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John Cawley, co-owner of Sugarneck, a glamping and events space, understands why visitors are drawn to Sanford, a small town in central North Carolina’s Sandhills region. “When people come here,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

John Cawley, co-owner of Sugarneck, a glamping and events space, understands why visitors are drawn to Sanford, a small town in central North Carolina’s Sandhills region. “When people come here,

A Weekend in Sanford

Pork chop from Davison's Steaks in Sanford, NC

John Cawley, co-owner of Sugarneck, a glamping and events space, understands why visitors are drawn to Sanford, a small town in central North Carolina’s Sandhills region.

“When people come here, they’re surrounded by natural beauty, privacy, and peace — nature trails, deer and wild turkey, and that rolling North Carolina landscape,” he says. “It makes people forget their busy day-to-day for a minute and enjoy quality time with those they love most.”

For an outdoor experience that doesn’t forgo an indoor private bathroom, cooking facilities, and other creature comforts of home, try a glamping tent at Sugarneck. Photography courtesy of Visit Sanford

It’s the same reason he and his wife, Alicia, left Houston and the music industry in 2014 to launch Sugarneck in Alicia’s hometown.

Along with Alicia’s mother, Judy, the Cawleys built an oasis for weddings, corporate events, retreats, and weekend excursions in the middle of 400 acres of pristine forest. They take pride in creatively customizing their clients’ experiences, from arranging a surprise guest appearance by country music star Kane Brown in 2019 to throwing a Star Wars-themed wedding, complete with stormtroopers.

But the star of the show is the setting itself: “I don’t care if it’s a 150-person wedding or a 75-person corporate event, when they drive down the driveway, turn the corner, and breath the air, people are like ‘Oh, my God,’” Judy says. “We had nothing to do with the inherent beauty of the property, but we’re always trying to be stewards of it.”

This natural beauty is just one reason to visit Sanford. Between the revitalized downtown, restaurants and breweries, and independent shops and boutiques — plus the locals’ effusive small-town spirit — visitors have more than enough natural, cultural, and culinary destinations to fill a rejuvenating weekend in the Sandhills.


Shop With Hollywood

You may not have visited Bert’s Furniture, but there’s a chance you’ve already seen some of its wares. As a regular outfitter for productions filming in Wilmington, the Sanford institution was the source for Jessica Chastain’s front porch glider on the Showtime series George & Tammy and a mid-century vanity for Netflix’s The Summer I Turned Pretty, among other big- and small-screen set pieces.

Shop for antique pieces and vintage home furnishings at Bert’s Furniture. Photography courtesy of Visit Sanford

“With those set decorators and a lot of our other customers, it’s just become a relationship for us. It’s not just that they’ve got to buy a piece of furniture,” says Bert’s son, Pat McCracken, who owns the shop alongside his wife, Emalee. The McCrackens have expanded their offerings to include used and antique furniture. But they’ve continued Bert’s focus on well-made, practical pieces.

Carve out time to peruse the collection of fine china and antique glassware at Sanford Antique Mall. Photography courtesy of Visit Sanford

“We don’t buy the really beautiful, untouchable pieces that you just sit and look at,” Emalee says. “We buy the things that people are going to use.”

About a block away from Bert’s, Morgan’s Menswear is a new addition to Sanford’s shopping scene that features brands such as johnnie-O and Fish Hippie.

And around the corner on South Moore Street, Sanford Antique Mall is massive. Take your time browsing the 18,000 square feet, with 75 vendors selling everything from pottery and glassware to tools and books.

Next, stop in at the Shops of Steele Street. Here, 10 sellers unite to offer a wide selection of jewelry, gifts, women’s clothing, and toys.


Grab some extra napkins for the Philly steak sub at Bubba’s Subs and Pizza. Photography courtesy of Visit Sanford

More than Sandwiches

Bubba’s Subs and Pizza has always shown up for Sanford. Whether they were contributing tips towards a gymnastics team fundraiser or donating 10 percent of sales to school groups, owners Jeff and Loretta Hartman have always prioritized their community.

