The official state song and toast of North Carolina entitled, The Old North State, begins with, “Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine, The summer land where the sun doth shine, Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great, Here’s to ‘Down Home,’ The Old North State!”
Many North Carolinians have a great deal of state pride because of the accomplishments of the state's famous residents and the significant historical moments the colony and later US State has touched. From its contributions to the American Revolution to its place in major Civil War battles and Kitty Hawk, the site of Wilbur and Orville’s first flight, NC has a unique and colorful history.
There are several small historic towns throughout the state, from the Inner and Outer Banks regions to inland areas near major academic and research centers. From the island site of the first English colony in the late-1500s and the mystery of the lost colony, to the homes of signers of the Declaration of Independence and towns that played a vital role in the Underground Railroad, there’s so much to see and learn. Many of these towns further claim scenic waterfront views, verdant hills, and period architecture. Come with us on a journey into the living history of The Old North State!
The small town of Bath lies along the Pamlico River. The town enjoys a flat terrain with waterfront views in nearly all directions. Not only is the population of Bath small, but the entire town is less than a square mile and these days serves as a second home vacation spot for boating and fishing enthusiasts. Bath was the first town in the colony of North Carolina and therefore the oldest town in the state today. It was founded in 1705 and is over 300 years old. The early history of Bath was a rocky one. As the first port city in North Carolina, the town became a gateway to the colony, making it a center for politics and trade. It was also the home of pirates like Black Beard. The town’s early days were marred by Indian wars, piracy, epidemics, and rivalries (https://historicsites.nc.gov). The entire downtown is a historic district with well-preserved colonial buildings and homes. At Historic Bath, stop into the visitor’s center for information about walking tours. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Bonner House and Van der Veer House are three must-see historical landmarks. Pecan Grove Marina and Old Town Country Kitchen are two commercial landmarks to check out.
Located on the Albemarle Sound and part of the Inner Banks region, Edenton has a mix of flat and hilly terrain with picture-perfect water views. Founded in the early 1700s and having served as the capital of the colony, the town has a rich and compelling history. The signing of what became known as the Edenton Resolves in 1774, was the first political act by women in the colonies. The women pledged not to buy tea or cloth from England (which the colonies relied upon for imports), and this was the start of the Edenton Tea Party. Edenton was the birthplace of Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The town also played a significant role in the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, helping African Americans escape slavery (https://www.britannica.com). Important historical landmarks include Cupola House, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and Roanoke River Lighthouse. The downtown boasts brick sidewalks, period buildings and waterfront views. For some good eats try The Table at Inner Banks. For a fine shopping experience consider The Polkadot Palm, a local store with everything from gifts to clothing and home decor.
The town of New Bern is situated at the headwaters of the Neuse and Trent Rivers. The downtown is a mix of period and modern buildings, with cobblestone streets. Near the waterfront there are rolling hills. New Bern was founded in 1710, making it the second oldest town in the state. The town was nearly destroyed by Native Americans and rebuilt after its incorporation in 1723. The town was home to the first printing press and newspaper in the colony. For nearly five decades it served as the colonial and state capital until 1792. The town was captured by the Union Army in 1862, during the Civil War. In the late 1800s the New Bern served as the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola by resident Caleb Bradham, the soft drink’s creator (https://www.britannica.com/). Don’t miss historical landmarks like Tryon Place (formerly the governor’s palace), the New Bern Academy (the state's first public school) and the North Carolina History Center. For some local entertainment, consider touring the Birthplace of Pepsi-Cola and the New Bern Firemen’s Museum.
Beautiful Beaufort is a town in the Inner Banks region with sandy beaches and with coastal woodlands. The Town was founded in the early 1700s, making it one of the oldest in the state. Beaufort has a rich maritime history. It served as a port for Spanish and French ships. It was also a haunt of Black Beard. The historic downtown has colorful homes and buildings with nautical flair. Beaufort was named “Best Small Town for Adventure” by USA Today, the “South’s Best Small Town” by Southern Living and “America’s Favorite Town” by Travel and Leisure. The town was also the setting for two Nicholas Sparks novels, “A Walk to Remember and “The Choice” (https://www.beauforthotelnc.com). Look for tours of popular historic sites like Old Burying Ground, Beaufort Historic Site and Cape Lookout National Seashore. Some local attractions include NC Maritime Museum and Shackelford Banks. Come enjoy the old-world charisma of Beaufort.
With lovely views of the Eno River and rolling hills, the town of Hillsborough is a delightful place to visit. The town is only 14 miles from the city of Durham (known as the Research Triangle Region), the home of Duke University. Hillsborough has been described as, “The small town with a big history.” Today the town is a refuge for artists and writers, but in the 1700s, leading up to the Revolutionary War, it was a hotbed of political activity. Royal and later elected governors called Hillsborough home, as did William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The town played host to the third Provincial Congress and the Constitutional Convention of 1778, where it was insisted that the Bill of Rights be added to the US Constitution (https://visithillsboroughnc.com). The downtown offers Federal and Colonial style homes and buildings, along with brick sidewalks, making for a charming setting. Historical landmarks are Ayr Mount (late 1700s Federalist plantation style home), Orange County Historical Museum and the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail (one of the first NASCAR tracks). Also consider a visit to the Eno River State Park, where one can wander through forests, enjoy river vistas and wildlife sightings.
Manteo is a coastal town with a mixed topography of sounds and marshlands and is located on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks region of the state. In 1584, the area that is now the town was once one of the first English settlements in America. The original settlers disappeared without a trace and became one of the early mysteries of the New World (https://www.achp.gov). Top historic landmarks include Roanoke Island Festival Park (recreation of original English colony), Elizabethan Gardens and The Lost Colony. Some popular commercial attractions are Manteo Waterfront and the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. The downtown offers great shopping at the Farmers Market and The Christmas Shop. O’Neal’s Sea Harvest is a fine restaurant to sample some of the fresh, local seafood.
Located near the Yadkin River and nestled among the green hills of the Piedmont region is the town of Salisbury. The downtown boasts Victorian architecture, brick streets and a thriving art scene. Before the town was settled by the Scotch-Irish and later German immigrants, the area was home to Native American tribes like the Catawba. Pioneer Daniel Boone lived near the Yadkin River in the 1750s-1760s and Andrew Jackson (former US President) passed the bar in Salisbury. During the Revolution, the town, for a period, was a headquarters for American general Nathanael Greene and in 1861 the town hosted a large Confederate prison during the American Civil War (https://www.britannica.com). Historical landmarks include Old Stone House (one of the oldest colonial homes in the region, near a Granite Quarry), Salisbury National Cemetery and Dr. Josephus Hall House (An 1820s home. Contact the Historic Salisbury Foundation for tours). Additional attractions are the Historic Salisbury Trolley Tour and the North Carolina Transportation Museum.
The Historic Towns of NC
These historic towns in North Carolina should be investigated by all American history buffs, but there’s so much more to each of these villages, including endless natural beauties and attractions for the whole family. While states like California, Hawaii, Colorado, and, Florida are often the favorite spots, we hope this has inspired one’s future vacation plans!