Guide to Bryson City, North Carolina
Attractions,  Family Friendly,  Surrounding Areas

A Complete Guide to Bryson City: Activities, Restaurants, Bars, and Shops

Bryson City is a charming little town right in the middle of much of what makes the Western North Carolina mountains so incredible. From the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which holds some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the area, to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Qualla Boundary and all that Cherokee, NC, showcases for tourists, you’ll have plenty to see and do. 

There are train outings, fresh air, tasty food, and watersport options on both Fontana Lake and the nearby Nantahala River. What’s even better is that you may feel like you’re far from it all, but you’re only three hours from Atlanta and one hour west of Asheville!

While many people come here ready to explore and get some serious adventure time in, you can take Bryson City easy, too – a walk around downtown, some shopping and dining, and sipping your coffee while taking in the views are absolutely great options for finding the relaxation you crave in a fresh mountain atmosphere. 

Let’s dig in and explore some of the unique things to do in Bryson City, NC, that make it a great destination for your next weekend getaway or event – like a family gathering!

Don’t forget to check out our web story: A Complete Guide to Bryson City

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Bryson City Attractions: A Guide to Bryson City and Nearby Experiences

There’s quite a lot of variety in the Bryson City area, especially since the Blue Ridge Parkway starts nearby and offers a scenic, memorable drive through the WNC peaks. Whether you’d like to learn about the history of the area’s flora and fauna or jump into the river and start enjoying whitewater rafting yourself, you’ll never lack for options. 

1. Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Explore All that Cherokee Has to Offer

Near Bryson City in Cherokee, NC, is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, an excellent place to visit for your family, especially older children, to learn more about the history and heritage of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, their culture, and resilience. 

The Qualla Boundary, or the area of land owned by the Cherokee, contains many other options for learning and outdoor fun. From walking through the Oconaluftee Indian Village to seeing the “Unto These Hills” Outdoor Drama to fishing and hiking, you’ll find that there are a lot of options for every kind of interest. 

There are multi-use trails that are well-suited to mountain biking, a casino, a golf course, and much more. Explore all the options for both excursions and lodging and dining at visitcherokeenc.com.

Location: 589 Tsali Boulevard, Cherokee


2. Experience Whitewater Rafting and More at Nantahala Outdoor Center Adventures

Complete Guide to Bryson City: Nantahala Outdoor Center
Images courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

One of the top spots (considered the top outfitter in the United States!) for outdoor adventuring with experienced guides and instructors is right in Bryson City, the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Their bread and butter are incredible whitewater rafting trips where experienced guides help you do your own rowing and navigating while keeping you safe on exciting rapids.

They also offer ziplining, an adventure park, river raft and duck rentals (inflatable kayaks), standup paddleboard rentals on Fontana Lake, and even guided mountain biking excursions. Even people who are less experienced with the outdoors will find that an outing with experienced guides is a totally different animal: you’ll learn both how to stay safe and how to make your adventures as enjoyable as possible. 

In addition to the tours, trips, and rentals available right here in Bryson City, the NOC can coordinate with other locations throughout the country to get you signed up for your next adventure, be it Iceland, the Grand Canyon, or Belize!

Location: 13077 U.S. 19 West, Bryson City


3. All Aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Guide to Bryson City North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Images courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

This historic gem of a railroad features primarily pleasure journeys to see the many parts of the Great Smoky Mountains that aren’t as visible via car, showing you all kinds of historic landmarks, rivers, lakes, and during the right time of year, some of the best autumn leaves around! 

Journeys are often focused on the routes through the local landscape, but some journeys are either specifically for children or families, or else are 21+, with three different train trips devoted to wine, beer, and even a moonshine ride. Sit in the beautiful, well-appointed cars, enjoy the company of your friends or family members, and truly relax with this fun way to make memories.

Location: 18 Fry Street, Bryson City.


4. Visit the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians and the Appalachian Rivers Aquarium

Complete Guide to Bryson City: Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians
Images courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

In the same building, you’ll find two niche Bryson City attractions, making it a great combination stop. First, explore the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians

The mechanics and engineers, in addition to the fishers, of course, will find the history and evolution of fly fishing gear and technique to be full of fascinating facts. The exhibits and videos on display help you understand just how unique and valuable the rivers and streams of this part of the world are to the experience of fishing. 

