We’ve explored more than 50 different Blue Ridge Mountain towns over the last few years.
Thanks to research skills I’ve developed over 25+ years as a professional travel writer, it’s pretty rare for a place to surprise me in the way Franklin NC did.
The area is famously rich in gems and minerals, with the Cowee Valley (just north of Franklin) luring thousands of annual visitors interested in trying their hand at gem mining.
With a population of just over 4,100, Franklin, North Carolina is considered a great place to live because of its mild climate, low cost of living, relatively rural location, and ample opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Some of the most popular natural attractions in Franklin NC include the Appalachian Trail, the Nantahala National Forest, and the array of stunning North Carolina waterfalls along the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway.
Read on for our in-depth guide to the best things to do in Franklin NC & Macon County, including all of our favorite Franklin restaurants, museums, historic sites, and other attractions.
Things to Do in Franklin NC & Macon County Guide
- Explore Downtown Franklin
- Get Cultured at the Cowee School Art & Heritage Center
- Lazy Hiker Brewing Company
- Little Tennessee River Greenway
- Macon County Historical Museum
- Pickin’ on the Square
- Play at The Factory
- Sample Franklin NC Restaurants
- See the Nikwasi Indian Mound
- Visit the Scottish Tartans Museum & Heritage Center
1. Explore Downtown Franklin
We had perfect weather for our first day in town, so we decided to explore the charming Downtown Franklin area a bit before making our way to our cabin.
Like Hendersonville, Brevard, and Waynesville NC, Franklin has a lovely downtown area packed with restaurants, shops, and museums, not to mention a fantastic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains down Main Street.
Noteworthy Downtown Franklin attractions include the historic clocktower, the gazebo on the town square, the Women’s History Trail, and of course Main Street itself, which evoked classic small town Americana.
Interesting shops we found included North Carolina Mountain Made (Appalachian crafts), Crabtree General Store (which also has coffee and ice cream), and Outdoor 76 (for camping and hiking essentials).
2. Get Cultured at the Cowee School Art & Heritage Center
One of our favorite things to do near Franklin NC is visiting the Cowee School Art & Heritage Center, which is located in the Cowee-West’s Mill Historic District about 6.5 miles north of town.
The public school was built in 1943 on the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. After Macon County closed it in 2006, the Cowee Community Development Organization repurposed the building as a community/ center.
Today it’s a haven for the preservation of Appalachian culture, offering classes on everything from fine art and music to quilting, gardening, weaving, beadwork, yoga, and more.
Our visit to Franklin coincided with the annual Cowee Valley Quilt & Art Exhibition, which featured some stunning truly work by local crafters.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Winston Salem NC
3. Lazy Hiker Brewing Company
Mary and I are not beer drinkers, so breweries are not usually our thing unless there’s a gastropub element involved.
But they also have a dog-friendly outdoor patio, disc golf, corn hole, and an outdoor event space where they host live concerts and other special events.
Our favorite feature of the brewery was the award-winning Hiker’s Kitchen Food Truck, which offers fantastic gyros, burgers, tater tots, and other gastropub fare.
READ MORE: The 20 Best North Carolina Wineries to Visit
4. Little Tennessee River Greenway
But for those seeking a great trail for cycling and hiking in Franklin NC proper, check out the Little Tennessee River Greenway, which stretches for nearly 5 miles through the heart of town.
The project started in 1997, when Duke Power built a power line along the river and deeded the land to Macon County. Two big grants brought in funds to restore the riverbanks and build trails, picnic shelters, and bridges across the river.
5. Macon County Historical Museum
The Macon County Historical Museum was one of my favorite attractions in Franklin NC, in large part because I learned so much about my family’s history in the area from museum director Robert Shook.
They do a great job of covering the entire history of the region, with exhibits on everything from Native American artifacts and the Civil War to the evolution of Appalachian music, crafts, and culture.
There’s also a traditional 19th century log cabin outside, which is filled with authentic period antiques.
But for me the highlight was learning how many of my ancestors (including Colonel Robert Love, his brother General Thomas Love, Robert’s son Dillard Love, and his grandson Lieutenant Colonel James R. Love II) played a significant role in Macon County’s history.
