When we started BRMTG in 2020, our mission was to explore the Blue Ridge Mountains in search of our future mountain home, then share our favorite places with our readers.
Though our ability to travel that first year was limited by COVID concerns, we’ve managed to visit nearly 50 different mountain towns since travel restrictions were lifted.
We’ve found lots to love about many of the places we’ve visited. But we’ve also learned a lot about what separates great places to visit from the best places to live.
With that in mind, we’ve narrowed our list down to 3-4 towns that offer great restaurants, a cool cultural scene, and lots of natural attractions.
Sylva NC, a college town with 2,500 residents and close proximity to Cherokee, Bryson City, and Waynesville, is currently at the very top of our list.
Read on for our in-depth guide to the 15 best things to do in Sylva NC & Dillsboro NC, including all the best hiking trails, tourist attractions, restaurants, and shops.
READ MORE: The 20 Best Places to Visit in North Carolina
Best Things to Do in Sylva NC & Dillsboro NC Guide
(in alphabetical order)
- American Museum of the House Cat
- Appalachian Women’s Museum
- Downtown Sylva Heritage Walk
- Drinks at Innovation Brewing Company
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Explore the Best Dillsboro & Sylva Restaurants
- Get Festive at Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop
- Indulge Your Sweet Tooth
- Jackson County Courthouse
- Tubing the Tuckasegee River
- See the Judaculla Rock Petroglyphs
- Shop at the Dogwood Crafters Co-Op
- Walk the Jackson County Greenway
- Whitewater Rafting with the Dillsboro River Company
- Visit the Mountain Heritage Center at WCU
READ MORE: The 15 Best North Carolina Mountain Towns to Visit
1. American Museum of the House Cat
We’ve had a wonderful time exploring unusual attractions in the Blue Ridge region, from the Expedition Bigfoot Museum in Blue Ridge GA and Goats On The Roof near Clayton GA to Mystery Hill in Blowing Rock NC.
The American Museum Of The House Cat (a.k.a. the WNC Cat Museum) is another fascinating oddity to add to the list, offering an entertaining outing for a great cause.
The museum was founded by Dr. Harold Sims, a retired Western Carolina University biology professor who collected cat-related art for more than 30 years.
From fine art dating back to the post-Civil War era and colorful folk art to antique toy cats, art glass cats, and cat posters, it’s an incredible array of unique collectibles unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Sims and his wife also founded the Catman2 no-kill cat shelter. Donations and proceeds from self-guided museum tours help to provide discounted spay/neuter services to the local community.
Tours of the cat museum and cat shelter are currently available by appointment only (call 828-476-9376 for info). But their new location at 5063 Hwy 441 S in Sylva is expected to open in Spring of 2023.
READ MORE: 25 Beautiful Birds of North Carolina
2. Appalachian Women’s Museum
The Appalachian Women’s Museum in Dillsboro NC is dedicated to “preserving the stories of ordinary women leading extraordinary lives.”
It’s located inside the Monteith Farmhouse, one of the town’s oldest historic sites, which has been almost completely renovated over the past 7 years.
This living history museum features permanent and rotating exhibits on women in the Appalachian Mountains, including one focused on the Cherokee women of Southern Appalachia.
They also offer an array of special events, including “The Airing of the Quilts” (an annual rite of Spring) and “Music on the Porch,” featuring live bluegrass and country music concerts.
The museum is open to the public every Saturday from April through October, from 10AM to 2PM.
READ MORE: The Appalachian Culture & History of the Blue Ridge Mountains
3. Downtown Sylva Heritage Walk
Located less than 20 miles from several of our favorite Blue Ridge Mountain towns (including Bryson City, Cherokee, and Waynesville), Sylva is one of the most quaint and charming small towns in North Carolina.
The Sylva Heritage Walk is a great way to explore it, with printed brochures available at the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center at 773 W Main St.
This self-guided tour takes visitors to a series of historic photographs of Downtown Sylva NC, which are mounted on the sides of various shops and historic buildings.
Starting at the east end of Main Street and heading towards the historic Jackson County Courthouse (now the Jackson County Library), the Heritage Walk takes you to 25 different photos of Sylva from the early 20th century.
Guided tours are offered by the Jackson County Historical Association, including an annual complimentary tour on the fourth Saturday in April (during Sylva’s Greening Up the Mountains Festival).
READ MORE: The Top 30 Blue Ridge Mountain Towns to Visit
4. Drinks at Innovation Brewing Company
Though it is smaller than hops-hungry towns like Asheville, Boone, and Brevard, the Sylva/Dillsboro area still has an impressive array of breweries to offer.
There are 4 Sylva breweries and one in Dillsboro, all of which are part of the Jackson County Ale Trail. You can download a map of the brewery trail on the Discover Jackson NC website.
All of these breweries have their ardent supporters, but the Innovation Brewing Company is arguably the most popular place in town.
Their Afternoon Delight Blonde Ale and Spaceman Pale Ale are two of their most popular beers on tap. But they also offer 25+ other draft beers, as well and local ciders, wines, and non-alcoholic options.
