The Crystal Coast is renowned for its centuries of history and fascinating attractions, and new visitors will discover that when it comes to maritime heritage, all roads seemingly lead to Beaufort. Renowned as North Carolina’s third oldest town, with a long legacy of being a hopping port community, visitors will find an assortment of museums in the region that pay homage to this history, as well as the local ecosystems and culture that make this area distinctively unique.
Visitors who want to delve deeper into Beaufort’s roots, or who just want to spend an engaging afternoon learning more about the area, will find a number of local museums where the stories of Beaufort and the Crystal Coast come to life. From ancient history to the present day wildlife, there’s a lot to discover when you pop into one of these famed museums that are scattered throughout Beaufort and beyond.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum is a must stop for any Beaufort area visitor who wants to learn more about the region’s deep ties to history, the maritime culture, and the scenic coastal environment. Located in the heart of Downtown Beaufort and easily accessible to all area visitors, this museum has a treasure trove of exhibits which includes displays on Blackbeard the Pirate and artifacts of his flagship the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the early US Lifesaving Stations and the subsequent US Coast Guard, the legacy of boat building and commercial fishing, and relics from the region’s role in the Civil War. With interactive exhibits that are undeniably kid friendly, and a wealth of unique treasures like a room that’s dedicated to more than 1,000 seashells from all over the world, the NC Maritime Museum is truly an all-encompassing look into the roots and culture of Beaufort.
Take a step back in time without ever venturing outside the downtown area with a visit to the enchanting Beaufort Historic Site. Manned by costumed interpreters and comprised of nine historic buildings or structures, this destination is a veritable historic village with a number of unique artifacts, displays, and interactive exhibits around every corner. With quintessential historic sites like the 1796 Carteret County Courthouse, (the oldest wood courthouse in the state), the 1829 “Old Jail,” the 1850 doctor’s office and apothecary shop, (complete with adjacent herb garden), and the famed 1732 Russell House which is also the site of the oldest art gallery in North Carolina, there are countless ways to explore the history of Beaufort with a simple stroll through the miniature town. Tours are regularly available throughout the site via the Beaufort Historic Association, and visitors can even extend their exploration via a tour onboard a vintage 1960s double decker English bus.
Visitors don’t have to head indoors to soak up the history of Beaufort, as the more than 300-year-old town has a wealth of legends and stories found on every city block. As a result, a stroll around the downtown area allows visitors to come face-to-face with Beaufort’s roots, especially when it covers the 16 different structures that comprise the Beaufort Historic District. Sprinkled throughout the town, and officially established in 2003 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the Beaufort Historic District includes prime examples of Queen Anne, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival style architecture, as well as some of the most famed and intricate residences in the Down East region. Maps of the historic sites throughout the town are available at multiple locales, particularly through the Beaufort Historical Association at the Beaufort Historic Site.
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One of the best ways to acquire a first-hand account of the local Beaufort history is to make a stop at the Old Burying Ground along Ann Street in the heart of the downtown region. This ancient cemetery that was established in the early 1700s is a veritable “who’s who” of legendary local figures that can range from former politicians, inventors, and famous residents, to soldiers and wartime heroes. The gravesites date all the way back to the 18th century, and guided explorations of sites of interest are available through the Beaufort Historic Site, as well as a number of local walking or biking tour companies. In addition, maps of the Old Burying Ground are available throughout the town and online at http://www.beauforthistoricsite.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/BHA-Old-Burying-Ground-Brochure.pdf, allowing visitors to learn more about the famous locals who shaped this coastal community, as well as the modern state of North Carolina.
Harkers Island, which is located just east of Beaufort, has a quietly revered history as a famed fishing and hunting destination, and these proud roots are explored in detail at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center. This fascinating museum paints a picture of the Down East area’s ties to the water and local environment through a collection of hand-crafted decoys, live demonstrations, boat building displays and / or workshops, and a number of programs that highlight the area’s rich maritime history are readily available throughout the year. Take a tour of the varying exhibits that highlight the area’s ties to the water, or stroll along the nearby nature trail to explore the terrain in-depth. With lots to uncover both inside and out, as well as a wealth of educational programs for visitors, this destination is an engaging look into the still-honored legacy of Harkers Island.