Then, head next door to view the small but mighty Appalachian Rivers Aquarium. The 14 tanks and two terrariums showcase a huge variety of creatures, from game fish you might encounter while fly fishing to amphibians, reptiles, and salamanders, including the fascinating Eastern hellbenders. If you’re planning to be in creeks and streams at all during your trip, a visit to this aquarium first can help kids feel ready to identify the wildlife they see and get excited! 

Location: 117 Island Street, Bryson City


Bryson City Activities and Events

Bryson City is charming all year round, but a few events draw bigger-than-average groups to the community and this area. From particularly great conditions for whitewater kayaking to the weeks when the autumn leaves are turning magnificent shades of red and orange, you can find quite a crowd here if you plan to visit during one of the top Bryson City events.  

1. Experience the Wonder and Magic with the Polar Express and Christmas Parade

Explore Bryson City North Carolina: Polar Express-themed train ride
Images courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

While there are fun excursions from the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad all year round, one of the most highly-anticipated rides each year is the Polar Express-themed train ride. This trip is based on the children’s book that shows a child getting to ride a train to the North Pole, meet Santa, and carry the spirit of Christmas in his heart forever afterward.

At Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, children are invited to wear their pajamas like the children in the book and take a 75-minute train ride (round-trip) through the quiet wilderness while drinking warm cocoa and eating a sweet treat. 

The sounds of the Polar Express soundtrack keep things very Christmassy, and Santa Claus awaits children when they arrive at the Polar Express. Santa himself offers children the iconic gift from the book (a silver sleigh bell!), and there’s a Christmas carol sing-along on the way back. The whole experience is magic for little ones and honestly enough to make believers of family members too. 


2. Experience the July Powwow in Cherokee

Complete Guide to Bryson City: Powwow
Image courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

Dancing competitions and beautiful regalia are just the start of the incredible celebrations at the Powwow, which is held each July in Cherokee, NC, in the Qualla Boundary area. While Powwows are a traditional gathering and, therefore, particularly special to the Native population of the Carolinas, they are also a celebration, and the event welcomes non-Native visitors at a rate of $15 per day admission. 

The weekend’s music, dance, and vendors create an incredible, vibrant atmosphere, and witnessing it will be a valuable memory of your time in the Bryson City area. It’s worth reading up on powwow customs and etiquette so that you can be respectful of the experience if you are a first-timer. Be ready to be impressed and connected to a culture that you may know some about. Attend the annual powwow, and you will now get a first-hand experience.


3. Celebrate Appalachian Music and Traditions at the Memorial Day Swain County Heritage Festival

Best Things to do in Bryson City: Swain County Heritage Festival
Images courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

The Swain County Heritage Festival is held over Memorial Day weekend and offers a great insight into the local color here in the Bryson City area. If you’ve got a trip in the works for this time of year, don’t miss this festival. 

It offers bluegrass, folk, Celtic, and country music, and for many of the acts, you can expect to see plenty of toe-tapping and even people out dancing traditional dances. There’s also a Southern Gospel music opener on Friday night, and throughout the weekend, you’ll find arts and crafts vendors, plenty of food, and kids activities, including sack races that will be amusing for both the participants and the viewers. 

One of the standout events is the cross-cut log sawing contest, where people showcase their speed and precision with a manual saw sawing a cross-section of a substantial tree trunk. You’ll hear local favorites play and see the town really come alive at Riverfront Park.


4. Celebrate Farming at the Swain County Agricultural Fair

Complete Guide to Bryson City: Swain County Agricultural Fair
Images courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

Like many county fairs, the Swain County Agricultural Fair, usually held in August, is a wide variety of events all rolled into one. There are county fair contests for excellent livestock and produce, games, craft booths, and wagon rides. 

People find excellent fair food, live shows, and even a Battle of the Bands that can get quite competitive. Because of the hot weather at this time of year, there’s often a waterslide. Plus, there are plenty of educational booths sharing details about both agriculture and local nonprofits that might be of interest to the gathered crowds. If you’re looking for fun things to do in Bryson City, get a taste of small-town charm in an area that takes pride in the produce and livestock they grow. 