If you’d like to take a taste of Sylva home, you can also find a half-dozen of Innovation’s brews available in stores.
READ MORE: The Best Things to Do in Brevard NC & Transylvania County
5. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
Located 10 miles west of the Blue Ridge Parkway via US-74, Downtown Sylva offers easy access to the world-renowned scenic route.
Some of our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks nearby include the Woolyback Overlook (Milepost 452.3), Waterrock Knob Overlook (off a spur at MP 451.2), Richland Balsam Overlook (MP 431, the highest point on the BRP), and Cowee Mountain Overlook (MP 430).
The best Blue Ridge Parkway hikes in the area include the Richland Balsam Trail (MP 431), Black Balsam via Art Loeb Trail (MP 420.2), Devil’s Courthouse (MP 422.4), and the Fryingpan Mountain Tower Trail (MP 409.6).
There aren’t as many Blue Ridge Parkway waterfalls in this area as you’ll find in other parts of the BRP in North Carolina. But we love the views at Soco Falls (MP 455.7), Dill Falls (MP 423), and Graveyard Field Falls (MP 418.8).
READ MORE: The Best Blue Ridge Parkway Hotels & Cabin Rentals in NC & VA
6. Explore the Best Dillsboro & Sylva Restaurants
As diehard foodies, one of the biggest challenges of exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains is finding the diversity of international cuisines we’re accustomed to at home.
Larger mountain towns like Asheville and Roanoke offer an exceptional variety of cuisines to choose from. But in smaller towns you’re often lucky to find more than a few ethnic restaurants.
The restaurants in Sylva and Dillsboro are more diverse, partly due to their proximity to a college, WCU. In fact, there are several great Sylva restaurants that offer a wide variety of culinary influences on their menu.
One of our favorites, Guadalupe Cafe, featured “farm-to-table tropical fusion,” allowing us to sample Jamaican, Indian, and Mexican influences while using ingredients sourced from nearby farms.
Other great restaurants in the area include Dalaya Thai Cuisine, Lucy in the Rye, Pie Times Pizza Company, the Creekside Oyster House & Grill, and White Moon.
READ MORE: The Best Restaurants in Sylva NC & Dillsboro NC
7. Get Festive at Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop
We’re huge fans of the Christmas holidays, and always love Christmas in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In recent years we’ve especially enjoyed celebrating the holidays in beloved mountain towns ranging from Dahlonega and Helen GA to Asheville and McAdenville NC.
Although we visited Sylva during a sunny week in September, we found loads of holiday spirit at Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop, a Downtown Dillsboro staple since 1969.
The gift shop’s shelves are stocked with the most impressive assortment of Christmas decorations we’ve seen, from cool collectibles and unique ornaments to retro items that brought waves of nostalgia.
In our eyes, their Christmas collection was even better than those we found at the Biltmore Estate and Omni Grove Park Inn, and at MUCH more affordable prices!
READ MORE: The Best Christmas Towns in North Carolina
8. Indulge Your Sweet Tooth
Most of the small towns we’ve visited in the Blue Ridge Mountains seem to have at least one great gourmet chocolate shop.
But Sylva and Dillsboro are blessed with two, the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory and Baxley’s Chocolates.
The Dillsboro Chocolate Factory (which also has a store in Waynesville) offers an extensive variety of hand-dipped chocolates, fudge, truffles, and shooters, including lots of sugar free and low-sugar varieties. They also have more than a dozen varieties of gourmet coffee, roasted in Asheville by Bean Werks Coffee & Tea.
Located on Main Street in Sylva, Baxley’s Chocolates is a family-owned business that opened in 2015. Inspired by food scientist Russell Baxley, his son Steve and granddaughter Lauren make small batch, hand-crafted confections. Our favorites included their Peanut Butter Meltaways, Sugar Plums, Malted Milk Balls, Caramels, and Truffles.
READ MORE: 15 Fun Things to Do in Asheville NC in Winter
9. Jackson County Courthouse
If you drive through the town Sylva, you can’t miss the Historic Jackson County Courthouse, which stands high on a hill overlooking the downtown business district.
Built by local industrialist C.J. Harris in 1913 in the Classical Revival style, the courthouse was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Harris was the man responsible for making the town of Sylva the seat of Jackson County, arguing that its railroad-based economy made it a suitable hub for business.
The Courthouse was used from 1913 to 1994, when a new Justice Center was completed. It was extensively remodeled from 2009-2011 and became home to the Jackson County Library and the offices of the Jackson County Genealogical Society, the Jackson County Historical Association, and the Jackson County Arts Council.
Easily the most iconic (and most frequently photographed) of the Sylva NC attractions, the Courthouse is also an amazing place to photograph the sun setting over the charming mountain town.
READ MORE: The 10 Best North Carolina Mountain Resorts to Visit
10. Tubing the Tuckasegee River
River tubing in North Carolina is a popular pastime, and the Tuckasegee is one of the most beautiful rivers in NC on which to do it.