Lately, when they’ve really needed it, Sanford has shown up for the Hartmans, too. In November 2023, Jeff was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The diagnosis was a shock that spurred action. Jeff and Loretta galvanized the community to support awareness and research, including a fundraiser at Bubba’s for ALS research that raised nearly $3,000 in one night.

Jeff may not man the grill at Bubba’s anymore, but the menu’s highlights are still his specialties: pizzas made with homemade dough and sauce, house-made ranch that they also sell to other restaurants, and the Jeff’s Favorite, a massive Italian sub that makes for a perfect lunch.

The tea-time experience at Mrs. Lacy’s Magnolia House draws all generations of diners who want to enjoy a relaxing treat in an elegant setting. Photography courtesy of Visit Sanford

For an afternoon treat, Mrs. Lacy’s Magnolia House is as welcoming as its namesake, owner Faye Shultz’s grandma. At this tea room in a 122-year-old house, indulge in a slice of the Hershey cake, homemade chocolate layers with chocolate bar shavings in the icing.

Or head over to Yarborough’s Ice Cream, a Sanford favorite for nearly 90 years. Try Mollie’s Follie or Kate’s Chocolate Malt — flavors named for the current generation of the Yarborough family.

Spend happy hour at Camelback Brewing Company, a brewpub whose name was inspired by the design of the Deep River Camelback Truss Bridge, a historic Lee County structure. Order a C.O. Sanford’s Secret Stout, named for the town’s namesake, Col. Charles Ogburn Sanford.

It’s easy to find a great steak dinner in Sanford. The Flame Steakhouse, a fixture since the early 1970s, features an open kitchen where diners see what’s sizzling. Check out the hand-cut New York strip, wet aged in bourbon mash. If it’s date night, don your jacket and check out the ambience and extensive wine list at Davison’s Steaks, twice voted Lee County’s most romantic restaurant. We recommend stopping in for Prime Rib Tuesday.

About 20 minutes east of town, two restaurants in the Broadway community are worth the drive. Try Los Charros, known for its quesabirria tacos and arroz con pollo. Next door, Woodard Family BBQ & Grill is a classic barbecue joint, with wood-smoked pork and turkey, fried chicken, and — if you hit it on the right day — succulent baby back ribs.


Check out the interactive art along Sanford’s Mural Art Trail. Photography courtesy of Visit Sanford

Play, Fish, and Explore

Sanford is a place for preservation and recreation. Experience both at once on the Mural Art Trail, which winds through downtown with stops at 16 pieces of public art that celebrate moments in Sanford history. Get virtual guidance from the audio tour on the trail website.

Stop by the Railroad House Museum, built in 1872 for the town’s first railroad depot agent. Inside Sanford’s oldest house, you can see artifacts from Sanford and Lee County’s past.

Then visit the Temple Theatre, a century-old Vaudeville theater. Professional actors still put on six shows each year, and touring stand-up comedians make regular stops, too.

Heighten your level of adventure by hitting the trails at San-Lee Park. Photography courtesy of Visit Sanford

Outside of downtown, two parks put Sanford’s great outdoors to good use. Kiwanis Family Park features an inclusive playground, half-mile walking trail, splashpad, and picnic shelters. And San-Lee Park’s 177-plus acres include hiking trails, a mountain biking trail, nature center, playground, picnic shelters, and fantastic fishing. They’ll even loan a rod, reel, and tackle to kids.

Walking within a forest-covered green space, chowing down on a delicious bite, or hunting for antiques — where will you begin your adventure in Sanford? Whether you have a full weekend to spend or just looking for an afternoon excursion after hitting the nearby golf courses, click here to start planning your visit.

This story was published on May 24, 2024

Jimmy Ryals

Jimmy Ryals is a writer and editor based in Raleigh. A Kinston native, his work has appeared in Slate, The Assembly, several eastern North Carolina newspapers, and little notes in his kids’ lunchboxes.