North Carolina Gay Travel Guide

Blue Ridge gay pride festival in Asheville NC

 Romantic Asheville

For many years a traditional bastion of conservatism, like its southern neighbors, North Carolina has changed considerably in recent years in terms of its attitudes toward and popularity among the LGBTQ+ community. As younger, more tolerant, and more politically progressive residents continue to move here, the LGBTQ+ community has become more visible.

Despite this progress, a transphobic and anti-LGBTQ+ law passed in 2016 casts a dark shadow on the state. The law fails to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination and prohibits trans people from using a public bathroom of the gender they identify with. While this law is still in place, LGBTQ+ travelers may be hesitant about visiting North Carolina, but the state is still home to many LGBTQ+ communities which provide a safe place to travel and be visible.

Long a hotbed of tech and medical industries as well as education, the Research Triangle is generally considered the most gay-friendly of North Carolina's urban regions. This area comprises of Chapel Hill (home to the University of North Carolina), Durham (anchored by Duke University), and the state capital city of Raleigh (where you'll find NC State University). In the rugged and mountainous interior, where you'll find Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the cool and beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, an artsy and gay-welcoming vibe has developed over the past two decades in the small, historic city of Asheville. You'll find a few gay-friendly B&Bs in small towns elsewhere in Appalachian North Carolina, but most of this rural area tends toward the conservative side.

Among smaller cities and top vacation getaways, North Carolina tends to draw its leisure visitors either to the coast or the mountains. Wilmington and the surrounding Cape Fear region have a growing following among gay visitors, especially given the area's much-acclaimed reputation as a center of film production. Farther up the coast, the towns strung along the famously scenic Outer Banks (from Currituck County to Cape Hatteras) have relatively few gay-owned businesses or accommodations, but there is a small and growing scene in these parts as well as a very fun LGBTQ+ party in mid-September, Outer Banks Pridefest.

One word about general nightlife, in both gay and non-gay establishments, in North Carolina: bear in mind that throughout the state many nightclubs and bars are licensed as "private clubs," meaning that visitors must buy a temporary membership, which is typically low cost.

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Charlotte Skyline
Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson / Getty Images

Nearly rivaling Atlanta as an economic powerhouse of the New South, fast-growing Charlotte boasts a formidable skyline of ultramodern office towers and is a bastion of commerce and banking (it's headquarters to Bank of America and the main base of eastern operations for Wells Fargo). With a population of 730,000, it's also the 17th-largest city in America—technically, it's the largest in the Southeast, but if you measure the greater metro region, its population of 2.4 million still lags well behind Atlanta (metro population 5.4 million).

Conservative in style and politics, Charlotte has a comparatively limited gay scene for a city its size (don't let its nickname, the "Queen City", throw you off), and it's also less a leisure getaway than it is a common destination for business travelers. Still, for whatever reason you might find yourself here, you'll find several notable attractions, a smattering of fun gay bars, and a growing number of high-caliber restaurants. You can also explore several appealing residential neighborhoods noted for their fine architecture.

Although downtown (referred to locally as Uptown) comprises a compact clutch of skyscrapers, Charlotte itself sprawls in every direction, and you’ll need a car to get around to the sights and among the most interesting neighborhoods. The city’s most-visited attractions are wholesome and in most cases family-oriented, such as the state-of-the-art Discovery Place Science Center, the history-intensive Levine Museum of the New South, the impressive NASCAR Hall of Fame, and the Charlotte Nature Museum at Freedom Park. One site that by itself merits a visit to Charlotte is the Mint Museum Randolph, so named for its location inside the very first U.S. Mint. The Federal-style building was converted a century later into an art museum, focusing mostly on works from the Western Hemisphere, and now houses many notable pieces by both American and some European masters. The Mint Museum Uptown, which holds the Museum of Craft and Design, is another cultural must.

A great way to spend an afternoon in Charlotte is to tour some of the city’s historic neighborhoods. Head northeast of downtown to reach the small but thriving North Davidson (NoDa) Arts District, where old brick storefronts and buildings of defunct industrial concerns now house art galleries and coffeehouses—be sure to check out cool shops like The Boulevard. The nearby Plaza Midwood neighborhood has a discernible gay vibe and plenty of fun cafes, lounges, and restaurants, plus the White Rabbit, the long-running gay bookstore, and pride shop.

Drive east and southeast of downtown to reach some of Charlotte’s most affluent residential neighborhoods, notably along Queen’s Road, throughout historic Edgehill, and closer in around the Dilworth section—the western edge of this area also has many very good restaurants. This area leads west into Charlotte’s historic, and once industrial, South End, which has blossomed in recent years with good eateries, cool shopping, and even a couple of gay bars.

Also, keep in mind that the city hosts Charlotte Black Gay Pride in mid-July and Charlotte Gay Pride in late August.

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Charlotte Restaurants

Dish Restaurant in Charlotte, NC
Dish Restaurant

Many of the most gay-popular restaurants in North Carolina's largest city are in the hip Plaza Midwood neighborhood and the neighboring North Davidson Arts District, aka NoDa.

In Plaza Midwood, you can savor classic Southern favorites like fried green tomatoes, grilled pimento cheese sandwiches, and fried chicken and dumplings at Dish. Also check out Fuel Pizza, which is in an old service station. In NoDa, be sure to check out the quirky and gay-frequented Smelly Cat Coffeehouse, which serves everything from bagels to espresso to ice cream.

300 East is a hip neighborhood bistro set inside an attractive Arts and Crafts house in Dilworth—among the top LGBTQ+ scenes in the city, this romantic spot specializes in modern-influenced Southern fare, like honey-pecan-crusted trout, and sweet-potato ravioli with gorgonzola cream and toasted walnuts. The Sunday brunch is a favorite social pastime. Across the street, the elegant Copper Restaurant serves exceptionally well-prepared Indian fare.

 Another nice choice near Southpark and the South End, Good Food on Montford is run by local chef-notables Bruce and Kerry Moffett and serves artful tapas and small plates utilizing mostly local, organic ingredients.

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Charlotte Hotels

The Historic Dunhill Hotel
Dunhill Hotel

Although Charlotte's City Center, known in these parts as Uptown, has many of the best hotels in the city, you'll find several appealing and gay-frequented places to stay throughout the city. At the high end, the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte combines luxe accommodations, a gorgeous spa and fitness center, and green design principles (the hotel is LEED-certified) for one of the most inviting hotel experiences in North Carolina. The hotel is in the heart of Uptown, close to other upscale business favorites like the classically elegant Historic Dunhill Hotel Nearby, the more affordable sister-brand of W Hotels, Aloft Charlotte Uptown at the Epicentre is an urbane, stylish oasis adjacent to the bustling Epicentre retail and entertainment complex.

Good mid-priced chain options with relative proximity to attractions, gay nightlife, and the area's better restaurants and shopping include the Hampton Inn Charlotte -South Park, which is close to Southpark Mall and the South End; and the centrally located Courtyard by Marriott Charlotte City Center.

Two of Charlotte's most distinctive inns are both gay-friendly and in great neighborhoods for exploring. Within walking distance of the cool restaurants and shops of Plaza Midwood, the stately VanLandingham Estate Inn contains nine warmly appointed rooms—the property anchors a stunningly landscaped plot of lawns and gardens. The inn's sister property is the beautifully decorated Morehead Inn is a graceful Colonial Revival house in historic Dilworth furnished with Victorian-era antiques—accommodations include a full Southern breakfast.

Appealing lodging options that fall a 10- to 15-minute drive outside the city center include the handsome Renaissance Charlotte Suites Hotel, which is near the airport as well as South End shopping, dining, and nightlife. And the regal Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge, part of hip Starwood's Luxury Collection—this opulent, relaxing compound a 20-minute drive south of downtown adjoins a world-class golf course and offers outstanding restaurants and a wonderful spa.

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Charlotte Gay Nightlife

The Woodshed Lounge
The Woodshed Lounge

Charlotte has about a dozen gay bars and clubs, which are distributed somewhat evenly around the city—a few are on the outskirts of the City Center, aka Uptown, and others are located in the trendy Plaza Midwood district, nearby NoDa (North Davidson), and the South End.

The South End is, in fact, the site of one of the most popular gay hangouts in the city, Sidelines Sports Bar and Billiards, which draws a mix of men and women to socialize, shoot pool, and throw darts. In historic Dilworth, Bar at 316 is also extremely popular and fun. The easygoing, attractive space inside a vintage house draws collegiate types and professionals. Charlotte's longest-running gay dance club, The Scorpio, is renowned for presenting some of the best drag shows in the Southeast.

The other fun spot in Plaza Midwood is the friendly, low-key gay piano bar and cabaret Petra's, a cozy hangout that's fun for trivia night, watching videos, karaoke, and hobnobbing after dinner at one of the many fine eateries in the neighborhood. While you're in the area, don't overlook the very fun dive bar the Thirsty Beaver Saloon, which has a wonderfully weird mural of a big thirsty beaver painted on the side of its orange cinder-block exterior. A cheerful lounge with a sunny patio and a good beer selection and decent casual bar food, the Thomas Street Tavern is another social focal point of Plaza Midwood. Like Thirsty Beaver, this isn't by any means a gay bar, but you'll often see LGBTQ+ folks hanging out here.

