9 Top Things to do in Beaufort, NC: a Pirate Town of Many Treasures

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“Did you hear they’ve finally got the name right, Hal? Callin’ it by it proper name now ‘Bow-fort’ instead of ‘Bew-fort’ like they do down there in South Carolina.”

The gray-haired lady, blue apron covering her flowered dress, sat in her chair in the corner of the Buccaneer Inn’s breakfast room.

Boast in the dock at sunset
Gorgeous sunset in Beaufort

A monotonous stream of word’s flowed from her mouth to all bodies that walked through the door. I wasn’t even sure if there really was a Hal, in the room, but I delighted in it nevertheless.

I looked at the laughing eyes of my parents; they couldn’t have seen a better Southern character in any of the Hollywood movies that had romanticized them for years in their living room back in Australia.

A known pirate town, Beaufort, NC was on my Dad’s list of things to see on this South East Coast road trip. He knew all the rumors of Captain Blackbeard’s jaunts – one of the most feared renegades of the seas –  in the sleepy village off the Atlantic Ocean.

photo of southern home behind white picket fence

Driving into town historic homes greeted us from under the shade of the overhanging oak trees, and waved us down to the waterfront to catch our ferry over to the Outer Bank islands.

We ambled along to the dock, keeping in tune with the sleepy vibe of the town. I liked the peace it radiated and felt I was in the right place for some much-needed rejuvenation.

people walking down a tree covered street past historic homes

12 years later my parents still talk about their trip to Beaufort, North Carolina nearly every time we chat over Skype.

We visited Beaufort with my parents and 2 year old Kalyra in 2010. We revisited with 14 year old Kalyra and 10 year old Savannah in 2021 on a trip exploring the Crystal Coast.

This post will share the best things to do in Beaufort, North Carolina as we experienced on both trips.

About Beaufort, NC

white historic home with sweeping lawn

With its raw edge and historical charm, Beaufort quickly became one of our new favorite North Carolina towns.

The town has a long history in fishing, whaling, and more notoriously, piracy, earning it many ‘Pirate Town’ accolades, and “America’s best small town”.

Founded in 1709, Beaufort is the 3rd oldest town in NC, and the 12th oldest town in North America! 

white historic home with flags out the front

With many of the homes still owned by original families, you know this is a neighborhood that is happy to keep Beaufort’s traditional spirit passing down through the ages. Drop your pretenses on the drive in and just come as you are.

Beaufort is a small town located on the Crystal Coast at the southern end near the Outer Banks in North Carolina. And Beaufort NC is included in our best USA road trips list.

1. Explore Front St & Beaufort Waterfront

A group of people walking down a board walk next to a body of water
Lovely boardwalk

Front Street is the main street running alongside Taylor Creek and is where you’ll find local boutique stores, beautiful old buildings and homes, and museums.

There is a nice short boardwalk along the creek with several waterfront restaurants and views across the inlet to Carrot Island.

people standing on a board walk watching the sunset
Gorgeous sunset in Beaufort

As Beaufort has such a rich history, a guided tour is the best way to learn about its trials and tribulations, including the stories of those who have wandered in and out, swords in hand or not.

It will help you connect to the uniqueness of this North Carolina coastal tow

2. Self-Guided walking tour of Beaufort, NC

family walking on the streets of Beaufort NC
Beaufort historical home

One of the best things to do in Beaufort is an historical walking tour. You can either join a tour or pick up a self-guided map from the Beaufort Historic Site welcome center.

A retiree from New York, volunteering in the visitor’s center, talked to us of her slow and peaceful life in Beaufort.

She recounted stories of Blackbeard and the recently discovered ‘truth’ that he was indeed a native North Carolinian and not English, as most people know him to be. My dad was not convinced of these findings.

Historic Southern home
Historic homes all over town

She handed us a map and pointed out some historic homes to appreciate on our self-guided walking tour of the town.

On the map, you’ll find 30 listed historical houses that range in styles from cottages to elaborate Queen Anne and Greek Revival styles.

a girl holding a map

Choose an ambling pace as you wander down the tree-lined streets over six blocks to see homes that once belonged to sea captains, seafarers, generals, and merchants (maybe the odd pirate visitor.)

