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Rediscover Elizabeth City

 In Activities, Travel

Images courtesy of Visit Elizabeth City

More densely built-up than its neighbors to the east on the Outer Banks, but less urban than its neighbors to the north in Coastal Virginia, Elizabeth City is a gem hidden in plain sight along the shores of the Pasquotank River and Albemarle Sound.

An exploration around the resurging, yet relaxed harbor town in northeastern North Carolina reveals colorful public art and music-filled pedestrian alleyways. A new batch of progressive boutiques, bars, and restaurants includes three craft breweries and a speakeasy. Maritime visitors clink glasses with farmers, retirees, college students, Outer Banks-bound tourists and workers from the U.S. Coast Guard Base, one of the military branch’s largest air stations.

“I think when people come here, they understand what a community it is,” says Adam Swain, owner of River City Hospitality Collective, which operates Coasters Downtown, The Market on Water Street, Juniper and an upcoming Mediterranean restaurant. “It’s easy to for visitors to walk around, visit several restaurants, shops and nightlife establishments, and feel the same welcoming vibe in each of them. And it’s only going to get better. A lot of positive things have happened here over the past several years, but our best days are still ahead of us.”

Positioned on the Pasquotank River, Elizabeth City is equal parts vibrant and historical. Well-preserved 1800s and 1900s buildings and brick-paved streets recall a time when this was an important commercial hub.

Tow ladies eating at The Market on Water Street

The Market on Water Street

“Our historic architecture is an attraction and shows the character of the city,” says Deborah Malenfant, executive director of Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. Fully immerse yourself in the Elizabeth City experience with a stay at the Culpepper Inn near downtown or the Blue Ruby Bed & Breakfast, located in the area’s oldest house, circa 1798.

Starting this summer, more visitors to Elizabeth City can arrive by sea, the way folks did 150 years ago. Harbor Towns Cruises is a new service that will carry passengers between Elizabeth City, Hertford, Edenton, Columbia, Plymouth and Manteo on 30-passenger water taxis.

“We’re the ‘Harbor of Hospitality,’ so if you get here and need help finding something just stop most anyone on the street and ask,” says Malenfant.

Coffee time. Muddy Waters Coffeehouse, a locals’ favorite for its living room vibes, now offers its beloved cold brew in cans just in time for summer. Female veteran-owned, nautical-themed the Kraken Coffeehouse opened in 2022 with outdoor picnic tables perfect for people-watching.

Boutique hopping. Family-owned Copper Canyon Soap Co. in the historic 1920s Virginia Dare Arcade makes soaps and candles by hand with soy wax and plant-based oils in scents like Sweet Magnolia and Birthday Cake. Jade Whale Co. is a skate and gift shop for trend-loving ocean worshippers, offering custom skateboards and championing whale conservation.

Browse the Arts of the Albemarle for regional paintings and photography. Or, if you are a foodie, seek out My Corner Butcher, a stone’s throw from downtown in a 1920s warehouse, where you can support local farmers by picking up honey, spice rubs, BBQ sauces, dairy and pasture-raised organic cuts of pork, beef and chicken processed in-house (ask about deliveries).

Music lovers can’t miss Shut Up & Listen Records, which opened in 2022 with more than 10,000 records. Owner Kevin Blade retired from the U.S. Navy and sold vinyl at flea markets before he was drawn to the historical architecture of Elizabeth City.

Kids in tow? Page After Page Bookstore has Saturday story time and a candy bar. Port Discover is an interactive hands-on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) center. Set near the waterfront, the grand Museum of the Albemarle’s permanent collection includes a 1700s farmhouse and U.S. Coast Guard artifacts. Summer 2023 exhibitions are on regional Century Farms, boatbuilding, wooden duck decoys and the post-Civil War African American journey to freedom.

Waterfront lunch. Grab a sandwich or hummus plate at corner bodega The Market on Water Street, open since 2022. Electric Garden serves cold pressed juices and smoothies. Elizabeth City Pizza Co. offers New York-style pizza by the slice from an open kitchen. Big Boss Burritos have meals massive enough to show your hunger who’s in charge. Pick up a key lime macaron or éclair cream puff at The SweetEasy, a French and Portuguese-inspired bakery that opened in 2020.

