George Washington once stayed here. Pepsi was created here. Cute bear statues can be found all over town. That’s all I needed to know to commit to a visit to New Bern, North Carolina, which seems to be a combination of old-time, small-town charm and quirky sights.
The bears were my favorite part. Everything in New Bern is about bears. The high school mascot is the bear. The police cars have bear logos. Residents display bear flags on their houses. “Bern” is the Swiss word for bear, so the town’s bear connection goes way back. And in 2010, to celebrate its 300th anniversary, New Bern went all-out on the bear theme by displaying artistic bears everywhere.
Every once in a while, the town even sees a real black bear wandering around, as if the mascots have come to life.
One of New Bern’s biggest claims to fame is as the birthplace of Pepsi. There’s a general store here on the site where Caleb Bradham created Brad’s Drink, which became Pepsi in 1898.
I’m rarely in awe of historic sites, but whenever I hear the name “George Washington,” I immediately get excited. Like, “Wow! George Washington once slept here! The first president! That’s amazing!” Washington stayed for two nights at the John Wright Stanly House.
There’s more history in the form of Tryon Palace, the location of the State Capitol and Governor’s Residence in the 1790s. Guests can now take tours of the building.
For the old-time New Bern feel, take a ride in a horse carriage.
New Bern is not right on the ocean, but it’s pretty close. The town sits on the Neuse River, which empties into Pamlico Sound and then the Atlantic Ocean. The local folks make use of the piers to keep their boats, which they no doubt take out on the water often.
One of the main tourist hotspots is the walkable downtown area near the river. The business district features a number of cute shops, as well as squirrels eating slices of toast bigger than themselves.
Well done, squirrels. You win.