Southport is a stunning town where every waterfront turn or historic street corner can serve as its own charming attraction. Filled with picturesque outdoor landscapes, a collection of historic sites, and a myriad of unique shopping and dining opportunities, a vacation in this coastal community can be as relaxed or as engaging as a visitor wishes.
With that being said, there are a few “must see” attractions and destination that longtime and new visitors alike should be sure to include on an upcoming vacation itinerary. Make the most out of your upcoming Southport getaway by ensuring these Top 10 Attractions are on your list.
Located on the edge of the Cape Fear River, the Southport Pier and Riverwalk is a popular destination for local anglers and sightseers alike. The “City Pier” is handicapped accessible and features a wide walkway that extends into the heart of the river, and which provides multiple fishing platforms along the way. Visitors can settle into a bench to enjoy the stunning views of the waterfront landscape, admire the abundant water birds and shorebirds that flock to the area, or can drop a line for a wide array of saltwater catches that vary throughout the year, depending on the season. With miles of views and an easily accessible locale in the downtown area, the free and convenient Southport Pier is a perfect scenic addition to any downtown walking tour.
The Southport Waterfront Park is a popular spot for area explorers, thanks to a locale that borders both the downtown area and the edge of the Cape Fear River. Located right next to the popular Southport Pier and Riverwalk, the Waterfront Park features a row of benches and swings with incredible views of the open waters and outlying barrier islands. In addition, the 9-acre park features a gazebo, water fountain, lights for evening visits, and seasonal vendors like ice cream trucks for easy refreshments. The Waterfront Park is also the site of the Riverwalk, which follows the river’s edge along Bay Street and rounds the small bay of the yacht basin. While en route, strollers will enjoy spectacular views throughout, as well as ample opportunities to spot local wildlife including ibis, raptors, and terns. A perfect destination for local scenery and breaks in between downtown excursions, the Southport Waterfront Park and Riverwalk is truly a breath of fresh air for visitors.
Explore dozens of historic buildings, tempting restaurants and eateries, and unique boutiques while taking a stroll through Southport’s biggest attraction – its historic and effortlessly charming downtown area. Extending for multiple blocks but concentrating primarily along Howe Street, the downtown area has been the setting of a number of movies and television productions, and is also the home of a myriad of historic treasures like the Old Brunswick Jail, and the Old Burying Ground. Visitors can stroll from one stop to the next on their own to explore the sites, or can embark on a professionally guided walking, trolley, bike, or even water tour that regularly launches from the region. With centuries of history to cover, as well as stories from locally filmed blockbusters like the recent movie “Safe Haven,” this area earns its reputation as one of the most enticing downtown landscapes in coastal North Carolina. Be sure and reserve ample time to pop into one of the acclaimed restaurants, antique stores, and art galleries, which are renowned as some of the most unique and enjoyable shopping and dining destinations in the lower Cape Fear area.
Take a day trip that encompasses miles of water views from start to finish with a cruise onboard the Southport/Fort Fisher Ferry. This ferry that is managed by the NCDOT is one of seven ferry routes that are part of the North Carolina state ferry system, and is an easy cruise that shuttles visitors from Southport to the barrier island Fort Fisher region approximately 14 times per day. Once on board, visitors will enjoy incredible views of the surrounding waters, and upon arrival, will be just a shell’s through away from a collection of shoreside attractions. Enjoy a beach day at the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, check out the local marine life at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, or enjoy a wild expedition with a trek through Zeke’s Island Coastal Reserve. With each crossing taking just 35 minutes, (and offering incredible vistas throughout), the trip to Fort Fisher is just as enjoyable as the destination itself.
Serving as the primary form of transportation to isolated and enticing Bald Head Island, the Bald Head Island Ferry is a private passenger-only ferry that cruises across the Cape Fear River to the small but absolutely breathtaking vacation destination, Bald Head Island. Though the island itself is less than 6 square miles, the area is stocked with stunning beaches, unique waterfront shops and restaurants, and a myriad of historic sites and attractions that will enchant visitors of all varieties. Rent a golf cart or bike at the ferry docks, (cars are not allowed on the island), and take a tour of the Bald Head Island Lighthouse, and the Bald Head Island Woods Coastal Reserve, or just spend a few hours at one of the pristine and lightly developed shorelines. With nature and beauty in literally every direction, a Bald Head Island day trip is a nice compliment to a scenic Southport exploration.