Outdoor fun. Venture 30 minutes out of downtown to find outdoor enjoyment. Brothers Farm Market is home to seasonal crops like strawberries and sunflowers as well as a farm store and friendly farm animals. The Pines at Elizabeth City is an 18-hole championship public golf course. Dismal Swamp State Park has a 300-foot boardwalk, nature center, and more than 20 miles of hiking and biking trails. The 22-mile Dismal Swamp Canal is a federal waterway open to canoes and kayaks. It’s part of the Intracoastal Waterway, connecting the Albemarle Sound to the Chesapeake Bay and is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the U.S. Another popular paddling area is Sawyer’s Creek; check in with Native Girl Kayaking for guided outings and kayak rentals.

Eats and brews. Choose from 26 independently owned pubs and restaurants. Dinner comes with a waterside view at Paradiso Roma Ristorante, open since August 2017, offering made-from-scratch pasta and seasonally driven dishes sourced from nearby farms. The menu entertains diners with literary references because the owner is an English teacher.

Lively Historic Pailin’s Alley is home to locals’ favorite Hoppin’ Johnz New South Cuisine and nearby The Mills Downtown Bistro. Named for late-1800s shipping tycoon William Pailin, Pailin’s Alley was refurbished in 2017 with string lights, planter boxes, and outdoor seating. Check out the Wailin’ Wednesdays concert series, which runs monthly through October.

Allecious Restaurant, named for owner John Wilson’s mother, opened in spring 2023 with seafood and American homestyle dishes. Grab takeout from any restaurant in Elizabeth City and head to a brewery.

Ghost Harbor Brewing Company, which opened in December 2017 by Thomas and Tabitha Reese, packs live music, trivia, bingo nights and great beer into a laid-back Pailin’s Alley venue. A block away, craft microbrewery Seven Sounds Brewing Company is housed in a 12,000 square-foot building that was restored in 2021. Enjoy a double IPA on the sprawling dog-friendly lawn and watch the Pasquotank River, drawbridge and steady stream of passing boats.

A mile from downtown, veteran-owned Avdet Brewing Company is a nano-brewery with a charming patio that gets major reviews on its beer.
Artful outings.

Keep an eye out for selfie spots: there are 20 public art pieces in downtown, from brightly painted murals, to metalworks sculptures, to old-time signage, thanks to Project Art Downtown.

“Six years ago, we had one Coca-Cola Ghost Mural and we made a conscious effort to grow and expand our public art, and we feel like we’ve been very successful,” says Malenfant.

Mariners’ Wharf park at the waterfront boasts a Saturday farmer’s market; live music and movie screenings are Tuesday nights in summer. The free monthly First Friday ArtWalk showcases live music and artist demos around town.

Nights out. There’s still more to see, hear, play, and—you guessed it—drink. Pine and Porch, open since 2021, combines a 10-tap craft beer and wine tasting room with curated home décor, a homey backyard hangout with frequent live music, and a fridge stocked with hard-to-find North Carolina beers by the can. Don’t leave without a locally made “Woods” candle, named for the owners Megan and Tony Wallace’s two-year-old daughter—half the proceeds go to the Hydrocephalus Association.

At Kin’Folk Axe Throwing it’s never a dull moment, with weekly cornhole tournaments, karaoke, and live music. Toast to your evening with a glass of imported wine and charcuterie at 2 Souls Wine Bar, run since 2021 by friends Nicole Hyatt and Mel Martine.

One of 2023’s buzziest additions to town is Juniper, an upscale speakeasy-style cocktail bar. Its frequently changing drink menu incorporates local and seasonal ingredients. Order the espresso martini, made with beans from Muddy Waters, to bring your Elizabeth City trip full circle.
Check out VisitElizabethCity.com for more information.

This article is part of a series on places to visit in the “Inner Banks.” See upcoming issues for other getaway ideas for turning your attention inland in NC.

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outer banks fireworksDuck Jazz Festival. Photo by Kip Tabb.