Things to do in New Bern, NC – Discover historic small-town charm
There are plenty of things to do and see in New Bern, North Carolina, which should not come as a surprise since the city’s tagline is “We’ve spent over 300 years preparing for your visit.”
Sitting at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers in North Carolina, the waterfront downtown of New Bern exudes historic small-town charm. Located in Craven County, New Bern was the state’s first capital and is the state’s second-oldest town. That means its downtown remains home to numerous historic houses, churches, and other sights. Even though the town has spent, as it likes to say, “300 years preparing for your visit,” New Bern remains, surprisingly to us, a relatively undiscovered destination.
Even if you only have one or two days to fit in a visit on your next North Carolina trip, you’ll quickly discover, as we did, that there are plenty of things to do in New Bern. Did you know, for example that it is the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola and the home of best-selling novelist and screenwriter Nicholas Sparks? That the town boasts more than 150 sites on the National Register of Historic Places? Or that it was where the first Provincial Congress for the new colonies met in 1774? Yup, you can find history across several centuries there.
Let’s start with the town mascot: a bear
Don’t be surprised if you run into numerous colorful bears while wandering around the town. We mean of course statues, emblems, and photos, not the real thing. A group of Swiss settlers from that country’s city of Bern founded the town in 1710 – and of course named it after their home, i.e. NEW Bern. The name comes from the German word for bear, “Bär,” which of course explains the medieval, long-tongued bears above the arched entrances to New Bern’s city hall. These bears were meant to resemble Bern, Switzerland’s symbol.
In 2010, during New Bern’s 300th anniversary celebration, the town officially adopted the bear as its mascot and placed 58 life-sized fiberglass ceramic bears throughout the town. They were adopted by businesses, so many have very different artistic designs. Going on a bear hunt is popular with visitors to find any number of today’s 70-plus statues, at the police station for example or the convention center. Just pick up a free bear map from the New Bern Visitors’ Center.
HITT Tip: The visitors center on Front Street known as the “Cub House” also has free public restrooms during the day in addition to maps and visitors’ information.
Take a New Bern Trolley tour to connect with the town history
Many cities have bus or boat tours that introduce you to city sights. Who needs a huge bus clogging up the small downtown streets in New Bern? Try climbing aboard a cute little red motorized trolley for an introduction to the town with a local telling tales. There really is no better way to truly understand the history and beautiful architecture of New Bern than to take a New Bern Trolley tour.
For 90 minutes, you’ll ride a trolley through three centuries of New Bern history with a guide explaining everything through historical narratives, humorous anecdotes, and fascinating stories. Our guide, Paul, kept his stories folksy and genuine, which is what you’d expect to match New Bern’s small-town charm. The tours allow you to see town history and, if you have time, see places you may want to go back to after the tour, such as the historic Cedar Grove or the Greenwood cemeteries, the Rhone Hotel, New Bern Academy, Tryon Palace, or Christ Episcopal Church. Paul regaled us for example with quite fascinating stories of the Stanly brothers – one white and one black – both of whom were raised with status by their father John Stanly — and he also highlighted the town’s African-American heritage.
On the tour, you’ll also learn that the beautifully restored and maintained downtown area was not always so. Like so many U.S. downtowns, the historic buildings and homes of New Bern had fallen into disrepair over the decades with owners defaulting on loans and running from back taxes. In the 1980s, the city started offering abandoned houses for sale – for the low price of just all back taxes. Today, most historic homes are dollhouses with manicured yards.
Head indoors to enjoy the North Carolina History Center
The North Carolina History Center houses the Regional History Museum, which we particularly enjoyed. The museum is small, but you’ll want to spend at least an hour inside to take in the various displays and artifacts. Each well-curated display reveals the many intertwined influences – cultural, geographic, and environmental – that shaped the New Bern region over the years. Listening to the stories of Native Americans, early European settlers, and Africans brought as slaves to North Carolina was especially poignant.
HITT Tip: Time your visit to the history center around lunch so you can enjoy a meal at Lawson’s On The Creek. The food is deli-style and excellent! And the views of the river from inside the café or sitting on the casual waterfront patio are fantastic.
