Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Sanford, NC

  • Published 2022/10/01

Sanford is a city in Lee County with a population of 29,758 as of the 2020 census.

During the county’s creation, Sanford and Jonesboro were the choices to be the county seat, but it was ultimately decided that the courthouse would be placed between the two towns.

Sanford eventually expanded in the late 20th century and merged with Jonesboro.

The latter became Jonesboro Heights, while the name Sanford was retained for the town.

The then-town was named after civil engineer C.O. Sanford, who was responsible for building the rail lines that helped it become a city.

It was once a leading source of coal, brownstone, and brick, becoming a major provider for different areas throughout the country.

Today, the city maintains its small-town feel amidst sprawling nature parks, up-and-coming restaurants, a big music scene, and a thriving art community.

Here are the best things to do in Sanford, North Carolina:

Watch a Stage Production at Temple Theatre

Exterior of the Temple Theatre

Wileydoc /

Built in 1925, Temple Theatre was a popular spot for Vaudeville shows, with its strategic location near the train station.

Designed using the Colonial Revival and Art Deco styles, the building got its name from the Masonic Lodge next door.

The venue served as Lee County’s entertainment capital for decades, hosting Vaudeville and touring road shows, including burlesque, and becoming a movie theater later.

It also became the venue for productions of the Sanford Little Theatre and the Footlight Players in the 1960s until its closure in 1965.

The theater underwent renovations in the early 1980s and reopened with a production of Chicago in 1984.

Today, the Temple produces musicals and dramas, each show usually running for three weeks.

It’s also a great venue for stand-up comedy acts, pop concerts, and dance recitals.

Watch one of Temple Theatre’s productions when you visit Sanford.

Go Mountain Biking at San-Lee Park

San-Lee Park is a 177-acre waterfront park on Pumping Station Road.

It has a challenging 6.5-mile mountain biking trail that will bring out the adrenaline junkie in you.

The route will take about two hours and 20 minutes to complete, so pack some snacks and drinks to fuel you on your ride.

For a more laid-back experience, have a picnic or go fishing in one of the park’s lakes brimming with largemouth bass, bluegill, and bullhead catfish.

Birdwatchers will have a great time spotting songbirds such as the Hooded Warbler and Great Crested Flycatcher.

Canoeing and paddle boat riding are also available depending on the season.

Challenge yourself and try your biking skills at San-Lee Park.

Discover North Carolina’s Biodiversity at White Pines Nature Preserve

Spanning 275 acres and situated between the Rocky and Deep Rivers is White Pines Nature Preserve, which features the rich biodiversity of North Carolina.

White pines used to be abundant in the area more than 10,000 years ago during the ice age, hence the name, but as the climate warmed, the population of cool-weather species deteriorated.

The preserve is located on Rocky River Road and has a relatively cooler temperature than nearby areas.

It can sometimes be as much as 10 degrees cooler than downtown Pittsboro, which is only eight miles away.

The preserve’s cool climate created a variety of natural habitats like fern-covered slopes and damp lowlands that are home to rich flora and fauna.

Walk the preserve’s trail and see mountain laurel and Catawba rhododendron hanging onto Rocky’s hillsides.

The forest is home to wild turkey and pileated woodpecker.

At the same time, migratory birds like the yellow-billed cuckoo, yellow-throated warblers, and Louisiana waterthrush can be seen in the spring and summer.

White-tailed deer, gray fox, and muskrat roam around the preserve, while treefrogs and upland chorus frogs show up on rainy nights.

If you want to discover the rich biodiversity of North Carolina, let White Pines Nature Preserve host you.

Find Treasures at the Sanford Antique Mall

Located right across the Depot Park is the 18,000-square-foot Sanford Antique Mall, which houses 75 dealers of vintage jewelry, vinyl, furniture, and more.

It offers an extensive collection of rare pieces that fit right in your home.

Find North Carolina pottery, depression glassware, clothes, coins, and China in this collector’s haven.

Choose from a wide array of period furniture such as Art Deco, Queen Anne, Victorian, American Primitive, and Mid-Century Modern.

The shops have a constantly changing inventory, so there’s always something new for you to discover.

The mall supports the Carolina Animal Rescue and Adoption, a no-kill animal shelter that rescues homeless animals from across the state.

Swing by the Sanford Antique Mall and take a piece of history with you.

Catch a Show at the Mann Center of North Carolina

The Mann Center of North Carolina is the arts and community center of Lee County.

Dubbed “The Crown Jewel of Lee County,” the center is home to theater events, concerts, and other productions all year round.

Located on North Steele Street, the historic building opened its doors in 1925 as Sanford High School.

Today, it houses a 300-seater performance hall, over 20 offices, a conference room, and a multipurpose room that can be rented out for private and public events.

Catch a free show by the Lee County Community Orchestra or check out the Miller Art Gallery, which features local artists from the county and surrounding areas.

The Mann Center of North Carolina is a non-profit, so donations are welcome to support the center’s upkeep to benefit the local theater and art community.

Follow the Sanford Mural Art Trail

The Sanford Mural Art Trail depicts the city’s history through life-size artwork scattered across Downtown Sanford’s heart.

The two-mile-long trail starts from the Visitor Center at Chatham Street and features 10 artworks celebrating the city’s colorful past.

The first mural is titled “Off to War,” in tribute to the men and women of Lee County that served during World War II.

The Tobacco Mural celebrates the city’s rich agricultural history, while the DREAM and Fairview Dairy—the first 3D mural in North Carolina—showcase the spirit and creativity in the area.

The Bringing the Arts Together mural is an interactive display with a giant spinning wheel that showcases the vibrant mix of arts in the city.

