On the Road to New Bern

Produced by Bit & Grain

Situated at the nexus of two rivers, the mighty Neuse and the peaceful Trent, New Bern is a quaint town with a lot to offer: small-town charm, a storied history, outdoor recreation, eclectic restaurants and a growing art and retail scene.

New Bern’s history stretches further back than every North Carolina town except Bath. Its story begins in 1710, when a group of Swiss immigrants navigated to a peninsula of land flanked by the Neuse and Trent Rivers and named the settlement for Switzerland’s capital, Bern. For centuries before, Tuscarora Native Americans called this stretch of land home. From 1747-1775, New Bern functioned as the seat of North Carolina’s colonial government. After the Revolutionary War, the town anchored the newly formed state government until the state capitol was moved to Raleigh in 1792. In its heyday, New Bern was regionally dubbed “The Athens of the South.”  Dive into the Twin Rivers with us as we explore downtown New Bern on a Saturday.

MORNING: wake up with fresh-baked goods

Baker's Kitchen is a sure-fire way to fuel up for the day. Its family-centered approach to dining is evident in the friendly staff and quality of food. Despite an expansion that doubled seating a few years ago, don't be surprised if there is a bit of a wait on the weekends. No visit is complete without a taste of the to-die-for cinnamon rolls. The hearty chicken and waffles with hand breaded chicken dipped in crushed potato chips and fried, served with butter syrup, might stick to your ribs for the long haul, but it’s worth it. The chicken fried steak, smothered in white gravy, served with eggs is best topped off with a freshly baked biscuit from the baker who has been with the restaurant for over a decade. The owner's daughter and manager, Becky Bengel, disagrees with the idea that you can't please everybody. She says "If you give everyone the best quality food and excellent service, then what could go wrong." 

MID-MORNING: explore SUP style

Once a thriving port city, water has defined New Bern’s story for years, and exploring it by river or creek highlights what the town’s landscape is all about. From a stand up paddleboard (SUP) or kayak, Bear Town Adventure Co. at Surf, Wind, and Fire offers a number of ways to get out and active on the water.  Adventurers seeking inside information can opt for BTAC’s guided tours through downtown's Union Point waterfront or the backwaters of Brices Creek. 

MID-AFTERNOON: a Southern lunch

By now, you’ve worked up a serious appetite from your paddle adventures. Located in a 1912 building once occupied by Pepsi-creator and pharmacist Caleb Bradham, The Chelsea Restaurant has been a local favorite for years. Its menu is diverse with a southern flair. While the restaurant pubs the Shrimp & Grits, the Cream of Crab soup paired with the Apollonian Salad — toasted pita‏ bread topped with mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and feta and served with housemade cucumber dressing so tasty, we’ve considered drinking it — is a showstopper. The soup and salad combo delights and refuels but won’t send you seeking an afternoon siesta. 

AFTERNOON: relive history

Post-lunch is the time to explore the town’s rich history and downtown. Start with Tryon Palace, a place that embodies New Bern’s unique history. Here, two colonial governors held court and the first post-revolution state government legislated. The Georgian style palace, built from 1767-1770, is distinctly English in style. Time, a fire and economic change led to the demise of the original building, but a successful 20th century grassroots effort to rebuild Tryon Palace cemented its physical and symbolic place in our history. Since 1959, the rebuilt palace has served the state as a historic site that symbolizes our complex origin story.

Move from the inside of the palace to its manicured gardens and then to the North Carolina History Center, an interactive history center within walking distance. Opened in 2010, the center’s permanent and temporary exhibits offer an engaging experience for folks seeking to learn about the people, places, and things that shaped life in North Carolina over the last three centuries. 

LATE AFTERNOON: downtown by foot

Historic downtown is home to a number of shops, boutiques, art galleries, and other retail spaces shaded by moss covered live oaks, and we’ve highlighted several of our favorites. Fine Arts at Baxter's Gallery houses a commercial gallery and six working artist's studios open to visitors. The newly restored 97-year-old building, formerly Baxter’s Jewelry Store, is a hub for local and regional artists.The gallery hosts about 60 artists, who work in nearly all forms of media, and features two each month--a hanging-work artist and a 3-D artist. 

Carolina Creations, part art and contemporary craft gallery, part gift shop, is chock-full of unique and affordable items for everyday use and extraordinary gifts. From glass, wood and metal works to paintings, prints, outdoor art and decor, to jewelry and New Bern themed items, there’s something for everyone at this storefront. It has been a downtown staple for 25 years.

The Bank of the Arts houses the headquarters and gallery of the Craven Arts Council. Formerly a bank, the 112-year-old building is an architectural treat. The old bank vault hosts the council’s impressive pottery collection, and a grand, two-story space with soaring Ionic columns capped by a skylight hosts the main gallery that features one artist a month from the Southeast region.

If you find yourself looking to add an exceptional piece of North Carolina fine art to your collection after visiting these galleries but need a guided hand, Lou Proctor, New Bernian, owner and consultant, of ARTGallery, Ltd. has nearly 30 years in curating homes and private collections. 

Pepsi-Cola is a tasty part of New Bern's legacy. Pharmacist Caleb Bradham concocted the cola beverage, originally dubbed “Brad’s Drink” in 1893, and began selling it as Pepsi-Cola in 1898. The drink swiftly became a crowd favorite in New Bern and beyond. You can grab a soda and browse historical memorabilia at the Pepsi store housed in Bradham’s pharmacy, where he first created the globally successful beverage. 

EVENING: cocktails with a view, dinner devine

A full day of walking, shopping, learning and touring, warrants a pre-dinner libation. Shoot the breeze and watch the sun set over the Neuse River from the expansive deck of Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant. Sip on an NC Beer or one of the restaurants craft cocktails made with local spirits. 

Finish your day at 247 Craven, New Bern’s foodie go-to. A chalkboard outside the restaurant recently featured a James Beard quote: "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." While that is true, the experience here is anything but common. Opened in 2010 by owner and chef Ashley Moser, the restaurant focuses on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.  Moser says, "We are well known for creative cuisine with both a Mediterranean and southern U.S. influence. We purchase great quality ingredients and strive to let them shine. We change our menu as products come in and out of season, or as we become inspired either by an ingredient or idea."  We can’t predict what the menu will have when you visit, but we're confident you’ll leave satisfied.