A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

A breeze splashes against your face as your boat navigates around the red and green channel markers in the blue waters of the Albemarle Sound. It cruises into the Pasquotank

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

A breeze splashes against your face as your boat navigates around the red and green channel markers in the blue waters of the Albemarle Sound. It cruises into the Pasquotank

A Walking Guide to Harbor Towns: Elizabeth City

A breeze splashes against your face as your boat navigates around the red and green channel markers in the blue waters of the Albemarle Sound. It cruises into the Pasquotank River, which snakes unhurriedly between a border of pine and cypress trees. Then you see it: a harbor lined with red-brick buildings, where historic structures and a stately museum rise above the rooftops. This is the view that greets travelers arriving in Elizabeth City by boat or the newly launched ferry system, Harbor Towns Cruises.



Disembark at Waterfront Park, a scenic, tree-shaded space across the street from the Museum of the Albemarle (there’s also plenty of parking for visitors who arrive by car). From here, you can venture into the heart of downtown by foot and the promise of shops, galleries, and eateries that await. While Elizabeth City might be the largest town in northeastern North Carolina, it boasts plenty of small-town charm. In this pretty little city on the banks of the Pasquotank River, the pedestrians you pass on the sidewalks and park boardwalks make eye contact and say hello, homeowners wave at passersby from their porches, and downtown shop- and barkeeps happily strike up a conversation or point you in the right direction. Here’s where to get started:

 

Strike a pose at the fairy mural on McMorrine Street. Photography courtesy of Visit Elizabeth City

Grab a coffee and walk through history

A coffee shop is the best place to start soaking up the vibes of any town or city. A good one reflects the quirks and character of its location, and that’s exactly what Muddy Waters Coffee Shop has been doing for more than 20 years. From the waterfront, head along Water Street to Main Street and walk a couple blocks to the little yellow building where smells of roasted coffee beans waft through the garage doors. Fuel up with iced lattes and pastries, check out the fliers on the bulletin board, pet the dogs of Elizabeth City, and maybe even catch a musician strumming a guitar on the patio.

Sufficiently caffeinated, start your tour along the sidewalks of the historic district, past the Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Craftsman homes and converted business buildings. You can download the Elizabeth City Historic Walking Tour brochure to guide your exploration with dates and historical details.

Downtown Elizabeth City has enjoyed revitalization in recent years. The history is palpable, yet there’s fresh modernness — an old-time shoe repairman next to a swanky little plant shop, restaurants and boutiques tucked into renovated buildings, murals on the buildings and freestanding art along the streets.

“We have a rich blend of historical roots and vibrant modern development,” says Nosakhere Kamau, executive director of Visit Elizabeth City. “We’re creating a thriving community where innovation and tradition coexist, bringing old buildings to life with new possibilities. It’s a fun place to be.”

 

Head to the Museum of the Albemarle to check out artifacts from northeastern North Carolina and learn more about Elizabeth City’s nautical history. Photography courtesy of Visit Elizabeth City

Dive into arts and culture

A fixture that launched much of the revitalization within downtown is Arts of the Albemarle (AOA), a regional arts council in an old department store building (and before that an opera house) on Main Street. Swing by the three-story building to explore the art gallery filled with the work of local and regional artists, catch a show at the theater for performing arts, and check out the workshops and classes on offer.

Steer your tour back toward the waterfront, and you’ll find the gigantic Museum of the Albemarle across from Waterfront Park, facing the river. The northeastern North Carolina branch of the North Carolina Museum of History, the museum interprets the history and culture of the entire Albemarle region, from Native Americans to early explorers to the maritime, farming, and industrial traditions of the region. A highlight is a 1904 shad boat, the official state boat of North Carolina. Behind the museum, Episcopal Cemetery contains graves dating from 1828, including those of unknown Civil War soldiers and Governor J.C.B Ehringhaus, the only North Carolina governor from Pasquotank County.

