Less than two hours from Cary sits the most important body of water you’ve probably never heard of — the estuary where the freshwater Pamlico and Tar rivers meet the salty North Carolina sounds.
Rising up from the banks of these rivers is the historic town of Washington, N.C. Nearly a straight drive east of the Triangle, it’s a perfect destination for a quick getaway.
Arrive at Washington Visitor Center
Pick up the Historic Washington Walking Tour brochure and meander the downtown streets, exploring landmarks. Grab lunch at Rachel K’s Bakery (scratch-made pastries and sandwiches) or Bill’s Hot Dogs (a Washington landmark since 1928) as you pass by.
Visit the North Carolina Estuarium.
Tour the exhibit rooms, local art on display and gift shop. Take the 1:30 p.m. River Roving Educational Tour (April-October, reservations required).
Stroll along the river walk, stop at the boutiques and antique stores in the historic district, or visit Havens Gardens park and playground.
Enjoy a cocktail and a dozen oysters (raw, steamed or char-grilled) on the patio at On The Waterfront.
Dinner at The Bank Bistro & Bar before heading home.
Stay the night at Pamlico House, Elmwood 1820 or another of the area bed and breakfasts. Spend the next morning hiking, boating and swimming around Goose Creek State Park.
Washington owes much of its vibrant past and bright future to the dynamic waterway. So the town is a fitting location for the North Carolina Estuarium, a combination museum and aquarium that describes the role of estuaries and coastal rivers.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Estuarium welcomes nearly 17,000 guests annually. Tours begin in the lobby with a massive mixed-media sculpture created by local artist Whiting Toler. Visitors can experience more than 200 exhibits including hands-on interactive displays and aquariums containing crabs, turtles, alligators and other creatures.
“The estuary is bigger ecologically and culturally than many people know,” said Russ Chesson, the Estuarium’s operations and programming specialist. “Eighty percent of everything in the ocean is either born in, eats from or spends part of its life in the estuary.
“North Carolina’s estuary is the second largest in the continental U.S. and acts as a nursery to the ocean,” he continued.
The Estuarium also offers pontoon boat tours of the Pamlico-Tar River from April through October. Tours are free, but advance reservations are required.
Across the street from the Estuarium, the town’s Visitor’s Center is the beginning of a self-guided walking tour of the downtown historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Founded in 1776, the town was the first in the country to be named in honor of George Washington, thus earning the name “Original Washington” as it’s known by locals. Washington contains more than 35 notable structures including churches, homes and commercial buildings dating from the late 1700s to the early 1900s.
Be sure to take note of the oldest building in Washington, the Myers House, built in 1780, and the adjacent Marsh House, built 15 years later. The latter has a cannonball lodged in its front facade — a remnant of the Civil War.
A short drive down Main Street leads visitors to Havens Gardens, a must-see if you’re visiting with kids. The park features a large playground and greenspace, picnic shelters and a small pier. Situated on the water’s edge, the location offers beautiful views and a welcome respite for lively children.
Washington’s historic downtown offers a variety of dining options, from a casual hot dog joint to a fine-dining bistro. On the Waterfront Restaurant and Bar occupies a prime location in central downtown overlooking the river.
Washington Area Historic Foundation Spring Tour of Homes and Gardens
Tour Washington’s downtown historic homes and gardens.
Cinco de Mayo Cruise on the Belle of Washington
Enjoy the beauty of the Pamlico River during a lunch or dinner cruise.
Washington Summer Festival
Street fair, live music, fireworks, family entertainment and more
“It’s one of the only buildings on the water,” said owner Ross Dunn. “You can’t beat the location.”
Grab a coveted seat on the patio for lunch or dinner, and order the signature Billy’s Famous Char-Grilled Oysters, the restaurant’s twist on oysters Rockefeller, or the newly debuted Pimento Cheese Char-Grilled Oysters. Other favorites are shrimp and grits and the daily fresh catch, sourced locally whenever possible. Draft beers are local too, from nearby Greenville’s Uptown Brewery.
“This is a really good community to be in,” said Dunn.
Foot traffic from the river walk and the adjacent Festival Park, as well as boaters parking at the community river docks, drive patrons to the restaurant and into the downtown shops, he says.
Two blocks inland you’ll find The Bank Bistro & Bar, an upscale dining establishment housed in the old Bank of Washington building. Soaring ceilings and a black-and-white interior lend a sophisticated ambiance, and don’t miss the abundant liquor and wine selection on display in the bank’s old vault.
“The building was built in 1850 as a bank and operated until 1970,” said Roger Meyland, who owns The Bank Bistro with his wife Joan.
The menu features Southern twists on traditional classics with a local flair, says Meyland. The Beekeeper’s Salmon is finished with local honey, and tomato pie is made with locally grown tomatoes.
Take I-40 E toward Greenville
Keep left to continue on I-440 W, follow signs for West I-440/East 64/Rocky Mount
Exit to take US-64 E/US-264 E toward Rocky Mt/Wilson
Follow US-264 all the way into Washington
Turn right on N. Market Street and follow until you reach the Visitor’s Center
Meyland was drawn to Washington by its affordable property values. Over the years he has purchased and renovated several buildings in the downtown district. He’s seen the town develop its dining and art scene and feels there’s potential for more.
“Washington is on the verge of breaking loose and becoming a place people really think about coming to,” he said. “For such a small area, there is a lot of hidden talent here.”
Catherine Glover, executive director of the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “Washington has become a great place to be an entrepreneur and live a dream,” she said. “We have great projects on the horizon, and we continue to grow with both residents and businesses.”
Among the area’s hidden gems is Goose Creek State Park, about a 20-minute drive from downtown. The 1,600-acre park contains hiking trails, a campground, picnic areas, an education center, a swimming beach and boating access. Easy hiking trails wind through the wooded marshes and along creeks, offering glimpses of waterfowl, deer and native plants. Boat rentals are not available on site, so bring your own or rent from Washington’s Inner Banks Outfitters.
With the rich and thriving sea on one side and the deeply-rooted community on the other, a visit to Washington holds something for history buffs, nature-seekers and active families alike.