You can find incredible things there like the bentwood table and chairs I scored for $40. It’s a revolving treasure trove.
Honorable mentions for shopping: Reclamations (fun to look around but the prices are $$$$$), Oakleaf flower and garden, J. McLaughlin, Milli, TJ Baileys for Men, Rosenthals (for furs and luxury items), and really any of the shops on the main street.
There are plenty of excellent hikes near Highlands NC. Sunset Rock is pretty easy and family-friendly. Whiteside Mountain is very popular and gets crowded early. I recommend doing this one very early or be prepared to wait for parking. Dry Falls is just on the outside of town and has a nice paved sidewalk to walk down to view the falls. Glen Falls is a beautiful shaded trail that ends at a gorgeous waterfall. There are plenty of other trails in the area but these are the closest to town without having to actually leave the city.
A Highlands NC Travel Guide would be remiss to mention golf first! Although I’m not much of a player, I’ve seen some beautiful courses in my day but none compare to the lovely ones in Highlands with their stunning mountainous views. For these reasons, I’m perfectly receptive to a slow pace of play day on the course. While most clubs tend to be private, there are a few semi-public courses the enthusiast can look into at this link.
In mid-October, to early November the town is taken over by leafers- and I’m one of them! Leafing is described as the act of driving to mountain towns to look at the changing foliage and a leafer is someone who participates in leafing. I love driving around looking at the changing leaves. Hikes are more splendid with the changing foliage and it’s an excellent time to sit outside with a picnic of goods from one of the in-town grocery stores.
Places to Eat
Paoletti’s is easily the most iconic spot in town. It’s a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant with world-class service. Reservations tend to book up in advance so if you know when you’re going, grab a reservation as soon as possible.
Madison’s belongs to Old Edwards Inn and as fabulous as you may expect. The outdoor patio is spacious and a great place to grab a Spritz and a sandwich for lunch. You’ll likely need a reservation in the high season as tables fill up pretty quickly on a nice day.
The Ruffed Grouse just opened inside of the Highlander Mountain House and it couldn’t be more perfect of a setting for this mountain city. The food is excellent and the ambiance is wonderful. We’re looking forward to going back in the future for dinner.
The Ugly Dog pub is a must-visit in Highlands. They generally have music that plays on the weekend and is an ode to the casual mountain spirit of this town.
Four65 Woodfired Bistro is what everyone is talking about right now. They do pizza’s and they do them well. Get a pizza to go and eat it at one of the parks nearby for a truly Highlands experience.
Dusty’s Rhodes Superette if all of the places in town have too long of a wait, you can always jot over to Dusty Rhodes to pick up some freezer meals and a quick sandwich, pie or cheese plate to take home. It’s incredibly affordable and where I would go instead of Mountain Fresh in town.
On the Verandah is a beautiful place to go for dinner. The entire restaurant is situated facing the lake with full view of it in every direction. The food was fresh and delicious. It’s definitely a mountain institution.
Calder’s Coffee is the main coffee shop in town. It definitely gets crowded on the weekend so be prepared to wait. They have a lot of breakfast pastries to choose from and almost any specialty coffee drink you could want. We typically like to stop here on the way out of town for an iced coffee before heading down the mountain.
Honorable mentions: Highlands Burrito for a fast-casual Tex Mex experience. Mountain Fresh Grocery has great cinnamon sugar donuts. I have found that the service is pretty slow for the uncomplicated menu items. The Bridge has lovely views of the downtown area and a beautiful bar. Wolfgangs Bistro, if you can’t get into Paoletti’s, this is a lovely place next door to dine! Blue Bike Café is a good option to grab breakfast at in town.
Highlands Wine Shoppe is also a delightful place to grab a nice bottle of wine. They even host wine tastings occasionally so you’ll want to grab that information from them when they do.
Places to Stay
There are a ton of excellent places to stay, this town has perfected hospitality.
Old Edwards Inn is essentially why the entire town has the appeal that it does. The world-class hotel has an award-winning spa, an excellent piano bar, and two restaurants to choose from. If you are looking for a truly luxe place to stay in town, this is where I would go.
Half-Mile Farm is Old Edwards Inn’s farm-themed cousin just down the road. The property is absolutely stunning and features it’s own restaurant, bar, private lake for canoeing, firepit, plenty of cabins and cottages to rent and the best part is that it’s adult only. Perfect for a remote retreat for couples.
Highlander Mountain House just went through a complete renovation and is the most stunning boutique hotel on the block. This charming hotel has beautiful English countryside-inspired rooms and is in the perfect location in town to walk to everything you could want to do.
Flat Mountain Farm is the new kid in town and already making a big splash! Located just down the road from the square, this beautiful farm and Airbnb currently has one signature cabin, the Kingfisher, available with two more on the way. The property is incredibly lovely and has its own waterfall. Make sure you follow them on Instagram to see how their progress is coming along for the rest of the property.
Park on Main is the dog-friendly hotel on the block. If you want to travel with pets, this is the best option for you.
The Wells Hotel is just off the main road as you head towards Cashiers. This upscale boutique hotel is just a short walk away from the town and has it’s own coffee shop on premises.
Skyline Lodge (coming soon July 11 2021) is getting a major renovation this summer and will be the new modern mountain retreat for those looking for a getaway with a view. Oak Steakhouse has opened for dinner and drinks on the premises.
Between Cashiers NC and this Highlands NC travel guide, you won’t run out of things to do during a weekend. Don’t worry, this mountain town rarely changes so come back soon and do what you missed the first time! It’s such a wonderful place to visit and hope you enjoy your time here.