When it comes to historical sites and landmarks, the Tar Heel State has it covered.
As one of the original 13 colonies that preceded the Revolution, North Carolina’s history is varied and colorful—including the state’s infamous pirate-haven coast. But for many North Carolinians, the history of the state is something to read about rather than experience.
Well, it doesn’t have to be that way.
For those who want to explore North Carolina’s history up close and personal, the state is full of historical towns and cities to visit. While some of the following cities are best known for their rustic charm, others have grown into thoroughly modern metropolises. Either way, take a look at the 10 oldest towns and cities in North Carolina, and for those who want to plan a visit, get ready for a road trip through history.
10. Banner Elk
Dating back to 1848, Banner Elk is a town located in North Carolina’s beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. While it remains a small town—only one stoplight in the municipality—it’s nevertheless packed with modern amenities. Banner Elk is a popular High Country vacation town boasting several ski resorts, hiking trails, and other outdoor attractions, not to mention a lively restaurant scene that spans from casual to fine dining.
Founded in 1787, the town of Rutherfordton is the county seat of Rutherford County, and with a population of 3,621 as of 2021, remains small but important to the state’s history, with 10 local sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That includes the Main Street Historic District, which to this day serves as the town’s central business district.
8. Old Salem
Located in the heart of modern Winston-Salem, Old Salem is the city’s historic heart, dating back to its founding in 1766. Originally settled by the Czech Moravian community, Old Salem hosts a living history museum where you can explore a recreation of the city’s earliest days. For a dose of art and culture, check out the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and don’t forget to snap a picture with the giant coffee pot at the edge of town—it was made by tinsmiths in 1858.
The oldest municipality in Forsyth County, Bethania was founded in 1759 as a settlement of the Moravian religious community and remains the only continuously active Moravian community in the US to this day. The town is currently home to only a few hundred residents. Visitors can learn about its history at the museum and visitor’s center or grab a bite to eat and do some shopping at the Bethania Mill and Village Shoppes. If you’re not familiar with the Moravians’ famous cookies, get familiar while you’re there.
Founded in 1757, with only 170 residents as of 2020, don’t let the small size of Halifax fool you—this town prides itself on being the “birthplace of freedom.” Why? In 1776, Halifax was the site of the Halifax Resolves—the first action by any of the 13 colonies calling for independence (unless you believe the myth of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, but that’s a whole other article). Today, Halifax is home to the Halifax Historic District, operated by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources through their State Historic Sites and Properties division.
While Hillsborough—sometimes shortened to Hillsboro—lists its official founding in 1754, the town along the Eno River had been a thriving Native American community of the Occaneechi people for centuries before then. Today, Hillsborough is still a thriving town known for its art and music scene, including the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation, while archaeologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill continue to unearth its historic past.
As a coastal town that’s equal parts North Carolina history and contemporary waterfront fun, Beaufort has been drawing North Carolinians and visitors alike since 1713. This former pirate haven has ties to Blackbeard himself, as he ran his ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground near the present day town—now a National Historic Place. Today, visitors can enjoy ocean views, delicious seafood, and a visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
The colonial “second capital” of North Carolina, Edenton’s roots date back to adventurers from Jamestown, Virginia, who established a colony after traveling south in 1658—the first permanent European settlement in North Carolina, which became a town in 1712. Today, Edenton is a popular site for retirees, with a thriving tourism industry, as visitors are drawn to its historic sites, stunning coastline, and beautiful lighthouses.
2. New Bern
A thriving city on the Carolina coast, New Bern is named for Bern, the region in Switzerland where many of its founders hailed from when they established the town in 1710. New Bern’s official coat of arms features a black bear on a red-and-yellow background in a traditional Swiss-style design that nods to its heritage. Contemporary New Bern is a charming waterfront town that can be easily accessed via the nearby Coastal Carolina Regional Airport.
The oldest town in North Carolina, the riverfront town of Bath was established in 1705—the first chartered town in the state, and an important colonial port of entry. Bath has remained a small but mighty town throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, never exceeding 400 residents. Visitors can enjoy state parks and historic sites as well as all the coastal aquatic activities North Carolinians know and love, including canoeing, fishing, and jet skiing.