Forget Washington, D.C., North Carolina has its own Washington — and instead of calling it “Little Washington,” the way some locals do, call it “the original Washington.” In 1776, it was the first place named for the general and future president — 15 years before the new United States capital site was named.
Located where the Pamlico and Tar rivers converge before pouring into seafood-rich Pamlico Sound, Washington was prosperous back when rivers were the equivalent of today’s interstates. There are a couple of reasons why a visit is worth your time: Since it has a riverfront instead of a beach, tourist traffic is much calmer. (It’s popular with retirees, since the medical centers around East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, are a short drive away.) And it has an eye-popping collection of beautifully maintained historic houses, from Victorians through Arts and Crafts and Craftsmen. The city was burned in 1864 when Union troops pulled out, so most of the town was rebuilt in the late 19th century.
How can you fill 24 hours — and your stomach — in Washington?
8 a.m. Rachel K’s Bakery
Downtown Washington is packed with old brick buildings that now house small businesses, and this bakery is a beauty, from the ornate brickwork outside to the bakery cases inside. Owner Rachel Midgette works with local farmers and a French eye to turn out pastries, croissants, and scones (sweet and savory), bars, and cookies. Don’t miss: The pecan butter croissant and the granola bars. Coffee is from a North Carolina favorite, Counter Culture. 126 North Market Street
10 a.m. N.C. Estuarium
If you don’t arrive with your own boat, you can still get a great experience on the water, for free. The nonprofit Estuariam includes an interesting look at river life. The best part: the free pontoon boat tours, led by local volunteers. The 90-minute trip runs from the railroad trestle that spans the river (it’s still in use, and it’s a feat of engineering) all the way back to quiet creeks where you might spot a bald eagle. Since some of the most beautiful houses are built facing the river, you’ll see gorgeous landscaping and get a dose of local history, too. Get a reservation early — tours fill up fast. 223 East Water Street
Noon Bill’s Hot Dogs
Most small towns have hot dog stands, but in Eastern North Carolina, it’s a whole thing. Regional dogs are bright red, the buns are soft, and the chili . . . well, that varies. But no chili is quite as legendary as the meatless white chili they’ve been using at Bill’s since 1928. They don’t reveal the secret, but you’ll hear that the base is everything from white beans to ground-up hot dog buns. It’s a little spicy, and it’s definitely different. Go through the squeaking screen door under the battered metal awning on Gladden Street and get in line with locals, who order them by the bagful. There’s no seating inside, but you can find a bench outside. Even better: Walk a couple of blocks to Stewart Parkway along the river and grab a seat in a tandem swing. 109 Gladden Street
5 p.m. Parley’s Sip & Steam
After you’ve walked your legs off admiring old houses (get walking-tour maps, including the historic St. Peter’s Episcopal Church graveyard, at the visitors center on Stewart Parkway), climb the high front steps here for a break over a bowl of steamed shrimp and a cold cocktail, including a whole list of sparkling wine concoctions like the Pamlico Sunset. The view from the porch over the river is a rest for the soul. 132 East Water Street
7 p.m. The Hackney
Save the best for the end of the day: Chef Jamie Davis, originally from Jacksonville, North Carolina, turns out Southern takes on local seafood and locally raised ingredients, including lamb, in a restored 1920s bank building (check out the original Art Deco tile floors and the bank vault door that opens to the kitchen). Davis serves seasonal dishes like fried soft shell crabs on a pool of crab bisque with charred kale leaves. The Hackney partners with the neighboring 1000 Piers distillery making gin, so the cocktails are next-level as well. 192 West Main Street
9 p.m. The Mulberry House
If you don’t end your night perched at the Hackney’s cocktail bar, slip across the street to the Mulberry House, one of several breweries along Main Street, for a beer or glass of wine. Located in the Historic Fowle House, built in 1818, it’s being developed into a boutique hotel, restaurant and brewery, and it stays open until 10 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. 189 West Main Street