Bryson City Restaurants and Bars

For a small community, Bryson City offers a variety of flavors for your eating pleasure: from a local microbrewery and fine dining establishments to comforting Italian food and the perfect hiking day sandwiches, you’ll find plenty to satisfy a variety of palates and needs.

Lots of folks are on the go in Bryson City, so check online or call ahead, and you might be able to get tasty options to-go and enjoy the benefits of high-quality flavors from the glorious mountain peaks or the banks of the river mid-adventure. 

1. Experience Historic Elegance at The Bistro at the Everett Hotel

Things to Do in Bryson City: Bistro at the Everett Hotel
Image courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

The Bryson City Bank building is over 100 years old, but in 2015 it became the Everett Boutique Hotel, which includes the exquisite and delicious Bistro at the Everett Hotel. This is one of the more tough-to-get reservations in town, as the space is preferentially available to hotel guests but with some limited seating options one week before the reservation date for those who aren’t staying onsite. 

If you are staying at the Everett and slip into the Bistro for a dinner, you’re likely to choose between delicious dishes like Carolina Mountain Trout, Creole Shrimp and Grits, and Petite Filet Mignon, among other delicious delicacies on the “Shareables & Small Plates” menu. Make it a special occasion if you’re traveling to Bryson City in high style!

Location: 16 Everett Street, Bryson City


2. Stock Up Before a Trip at The High Test Deli and Sweet Shop

Guide to Bryson City, North Carolina: High Test Deli and Sweet Shop
Image courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

If you’ll be headed out on a trip on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, the very close-by High Test Deli and Sweet Shop has the solution to your hunger needs. With flavorful sandwiches, foot-long hot dogs, tasty fried sides, and a solid kids’ menu, you’ll find customizable tasty treats to fill the stomachs of even your pickiest eaters. 

They’ve won top billing for their ice cream sandwiches, and their dining experience is simply fun – the owners pour their souls into this shop and always provide a good experience whether you sit a while or take your meal to go for more Bryson City adventuring. 

Location: 145 Everett Street, Bryson City


3. Eat With a Great View at Rivers End Restaurant

Best Things to Do in Bryson City:  Rivers End Restaurant
Image courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

Bryson City is a bit of a mecca for whitewater enthusiasts, and the team at Rivers End Restaurant realized that building a tasty restaurant for weekend breakfasts and everyday lunches and dinners right into the banks of the Nantahala was the way to create a sensation. 

Their menu focuses on American classics, including salads, burgers, sandwiches, and pizza. They have a full bar as well. The real show, though, is the beautiful river right outside. There are views of the gorge, and you can see hobbyists kayaking or rafting by during any big whitewater time of the year. 

Operated out of the actual Nantahala Outdoor Center, it’s worth a journey out here even if you’re not planning on rafting this weekend – it’s just such a view! If you are rafting, well, you have no reason to leave hungry after a trip. 

Location: 13077 W Highway 19, Bryson City


4. Enjoy a Flavorful Dish and a Delicious Glass of Wine at Pasqualino’s Italian

Fun Things to Do in Bryson City: Pasqualinos
Image courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

For a small mountain town to have flavorful, authentic Italian food and a great wine list is a rare treat, and you’ll see why people are willing to wait for a table at Pasqualino’s once you sample their dishes. 

Start with a bowl of pasta e fagioli soup served with flavorful breadsticks or a house salad with house-made dressing. Then decide on your main course entrees, from a long list of delicious pasta dishes to flavorful seafood or casual lunchtime sandwiches. 

Children can enjoy the tasty favorites of spaghetti, chicken parmesan, or manicotti, and everyone will be excited about Italian desserts like tiramisu, cannoli, and cheesecake. Have your server suggest a wine from their list to perfectly pair with your flavorful food options, and be ready to relax afterward, since the portion sizes will leave you well satiated.