Take a tour of one of the most intact coastal Civil War forts still in existence with a visit to the Fort Macon State Park. Located east of Atlantic Beach, (which is found just across the Causeway from neighboring Morehead City), this destination encompasses an 1826 brick and stone fort that’s encased by solid outer walls, and which boasts 26 vaulted rooms, or casements, that are ripe for exploring. With a central courtyard that connects with the hollow casements where authentic artillery, cannons, and other Civil War memorabilia can be found, a trek through this site is a veritable step back in time to uncover the coastal region’s role in the Civil War. Tours of the site depart regularly from the visitors’ center and will shed new light on the stories behind the fort, and the site also hosts regular educational programs and events, including seasonal cannon firings and even Civil War reenactments. In addition to its fame as a Civil War historical site, Fort Macon is also renowned as the first state park in North Carolina, and visitors will want to stick around after a tour to discover the adjacent pristine and undeveloped beaches.
Kids of all ages will adore taking a trip to the Emerald Isle shoreline to explore the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores – an enticing attraction that’s well known as one of the best aquariums in the state. Home to more than 50 exhibits that outline all the different ecosystems in the state, as well as 4,000 different animals, the aquarium is an active museum where the local ecosystems and environments come brilliantly to life. Check out the touch tanks where kids can get safely their hands on sting rays and starfish, or make a date to meet Nimbus – the aquarium’s famed resident albino sea turtle. There’s lots to explore around every corner, making this destination that’s just a quick 20-30 minute drive from Beaufort a “must see” museum for visitors of all ages. On a sunny day, visitors will want to extend their tour by exploring the adjacent Theodore Roosevelt State Natural Area, where two nature trails uncover the varying habitats found along the Crystal Coast.
Tips for Visiting the Museums in and Around Beaufort
While a trip to a local museum is enjoyable in its own right, visitors who want to make the most out of their Beaufort expeditions will want to be sure and follow these tips and tricks to ensure their museum excursions are as fascinating, educational, and enjoyable as possible.
- Check out the events calendars before every visit! Many local museums have programs for patrons of all ages and interests, like special kids’ story hours, educational lectures, and even classes like the regular “Build a Boat in a Day” workshop at the NC Maritime Museum. As a result, a typical trip can be elevated and even more educational by signing up for a class, or participating in a special program.
- The museums in Beaufort and throughout the Crystal Coast are open year round, and are at their most uncrowded in the off-season fall, winter, and spring months. As a result, a wintertime vacation is the perfect time to go exploring, and to enjoy a relaxed tour of the museums with few crowds and distractions.
- Watch out for rainy days. A rainy day is when the local museums are at their most crowded, and especially popular destinations like the NC Maritime Museum or the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. To avoid the crowds, opt for a museum outing on a sunny afternoon, when most summertime vacationers are lounging on the nearby beaches.
- Want to save a little money? A museum trip is the perfect way to see the local attractions without breaking the bank, as the majority of the local museums are either free or open to the public for a nominal fee. Remember that the majority of the museums operate on donations, however, so be sure and give a small contribution when you can.
- Don’t forget to stop by the gift stores! The gift shops that are attached to the local museums often have a collection of unique books, trinkets, apparel, toys, and other treasures that can’t be found anywhere else. As a result, they are perfect destinations for acquiring one-of-a-kind gifts and souvenirs.
For such a small community, Beaufort is certainly packed with history, and visitors will soon find that there’s a story or a legend to be discovered around every corner. From historic residences that date back hundreds of years, to deep ties with the local maritime culture, Beaufort is a perfect destination for history buffs and museum fans who want to learn all about the Carolina coastline’s fascinating roots.