There are plenty of historic towns in North Carolina with impressive old courthouses and century-old houses. Hillsborough is that, with significant differences. It's a Piedmont, not coastal, town steeped in pre-Revolutionary War history. It once was the state capital. Today, this little town is gaining a reputation for eats.
From Charlotte, Hillsborough is about 140 miles (2 1/2 hours), one-way.
To see and do
Start your day at the Hillsborough-Orange County Visitors Center in the Alexander Dickson House (on East King Street), where you can pick up a cheap walking tour brochure that guides you to a number of 1700s and 1800s structures. The Dickson House, built around 1790, is a Quaker-plan farmhouse with a medicinal and herbal garden in its pleasant side yard.
Across the street, William Courtney's Yellow House (circa.1768) is where famed Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury preached to 200 people in 1780. Not far away, Mason's Ordinary, a little brown house on Tryon Street, was built around 1754. It's not the only repurposed "ordinary" - tavern - in town.
Two blocks north is the substantial stone building housing the Orange County Historic Museum. It's just a few rooms, but it takes you from the pre-Colonial period through Hillsborough's time as a textile center.
The tall-columned old county courthouse (Hillsborough is the county seat of Orange County) dominates the main spine of downtown, Churton Street. Just five or six blocks long, tree-lined Churton is dotted by the typical small-town shops, lawyer's offices clustered around the courthouse and, increasingly, restaurants. On warm days, you'll find no lack of outdoor seating. They run the gamut from high-end to barbecue joint.
Drive a mile east of downtown (to 376 Saint Mary's Road) to tour Ayr Mount, a carefully restored 1815 plantation home furnished with Federal antiques and decorative art. Ayr Mount sits on 265 acres along the banks of the Eno River. House tours are $10 per person, but Poet's Walk, a one-mile nature trail around the house and along the river, is free.
The wonderfully conserved structures of Hillsborough mirror the town's storied history. In the last half of the 1700s, Hillsborough was on the western edge of North Carolina civilization. Yet Hillsborough wanted what New Bern had: the title of state capital. It served that function for a year after the War for Independence.