What do people think when you bring up North Carolina? Here are 10 of the top things the Old North State is known for — ranked by how ingrained they are in the nation’s perception of North Carolina.

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1) The mountains and the beach

North Carolina is a popular tourist destination for people living in states all up and down the East Coast. Floridians are particularly drawn to the mountains, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s most frequently visited. The Blue Ridge Parkway draws leaf-peepers the world over and the Biltmore Estate is the largest residence in the United States.

These floating houses on Fontana Lake are a well-known sight on the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Then there’s the beach, particularly our Outer Banks. Most people will remember the factoid about the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk, and families from Virginia northward all travel here on vacation.

Kure Beach near Wilmington.

2) Universities

The public university system is a popular draw for students from the Northeast, who pay a similar rate out-of-state as they would closer to home. UNC-Chapel Hill is often considered a “public Ivy” and is the first public university in the United States. Duke has a pipeline to Wall Street and ranks high in just about every measure you can find.

Then, of course, there’s college basketball. UNC and Duke’s Tobacco Road rivalry is arguably the best in the country and N.C. State and Wake Forest have their moments. Greensboro is the only rightful home of the ACC Tournament.

And you can’t forget about the GOAT, Michael Jordan.

The Old Well at UNC-Chapel Hill.

3) Economic growth

North Carolina always winds up near the top of lists for best places to do business, best places for young professionals, best places to raise a family, etc. Especially in the last few years, the state has solidified a reputation as being low-tax and business-friendly.

The Charlotte Knights stadium in Uptown.

4) Barbecue

And by barbecue, specifically chopped pork served with a vinegar- or tomato-based sauce. The editor of the Raleigh Times once said that “No man has ever been elected governor of North Carolina without eating more barbecue than was good for him” — and that’s made barbecue joints a top stop for any presidential candidate campaigning here, as well.

The pulled pork tray with hushpuppies and sweet tea at the Bar-B-Q Center in Lexington.

5) Agriculture

While not as deeply associated with the state like Iowa, the first thing many people think of when you ask them about the Old North State is its crops.

North Carolina is the nation’s leading producer of both sweet potatoes and tobacco, and No. 2 for hogs and Christmas trees. If you venture a few miles off of I-85, you’ll be in farm country pretty quick.

Northerners have also been known to swing through North Carolina to buy cigarettes by the carton and haul them back home.

Tobacco nearly ready to harvest by Godwin, N.C. Photo by Gerry Dincher via Flickr (Creative Commons).

6) Being a swing state

Ever since Barack Obama turned North Carolina blue in 2008, the state has been firmly planted in the swing state category in presidential politics. That led to the Democratic National Convention landing in Charlotte in 2012, and the Republican version could come to town in 2020.

Top Democrats flocked to Charlotte for the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Photo by Steve Bott via Flickr (Creative Commons).

7) Research Triangle Park

While it certainly won’t be confused with Silicon Valley, the RTP has carved out a name for itself nationally as a hub of tech talent. IBM frequently moves employees here from around the country, and Red Hat and SAS have solid reputations.


The sport was born out of the western North Carolina moonshining culture, and its Hall of Fame is in Uptown Charlotte. Many of the top racing teams have their headquarters near Lake Norman.

Danica Patrick practicing at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010. Photo by James Willamor via Flickr (Creative Commons).

9) Textiles

North Carolina’s Piedmont was the world’s biggest textile producer in the latter half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Millwork was both a blessing and a curse for low-income North Carolinians for most of that time.

Fueled by research at N.C. State and the headquarters of Hanes, there continues to be a disproportionate emphasis on textiles across the state.

The Loray Mill in Gastonia, as it appears today.

10) Cheerwine

The regional favorite soft drink should be North Carolina’s official state beverage.


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