 

Whether you prefer a colorful macaron or cheesy slice of pizza, you can satisfy sweet and savory preferences between the side-by-side Sweet Easy and Elizabeth City Pizza Company. photograph by Katie Myrick Photography

Pause for a pick-me-up

When hunger calls, you can’t beat Elizabeth City Pizza Company and its sister bakery next door, The Sweet Easy. Their tasty selection of New York-style pies include options like classic Margherita or the creative Hawaiian Pig (topped with pineapple and sausage), and it’s all made in hot ovens right behind the counter.

Before you decide how much pizza to eat, check out the offerings at The Sweet Easy because this little shop will definitely influence your pizza order. Scratch-made half-pound chocolate chip cookies, French macarons, flaky croissants, no-bake cheesecake jars, milkshakes, espresso, Boba teas, lemonades … the temptations go on.

 

Head to the local shops

You can spend a few minutes or a few hours delving into the downtown boutiques and shops. Bijoux Vibes is an aesthetically pleasing, airy space offering women’s apparel and accessories with friendly staff to help with styling. Around the corner on Main Street, Jade Whale is a hip surf-skate store known for its clothing brand that contributes to whale and ocean conservation efforts. Shut Up and Listen, on the other side of the block, is a classic vinyl and CD store with good tunes blasting from the front door, expert advice on selections, and an atmosphere that invites lingering.

 

Get local recommendations for where to sightsee while you enjoy a glass of wine and cheese plate at 2 Souls Wine Bar. photograph by Katie Myrick Photography

Sip a drink and savor the views

The downtown area has a festive feel most any day of the week, especially around golden hour when residents flock downtown and boaters motor up to slips, everyone seeking drinks and dinner near the water. And this is where small-town Elizabeth City’s sophisticated offerings shine.

At Seven Sounds Brewing Company, the beer is excellent, but their setting is jaw-dropping. The taphouse of this state-of-the-art microbrewery is housed within a handsome renovated building with several seating areas, but on nice days people opt for the huge beer garden with covered and open-air seating right on the river, plus a quiet rooftop deck.

Sample a flight of Ghost Harbor’s house-brewed beers and pick up a four-pack of your favorite to take home. photograph by Katie Myrick Photography

Across the street is the hotspot of Historic Pailin’s Alley, where a collection of bars, restaurants, and an axe-throwing house open into a cozy and social alleyway. Ghost Harbor Brewing Company, Elizabeth City’s original brewery, is the anchor of all this fun. Handcrafted beers, from IPAs and stouts to lagers and seltzers, plus indoor and outdoor seating will keep you lingering.

For a more quiet and relaxed experience, 2 Souls Wine Bar offers a varied selection of wines along with charcuterie and cheeses in a comfortable, polished bar setting. Enjoy a flight and a few small bites before heading off to dinner.

Take in views of the Pasquotank River while you dine at Sagos on the River. photograph by Katie Myrick Photography

Downtown has numerous worthy dining options, but Sagos on the River offers the best view of the river. In addition to a riverside tiki bar, the indoor dining room and outdoor seating put the view front and center, but the menu of New Southern cuisine rightfully steals the spotlight with items like duck confit sliders and fries dusted with Old Bay seasoning and topped with crab claw meat, white cheddar sauce and scallions.

Eventually you’ll have to leave Downtown Elizabeth City and head on home. But as you depart from the Harbor of Hospitality by boat or motor out of town by car, a full stomach and a brimming shopping bag (or two) leave you with just enough to extend your Elizabeth City experience a little longer. Click here to start planning your trip.

If you’re looking for a new way to heighten your travel to and from Elizabeth City, be sure to check out Harbor Towns Cruises. This passenger ferry shuttles between Elizabeth City and Manteo for a scenic experience without the traffic.

This story was published on May 31, 2024

Molly Harrison

A native North Carolinian, Molly Harrison moved to the Outer Banks after college in 1994. She works as a writer and editor from her home in Nags Head. Harrison is also the author of the Insiders’ Guide to the Outer Banks.