What will quickly become apparent to you is that every home in the downtown area is historic – 150 of these restored homes bear plaques on the exterior walls noting the names of the earliest known owners and the year it was built.

Historic Southern home woth pretty garden out the front

There at the end of our tour sat Hammock House, the oldest in the town, which once served as a pirate inn and the place where Blackbeard is documented to have stayed when in town.

Rumors speak of the treasure that is hidden somewhere within the house or property and I was ready to start digging under the oldest tree. But my dad, a Blackbeard scholar, remains convinced it is buried on an island on the Caribbean somewhere.

The heat of the day finally zapped us of all energy, so we found the nearest local pub to masquerade as pirates in and wash our thirst down with an ice-cold beer.

All the pirates had disappeared however, and it was just our little group to seize the moment and raise our glasses in a toast to ‘Bow-fort”

Plan for about one hour to do this self-guided walk, depending on how much photography you do.

3. Get Spooked on a Downtown Beaufort Ghost Tour

a girl holding a lantern outside
Our kids loved the ghost tour. no, really!

One of Beaufort’s most popular attractions (deservedly so), the Port City Co Beaufort Ghost Walk is a walking tour through the historic district at night with a pirate guide.

Our pirate guide bought the history of the town to life with entertaining (and slightly chilling) stories of murders, haunted homes, ghost ships, civil war heroes and villains, pirate shenanigans, and a young girl buried in a barrel of rum.

Stay to the end for a little spine chilling experience outside the iron gates of the Old Burying Ground.

a gravestone
Grave of the girl buried in a barrel of rum

I don’t know how our guide made it happen, but when we arrived the streetlights started flickering and the pinwheel madly began spinning at the grave of the girl buried in a barrel of rum. There wasn’t even a breath of wind and I could not see him pressing any start buttons!

TOP TIP: Do the ghost tour before visiting the Old Burying Ground. As you hear of different Beaufort characters on the tour, you’ll enjoy going to the cemetery to find their graves.

The Beaufort ghost tour was one of our favorite things to do in Beaufort.

4. Visit the Old Burying Ground

people wandering through Old Burying Ground, Beafort, North Carolina
Historic Old Burying Ground

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Old Burying Ground in downtown Beaufort is a cemetery not to miss!

Wandering around the moss-draped live oak trees, you’ll find 200 graves from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. You may even get lucky and hear (and see) an owl hooting high in the trees.

It was a perfect experience for this fascinating, spooky, and stunning graveyard.

The burial ground was established in 1724 and is bordered on four corners by churches from different denominations.

A cemetary

The northwest corner is the oldest part of the cemetery. While it may look empty, an archeological survey shows many graves in the area, thought to be victims of the Indian Wars.

Most graves are facing east for those departed to face the sun when they arose on Judgment Morn.

The Uniguide Tours app has a free audio tour of the Old Burying Ground. The Beaufort Historic Site also offers guided tours.

5. View Pirate Artifacts at the NC Maritime Museum

a girl standing in front of a museum display
Learning about Blackbeard the Pirate

The free NC Maritime Museum on Front Street in Beaufort tells the story of this region’s connection with the sea.

It is one of three state Maritime Museums, with the others in Hatteras and Southport, all with the purpose of preserving, collecting, and interpreting coastal life and history. 

Exhibits feature the state’s rich seafood industry, life-saving stations and lighthouses, and sailboats and motorboats. Book lovers will enjoy the old feeling library room – filled with all your maritime history and stories.

a woman reading a book in a library
Library room

Most unique about the museum is the display of artifacts excavated and preserved from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s pirate ship that was run aground just outside Beaufort Inlet.

NC Maritime Museum, Beafort, NC
Queen Anne’s Revenge

This is a great place to spend 30 – 60 minutes on a cold or rainy day, or any day if you love history! 

