This article was written for our sponsor, Visit Hillsborough NC.
Living in a small town sometimes gets a bad rap. Unless, of course, you live in a town like Hillsborough — one of the certifiably coolest small towns in America, according to CNN Travel. With a cozy population of roughly 6,000, Hillsborough offers perks and amenities you'd expect to find in towns 10 times its size.
"There are a lot of fantastic small towns out there, but I don't think they're thriving in the same way Hillsborough is," said Sarah Parris, executive director of the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough. "We have a rich combination of well-preserved history, beautiful outdoor spaces, a river running right through town, and, on top of it all, an amazing backdrop of artists, writers and musicians that flock to the area."
In other words, there's something for everyone in Hillsborough. For those visiting the town for an afternoon or planning a weekend getaway, here are the top five can't-miss things to do around Hillsborough.
1. Outdoor Exploration & Recreation
Tucked along the Eno River and bordered by Occoneechee Mountain State Park, Hillsborough is ripe with opportunities for outdoor recreation, whether it's hiking, biking, walking or picnicking. The Riverwalk, one of Hillsborough's crown jewels of outdoor exploration, was completed in 2014 and features just under two miles of paved waterfront trails surrounded by native flora and fauna, where visitors can go for a stroll or a bike ride, or check out one of the fishing spots along the banks of the Eno.
For a better view of the nature surrounding Hillsborough, Parris recommended making the trek up Occoneechee Mountain, which is located just five minutes from the heart of town. For those looking for a quick picnic spot closer to home, there's no shortage of parks to choose from.
"There are tons of parks in town, which is one of the things that Hillsborough can really boast," Parris said. "We've got an amazing, brand-new park out in the Fairview Community, as well as Gold Park in West Hillsborough and Turnip Patch Park closer to downtown."
For those looking for indoor recreation, Parris recommended the Orange County Sportsplex, which offers an indoor pool, skating rink, fitness classes, camps and a number of other recreational opportunities.
2. Historic Sites
Hillsborough was founded in 1754 and has served as a focal point for major historic events over the centuries, including the Revolutionary War and Civil War.
The town was home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the base of operations for the Continental Army division led by Revolutionary War General Horatio Gates, and the headquarters for the largest surrendered Confederate armies.
Today, Hillsborough emphasizes preserving and promoting these landmarks to history.
"The history here is so well-preserved and it's evident as you walk around town. The Burwell School Historic Site is a fantastic example. It was an Antebellum school for girls that today serves as a historic house museum, offering all kinds of great interpretive programs," Parris said. "It's well-known as the former home of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly [a dressmaker for Mary Lincoln], who was enslaved at the site. The Burwell School has really encouraged learning more about her story."
Other historic sites around Hillsborough include Ayr Mount, an 1815 Federal-era plantation, the reconstructed Occoneechee village site, the Alexander Dickson house, the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail, the historic Orange County Courthouse, and textile mills — many buildings of which are scattered around town and have been repurposed as event spaces or condos, but maintain elements of the original architecture.
3. Arts and Culture
In downtown Hillsborough, there are six different art galleries, which, for a town of a little more than 6,000, is quite the feat.
"There's no shortage of art and opportunities to immerse yourself in the art scene. We've got fine art, folk art and contemporary art," Parris said. "One of Hillsborough's favorite event series each year is Last Fridays. On the last Friday of every month, beginning in April, the Hillsborough Arts Council does an outdoor performance and festival at the old Orange County Courthouse. It brings together the art, the history, and the outdoors in one event, which is a great example of the synthesis that regularly happens in Hillsborough."
Other artistic events include the Art in the Heart craft show, the Riverpark concert series, the Moorefields Bluegrass Festival, and Last Fridays Art Walk. For those looking to end their evening with some live music, Hot Tin Roof, Volume Records and Beer, Yonder Southern Cocktails, and the Nash Street Tavern regularly host live shows and open mic nights.
4. Local Shopping
For those looking for a bit of window-shopping, look no further than the streets of downtown Hillsborough, which boasts locally owned stores such as Purple Crow Books, Carlisle & Linny Vintage Jewelry, Hillsborough Yarn Shop, Matthew's Chocolates, and 108 Churton Boutique. When you're ready to give your feet a break, pop into one of the beloved local institutions, Cup-A-Joe.
"You can't really talk about Hillsborough without talking about Cup-A-Joe. It really is the meeting space for all of Hillsborough. Everybody's there all the time, and you will see somebody you know," Parris said.
"Once you're done with your coffee, be sure to check out Dual Supply, the hardware store across the street. That's been there since around the 1940s and has been run by the same family the whole time," Parris continued. "There's so much support and enthusiasm in the community and beyond. You have people who may not even live in Hillsborough come specifically for a trip to Dual Supply."
5. Award-Winning Restaurant Scene
Few other small towns can claim a culinary scene as renowned as Hillsborough's. From James Beard Award-nominated chefs to hole-in-the-wall hidden gems, there's an eatery around town for every palate to enjoy.
"We don't really have mediocre food here — it's all excellent," Parris said. "Saratoga Grill has been an establishment here in Hillsborough for years with amazing seafood, salads and sandwiches. There's Panciuto, which is a James Beard Award-nominated restaurant that boasts a farm-to-fork menu and locally sourced ingredients; and for Italian, you can't go wrong with Antonia's."
"We also have a new restaurant coming in soon, Nomad, that we're excited about. It's opening in the old Osbunn Theatre on King Street," she continued. "It's the perfect example of how the town incorporates the new with the old. They're blending food and this historic building, bringing it back to life and not letting it just sit there empty."
While Parris has plenty of favorite stops — flip-flopping between barbecue, seafood and Mexican — her go-to order is Saratoga Grill's honey almond salmon with a side salad and a scone, a flavorful dish that's "the best thing in the world."
This article was written for our sponsor, Visit Hillsborough NC.