Get your maps from the Visitor Center or print your own and follow the Sanford Mural Art Trail for a colorful history lesson.

Trace Sanford’s History at the Historic Railroad House

Exterior of the Historic Railroad House

Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The people of Sanford consider the rail lines that connected them to the rest of the country the foundation of their town.

Located on Charlotte Avenue in the heart of Historic Downtown Sanford, the historic Railroad House was built as a home for Mr. W.T. Tucker, the first depot agent of the Raleigh & Augusta Airline Railroad, and his family.

It’s the oldest house in town, having served as a school operated by Mrs. Tucker, a dwelling for several families, and a tearoom.

The house was slated for demolition in 1962, but a group of concerned citizens rallied to save the building and founded the Railroad House Historical Association for its preservation.

Today, Railroad House is a museum that boasts a diverse collection that includes ancient fossilized remains, handcrafted Native American tools, and some Victorian-era pieces.

A restored steam locomotive from the Atlantic and Western Railway can also be seen on the museum grounds, taking you back to the early days of steamers.

Learn about the city’s beginnings and marvel at the museum’s collection at the Railroad House.

See the Longest Covered Bridge in North Carolina at Ole Gilliam Mill Park

Along Carbonton Road is Ole Gilliam Mill Park, an old mill turned museum highlighting the sawmill industry in the mid-1800s.

The present mill is a reproduction of the 1850 property built by Stephen Henly that was washed away during a flood in 1928.

Today, the park welcomes visitors interested in antique engines through a yearly “Crank Up.”

The annual event features demonstrations of an old sawmill, a motorized log splitter, and a grist mill that’ll produce a limited amount of cornmeal and grits for you to purchase.

Also inside the property is North Carolina’s longest covered bridge, a reproduction of an old bridge crossing Pocket Creek.

Stop by Ole Gilliam Mill Park and see this red-roofed wooden bridge.

Grab Lunch at Mrs. Lacy’s Magnolia House

Mrs. Lacy’s Magnolia House is a tearoom on Carthage Street that serves homemade salads, desserts, specialty sandwiches, coffee, and teas.

The tearoom is in a two-story Victorian house once owned by Dr. Margaret McLeod, the city’s first pediatrician.

Have a taste of the Reuben Sandwich or opt for one of their famous quiches for lunch.

Wrap up your meal with apple crisp served and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

If you fancy an afternoon tea, pair your cup with a slice of strawberry shortcake and admire the antiques and paintings in the upstairs hallway.

Grab a hearty lunch at Mrs. Lacy’s Magnolia House and enjoy homemade meals in a beautifully restored house.

Grab Pancakes at The Fairview Dairy Bar

The Fairview Dairy Bar is a local diner that serves 1950s-style American eats.

Located on Carbonton Road, this restaurant is best known for its ice creams and sundaes that are a perfect cap off to your day of touring around the city.

Try the chocolate chip cookie dough sundae, mocha almond fudge ice cream, or banana pudding to satisfy your sweet tooth.

The bar is also a go-to for pancakes, sandwiches, and wraps that go well with their milkshakes.

Let The Fairview Dairy Bar transport you to the 50s with its classic American Diner offerings.

Cool Off at Yarborough’s Homemade Ice Cream & Grill

You may be feeling hot after walking around downtown the whole day.

Luckily, Yarborough’s Homemade Ice Cream & Grill on McIver Street is just a four-minute walk from the Historic Town Hall Building.

The family-run ice cream shop has been serving homemade ice cream since 1935.

There’s a wide selection of flavors for every ice cream lover, from the classics chocolate and cookies and cream to the more curious nutty coconut, bubblegum, and Mollie’s Follie.

Milkshakes are also a must-try, paired with their chili dogs and burgers, and you’ve got yourself an all-American snack.

Visit Yarborough’s Homemade Ice Cream & Grill and grab a scoop of rich, thick ice cream.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Spot the Bald Eagles at Jordan Lake Dam

Daytime view of the Jordan Lake Dam

Andy Fogelsonger /

Jordan Lake is a reservoir covering 13,940 acres of land with a shoreline of 180 miles.

Located in Moncure, 16 minutes outside Sanford, the flood control project was constructed after a 1945 storm devastated the region downstream.

Today, it’s the major water supplier for central North Carolina, and its shorelines serve as a habitat for bald eagles.

Other birds you can spot in the dam are Cormorants, gulls, and Great Blue Herons that often hunt for fish in its waters.

Near the lake is the Tailrace Fishing Area, where you can fish striped bass, white bass, and bream.

Drive to Jordan Lake Dam and see the bald eagle in full glory.

Visit the Rescued Animals at Aloha Safari Park

Aloha Safari Park is not your ordinary wildlife park as it’s home to previously injured, abandoned, abused, or neglected animals.

The park takes care of tigers, zebras, lemurs, and over 300 more animals in their Cameron facility, around 20 minutes from Sanford.

Founded by Lee Crutchfield in 2010, the 60-acre family-run zoo has veterinarians that provide medical care and health exams to ensure all animals are in great condition.

Pens are equipped with ultraviolet lighting that provides Vitamin D to the animals, and habitats are accredited by the US Department of Agriculture.

Take a safari ride tour while learning about the animals at Aloha Safari Park.

Final Thoughts

Sanford is a city with small-town charm, thanks to its quaint shops, well-loved restaurants, and thousands of acres of nature preserves that showcase its biodiversity.

Its history draws inspiration from a small neighborhood that turned into a thriving urban area when the rail line brought endless opportunities.

Today, it’s an art and culture hotspot proud of its humble beginnings.

Consider the best things to do in Sanford, North Carolina when planning your next vacation!

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