When we asked the girls what their favorite experience on the Crystal Coast was, Savannah said the NC Maritime Museum. She loved the scavenger hunt, which helped her look more closely at the exhibits and so engage better with the experience.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE the nearby NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

They do a good job in telling showcasing the marine ecosystems of the area and the Crystal Coast’s shipwrecking history. The Living Shipwreck exhibit features a life-sized replica of a German U-352 submarine and Blackbeard’s’ favorite ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge with a 60-foot viewing window. Read more about the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

6. See the Wild ponies at Shackleford Island

wild horses in the outer banks
Wild horses in the Outer Banks

I breathed in the fresh sea air as we sped along in the boat over to Shackleford Island to spend the morning chasing wild horses and collecting shells. 

The sun beat intensely down and I knew the first burn of the summer was on its way, wearing off the softness of winter and hardening me up in preparation for the seasonal sun-worshiping that was to come.

My love for the beach deepened as the familiar feeling of hard sand on my feet fleetingly imprinted the evidence of my being.

We were pointed in the direction of the ponies by a group of successful explorers on their way back to the mainland.

An hour was spent trekking through the sand dunes and wild shrub in order to discover a herd grazing on the beach. Although, the adventure was small, I felt the familiar rush that comes with living fully for the moment.

This time I had the added joy of watching Kalyra’s face as she walked up close to the stately mustangs.

wild horses of Shackleford Island NC
Wild horses on the beach

We picnicked on the beach, and played in the gentle Sound waters, the Atlantic Ocean side being far too wild for our daughter’s two-year-old sense of courage.

The refreshingly cool water relieved us from the scorching sun, while the horses rolled around in the sand in the distance in their attempt to cool off.

Before we knew it time arrived for us to return, not without first hunting for shells on the ripping curve around to the Atlantic side, “The best place on the East Coast to find them”, as told by our skipper.

I was surprised to find they weren’t different to what we would find on our beaches at home.

The golden sand on this side of the island crunched under my feet and brought the awareness to me of why our beaches are golden and East Coast beaches are not- it all comes down to the Shells.

The magic of our morning in nature was heightened by a pod of dolphins passing by us in the channel, on their way back out to sea.

I breathed in the joy with total gratitude for the opportunities to experience the perfection of life over and over again through travel. (we swam recently near dolphins at Hunting Island State Park in Beaufort, South Carolina)

Ferry to Shackleford: Leaves approx every 45 mins. 15 min ride. $15 round trip. Must book your return time. There are no amenities there and little shade so pack well.

7. Take a day trip to Cape Lookout National Seashore

A sandy beach next to the ocean
One of the best places to go shelling in NC

The pristine beauty doesn’t end with Shackleford Island. Right near here you’ll find more undeveloped stretches of beautiful soft sand beaches with no one on them?

Cape Lookout National Seashore is another short 20-minute ferry ride from beaufort and is perfect for a day trip excursion.

It is most known for shelling, shore fishing, and wide sandy beaches. Here is where you’ll find some of the best beaches in North Carolina.

A group of people swimming in a body of water
So pretty, and stunning colors

This pristine region stretches fifty-six miles from Ocracoke to Beaufort Inlet. It comprises three barrier islands (North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks) and is only accessible by boat.

If lucky, you may see dolphins, or wild horses on Shackleford Island as you pass by (we saw horses in the distance). Your driver will slow down to see them.

animals on a dry grass field
Wild horses in the distance

Barefoot and in t-shirts, we wandered up and down the stunning beach, shelling and soaking in the views on a gorgeous 73-degree winters day. We found the largest shells we’ve ever collected washing up with the waves. (You can take them home only if nothing is living in it).

You will need to take all supplies with you as it’s an undeveloped island. You can stay as long as you like – be sure to know the last ferry return time as if you miss it you are marooned!

A woman and a girl collecting shells on a beach
Our kids loved shelling here

The 20-minute Islands Express Ferry ride to Cape Lookout departs from Harkers Island (or Beaufort).

8. Visit Cape Lookout Lighthouse

girl walking in front of a black and white diamond lighthouse

The first thing you’ll see as you arrive to the Cape Lookout National seashore is its main attraction, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

This towering black and white diamond lighthouse (nicknamed Diamond Lady) was built in 1859 to warn ships of shoaling sands.

