Beaufort is a community where history and coastal charm is found around every downtown corner, and where top Crystal Coast restaurants are found side-by-side with historic residences and museums. As a result, it’s an easy task for sightseers to spend an afternoon, a day, or even a full week exploring the collection of sites that are situated in the immediate area, or located just a water taxi ride away.
Visitors who are new to town, and who aren’t sure where to start first, will want to begin their Beaufort odyssey by ensuring that these top destination are on the list. Overflowing with history, scenic vistas, and miles of fun, these are the top 10 attractions that can’t be missed during a full and activity-packed Beaufort vacation
One of Beaufort’s most famed attractions is the North Carolina Maritime Museum – a ship-shape museum that’s located in the heart of the downtown area, and which has a nautical aesthetic, inside and out. The interior of the museum has dozens of different exhibits dedicated to varying aspects of Beaufort’s rich history and culture, and stand-outs include ancient boats and replicas, Civil War artifacts, and relics from Blackbeard’s historic flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Spend an afternoon admiring the different treasures, (which includes an entire room dedicated to seashells from all around the world), or sign up for one of the museum’s many programs and classes for a unique adventure, like its renowned “Build a Boat in a Day” Workshop. No matter how you explore, there are always plenty of reasons to delve deeper into Beaufort history at the NC Maritime Museum.
The Beaufort Historic Site is a collection of nine historical residences or structures that are congregated in the heart of the downtown area. Staffed with costumed interpreters, and filled with artifacts, modern art works, a gift shop, and other unique treasures, a visit to this site is a trip back in time to the early roots of this hopping port community. Distinctive structures within the Beaufort Historic Site include the 1779 Leffers Cottage, the 1796 Carteret County Courthouse, which is also the oldest wood framed courthouse in the state, the original “Old Jail” which was in operation from 1829 until 1954, the 1825 John C. Manson House, and the 1859 Apothecary Shop and Doctor's Office. From well-tended herb gardens that are stocked with traditional medicine ingredients, to the Mattie King Art Gallery which is housed within the 1732 Russell House, - one of the oldest homes in town - this village within a village is overflowing with history and inherent Beaufort charm.
Take a quick paddle or a 5-10 minute water taxi ride across the narrow Taylor’s Creek along Front Street to explore a distinctive and natural world that’s just a shell’s throw from the heart of town. The Rachel Carson Reserve is a 5,400 ace national wildlife refuge that was created in 1966, and which serves as a perfect representation of a barely-inland coastal ecosystem. Home to a small dock, several soundside beaches, and several winding nature trails (both roughly a mile long) that cut through diverse habitats including local marshes, shrub thickets, and maritime forest, the site is an ideal destination for nature fans of all varieties. With more than 200 species of birds, a herd of feral horses, sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, and other favorite wild residents spotted at the site, wild vacationers will have a fine time exploring the rustic but altogether fascinating natural scene without venturing too far from the downtown area.
Just 1.5 miles away from the heart of Beaufort lies one of the most scenic and coveted shorelines along the Crystal Coast – the famed Shackleford Banks. This barrier island that’s part of the 56 mile long Cape Lookout National Seashore is renowned as the home of the Shackleford Banks’ Wild Horses, or the “Banker Pones,” which are a herd of feral horses that are thought to be the descendants of shipwrecked Spanish Mustangs from early explorers of centuries ago. In addition to the Banker Ponies, the shoreline is also prized for its exceptional fishing, shelling, and overall privacy. Completely isolated with no development, visitors who make the trek to the Shackleford Banks can expect to find gorgeous beaches, handfuls of wild horses, and refreshingly not much else. Access to this island can be obtained through Island Express Ferry Service. The trip from Beaufort takes just 10-20 minutes at the most, which makes this deserted island destination surprisingly easy to reach, and consistently appealing to beach lovers and seashore purists of all varieties.
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse may be the most isolated of the Outer Banks lighthouses, but it’s also one of the most unique for both its isolated barrier island setting, as well as its distinctive pattern of black and white diamonds. Located within the Cape Lookout National Seashore, the only way to access this lighthouse is via a private vessel or ferry, but Beaufort vacationers will soon discover ferry service or tour options available which depart regularly from Front Street, and which take visitors across the sound to the beaches bordering the structure.Island Express Ferry Service is the only ferry service availble to access these destinations. Once on site, seasonal visitors can climb the 208 steps to the top for a small fee to enjoy panoramic views that put the island landscape in an entirely new bird’s eye perspective. Easy to access from Beaufort via a 40-45 minute ferry ride or cruise, this isolated lighthouse is easily within reach for Beaufort visitors, and is a “must see” destination for lighthouse lovers everywhere.
