Hillsborough: Where History, Culture and Craft Cocktails Collide

Textile Artist Elaine O’Neil, a Hillsborough resident, is participating in this weekend’s Open House Studio Tour. The Wooden Nickel in Hillsborough is open for business.

By Laurie Paolicelli

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.

Yonder, Hillsborough.

On King Street alone, there’s a bar called Yonder, serving as Hillsborough’s unofficial living room where folks gather to enjoy craft cocktails, beer, wine, and the arts. Live music and local rotating artist installations make Yonder a warm and comfortable place for friends to gather and relax. Next door is Joe Van Gogh, a coffee house where the baristas create art you can drink: ah, espresso! They call this “the art of the bean.”

A happy group of customers enjoying Yonder’s patio and warm drinks.

Down the street is Nomad. Nomad specializes in traditional ethnic dishes and craft cocktails with a spin, all in a cozy, rustic interior. It’s modern, hip, and delicious. It’s like a quick trip around the world without ever leaving town.

Nomad’s globally inspired menu.

The Colonial Inn is an iconic cornerstone of downtown Historic Hillsborough. After years of waiting, the doors are now open. 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. Buy a book at Purple Crow and they’ll sign it. They might even join you for a drink.

Downtown Hillsborough is home to several art galleries, including Hillsborough Art Gallery. On King Street is Thomas Stevens Gallery.

Tom Stevens is the former Mayor of Hillsborough. He now operates his own art gallery featuring local landscapes and evocative nudes, portraits, drawings, and sculpture.

Tom and his wife Debbie are epicureans. When asked where he and his wife like to dine-out, he shared his list.

Tom says you cannot beat a great burger and fries at the Wooden Nickel Pub. At Antonia’s he raves about the Fettuccine with pork meatballs and truffle sauce. A favorite menu item at Radius Pizza is the Old Reliable S&P Pizza. Tacos Los Altos is a go to for their Chicken Burrito and the amazing breakfast. Other favs include: Hillsborough BBQ, known for their pit-cooked BBQ, and Village Diner, comfort food in the Southern style. And Whit’s, of course, for some Almond Joy frozen custard!

Stevens reminds Hillsborough visitors that local art thrives outdoors as well.

Love Hillsborough Community Art Project was created by the Orange County Arts Commission, with mosaic artist Carlos González García, to celebrate community and love during the pandemic. Community members created more than 150 heart mosaics that were installed in the Eno Parking Deck just off the Hillsborough River Walk.

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.

Solstice Lantern Walk Hillsborough.

Holiday Events

November 26: Last Fridays

November 27: Shop Small Saturday

December 3: Orange County Artist Guild Holiday Show – Opens Friday, December 3, 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm

December 5: 4:00 pm, Hillsborough Holiday Parade followed by the Holiday Tree Lighting Event (Old Courthouse Lawn)

December 3, 2021 – January 2, 2022: ‘Homes for the Holidays’ Gingerbread competition displays in storefronts

December 21: 5:45 pm, HAC’s Solstice Lantern Walk

For a full list: https://visithillsboroughnc.com

Quaint Shops in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

And for those of a more peripatetic bent, take a walk to the centerpiece of this lovely town, a 1.8-mile paved trail that runs alongside the Eno River from Gold Park through the middle of Hillsborough, and is part of the statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Breathe that crisp southern air.

Before you leave, visit the Cloth Mill at Eno River. The Mill is home to the Orange County Arts Mill Studios, Broadreach Fitness and Guardian Band, as well as other specialty manufacturers and distributors of a wide variety of commercial, craft and artisanal products.

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

For a list of quaint shops, bookstores and more, log on to:  https://visithillsboroughnc.com


Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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