Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on August 25, 2023.
Hillsborough in Orange County is among our favorite communities to visit in the Research Triangle. Its historic importance in the form of markers and buildings becomes clear to visitors and residents, but the town is also working to preserve and prop up reminders that people used this area long before Europeans arrived.
There are plenty of opportunities to learn more about the area’s background, along with a whole variety of things to do in this awesome small town.
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Hillsborough NC Background
The Occaneechi and Eno were the last known Native Americans who lived in the area. Today, a replica of an Occaneechi farming village that was excavated by UNC in the 1980s can now be seen along the Riverwalk.
It was founded as Childsburgh in 1754 by William Churton and during the Revolutionary War, Hillsborough remained a significant trade spot. The town also briefly served as North Carolina’s state capital when New Bern, our first permanent capital, was held by the British.
Hillsborough is still the center of government in the area, as it’s the Orange County seat.
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Hillsborough sits in Orange County and is accessible via I-85 near Durham and I-40 near Chapel Hill. US 70 and NC 86 also run through here as part of the Colonial Heritage Byway, one of our favorite scenic road trips.
Those options make traveling to Hillsborough perfect for folks who prefer backroads or the more direct interstate.
Things to Do in Hillsborough NC
The Riverwalk in Hillsborough is easily one of our favorite things to do, especially during cool mornings. The paved walkway snakes the Eno, lined with informational placards that detail the waterway’s importance and the life that thrives here.
It’s a little under two miles long and runs from Gold Park on Dimmocks Mill Rd downtown. The path is even part of the Mountains-to-Sea trail that runs across North Carolina.
While the Riverwalk is paved and accessible, it’s not continuously flat, so keep that in mind. We recommend parking either at Gold Park and enjoying the playground first or entering from downtown after picking up a coffee from Weaver Street Market.
Read More: Hiking near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill
Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area
Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area might be a rather small state park-managed site at about 190 acres. But it’s a fantastic change of pace from the comparably flat terrain of Central North Carolina.
The park’s ponds and proximity to the Eno River offer visitors a place to fish, too.
The actual mountain’s peak is said to be the highest point between Hillsborough and the coast. From there, you’ll find views down below and plenty of mountain laurels and rhododendrons along the way.
When the trees are bare in the winter and early spring, you can even get a glimpse at downtown Hillsborough from above.
Agritourism in North Carolina is on the rise, and Orange County and Hillsborough have a lot to offer.
Enjoy the farm animals as you pick wildflowers as well as Halloween festivities at Firefly Farms. The property is spread out and they offer a fantastic walking path through the farm.
Also, our favorite place for strawberry picking in North Carolina is in Hillsborough! Eno River Farm has a great strawberry patch as well as a plant store. And do not leave without a scoop of delicious homemade ice cream!
Fernrock Farm is also an excellent place to pick flowers. The farm is just outside of downtown Hillsborough past the hiking trails for Occoneechee Mountain. Here you’ll pick specialty flowers for a gorgeous and affordable arrangement!
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Walk the Trails at the Occoneechee Speedway
Not just North Carolina history, but racing heritage lay tucked away along the Eno River.
Hillsborough’s Occoneechee Speedway was NASCAR’s first Superspeedway and considered one of the most dangerous tracks, too. The dirt track drew crowds of over 15,000, with legends like Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, and NASCAR’s first female driver, Louise Smith speeding down it.
Today, the speedway has been turned into hiking trails and remnants remain from its former life. Walking the paths is a wonderful outdoor thing to do in Hillsborough.
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Take a Poet’s Walk at Ayr Mount
Ayr Mount was considered one of Central North Carolina’s finest homes when construction was completed in 1812. However, this is not the typical grand house you would expect from a plantation home.
Another way to enjoy the beauty of the property is to stroll the mile-long loop, known as the Poet’s Walk. You’ll pass through the woods, along the Eno River, and through the Kirkland family cemetery. This path makes it easy for one to get lost in the beautiful surrounding scenery.
Last Friday Art Walks
With more than seven independent art galleries and an active arts council, browsing for local art is definitely a fun weekend thing to do in Hillsborough! You can go even further by partaking in their Last Friday Art Walks.
During this monthly event, keep an eye out for special artist exhibitions. Start at the Hillsborough Arts Council store for a guide to all the town’s galleries.
Haunted Hillsborough Ghost Tours
Haunted Hillsborough Tours has operated in town since 2017, offering some of the best ghost tours in NC. All of the tours are led by Enoch Pugh, who died in 1771 and lived through the history he’ll tell you about.
Here are a few options for you to choose from:
- Historic Ghost Tour
- ‘Haints Misbehaving’ Ghost Tour
Eat at These Restaurants in Hillsborough
Hillsborough might be a small town but its collection of restaurants have a little something for all palates.
- We typically start on Churton St with Wooden Nickel, a place with a laid-back pub vibe that emphasizes local brews and eats.
- While there are plenty of great restaurants in Hillsborough, a meal at Saratoga Grill is a must. Open since 1995, the restaurant is a casual vibe but with an elevated menu best known for its seafood dishes.
- And for an upscale date night in Hillsborough, Panciuto tops them all. Six-time James Beard-nominated chef, Aaron Vandemark doesn’t just throw out “local” as a buzzword. His menu comes from neighboring farms, friends, and artisans.
- Across the street from all that is Radius Pizzeria. There, you can devour handmade pizza with ingredients sourced within 250 miles.
- On the other side of the Riverwalk, you can grab a rack of ribs and all the fixings at Hillsborough BBQ Company.
- Outside of historic downtown Hillsborough, you can find perfectly crisp chicken and biscuits at family-owned Jay’s Chicken Shack.
- And finally, no trip to Hillsborough would be complete without a stop at Matthew’s Chocolates. Choose from decadent and delicious rows of truffles and chocolate confections. You can enjoy a treat to take home or eat right away here!
Ready for a Hillsborough Visit Now?
There have been very few places in North Carolina that hit us as Hillsborough did from the first time we visited. We fell in love with this small town and have kept coming back to create happy memories.
If you have been to Hillsborough, we’d love to know all about your favorite things to do here. Let us know in the comments section or send us an email. And if you haven’t been lucky enough to visit this place, we want to know which of the things we mentioned that you’d like to do first.