Wander over to Tryon Palace to experience gardens and history
Tryon Palace is grand in appearance, and features restored historic buildings (including the replica of the state’s first capitol) and 16 acres of gardens. While you must pay to take a tour of the palace itself (we chose not to), the grounds are open to the public. Here you will find interactive recreations of Civil War life, which only began during the pandemic since indoor tours were shut down. They proved so popular, we were told, that they were continued – on most days, unless it’s too hot or too cold.
HITT Tip: The lobby of the North Carolina History Center is a cool retreat on a hot summer day (or perhaps a warm one on a cold winter day) and has wonderfully clean public restrooms – always good to find.
The palace gardens were designed by landscape architect Morley Jeffers Williams and are done in a formal 18th century British style.
Flowers are, of course, seasonal. New Bern is famous for its Mum Festival and in the fall, the Carraway Garden’s elaborate displays of mums are reportedly spectacular. In the spring, daffodils, tulips, and other colorful flowers dot the landscape,
Visit the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola
In 1893, Caleb Bradham created a drink concoction he called “Brad’s Drink” in what was then Bradham’s Pharmacy. Bradham renamed it Pepsi-Cola in 1898 because of its ingredients of pepsin, cola and “rare oils.” He managed and grew his Pepsi-Cola company, adding local manufacturing facilities and franchises in several dozen states, until he declared bankruptcy in 1923. Its assets, including its “secret recipe,” were subsequently sold. A convoluted history of sales, acquisitions and lawsuits followed but its origins remain the pride of New Bern, North Carolina. This former corner pharmacy is a huge tourist draw with an old-time fountain, sodas for sale, and of course plenty of Pepsi-branded souvenirs and merchandise.
Union Point Park and the waterfront walk
A lovely boardwalk and walkway run along the waterfront connecting Union Point Park and the North Carolina History Center. The area is a big town draw for events, picnics and gatherings and is a perfect place to enjoy an early morning stroll. There are benches along the way, too, offering a perfect place to sit and simply let the world pass slowly by while watching boats on the river. We enjoyed a peaceful early morning stroll just after sunrise during our visit to New Bern.
If you happen to be in New Bern on July 4th, as we were, you can enjoy the small-town charm of a fireworks display over the river. Viewing spots include Tryon Palace or along the waterfront.
Walking tours are a perfect thing to do in New Bern
New Bern has put together a series of self-guided walking tours that are excellent and provide a glimpse into the history of New Bern for visitors to move about at their own pace, picking what they’d like to see or not. You can choose from Historic Homes, Churches & Cemeteries, African American History, Civil War Times, and Revolutionary War Times walks. Each guide is available as a PDF for use on a smartphone or as a download to print. They can also be picked up in visitor centers.
HITT Tip: For a uniquely New Bern experience, give Captain Ratty’s a try. We’d recommend the rooftop terrace (you’ll want to make reservations) for views of the downtown. Particularly nice at sunset!
Cemeteries and churches galore
If you are a fan of historic cemeteries and churches, as we are, then you’ll want to spend a little time walking to these. You’ll find the information from the New Bern Historical Society helpful for your explorations. Cedar Grove is one of the largest highlights with its graves dating back to 1800. Spanish Moss drapes the trees. Greenwood Cemetery, just down the street, however, is another must: It was established by the city in 1882 as a black-only burial ground when the city fathers decided blacks and whites could not be buried in the same place. There are many mysteries about its creation, though, since there are graves there that date back to 1816.
The Christ Episcopal Church and Parish House right in the middle of downtown is another piece of New Bern history and something to do you should not miss seeing. Just saunter in and around, taking a moment to gaze at the historic gravestones. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
You’ll need a perfect base for your New Bern visit
We stayed at the Benjamin Ellis House in the heart of historic New Bern, and we’d recommend you stay there, too. Built by Benjamin Ellis in 1853 (hence the name), it is now a luxury inn boasting two ground-floor rooms and six second-floor rooms including two luxury King suites. Rooms are equipped with private bathrooms including luxury bath amenities, Internet access, smart televisions, USB charging stations and individual climate control. If you need more enticement, the inn was the first and only to date to earn a perfect score in our review.
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