Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on November 25, 2023.
North Carolina‘s rich history is covered in books and amazing museums, but you can also learn important facts by visiting historic towns and cities throughout the state. Thanks to the hard work of local historical societies, tourism bureaus, and amazing individuals, NC history is easier than ever to learn about at its many sources.
Since there are so many to share, we wanted to keep things concise and share 13 of our favorite historic towns in North Carolina. Before you think we’ve only included coastal towns in Eastern North Carolina, think again because both Central and Western North Carolina are represented here.
We’ve sorted these historic towns from oldest to newest in order of the year they were settled or founded. Some were long-established by the time they were incorporated, which is why we’re sticking to the earlier dates.
Historic Towns in North Carolina
Bath is the oldest town in North Carolina and was the first port of entry. Its first settlers were French Protestants from Virginia.
By 1708, the town had about 50 people, consisted of 12 homes, and eventually constructed a grist mill, shipyard, and public library. Bath and its surroundings around Goose Creek were once the home to the infamous pirate Edward Teach, a.k.a “Blackbeard.”
It is also the home of North Carolina’s oldest existing church, St Thomas Church (construction began in 1734). Restoration efforts include the church, the Palmer-Marsh House, Van Der Veer House, and the Bonner House.
The Palmer-Marsh House is also a registered National Historic Landmark. Both the Palmer-Marsh and Bonner houses are open for tours, while the Van Der Veer house is open for self-guided tours.
Beaufort is another of our favorite historic towns in Eastern North Carolina. The town was established in 1709 and was first known as Fishtown due to the influential fishing industry.
It was later named after Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort. Many patriots, privateers, merchants, and skilled artisans built Bahamian and West-Indian-style homes and public buildings that still stand today.
Approximately 150 of the historic town’s homes bear plaques with the names of the original owners. The Plan of Beaufort Towne is a 12-block area that was laid out in 1713.
The Beaufort Historic Site offers three tours:
- Historic Buildings Tour (guided and $12/adult, $6/child)
- Historic District Double-Decker Tour (April-October and $12/adult, $6/child)
- Old Burying Ground Tour (reservation required and $12/adult, $6/child)
New Bern (1710)
New Bern was settled by Swiss and German immigrants who named it after Bern, the capital of Switzerland. The city emblem is a black bear trotting up a golden road, the same as old Bern’s emblem, which you can see throughout the city.
Tryon Palace briefly served as the home of the British Colonial governor William Tryon and our state capitol building after the Revolutionary War.
New Bern was where the first state printing press published the first book and newspaper and where the state’s first public school opened.
In the 1890s, town pharmacist Caleb Bradham created “Brad’s Drink,” a beverage now known as Pepsi-Cola. A great New Bern restaurant (the Chelsea) sits in the original pharmacy but there’s a museum nearby that you can visit and sip on some Pepsi.
Today, the town of New Bern offers many self-guided tours through its three historic districts. You can discover the historic town’s part in the Civil War, its historic homes, stores, and churches at your own pace. Historic Trolley Tours are also offered at $16.50/adult and $9/child.
Read More: 15+ Awesome Things to Do in New Bern
Edenton was founded in 1712 as “the Towne on Queen Anne’s Creek.” After incorporation as “Edenton” in 1722 until 1743, it served as the state’s first colonial capital and the second-largest port at the time.
Edenton grew into a southern political, cultural, and commercial powerhouse, becoming a rich and diverse community in North Carolina’s Inner Banks.
Don’t forget to stop by the Historic Edenton State Visitor Center, where you can learn about Harriet Jacobs, an African-American writer. There’s an exhibit inside the Visitor Center that features photos and illustrations of her life and the people and places associated with it.
A self-guided tour will take you around sites related to Jacobs and her eventual escape north via the Maritime Underground Railroad.
We recommend staying at the Inner Banks Inn and spending a weekend enjoying the sites, including the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, which is North Carolina’s oldest courthouse.
Before Wilmington was named after Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, the town was named New Carthage, New Liverpool, and Newton. Regardless of its name, this major port city along the Cape Fear River has prospered for much of its existence.