Based in nearby Whittier NC, Tuckasegee Outfitters offers a variety of guided and self-guided trips on “the Tuck,” including family-friendly river tubing, kayaking, and white water rafting tours.
The Tuckasegee is much more relaxing than some of the other rivers in the North Carolina mountains. But children do need to be a minimum of 4 years old and weigh at least 40 pounds to take a tour.
They also offer tours to different sections of the river, including a gentle section for a “lazy river”-style float and a section with some Class II rapids for a slightly more extreme tubing experience.
READ MORE: Kayaking in North Carolina: The 10 Best Rivers to Paddle
11. See the Judaculla Rock Petroglyphs
Located near Western Carolina University in the neighboring town of Cullowhee, the Judaculla Rock proved to be one of the most unique attractions near Sylva NC.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, Judaculla Rock is the largest example of an American Indian petroglyph found in the state of North Carolina.
The petroglyphs were carved during the Late Woodland to Late Mississippian periods (about 500 to 1700 AD), and the soapstone rock is one of several archaeologically significant petroglyph boulders within a 15-acre area.
This site figures into a Cherokee legend about a great giant named Judaculla, who wed his wife at the Cherokee town of Kanuga on the west fork of the Pigeon River in Haywood County. The carvings on Judaculla Rock are said to be scratches left by the giant when he jumped from his farm atop the mountain into the valley below.
Others believe the ancient markings may represent a map of the Battle of Taliwa, which was fought in North Georgia between the Creek and Cherokee people in 1755. The Creeks ultimately lost the battle, and were driven from their settlements along the Etowah River.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Cabins in Cherokee NC for Rent
12. Shop at the Dogwood Crafters Co-Op
Founded by a small group of artists in 1976, the Dogwood Crafters Co-Op has gradually grown into one of the most interesting and eclectic arts organizations in the North Carolina Mountains.
One of our favorite places for shopping in Sylva and Dillsboro, their store is actually comprised of three log cabins (built for tourists by a local family back in the 1930s) that were joined together.
The sprawling interior is essentially like 12 small shops in one, with 100+ artisans offering an incredible assortment of Appalachian-style crafts.
You’ll find handmade quilts, baskets, corn husk dolls, soaps, and apple butter right next to fine art paintings, sculptures, stained glass, and ceramics.
This is also a great place to find unique Christmas decor (in the “Holiday Room”), and most of it is priced much lower than you’d expect to pay in more tourist-focused towns.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Romantic Getaways in NC (Cabins, Inns & Resorts)
13. Walk the Jackson County Greenway
As mentioned above, the picturesque Tuckasegee River is a popular place for recreational activities ranging from fishing and tubing to kayaking and rafting.
But if you want to get close to the river without getting wet, head to the Jackson County Greenway in Cullowhee, just 3.4 miles south of Downtown Sylva.
Also known as the Tuckasegee River Greenway, the 2.3-mile out-and-back hiking trail is popular among cyclists and runners, and is also wheelchair-accessible.
The paved trail only has around 50 feet of elevation gain, crossing over a large bridge and winding along a scenic stretch of the river.
You’ll also find a bike park for kids along the greenway, as well as lots of shade and benches perfect for a picnic or simply relaxing and soaking in the stunning scenery.
READ MORE: 7 Covered Bridges in North Carolina You Can Visit in 1 Day
14. Whitewater Rafting with the Dillsboro River Company
We’ve always enjoyed white water rafting, tackling rivers from North Georgia and West Virginia to Alaska and Costa Rica.
North Carolina has more than its fair share of great places for rafting, including the French Broad River, Green River, Nantahala River, Nolichucky River, and Watauga River (near Boone NC).
But the Tuckasegee River is generally considered to be one of the easier rivers in NC for white water rafting, making it a great choice for beginners and younger rafters.
You can float down the Tuck for roughly 5 miles, which takes about 2 hours. Its Class I and II rapids make for a gentle introduction to the sport, so the minimum age is typically 4 and the minimum weight is 40 pounds.
The Dillsboro River Company is one of several local outfitters that offer guided and self-guided Tuckasegee River rafting tours. Guided tours start at $30 for kids ages 12 and under, and $40 for adults.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Places to Go White Water Rafting in North Carolina
15. Visit the Mountain Heritage Center at WCU
Interested in learning more about the southern Appalachian culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains? The Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee is a great place to start.
Located at the Hunter Library on the WCU campus, the Mountain Heritage Center features a permanent exhibit, “Discovering Appalachia.”
It explores the various cultures that have contributed to traditional Appalachian culture, from Native American tribes and enslaved Africans to Scots-Irish and German (a.k.a. Pennsylvania Dutch) immigrants.
They also have temporary exhibits such as “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories” and “Crossroads: Change in Rural America” (the latter of which will be on display in Spring 2023).
It explores the myriad ways the small towns of rural America have evolved over the past century, as well as the misconceptions surrounding those towns and things we can learn from their timeless traditions. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted