The nucleocapsid protein (N) of SARS-CoV-2 plays a pivotal role during the viral life cycle. It is involved in RNA transcription and accounts for packaging of the large genome into virus particles. N manages the enigmatic balance of bulk RNA-coating versus precise RNA-binding to designated cis-regulatory elements. Numerous studies report the involvement of its disordered segments in non-selective RNA-recognition, but how N organizes the inevitable recognition of specific motifs remains unanswered. We here use NMR spectroscopy to systematically analyze the interactions of N’s N-terminal RNA-binding domain (NTD) with individual cis RNA elements clustering in the SARS-CoV-2 regulatory 5’-genomic end. Supported by broad solution-based biophysical data, we unravel the NTD RNA-binding preferences in the natural genome context. We show that the domain uses a set of flexible sensory residues to read the intrinsic signature of preferred RNA elements for selective and stable complex formation within the large pool of available motifs.