Step back into maritime history when you visit Beaufort, North Carolina, and enjoy a treasure chest of free things to do. This Crystal Coast gem – the third oldest city in the Tar Heel State and originally known as Beaufort Towne – will beguile you. Dating back to the 1600s, Beaufort was a fishing village and port of safety.
Notably, Beaufort is one of two historic Southern cities bearing the same name in the Carolinas. The headline for Southern Living’s article on A Tale of Two Beauforts explains why you shouldn’t get them confused — different pronunciations (BOW-fert vs. BEW-fert) — and geographical locations.
While Beaufort, North Carolina doesn’t hold the title of The South’s 2017 Best Small City, it should earn accolades for its two-block preserved historic museum complex, its river-facing historic homes, and its maritime museum.
“ . . . one of the most beloved small towns in the ‘Inner Banks,’ the inland coastal region of Eastern North Carolina (just west of the Outer Banks) . . .”Southern Living
Plus there are so many free things to do in Beaufort.
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Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market
In a perfect world, I would always get to visit a farmers’ market when I travel to a new city. This is the easiest way to meet the residents as well as chat about what makes their city or town special.
The town stages its Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market on a Saturday morning (9 to 1 pm) under the oaks on the courthouse square. The season runs from mid-April through November. Leashed dogs are permitted.
The huge trees provide shade over the tables where vendors sell fruits, vegetables, food, popcorn, beverages, paintings, crafts, and flowers. There is a local band performing songs. You might see people start to spontaneously dance a jig on the sidewalk.
“ . . . where life slows down so neighbors can catch up . . .”
But I bee-lined straight to the oyster couple who shucked a dozen oysters which they served up with a bottle of hot sauce. I slurped these pearls of the sea as my maritime breakfast. (They’re packed with proteins, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.)
Caveat: While admission to the Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market is free, the oysters cost money (a dozen oysters is priced at $12).
If you want a souvenir, consider buying the annual collectible market poster. The 2023 edition featured the hand-carved duck decoys and quilts on sale at the market.
Historic Beaufort Homes
I was visiting Beaufort on a family beach trip with my daughter, son-in-law, and our three retrievers. We definitely attracted attention whether our canine procession appeared.
But I have to say that Beaufort would earn top marks as a dog-friendly Southern city.
It is a pleasure to amble down Front Street to admire the historic homes.
Watch Boats at the Harbor
I highly recommend you linger on a bench to watch the ships glide along the Newport River. I could have stayed here for an hour or more watching the procession of boats and dog walkers. Parker looks to see all the benches in any town we visit.
Robert W. and Elva Faison Safrit Historical Center
Stop in and say hello to the friendly staff and volunteers at the Robert W. and Elva Faison Safrit Historical Center. Located on the Beaufort Historic Site at 130 Turner Street, it is part of the town’s National Registered Historic District.
The Safrit Historical Center also functions as Beaufort’s Visitors Center.
If time permits and you are willing to pull out your credit card, I highly recommend you purchase a ticket for the Guided Historic Homes tour ($15), the Old Burying Grounds tour ($15), or the historic double-decker bus tour ($15-adult).
Beaufort Historic Site
Investigate the two-acre Beaufort Historic Site to learn more about the town’s past. In fact, the Plan of Beaufort Towne, which was laid out in 1713, survives in a 12-block area. It features six authentically restored buildings, including the Mattie King Davis Art Gallery, as well as the Old Burying Grounds
Beaufort Historic Site is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. It depicts 18th and 19th-century coastal Carolina.
Among the houses you will see:
- Leffers Cottage & Garden (c. 1778)
- Carteret County Courthouse (c. 1796)
- John C. Manson House (c. 1825)
- Josiah Bell House (c. 1825)
- The Old Jail (c. 1829)
- Apothecary & Doctor’s Office (c. 1859)
According to the docents, the Old Jail is a favorite with children as it “boasts legends of ghosts and a single hanging in 1874.” The walls are 28-inch thick so it would be hard for a prisoner to escape.
Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center
When you amble by the independent stores on Front Street, be sure to stop in and visit the town’s working boatbuilding facility.
You’ll learn about Beaufort’s DNA as a maritime center. The sounds and scents of traditional North Carolina wooden boatbuilding are demonstrated on the shop floor below as you stand on the viewing platform. If you are lucky, you can watch the construction of wooden model boats.