Settlers exported produce and imported manufactured goods from abroad. The city rose to political power by exporting naval stores to the English crown, playing roles in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
After the war, one of North Carolina’s darkest events took place. On November 10, 1898, a riot and insurrection were carried out by white supremacists in Wilmington.
60 to 300-plus people were killed, Black-owned property was destroyed throughout the city, and opposition White and Black politicians were expelled from Wilmington.
During World War II, shipbuilding flourished, and the economy thrived. However, the move of the railroad headquarters led to economic decline, but the emergence of new industries allowed for economic recovery.
Now, Wilmington is home to a 230-block area of the National Register Historic District, one of the largest in the South. There are more than ten historical sites to explore, with even more things to do in the surrounding areas.
Visitors can also tour Battleship North Carolina, join haunted tours, follow mobile app self-guided tours, and tour historic homes.
Mount Airy (1750)
The first settlers arrived in today’s Mount Airy in the 1740s and there is some debate about the exact year of the town’s founding. The name came from Thomas Perkins, who named his plantation home Mount Airy after purchasing it from one of the town’s most influential residents.
The Surry County town earned its “Granite City” nickname because of its open-face granite quarry, which is the largest in the world. Many of the buildings in Mount Airy are made of granite from this quarry.
Another unique piece of Mount Airy history is the resting place of the original Siamese twins, Eng & Chang Bunker. The twins retired to Surry County until they passed away and were buried at White Plains Baptist Church, only six miles away from Mount Airy.
To learn more about the rich history of this historic town, visitors can explore the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History for $6/person or go on a self-guided walking tour of Historic Downtown Mount Airy.
Hillsborough was initially titled “Orange” until 1766 when it received its current name after William Hill. He was the Earl of Hillsborough and Secretary of State to the colonies between 1768 and 1772.
Of all the historic towns in NC, Hillsborough might have the richest political history, dating back to the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. Tryon, Wake, Queen, King, and Churton are all street names that harken back to these eras.
Today, the Hillsborough Downtown Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places and includes more than 100 homes, churches, and other structures from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Explore the town’s 16 different museums and historic sites, including the Burwell School Historic Site and the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail, a walking trail and important place in NASCAR history.
After Hillsborough, we think Halifax is one of the most important historical towns in NC’s colonial and revolutionary periods. The Halifax County seat played a crucial part in the American Revolution.
The town lies along the Roanoke River and has served as a river port, county seat, crossroads, and social center.
In 1776, a document known as the “Halifax Resolves” was adopted, becoming the first official action by a colony to recommend independence from England.
After the Revolution, Halifax and the Roanoke River Valley became a hub for high society, wealth, and power. The town remained prosperous until the 1830s, when the new railroad bypassed the area, leading to its decline in political power.
Today, Historic Halifax preserves many historic buildings, with some structures dating back to the 1760s. You can stop by the visitor center there, where there is a museum and 13-minute film called “Halifax: Hub of the Roanoke.”
Self-guided walking tours are available to explore authentically restored and furnished buildings, and there are usually costumed historical interpreters and craft demonstrations to take part in.
This next one of the old towns in North Carolina is really two historic towns, but we’ll mostly focus on Tarboro here.
Tuscarora Indians occupied the area now known as Tarboro long before its incorporation. The British arrived in 1733, naming the town “Tawboro” after the Tuscarora word “taw,” which translated to “river of health.”
The North Carolina General Assembly then chartered the name “Tarborough” in 1760. The town comprised 109 lots, with 12 lots and a 50-acre “town common” set aside for public use.
Tarboro was a thriving river port until the Civil War. After the war, 10,000 newly-freed individuals crossed the Tar River and founded Freedom Hill, a settlement known as Princeville. That’s one of many interesting places to learn about Black history in North Carolina.
In 1977, The National Park Service recognized the Tarboro Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The district spans 45 blocks and has more than 300 structures.
You can visit ten different historic sites, including the Historic District and the original Tarboro Town Common (one of two remaining original town commons in the US). You can also join a Historic Tarboro Walking Trail & Tour for $5/person and free for students.
