What It's Like to Live in New Bern, N.C.

This historic town blends convenience with small-town charm.
By: Stephanie Hunt

Braided between the Neuse and Trent Rivers, the lovely town of New Bern is much more than a pass-through or pit stop on the way to North Carolina's heralded beaches 30 miles away. For history buffs, it's a jackpot of "firsts" and fine 18th-century homes as well as the new, interactive North Carolina History Center. For families, it's a haven of affordable, livable neighborhoods and miles of waterfront playground. For retirees, New Bern boasts an ideal climate and a bevy of golf, arts and recreation opportunities. And for all residents — young and old, New Bern natives and newcomers alike — it is a friendly community, where life's pace takes a go-with-the-flow cue from the prominent rivers: fast enough to keep things moving, slow enough to savor all that the region has to offer.

"We love the combination of small-town charm with plenty of conveniences, including being only 20 minutes from the beach," says New Bern resident Sonja Babic, a European transplant who moved here 14 years ago. The Old World flavor of historic New Bern is part of what makes Babic feel right at home. Founded in 1710 by Baron von Graffenreid of New Berne, Switzerland (hence the name), this seaport town — once a cotton and tobacco export hub and later a lumber and shipbuilding center — is North Carolina's second-oldest and the original state capital. A rare four-faced Seth Thomas clock tower, a New Bern landmark, reigns over City Hall, a nod to the town's Swiss heritage. Whimsical bears ("Bern" derives from the German "bear") pop up in signs and on street corners, bearing tidbits of New Bern history.

But it's the pedestrian-friendly downtown, dotted with mom-and-pop restaurants, quaint storefronts and a popular river walk, that gives New Bern a welcoming all-American coziness. "It's a place where people do smile at each other. There's plenty to do but you don't get stuck in traffic," says Babic.

Old and New: Where to Live

New Bern's riverfront historic district encompasses 56 square blocks of tree-lined streets with an intriguing mix of palatial Colonial homes, brick Georgians and a smattering of Victorian homes, many with manicured gardens. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and home to more than 200 architectural landmarks, the district offers a combo of commercial and residential properties. Many have been immaculately restored while others still need a little TLC, making the neighborhood ideal for those who love character, appreciate history and enjoy working on older homes.

The Ghent neighborhood, an early trolley car "suburb" dating from the early 1900s, is also listed on the National Register. While a bit more eclectic and affordable than downtown, its old-fashioned street lights, cute cottages, bungalows and much-used sidewalks give it ample appeal. Families love that Ghent is nestled between two popular parks with access to baseball fields, fishing and nature trails, as well as proximity to the YMCA. Homes here tend to be larger than in some of the newer subdivisions, with prices ranging from $170,000 to the $400,000s. Along the Neuse River, Riverside neighborhood is similarly a pleasant mix of sturdy pre-World War II homes, including everything from brick ranches to tidy bungalows to Victorian manses with wraparound porches.

And for those who prefer newer construction and subdivision amenities, New Bern offers numerous golf course communities, such as Greenbrier, which is only two miles from town and popular with young families as well as retirees. There's also Trent Woods, which boasts spacious lots, large homes and waterfront properties as well as a yacht club.

Further outside of town along the Neuse River, Fairfield Harbour is a sprawling 3,000-acre resort development with a mix of condominiums, townhomes and single-family homes that attracts boaters and snowbirds as well as year-round residents.

First Things First: Things to Do

New Bern is proud of its many firsts: It was the first capital of North Carolina, and the stately, must-see Tryon Palace and Gardens served first as meeting place for Colonial assembly, residence for the British Royal Governor, William Tryon, and then as governor's mansion for the independent state of North Carolina. New Bern is also home to the state's first chartered public school, first postal service in Colonial Carolina, first printing press and first fire department. Several trip-worthy museums, such as the Firemen's Museum and the restored New Bern Academy, as well as the interactive North Carolina History Center and several house museums, pay homage to this distinguished history.

Another fun downtown spot is Bradham's Pharmacy, the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola and home of kitschy collectibles and an old-timey soda fountain. The commercial district offers plenty of good shopping and dining options, including an excellent Thai restaurant frequented by locals, decadent ice cream at Cow Cafe and upscale dining at The Chelsea, a swanky hotspot in an old building where Elvis once ate when traveling through New Bern. A Saturday farmers' market on Front Street draws crowds year round, and the Craven Arts Council and Gallery is a nucleus for the area's active art scene, including popular downtown Art Walks.

But to really savor New Bern's distinct flavor, spend some time either on the water or on the waterfront. You'll find residents and visitors alike taking relaxing strolls by the marina and along the river walk at Union Point Park, where the Neuse and Trent Rivers meet. Tourists enjoy the two-hour guided Riverboat Tour, and the more actively inclined appreciate the natural beauty of the waterways via kayak, paddleboard, fishing or crabbing.

Beyond New Bern

While New Bern itself is picturesque, the surrounding region features beautiful forests and some of the East Coast's best beaches. North Carolina's famed Crystal Coast (Morehead City, Beaufort and Atlantic Beach) is only an hour away — easy driving distance for a day in the sand and surf or a visit to the North Carolina Aquarium. The pristine and protected national seashore on the Outer Banks, a haven for surfers, birders and vacationers, is either a two-and-a-half-hour drive or ferry ride. Just to the south of New Bern, the small hamlet of Havelock is home to the Marine Corps Air Station, and in the 157,000-acre Croatan National Forest you can find rare Venus flytraps, bears, plenty of alligators and other wildlife.

Though home to only 30,000 or so residents, New Bern lives bigger than its size would suggest. With its rich history and cultural offerings, along with the beauty of its rivers and surrounding region, living in New Bern means having the best of both worlds: the quaintness of a Southern small town and the vitality of a community that appreciates its vibrant sense of place.

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