Explore exhibits, original documents, and historic artifacts that date back hundreds of years at the extensive Fort Johnston / Southport Museum & Visitors Center site. Originally built in 1748 by the British to protect the Brunswick area from Spanish and French attacks, the fort would later serve as a center for federal services, and would eventually became the longest running active fort in the country. The fort was recently granted to the City of Southport, which transformed the site into an intricate museum and visitors center. Today, visitors can explore the rich history of the fort via a docent-led tour, or can enjoy an introduction to the area through a collection of information that highlights the heritage, culture, and natural landscapes of Southport. With a wealth of info as well as a stellar setting that overlooks the Cape Fear River, the Fort Johnston Museum & Visitors Center is a fine “first stop” for visitors who want to uncover everything Southport has to offer.
Well known as one of the most unique historic sites in downtown Southport, the Old Brunswick County Jail was first built in 1904, and was used for more than 70 years before being transformed into a unique and engaging museum. Modern visitors don’t have to commit a crime to explore the jail’s interior, thanks to regular afternoon tours that uncover the two-story brick structure in depth. The jail itself has just two cells and a roundabout on the second floor, as well as a basement area that was used by the jailors and their families as a part-time residence. From the original graffiti still scrawled on the walls, to stories of famous residents (like Sissy Spacek who filmed scenes of the 1986 movie “Crimes of the Heart” within the interior), the Old Brunswick Jail is a relatively small downtown attraction that has a big wow factor.
NC Maritime Museum
Visitors can learn about centuries of local Southport culture with a visit to the engaging North Caro0lina Maritime Museum in Southport. This museum that’s found within an unimposing building in the heart of the downtown area features a myriad of exhibits that line the walls, and which highlight all aspects of local life since the town was formed. Special exhibits of note include a fragment of a 2,000 year old Native American canoe, the original pleas of clemency by the infamous pirate Stede Bonnet, and intricate ship models and fishing equipment that chronicle the region’s long ties to the water. From Southport’s surprisingly prominent role in the American Revolution, to historic shipwrecks that took place just off the Cape Fear Coastline, no stone has been uncovered when it comes to the region’s deep roots and maritime culture. Be sure and reserve a little time to explore the gift shop after a museum exploration, which features a variety of unique coastal treasures and souvenirs.
Enjoy brilliant views of the local landscape that are intermixed with natural scenery with a stroll down the Southport Marsh Walk. This small wooden boardwalk that’s found on the edge of the busy downtown area hovers over the water, and bypasses a network of salty creeks, deep grasses, and open waters before landing at a scenic overlook where abundant vistas await. Along the way, visitors will enjoy fantastic views of local landmarks, (like restaurants and marinas that were used as a backdrop for movies and / or artworks), as well as ample opportunities to admire the local wildlife. The Marsh Walk is an especially enticing destination for birdwatchers, as the spot attracts a myriad of species including white ibis, egrets, pelicans, and great blue herons. Bring along a camera, a pair of binoculars, or just a sense of romance for a lazy stroll that puts the landscape of Southport in a beautiful new perspective.
Old Smithville Burying Ground
Pay a visit to this small corner of the downtown region for an insider’s glimpse of history that dates back more than 300 years. The Old Smithville Burying Ground, (also commonly referred to as simply “The Old Busying Ground”), is one of Southport’s most unique and historic destinations, and is the final resting place of a number of famed local residents. First established in 1792, and therefore pre-dating the original town of “Smithville” itself, the cemetery serves a permanent home for a number of prominent local residents, such as Governor Benjamin Smith, who was a colonel that fought under General George Washington during the American Revolution, and who is the namesake of the original town of Smithville. Other notable sites within the burying ground include General Robert Howe, famed officer of the Revolutionary War, several Confederate soldiers, and historic shipwreck victims from throughout the centuries. With so much history in one small section of the downtown area, the Old Smithville Burying Ground is a popular spot along walking tours, bike tours, and self-guided downtown explorations for visitors of all varieties.
Southport is a town that is brimming with heritage, culture, and fabulous scenery, so it’s no wonder that finding a favorite attraction or destination can be a challenge for many visitors. But with a little planning and an extended vacation, visitors can see all the top sites and destinations that make countless explorers fall in love with this lower Cape Fear town.
Spend an afternoon, a full day, or even a week discovering the area attractions, and see why Southport is a vacation destination that generations of visitors return to, year after year.