Hillsborough: Where History, Culture and Craft Cocktails Collide


By Laurie Paolicelli

Historic Colonial Inn.

 With a downtown historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places and more than one hundred buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, Hillsborough has been called a museum without walls — and rightly so.

Hillsborough is among the oldest communities in North Carolina — it was founded in 1754 — and the small town retains much of its historic charm today.

But it doesn’t take much digging to realize that there’s another world here, as well — a world of art, food, literature, craft cocktails and organic food. The past and present live side-by-side and that’s what gives this town its life. 

Mayor Mark Bell enjoys a good Mexican lunch at Ixtapa in Hillsborough.

For Mayor Mark Bell, the day begins with a coffee run at Cup a Joe. The exposed brick, light-filled bay windows, and a tiled ceiling at the shop offer the perfect backdrop to enjoy a cappuccino, London fog, or fresh baked kolaches. For breakfast, stop by Hillsborough Bakeshop, where he recommends the cardamom kanelbullar, a sweet bun to fuel your day’s adventure. 

Downtown offers an array of cuisines like Mexican, Italian, and Indian fusion. For lunch, Mayor Bell suggests El Restaurante Ixtapa for delicious carnitas or get spicy with camarones a la diabla and enjoy views of the Eno River. For an array of traditional ethnic dishes and expertly crafted cocktails, visit Nomad on King Street for dinner. Enjoy the cozy, rustic interior as you dine on traditional Pad Thai, butter chicken or Moroccan lentil soup.  

For after-hours drinks, find yourself right next door to Cup a Joe at Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew for craft cocktails and local brews. Stop by for live jazz, book club, or open mic night! 

Stroll the Riverwalk, a picturesque greenway tracing the Eno River from Gold Park to the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail. The greenway is the only remaining dirt speedway from NASCAR’s inaugural season and has now been transformed into an outdoor space with trails and the original dirt track for visitors to enjoy.  

Hillsborough boasts a vibrant art scene for connoisseurs and creatives. Local galleries such as the Margaret Lane Gallery and the Hillsborough Gallery of Arts highlight the vivid imaginations and expressions of local artists through all sorts of mediums from paintings and glasswork to sculptures and ceramics. 

On the last Friday of the month from March to November, don’t miss the popular Last Fridays with live music, dance, visual arts, poetry and more. 

Hillsborough Mayor Mark Bell, his dog Theo, and Edward Di Gangi.

Former Mayor Tom Stevens operates the downtown Thomas Steven Gallery which has turned into a destination for art lovers and curious visitors. Tom has two floors of colorful art space and on the Last Fridays of each month, during the community’s Artwalk, he hosts musicians, an open mic and cool refreshments. His current exhibit is Au Naturel.

Celebrating the Nude in Art. Not surprisingly, he usually has a full house!

Thomas Stevens Gallery, Hillsborough.

Stevens likes to remind visitors of the beautiful public art that is dotted throughout Hillsborough. A mural honoring jazz great Billy Strayhorn adorns a building located inside Hillsborough’s Historic District. Max Dowdle, the artist behind the mural, worked with Volume Records co-owner Tony Lopez on the design, which they named “Take the A Train,” one of Strayhorn’s most well-known compositions. Murals abound in downtown Hillsborough.

The Colonial Inn is an iconic cornerstone of downtown Historic Hillsborough. The food is four-star and the ambience is too. There are not too many restaurants where you can look up from your appetizer and see a happy bride and groom skipping to their limo and driving away into the rest of their lives or run into one of the many famous local authors who live here.

As a token of your visit, be sure to grab a good book at Purple Crow Books. So many authors live in Hillsborough, you might get it signed before you leave. 

Eno Arts Mill.

And you must visit the Eno Arts Mill! Proudly operated by the Orange County Arts Commission this renovated Mill features individual studios, galley exhibits, live music, First Friday monthly celebrations and a wide variety of commercial, craft and artisanal products.

“We invite people of all types to gather and experience the visual, performing, and literary arts. We strive to be a community arts space that is safe, welcoming, and accessible for all people.,” promises manager, Katie Murray, director of the OC Arts Commission.

And speaking of the arts, every artist needs a good retail store for fine art supplies. Anne & Arthur, is a unique shop dedicated to providing quality fine art supplies at 220 S. Churton St. in the heart of Historic Hillsborough.

Anne & Arthur is a new arts supply store on Churton Street in Hillsborough.

There is no other town in North Carolina quite like Hillsborough, quaint and cutting-edge at the very same time. As we celebrate May and the meteorologist calls for more Carolina Blue skies, make it a day trip. Or better yet, spend the night.

Log on to: https://visithillsboroughnc.com

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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