The 10 Best Things to Do in Franklin NC & Macon County

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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.

Nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, just 2 hours north of Atlanta and an hour west of Asheville, Franklin NC is known as the “Gem Capital of the World.”

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. 

READ MORE: 20 Best Things to Do in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina


Things to Do in Franklin NC & Macon County Guide

  1. Explore Downtown Franklin
  2. Get Cultured at the Cowee School Art & Heritage Center
  3. Lazy Hiker Brewing Company
  4. Little Tennessee River Greenway
  5. Macon County Historical Museum
  6. Pickin’ on the Square
  7. Play at The Factory
  8. Sample Franklin NC Restaurants
  9. See the Nikwasi Indian Mound 
  10. Visit the Scottish Tartans Museum & Heritage Center

READ MORE: Where are the Blue Ridge Mountains? A State-by-State Guide

Clocktower in Downtown Franklin NC
Clocktower in Downtown Franklin

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). 

There’s also the Uptown Gallery, which is run by the Macon County Art Association and features fine art by local artists as well as classes and special events.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Sylva NC & Dillsboro NC

Exterior of Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center in Franklin NC
Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center

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.

Located right along the Little Tennessee River, this area was the main commercial center of the 18th century Middle Town Cherokees.

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

Inside Lazy Hiker Brewing Company in Franklin NC
Lazy Hiker Brewing Company Interior

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 the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company (which also has a Taproom in Sylva NC) is much more than just a typical brewery. In our experience, it’s a whole vibe!

Sure, they have some 20+ Lazy Hiker beers on tap, a 15-barrel brewhouse, and cans that are distributed in 38 counties In North Carolina and 37 counties in North Georgia.

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

Cyclist on Little Tennessee River Greenway in Franklin NC
Mary & Cyclist on Little Tennessee River Greenway

4. Little Tennessee River Greenway

From the Appalachian Trail and the Bartram Trail (which we’ve hiked sections of in Clayton GA) to Wayah Bald, Franklin is surrounded by some of the best hiking trails in North Carolina.

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. 

FROGS (Friends of the Greenway, Inc) built an amphitheater, and local groups helped with planting flowers and trees, building wood duck boxes, and picking up trash. 

Today the Greenway is a lovely place to commune with nature and wildlife, taking visitors through wetlands, pastures, ruins of the Tallulah Falls Railroad, and upland woods.

READ MORE: 7 Covered Bridges in North Carolina You Can Visit in 1 Day

Interior of Macon County Historical Museum in Franklin NC
Interior of Macon County Historical Museum

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

Pickin' On The Square in Franklin NC
Pickin’ On The Square, photo courtesy Town of Franklin NC

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

Mary Gabbett playing air hockey at The Factory in Franklin NC
Playing air hockey at The Factory

7. Play at The Factory 

The Factory is a very different sort of Franklin attraction from the downtown shops, museums, and historic sites. But it’s arguably among the most fun things to do in Franklin NC for families with kids.
It’s got the sort of massive arcade you’d find at Dave & Busters, including old school favorites (Skee-Ball, Air Hockey, Basketball), classic video games, and all the latest video game technology (including Hologate Virtual Reality). Many of their 100+ games give you tickets that you can redeem for fun prizes.
But it also has a 9-hole mini golf course, Spin Zone Bumper cars, an indoor carousel, a kids play area, Laser Force Laser Tag, a “Jump Factory” trampoline room, and the largest go-cart track in Western North Carolina.
The two-story racetrack requires guests to be at least 58″ tall to drive alone, but they also offer 2-person carts. So anyone above 36″ tall can ride alongside a licensed adult ages 18 and over.
When hunger strikes, The Pizza Factory & Grill offers chicken tenders, twist fries, wings, and more. There’s also a Jack the Dipper ice cream shop on the premises.
Gracious Sampler at Gracious Plates on Main restaurant in Franklin NC
Gracious Sampler at Gracious Plates on Main

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.

We also loved the gourmet coffee of Main Street Coffee & Yogurt, the sugary delights of Just Donuts, and the fine wines and charcuterie at the Slanted Window Wines Tasting Station.

READ MORE:The 7 Best Restaurants in Franklin NC & Macon County

Nikwasi Mound in Franklin NC
Nikwasi Indian Mound

9. See the Nikwasi Indian Mound

We’ve visited many different Indian mounds and historic sites, but never seen anything like the Nikwasi Mound, which is near the heart of Downtown Franklin NC.

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.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Things to Do in Cherokee NC & the Qualla Boundary

NC Ties to Scotland at Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin NC
NC’s Ties to Scotland at the Scottish Tartans Museum

10. Visit the Scottish Tartans Museum & Heritage Center

I’ve spent a lot of time tracing my family history, from the Scottish Islands to Ulster, Ireland, then down through the Blue Ridge Mountains, from PA and VA to North Carolina and Tennessee.

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! 

READ MORE: The Appalachian Culture & History of the Blue Ridge Mountains


Franklin NC Cabin Rentals

We generally prefer staying in rental cabins rather than hotels when we travel. And since we took our two dogs to visit Franklin NC, the pet-friendly cabins at High Country Haven Camping & Cabins were an excellent fit.
Located 6 miles from Downtown Franklin NC, their charming cabins offered the feeling of a nature-lover’s weekend getaway as well as proximity to many of the best attractions Macon County has to offer.
These park model cabins are fairly small, with one bedroom, one bath, a full kitchen, a living room with a cozy couch and chair, and a tiny loft that would be fun for kids.
But ours also had a spacious deck and a screened-in outdoor dining table that seats up to six people. Other cabins had grills and picnic tables, and the campground also had a playground for the kids.
It was a great place to base ourselves for 3 days of exploring all the fun things to do in the town of Franklin. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted
Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel. Born and raised in North Georgia, Editor-In-Chief Bret Love grew up hiking and camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his family. A professional writer/editor since 1995, he's covered travel and culture for 100+ publications, including American Way, Destination Marriott, Georgia Travel Guide, National Geographic, and Southbound. In 2010 he co-founded the award-winning website, Green Global Travel, which is ranked among the world's top travel blogs. Since launching BRMTG in 2020, he and Mary Gabbett have visited 50+ Blue Ridge Mountain towns together. Though she lived in NYC for 14 years, photographer/Business Manager Mary Gabbett's family has Georgia roots dating back 200+ years. Her great-grandfather was President of the Western Railroad of Alabama. Before moving to Atlanta in 1989, she fell in love with the North GA mountains, where her aunt owned a cabin. In 2010 she co-founded Green Global Travel, and has since traveled to more than 40 countries on six continents. Her photos have appeared in numerous travel publications (including National Geographic and Southbound) and various textbooks.