Cruise the Boardwalk
Even with temperatures hovering in the 90s, the cool breeze blowing in off the river made our afternoon ramble on the town’s boardwalk so pleasant.
This is the place to people-watch. The outside patios for popular seafood restaurants were packed at lunchtime. Children darted around the boardwalk. There are cozy benches to sit down for a rest.
I discovered a vintage mural of Beaufort. Each letter of the town’s name featured a specific image related to the town’s past, including its association with the infamous Blackbeard the Pirate.
The General Store
How many people remember shopping at G. C. Murphy’s five-and-dime stores when they were little? You would wander up and down rows and beg your mom to buy you a box of 64 Crayola crayons and a cat coloring book.
You can relive your childhood by shopping at The General Store in Beaufort. From the minute you walk in, you know that this is the place where [children’s] dreams come true. The sign on the porch promises “Dip Ice Cream.” But you can also buy fountain drinks, fudge, candy, souvenirs, caps & shirts, t-shirts, or use the coin laundry.
Owner Sandra Brayer is a second-generation family member who now owns the store. Her parents started the enterprise in 1980. Their mission was “being a family business serving customers wholesome goods.”
It’s a SWEET place to visit. Plus if you are overheated from your walk along the riverfront, it is a great place to cool off.
Old Burying Grounds
Whenever I visit a historic town, I like to visit the town’s cemetery. This is where their past is buried. You learn so much about how families long ago endured the hard times just by seeing all the weathered headstones listing the babies and children who died so young.
One of the occupants is a child who died at sea and was buried in a keg of rum.
“Many graves are marked with shell, brick, or wooden slabs because stone markers would have to have been brought from afar by wooden sailing vessels.”
The cemetery is located in the 400 block of Ann Street. It is part of Beaufort’s historic district. Established in the early 1700s, the Anglican cemetery was associated with St. John’s Parish. It was later deeded to the town of Beaufort in 1731.
Another afternoon pleasure is to shop for antiques in a historic town. You really discover what residents once treasured when you see their “old treasures” now up for sale. This is a great way to bring home a one-of-a-kind souvenir, such as a piece of china, silver serving tray, or a wine glass.
My daughter Claire insists on buying antiques whenever we travel. We visited Marketplace Antiques at 131 Turner Street, which is conveniently located near the old Court House’s parking lot. I waited outside with Parker as I didn’t trust my rambunctious golden retriever to be anyway near the store’s breakable items.
You might also want to shop at Downtown Antiques & Woodcraft LLC (106 Professional Park Drive) or Taylor’s Creek Antiques (708 Cedar Street.)
Visit Cape Lookout Lighthouse
The entrance is free to Cape Lookout National Seashore (which is a protected U.S. National Park) although you will have to pay for the ferry trip ride from Beaufort. But the fare is definitely worth the cost considering you can get out on the water and enjoy sweeping views of Beaufort from the ferry boat.
See Wild Ponies
You could also visit Shackleford Banks to see the wild ponies. There is no park entrance fee but you will have to rent a kayak in Beaufort. It is definitely a Day 2 option if you are spending a long weekend in town.
Self-Guided Bicycle Tour
If you brought the family’s bikes for your beach vacation, consider an evening bike tour of Beaufort. This is a great way to get some exercise and roam sleepy streets and byways. You can also stop for dinner at No Name Pizza if you brought bike locks. End your evening at the riverfront to watch the sunset.
You could turn it into a scavenger hunt to find street art. Look what I discovered roaming down the side streets of Beaufort? A mural of the bright red double-decker bus that lets visitors explore Olde Beaufort (est 1709)!
Fly a Kite
“Let’s go fly a kite, up to the highest heights . . . ” While Beaufort isn’t gay old London, you can pretend to be Mary Poppins flying a kite with her charges on the town’s river. Even better, plan on visiting Beaufort in October so you can participate in the Carolina Flight Festival. The two-day event will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on October 28-29, 2023 at nearby Atlantic Beach.
“With breezy weather and warm temperatures, the fall is an ideal time to go fly a kite on the Crystal Coast, and this event is an ideal launching point for folks to celebrate their high-flying abilities. The Carolina Kite Festival, which is hosted by the local Kites Unlimited & Bird Stuff, has grown into a stellar and full-day event with hundreds of kites decorating the sky, and plenty of fun to go around.”
“With tuppence for paper and stringsMary Poppins
You can have your own set of wings
With your feet on the ground
You’re a bird in flight.”