The diamond patterns serve as directional tools, with the black diamonds pointing to north and south and the white diamonds, east and west.

woman and girl walking on a wooden boardwalk with lighthouse in distance

The area features a restored lighthouse keeper’s quarter, which now serves as a museum with exhibits on lighthouse history and early shipwrecks and rescues.

Follow the boardwalk over to the ocean facing beach and enjoy the views of the lighthouse along the way. There is also a beach here on the sound side you can stay on, but we found the ocean side to be better.

The lighthouse is open during the summer season. You can climb the 163ft lighthouse for extraordinary 360-degree views. We climbed the Oak Island Lighthouse on our trip to the Brunswick Islands and loved it.

9. Hike the Elliott Coues Trail to Fort Macon

a war memorial
Fort Macon

Truth: I kinda rolled my eyes like a belligerent teen when I saw Fort Macon State Park. Why would a fort be one of North Carolina’s most visited state parks?

But, then we decided to approach it via the sand dunes of the 3.3 mile Elliott Coues Nature Trail, and the aha lights went on.

people walking on a trail to the beach
How stunning!

The midway point of the loop trail will be where the fort is, and where you can stop for a while to explore and rest!

The beach side of the trail has great views of dunes, beaches, and ocean. The loop trail back follows the sound side, which has beautiful, canopied pathways, boardwalks, and views of the marshes.

woman and child walking on a sandy path
The sound side

This hike will show you that Fort Macon State Park is more than just the beautifully reconstructed 19th century Civil War pentagonal brick fort.

This free North Carolina state park encompasses 385 acres of beach, dunes, and maritime forest and is surrounded by three sides of water – the Atlantic Ocean, Beaufort Inlet and Bogue Sound.

The fort itself is a historic landmark where a reconstructed fort stands guard over Beaufort Harbor as it once did during the Civil War.

Take a guided tour of the restored fort or conduct your own like we did to see bunks, cannons, a rations storage room, Civil War artifacts and more. It offers a great insight into Civil War history and its WWII occupation.

In the state park find hiking trails, picnic areas, and a lifeguard-protected and pristine swimming beach.

Fort Macon State Park is about 20 minutes from Beaufort at the northern end of Atlantic Beach. The Elliott Coues Natural Trail starts at the beach parking lot and encircles the state park.

Places to eat in Beaufort

Beaufort has quite a lively dining scene, especially on the waterfront. Be sure to reserve ahead of time as it can get quite busy. Check opening times, as some restaurants were closed when we wanted to visit. I think Beaufort has the best dining options along the Crystal Coast.

  • Queen Anne’s Revenge, Beaufort: delicious pizzas (gluten free) on the water with water views
  • 34° North Restaurant, Beaufort Hotel: is a fancy waterfront restaurant with locally inspired East Carolina cuisine. It’s in the Beaufort Inn. While we didn’t eat there, we did enjoy a cocktail in their cozy lounge.
  • Mezcalito Grill, Beaufort: Our favorite restaurant on the Crystal Coast. Vibrant on the inside, the Tex Mex, Latin infused dishes danced with equal amounts of flavors and the mezcal margaritas that looked like a piece of art. Alambre ACP was delicious and Craig raved about his King Burrito for days.

Where to Stay in Beaufort, NC

man and woman drinking coffee on balcony looking over the ocean
Grande Villas, Indian Beach

There are a lot of cheap chain hotels in the areas surrounding Beaufort on the Crystal Coast.

  • If you want to enjoy the historic downtown area, our recommendation is a vacation rental in Beaufort. See options on VRBO here.
  • The Beaufort Hotel would be our top pick as the most charming hotel in Beaufort. Although note, it’s location is not in the downtown area, but in a tranquil spot on the water just out of town. See more here
  • We absolutely LOVED our stay at the Grande Villas condos with stunning ocean views at nearby Indian Beach. Watching dolphins swim by each sunrise with my cup of coffee was incredible. See more here.

If you’re looking for other accommodation in Beaufort NC, you can use the map below to compare hotels and short-term rental options.

More posts about North Carolina:

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