Location: 25 Everett Street Rear, Bryson City


5. Raise a Glass to Heroes at Mountain Layers Brewing Company

Explore Bryson City North Carolina: Mountain Layers Brewing Company
Image courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

A passionate team has realized a dream of opening a brewery in Bryson City, serving locally-made suds while creating a wonderful community space for those who visit or live in this area. The Mountain Layers Brewing Company brewhouse features a bar, but there’s also an outdoor upstairs deck perfect for a little downtown people-watching while you sip. 

From the Whaddayear Wit spiced with coriander and orange to the Fontana Hoppiness IPA to the Wee Be Heavy Scottish Ale, all dark and malty, there’s a beer on tap for every flavor preference, and usually with more than a dozen available and lots of specialty flavors like the Cherry Chocolate Porter and the Maize Into My Eyes Mexican Lager. 

Location: 90 Everett Street, Bryson City.


Bryson City Shopping

No one would claim that Bryson City is a huge city, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the options available to you here in town. A guide to Bryson City shopping would need a longer post, but here are just a few shops to get you started on your shop hop through Bryson City. 

1. Step Back in Time at Calby’s Antiques and Gifts

In the historic Bennett’s Drug Store, Calby’s Antiques and Gifts has continued the spirit of history with an inviting and beautiful store where you can see the 1905 architecture while perusing timeless artifacts as well. 

They offer collectibles and gifts in addition to traditional antiques, with their focus being on china, silver, glassware, and decor. If you’ve got a priceless set that is missing a piece or two, this might be the place to find that teacup or champagne flute you’ve been looking for. There’s also jewelry and small furniture, offering a wide variety of excellent and memorable gift options for the person who has everything. 

Location: 44 Everett Street, Bryson City


2. Find Your Next Art Favorite at Gallery Zella

Fun Things to do in Bryson City: Gallery Zella
Images courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

While you’ll find different media represented at the beautiful Gallery Zella, it will all feel tied through a common thread – their tagline is “Art inspired by the Smokies.” With nature photography showing off some of the most picturesque scenes nearby, as well as sculptures and paintings that also pay homage to the natural world, you’re likely to find something truly priceless here, perfect for commemorating your love of the Bryson City area. 

They offer limited hours during the week, but you can call for an appointment, and there are Gallery Zella parties on holiday weekends where food, wine, and art demonstrations join the already-lovely experience of shopping at an art gallery. In early October, they participate in the Smoky Mountain Arts Festival, which offers competitions and a large art exhibition that any shopper who loves local art will enjoy. 

Location: 166 Everett Street, Bryson City


3. Find Souvenirs at the Great Smoky Mountains Association Bookstore and Gift Shop

When you go on vacation, it’s good to know where the best souvenir shops are, and one of the park stores for the Great Smoky Mountains Association is located in the Swain County Heritage Museum, right in the heart of Bryson City. 

There have been so many beautiful historical accounts, children’s books, and novels written about these iconic mountains, and buying them through the Great Smoky Mountains Association sends profits back into the park itself (their association is a nonprofit). 

The bookstore also includes clothing, gift items, and toys, making it a great souvenir stop even if you’re not looking just for a book. It’s also a good convenience stop before a big outing into the park: from insect repellent to maps, they’ve got you covered.

Location: 2 Everett Street, Bryson City.


4. Shop With Your Heart on Your Sleeve at Humanité Boutique

Complete Guide to Bryson City: Humanité
Image courtesy of GreatSmokies.com

While there are a few different clothing shops in Bryson City, make sure you make time for Humanité if you are out looking for something beautiful to wear. Not only do they offer the timeless and the trendy garments and accessories that you’d expect from a boutique, but 10% of Humanité’s sales are distributed to both international and local charities, creating their slogan to “shop with your heart on your sleeve.” 

They also have special outreach programs to share the love of fashion and of making a difference in the world. You’ll find that the clothes are affordable, comfortable, beautiful, and chosen to create excellent looks for all ages. Enjoy the fun of shopping with your family or friends while knowing that your purchase is making a difference in other people’s lives. 

Location: 130 Everett Street, Bryson City.


We hope you enjoy your trip to Bryson City! What are your favorite things to do in Bryson City, NC? Let us know in the comments.


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Laura finally got to move to Asheville in 2021 after a decade of visits and hangouts here. She loves the food, the coffee shops, and the riverfront in Asheville. Laura is always finding something new and wonderful to try.

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