For a spookier look into Beaufort’s history, take a trip to the Old Burying Ground, which is bounded by the borders of Ann, Craven, and Broad Streets, and which is the final resting place of a number of legendary North Carolina figures. Established in 1724, and therefore one of the oldest cemeteries in the state, the Burying Grounds have roughly 200 stones from the pre-Civil War era, which includes famous politicians and historical figures, as well as lesser-known residents like unknown British Officers or the mysterious 1756 grave that’s marked only as “A.P.” Tours are regularly available of the Old Burying Ground through multiple tour companies and local attractions like the Beaufort Historic Site, which gives sightseers an opportunity to delve deeper into the stories behind the cemetery’s local residents. In addition, maps of gravesites are available throughout the town, and also online at http://www.beauforthistoricsite.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/BHA-Old-Burying-Ground-Brochure.pdf, allowing history buffs to explore the legends and the legendary interred even further.
The heart of Beaufort is arguably located along Front Street – one of the oldest roads in a town that was plotted out more than 300 years ago, and one of the most scenic and hopping sections of the downtown area. This street which runs parallel to the waterfront along Taylor’s Creek is home to a collection of marinas, boat launches and slips, restaurants, shops or small shopping complexes, and attractions, and is the perfect spot to enjoy a gorgeous view as well as a generous sample of everything that Beaufort has to offer. Street side parking is available all along the road, (and especially along the eastern portion of Front Street), and from here, visitors can peruse the sidewalks or the waterfront for incredible views of Taylor’s Creek, the Rachel Carson Coastal Estuarine Reserve, and the historic structures that are stationed all along the route. Pause at one of the many waterfront benches to relax with the water in the background, or grab a drink or a meal at one of the creekside eateries and coffee houses. For a walking exploration that’s dappled in endless views, there’s arguably no better starting point than Front Street.
Sunset Cruises… or dolphin cruises, or nature cruises, or wild horse cruises…
One of the biggest draws of Beaufort for water lovers is the dozens of locally owned cruise and tour businesses that are stationed all along the Front Street docks and waterfront. From this central coastal location, visitors can easily embark on a world of adventures that encompass the outlying barrier islands and beyond, and with so much variety, water fans of all tastes can find a cruise or tour that perfectly suits their style. Set sail on a sunset cruise that serves as a dreamy escape during a romantic getaway, or bring the kids along for an action packed dolphin watching cruise or wild horse tour of the Banker Ponies that live on the Shackleford Banks. From pirate-themed cruises that your youngest crew members will never forget, to dinner cruises onboard some of the largest vessels along the Beaufort docks, there are seemingly endless options when it comes to on-the-water explorations that are tailor made to a visitor’s interests. Best of all, with the majority of businesses based in the heart of the downtown area, it’s easy to find a cruise, tour, or adventure that looks undeniably appealing with a simple stroll along the waterfront.
Because of an intricate layout that was plotted out more than three centuries ago, the downtown streets of Beaufort are perfect for long strolls and explorations on-foot, and naturally, this geography and rich history has led to a number of walking or sightseeing tours where visitors can discover everything the town has to offer. For history or kid-oriented adventures, sign up for a Pirate Walking Tour that outlines the story of Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, Calico Jack, and other notorious swashbucklers, or for something more eerie, try a nighttime tour that encompasses the ghosts and legends of the Old Burying Ground and beyond. There are even special tours available for vacationers with great taste, like a food walking tour or a drink walking tour that includes visits to some of the town’s most esteemed eateries and pubs, and visitors who don’t feel like walking can even hop aboard a 1960s vintage English bus to explore the town via a tour offered by the Beaufort Historic Site. Regardless of a particular interest or ultimate goal – whether it’s learning all about the legendary figures of downtown Beaufort, or just enjoying the region’s best coastal cuisine – virtually any exploratory ambition can be conquered with an in-depth walking tour.
Visitors who want to experience a natural and traditional taste of the coastal lifestyle of Beaufort can drive just a few miles east to the small community of Harkers Island, where the essence of historic Carteret County is alive and well. This residential village with a backbone of fishing and decoy carving is a scenic driving destination that can be explored with just an hour detour off of Highway 70. Take a few minutes to peruse the local gift shops and restaurants, or make a stop at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center to learn more about the area’s ties with the water. From stunning sunsets along the small beaches off of Harkers Island Road, to vistas of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse from veritably every soundfront vantage point, an exploration of Harkers Island is a road trip that will make all visitors fall in love with the laid-back coastal lifestyle.
While the top 10 attractions are essential stops for every Beaufort vacationer, there is always plenty more to discover with an escape to this stunning coastal town. From the region’s best rated restaurants to chic maritime boutiques and kid-friendly general stores, a stroll around Beaufort is distinctively and uniquely charming with every turn.
Find your own favorite attractions in the downtown area and beyond, and discover why this town that’s been designated as one of the “Coolest Small Towns in America” by national reviewers can appease coastal vacationers of all appetites and tastes.