Thomas Love (who served in the NC House of Representatives for 33 years) moved to the town of Franklin in 1830. His nephew Dillard Love lived most of his adult life in Franklin, and the ruins of his property can still be seen today. James Love led “Love’s Regiment” of Thomas’ Legion, a Civil War battalion of Scottish Highlanders and Cherokee warriors.
I was surprised to learn the museum had a copy of the famous survey Colonel Robert Love (who founded Waynesville NC) did of Western North Carolina in 1820. Between his survey of the NC/TN border and Thomas’ survey of the NC/SC border, the brothers redefined the boundaries of the state of North Carolina in the early 19th century!
READ MORE: 10 Great Train Rides in North Carolina
6. Pickin’ On The Square
As a longtime music journalist before I became a travel writer, the music scene of a given town is a huge consideration when it comes to choosing the best places to live.
In addition to the national acts that perform at the Smoky Mountains Center for the Performing Arts, the Franklin NC music scene also includes bi-weekly free concerts at the Gazebo on the Square.
The Pickin’ on the Square concert series is typically held on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of every month from May through mid-October (weather permitting).
All shows start at 6PM and feature live music ranging from bluegrass and country to classic rock ‘n’ roll and pop, with locals bringing out their lawn chairs and savoring food from various local restaurants.
Their 2023 schedule includes performances by Outlaw Whiskey (6/10), Tugalo Holler (6/24), Caribbean Cowboys (7/8), Paradise 56 (7/22), Our Way Band (8/12), Darren Nicholson (8/26), Sundown Band (9/2), Appalachian Smoke (9/16), Michael Harrell (9/30), and Reminiscence Band (10/14).
READ MORE: The 20 Best North Carolina Music Festivals
7. Play at The Factory
8. Sample Franklin NC Restaurants
We’ve been reviewing restaurants professionally for 20+ years now, so you could say we’re serious foodies.
Although it’s not quite as diverse as the restaurants in Asheville, Roanoke VA, and other large mountain towns, we were impressed by the Downtown Franklin food scene and found several great Franklin restaurants to love.
There was a decent amount of culinary diversity, but also plenty of the classic American cuisine that tends to dominate most towns in the Blue Ridge region.
From the European cuisine of Caffé Rel and the fantastic farm-to-table freshness of Gracious Plates on Main to the gastropub fare of the food truck at Lazy Hiker Brewing Co. and the Happy Days-like nostalgia of the Motor Company Grill, there were an array of great restaurants to choose from.
9. See the Nikwasi Indian Mound
Built around 1,000 years ago, the sacred site was once the center of a 100-acre farming community. And it remains a spiritual, cultural, and ceremonial center for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians today.
Nikwasi and Kituwah (which is nearby, but less visible) are considered Cherokee “mother towns.” Cherokee legends trace the tribe’s origin story to Nikwasi (which means “star place”), considering the home of the Nunne’hi– immortal warriors who protect the Cherokee in times of war.
Both of the Cherokee Indian mounds in Franklin are located along the Little Tennessee River, which linked to several other Middle Townsin the mountains of Western North Carolina and North Georgia.
The communities were integral to the Cherokee political and economic network, which prospered for centuries before the arrival of Europeans led to Land Lotteries, passage of the Indian Removal Act, and the tragic Trail of Tears.
10. Visit the Scottish Tartans Museum & Heritage Center
After discovering we were connected to Colonel Robert Love (who founded the town of Waynesville) and his brother, General Thomas Love, I realized how important my Scots Irish ancestors were to the history of North Carolina .
The Scottish Tartans Museum & Heritage Center was our favorite attraction in Franklin NC. It’s a fantastic place for anyone who wants to learn more about their Scots Irish ancestry, including the various tartans of ancestral clans.
From displays on legends like Mary Queen of Scots and Robert the Bruce to exhibits on Medieval weapons and the way women in the Highlands dressed, there’s a wealth of great info on Scottish history here.
I also loved the exhibits on the Scottish clans who settled North Carolina, as well as the one on Scottish-Cherokee relations. Partly because my ancestor Lieutenant Colonel James R. Love II led a regiment (known as Love’s Regiment) under Colonel William Holland Thomas during the Civil War.
Thomas’ Legion was the only regiment in US military history in which Scottish highlanders and Cherokee Indians fought side-by-side!