The little town of Belhaven may be a blink-and-you'll-miss-it town, but Eastern North Carolina visitors who decide to take the long way home along US Highway 264 will be rewarded with a visit to a picturesque waterfront town that is filled with historical and coastal charm. This small community of less than 2,000 residents has a prime location on the north shore of the Pungo River, just eight miles away from the massive Pamlico Sound which separates North Carolina's Inner Banks from its Outer Banks. As a result, visitors here will find exceptional fishing, incredible open water views, and a hardy, salty culture that is typical of North Carolina's life on the water.
The town of Washington is rapidly becoming one of the highlights of North Carolina's Inner Banks due to its small town charm, incredible location along the Pamlico River, and eclectic blend of boutiques, restaurants, and attractions. This small community of just under 10,000 residents has a maritime culture all its own, with dozens of colorful crab statues lining the downtown streets, hundreds of boats, big and small, lining the waterfront, and miles of open Tar and Pamlico River views, extending in virtually every direction. Quaint and quiet, but with enough activity to keep anyone entertained, Washington is an ideal long weekend retreat for visitors who want to experience the heart and unique culture of coastal Eastern North Carolina.
The town of Washington was founded in 1776, and holds the distinction of being the first American city named after George Washington. As a result, it is still known as the "Original Washington" by some older longtime locals, but over the centuries, as another, larger "Washington" became the center of government much further north, the town became known by visitors and locals alike as simply "Little Washington."
The name certainly fits, as the town itself is relatively small compared to big city standards, with just a little over 8 square miles of businesses and residences within the town's limits. That being said, Little Washington packs a lot of maritime culture, heritage and activity within its small waterfront confines, and as such has become a popular tourist destination, and has garnered a unique reputation as the heart of the Inner Banks.
One of the most popular destinations in Washington is the North Carolina Estuarium, a 12,500' square foot center located along the waterfront that features of 200 exhibits dedicated to Pamlico/Tar River estuary, the second largest estuary in the United States. Here, visitors can stroll a boardwalk that hovers over the Pamlico River, take a complimentary pontoon ride along the riverbanks, or enjoy an interactive tour through the many displays, aquariums, theater presentations, and other unique exhibits on site. With a very small admittance fee, and a prime location along the waterfront, a stop at the Estuarium is a must for any Little Washington visitor.
The other lure to visitors is the thriving downtown, which is rapidly becoming one of the most unique and enticing downtown scenes along the Eastern NC Coast. Along these side streets, visitors can browse through a number of boutiques, coffee houses, antique stores, and fantastic restaurants, many of which feature outdoor seating overlooking the Pamlico River. Locals attest that all visitors must make at least one visit to local Washington institution, Bills Hot Dogs, a bare-bones hot dog joint that has been in operation for over 60 years. A regular star in local and well-known magazines, (which includes a full page feature in North Carolina's Our State Magazine), visitors will be wowed by both the lightning-quick assembly of the hot dogs, as well as the legendary taste of the dogs themselves.
Just past the busy shop and restaurant filled streets, visitors can take a leisurely driving or walking tour through Washington's historic district, where centuries-old homes that have been meticulously renovated are stationed side by side. An especially attractive visit in the spring and summer months when the private gardens are in full bloom, visitors can even sign up for a historic walking tour for an in-depth look at these amazing residences and their fascinating, and sometimes ghostly stories. The historic Turnage Theater is also located within the downtown area, which hosts a number of seasonal concerts and performances, and visitors are advised to check out the Festival Park, especially in the summer months when the site serves as a venue for festivals, fairs and free concerts on any given weekend.
A stroll along the waterfront, past Havens Park and the long riverside boardwalk is also a must on a sunny day, as visitors can enjoy a wide open view that extends to the other side of the Pamlico River, watch the boats ease in and out of the waterfront docks, or simply take a rest at one of the accommodating benches or Adirondack chairs that are scattered throughout the mile-long riverbanks.
As for accommodations, potential visitors will find a number of chain and locally owned motels and hotels in the area, however many long-time visitors opt to stay at one of the downtown's many Bed and Breakfasts. Located close to all the unique waterfront shops and restaurants, these B&Bs are primarily converted historic homes with walking-distance access to the local attractions, and incredible porches and gardens that define slowed-down southern living. Washington also has several campgrounds, RV parks and riverfront cottages for rustic or extended stays.
The main part of the city boasts a number of chain and big box stores, giving residents and visitors alike ample shopping opportunities, however, the biggest and best attractions can always be found right along the water. The town is also known for its big, bold community spirit, and is the home to a number of incredible festivals and events, including an annual Summer Festival which attracts thousands of visitors annually, and signs off with an incredible fireworks display right off the docks.
Many long-time visitors advise that the spring, summer and fall months are arguably the best times to visit, as the downtown restaurants have ample outdoor seating and live music, and the Haven Park grounds host regular events, however, virtually any time is a good time to explore the town. The holidays can be an especially unique time to tour, as mpst of the sailboats and other vessels in the docks are adorned with Christmas lights, creating a cheerful and quintessentially coastal holiday scene.
Regardless of when one decides to visit, Little Washington is an essential destination for any North Carolina newcomer who wants to experience the heart of the Inner Banks. Proud of its history, maritime culture, and thriving downtown scene, Washington has become a tourist destination that is unique, surprising, and completely coastal. Plan a trip to the heart of Eastern North Carolina and see why the charming Original Washington surpasses all its latter namesakes.