If on your first visit to Edenton, North Carolina, you assume the town name comes from the Garden of Eden, it’s an understandable mistake. I thought the same thing.
A peaceful natural setting, right on the Albemarle Sound. Backyard gardens and flowers everywhere. A lack of rush or bustle or bother. This is a place to relax, a retreat, an escape, maybe not so unlike Eden.
The name’s origins are a lot less romantic. Edenton was named for Charles Eden, Esq., one of North Carolina’s early governors. He’s buried in the graveyard of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which is a rather romantic place of brick paths and blooming trees. It’s the oldest church in Edenton and the second oldest in the state, dating back to 1736.
Nature, history and a touch of romance — that sums up Edenton well, and it’s probably how this county seat earned the title of “the South’s prettiest small town.” The population is under 5,000, and everyone seems to know each other. You’ll see people wave to each other across the street or call hello to passersby. It’s so friendly and bright, you almost wonder if it’s staged à la Truman Show. But nope, people here really are just that nice.
They’ll give you plenty of recommendations on what to see and do while you’re visiting, but here are some ideas to get started.
Sights to See
Trolley Tour: It’s definitely manageable to do a downtown walking tour by yourself. Start at the visitors center where you can watch a free video and get some maps and brochures. But the trolley tour gives you the best overview of the whole town. You’ll roll by the oldest building in the state, built in 1718. You’ll hear the story of Harriet Jacobs, a runaway slave who hid in an attic for seven years before escaping to freedom and penning her autobiography recounting it all.
The Barker House: Open daily for free, this historic home doubles as the welcome center, an essential stop if you want to understand why you see teapots all over town. Its original owner, Penelope Barker, is famous as the organizer of the first recorded women’s political demonstration in America. More than 50 women signed a petition to boycott taxed British goods, and it lives on in history books as the Edenton Tea Party of 1774.
The Cupola House: A national historical landmark, the Cupola House is postcard perfect, a favorite subject for plein air painters. It’s hard not to love the distinctive facade and detailed Georgian woodwork inside.
Edenton Bay Cruises: Board the Liber-Tea and cruise scenic Edenton Bay. It’s narrated by Captain Mark, who identifies as a storyteller rather than a strictly factual historian. He’ll regale you with stories of Edenton past and present and point out the osprey nests (and osprey, if you’re lucky) in the cypress trees as you float by.
The waterfront: You’re right on the water so take advantage of it. Go kayaking, canoeing or paddle-boarding. Enjoy the view from the picnic tables at Colonial Park. Or just photograph the sights, like the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse, particularly pretty at sunset.
Vinyl Night at Edenton Bay Trading: If every small town has one knock-your-socks-off surprise, this is it. After a day of natural beauty, dining, architecture and history, you might expect to wind down the evening with a glass of wine in a Victorian porch. Or a sunset cruise on the bay. Or chatting idly with friends on the porch. Sure, those are options, but if it’s Saturday night, head to Edenton Bay Trading Company. In an enclosed courtyard with brick walls, lights and greenery, a DJ spins vinyl records in surround sound. You can get down to tunes from Dirty Dancing or sway along with “Piano Man.” Air guitars and dancing are optional but encouraged. This is where Edenton goes to let loose. The secret recipe sangria helps, I’m told.
What to Eat
With the Albemarle Sound so close, you can expect fresh seafood and lots of it. The dockside Edenton Bay Oyster Bar, for example, serves up a half dozen styles of oysters, plus shrimp, calamari, clams, lobster, shrimp… You have to sample the scallops, possibly the best thing I had all weekend. For the catch of the day downtown, try Waterman’s Grill. People rave about their fried shrimp. I recommend their ahi tuna, seared to perfection.
If you’re feeling less fancy but still want something filling, 309 Bistro makes a fairly affordable lunch stop downtown. Some nice options for vegetarians here, too, beyond just the salads. Chickpea croquettes? Yes, please.
I never shop on vacation. All but never. I can buy things at home, so why drive or fly to do so? But there’s something about the shops along Broad Street and the rest of downtown that are just so inviting.
For fashion, stop by Feathers, Victorians, The Polka-Dot Palm and Downtown Diva. At the latter, I bought some cute accessories before starting on the serious business of gift hunting. I ended up finding the perfect Mother’s Day present at Byrum True Value Hardware, Gifts and Crafts, an emporium with everything from power tools to music boxes. Bonus: Free gift-wrapping.
There’s also a jewelry store, farmers market, antiques, art galleries, bookstores, a quirky vintage and hand-painted furniture shop called Finders KeepHERs and an old-fashioned soda fountain inside the drugstore. And more. Allow an afternoon to browse at a leisurely pace.
Where to Stay
At a locally owned bed and breakfast, of course. The town has quite a few to choose from.
Granville Queen: The first thing to impress you about the Granville Queen is the building. It’s Greek Revival, built in 1907, with 1880s Italian furniture. Breakfast is served in a classy setting, but you won’t care about that much as you dig into hearty entrees like country ham casserole and pumpkin pancakes.
Captain’s Quarters Inn: Next door to the Granville Queen, this inn also has great food and Southern style. But my interest was piqued by the themed murder mystery weekends. You can unravel clues throughout your stay, which culminates with a big reveal after breakfast Sunday morning.
The Table at Inner Banks Inn: Popular as a wedding venue, Inner Banks Inn spans nearly 3 acres and 4 buildings, including a renovated barn and a Victorian mansion. If you want the charm of a B&B but more of the privacy of a boutique hotel, this is a good fit. Fortunately, you don’t have to stay overnight to dine at The Table at Inner Banks, their farm-to-table restaurant featuring a locally focused rotating menu.
The Cotton Gin Inn: Opened in October 2016, this inn is probably most known for its beautiful grounds and creative food. It’s run by a sort of Renaissance woman, Cheryl Orr, who combines the arts of gardening, interior design, culinary (breakfasts you’ll be talking about for weeks) and entrepreneurship. If you’re not staying there, try to snag a seat at one of her supper clubs. You will not regret it.
Need more travel inspiration for Edenton, NC?
Visit Edenton assisted with my stay, and they truly love talking with travelers. Get personalized advice for your trip by calling 800-775-0111.
Last tip: Try the peanuts. They’re processed at the local factory, and they just seemed to taste better than other peanuts. Maybe it was just that Edenton charm getting me?