Old Salem (1766)
The roots of Old Salem were planted in 1766 when eight men from the Moravian settlement of Wachovia began clearing trees to make room for a new town. This then-new settlement, which later became Salem, was unique in that residents could not own land.
They had to lease lots from the church, money that went back towards community expenses. The church also governed all other aspects of life in town.
Salem was a trade town and produced ceramics, food, furniture, and metals. In the 1820s, Salem’s economy began struggling, resulting in the church selling land adjacent to Salem in 1849 for a newer town known as Winston.
When the two towns eventually merged, Salem began to suffer neglect until the non-profit organization Old Salem Inc was founded in 1950 to restore its buildings.
The Old Salem Historic District includes 87 acres, with many of the buildings being original structures. The Old Salem Museums and Gardens offers a historically accurate recreation of Salem from 1766 to 1844 and includes approximately 20 buildings and gardens open to visitors with paid admission.
The town of Washington began as a small settlement on James Bonner’s farm, Forks of Tar. The name was changed to Washington in 1776, after then-General George Washington
It was the first town named after our future First President. Washington, the town, played a strategic role in the Revolutionary War like its namesake. American supplies were sent here when nearby ports were under siege by the British.
Unfortunately, many of Washington’s early buildings were destroyed during the Civil War. Residents rebuilt the town before another fire destroyed it again in 1900.
Much of the Victorian commercial architecture was rebuilt and remains today as one of the most intact and historically and architecturally significant commercial downtown areas in the state.
The waterfront is a wonderful way to start your time in Washington, with stops at the Washington Visitor Center, the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum, and the North Carolina Estuarium.
Rutherfordton, formerly named Rutherford Town, was officially recognized by the North Carolina General Assembly on April 17, 1787. Its location allowed the town to became the most important commercial and political center in Western North Carolina in the late 18th century.
It was located along a stage route at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, serving as a common rest stop for settlers going to the western frontier.
Rutherfordton is home to many firsts, such as the first US Post Office in Western NC, the first school chartered by the General Assembly, and the first newspaper published in the western foothills and mountain region.
Now, more than 50 structures in the town are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Take part in the Rutherfordton Historical Walking Tour, where you can explore historic sites, such as the only remaining cluster of pre-Civil War homes in the southern foothills of North Carolina.
You’ll also find the final resting place of Civil War soldiers here. Another popular attraction is the home of Christopher Bechtler, a private minter of currency that rivaled the US Mint.
The Outer Banks town of Manteo might technically be the newest of our favorite historic towns, but one of the most puzzling disappearances happened here.
In 1585, a group of settlers established the Roanoke colony on the island that now bears its name. It was the first English colony in North America and soon after its founding, Virginia Dare was the first English child born here.
Unfortunately for Dare and her fellow colonists, the colony was found abandoned in 1590 and nobody knows what exactly happened.
The Lost Colony remembers those Roanoke colonists who were lost and is a very popular production. Reservations are highly recommended, as the show constantly sells out.
You can also visit Roanoke Island Festival Park, which offers a glimpse into life in the early American colony. Another place to visit and learn is the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, which includes a visitor center and the 10-acre Elizabethan Gardens.
The town was eventually resettled and named after Chief Manteo of the local Native American community on Roanoke Island. He was designated as a goodwill ambassador who traveled to Europe in the late 16th century.
This made him one of the first American residents to travel to Europe as a distinguished guest.
Which of these Historic Places in North Carolina will you visit first?
These historic towns in North Carolina aren’t the only ones that tell a great story, but they’re certainly a nice start. We hope you’re able to visit at least a few of them and learn more about NC.
The unfortunate thing is that most of the small historic towns in North Carolina to visit are near the Atlantic coast.
Therefore, their not super convenient to mountain towns like Banner Elk or Blowing Rock.
If you know a thing or two about North Carolina, we’d love to know about your favorite historic small towns in the state. Are there any that we need to add to this list? Let us know in the comments and we’ll be happy to investigate further!