One of the premier African-American gay bars in the Southeast, Nickel Bar is open Thursday through Sunday and is located a few minutes drive northwest of the city center. It's a popular venue for dancing all evenings and drag shows on Sunday evenings

Charlotte's gay leather, bear, and butch crowd favor The Woodshed Lounge, which is a 15-minute drive west of Uptown near the airport. This rough-and-tumble bar with a good-size patio with steak cookouts on Sundays, Underwear Nights on Thursdays, and a particularly ribald cruise-fest called Frisky Fridays.

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Outer Banks

The Outer Banks Gay Pride Festival in Nags Head
OBX PrideFest

The 200-mile stretch of dune-backed barrier islands that make up North Carolina's Outer Banks is a favorite seaside vacation getaway for residents of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic region. The laid-back, scenic region within a five-hour drive of Washington, DC has historically never cultivated more than a quite local and limited gay scene, but this has lately been changing.

One event that's helped put the North Carolina coast on the gay travel map is OBX PrideFest, a three-day Outer Banks Gay Pride celebration held in Nags Head in September. The festival takes place mostly on the grounds of the gay-friendly First Colony Inn and this year features a concert by Sayer McShane but also includes a sunset cruise out of Manteo, gallery tours, music and a Suzanne Westenhoefer comedy concert, a very fun Pride Party on Saturday night at OBX Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills, a Sunday drag brunch at Pamlico Jack's, and a big Pride Party wrap party on Sunday night at Kelly's Tavern in Nags Head.

Even if you don't make it down for gay pride, you'll find much to see and do in the Outer Banks year-round, and especially from late spring through early fall. The area takes in a pair of stunning national seashores, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout. Nearby towns like Manteo (on Roanoke Island, site of history's infamous "Lost Colony"), Nags Head, Beaufort, and Ocracoke are dotted with motels and airy, seaside B&Bs, as well as excellent seafood restaurants.

Cape Hatteras is the more commercially developed of the two parks and by far the most easily reached; it typically draws families and kids in high numbers all summer long. The above-mentioned Coquina Beach, which is especially popular with gay visitors on Sundays but typically has a "family" following daily throughout summer, is within Cape Hatteras near the Wright Brothers National Memorial off Hwy. 12, just south of Nags Head.

For a more peaceful and adult-oriented getaway, you might want to focus on Cape Lookout, which consists of three islands and can be reached only by regularly scheduled passenger ferry service. Once across the sound, you can stroll the beach, go sea kayaking off Shackleford Banks, admire Cape Lookout Lighthouse, or investigate the ghost town of Portsmouth Village—a now-deserted colonial shipping community with a small museum tracing its history.

Several accommodations in the area extend a warm welcome to gay travelers, in addition to the above-mentioned First Colony Inn in Nags Head. These include the stately ​Castle at Silver Lake B&B, a contemporary mansion in Ocracoke. Also, in historic New Bern, a couple of hours inland from the Outer Banks, the upscale Aerie Inn, and romantic Harmony House Inn are very gay-friendly.

As a gay destination, the Outer Banks are geared more to couples and groups of friends than singles. There are no gay bars out this way, although a few spots—mostly in and around Nags Head—have a bit of a mixed gay following, including Kelly's Restaurant, Outer Banks Brewing Station, the Jolly Roger, and Dirty Dick's Crab House.

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Downtown Wilmington
DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

The urban anchor of North Carolina's idyllic Cape Fear Coast, Wilmington enjoys a high quality of life, superb cultural attractions, and a strong tradition of historic and architectural preservation. The greater region draws sports and outdoors enthusiasts by the droves, thanks to its golden beaches, dozens of outstanding golf courses, first-rate cycling terrain, and excellent sailing, kayaking, and fishing. It's also the northernmost point on the Atlantic seaboard where you'll find palm trees—even January temperatures rarely fall below freezing.

Fringing the Cape Fear River, Wilmington lies just eight miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby coastal communities include Wrightsville Beach, a tiny residential enclave; Carolina Beach, a slice of unabashed honky-tonk, with amusement parks and souvenir stands; and Kure (pronounced "curry") Beach, a low-keyed vacation community dotted with pastel-hued clapboard cottages.

This affordable city contains blocks of grand old buildings and houses, which in recent years have attracted artists, designers, lesbian and gay couples, empty-nesters, and other urban pioneers. The film industry has infused the city with both creativity and celebrity, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington—with more than 12,000 students—helps account for the city's youthful attitude. In a relatively conservative state, Wilmington stands out for its increasing appreciation of diversity in all forms.

Wilmington's downtown historic district takes in some 230 blocks of mostly 19th-century houses, warehouses, and commercial buildings in myriad styles—a handful of them now serve as museums. You can stroll about on foot or see it on a variety of guided excursions, from riverboat rides to trolley tours. Among the city's top sightseeing highlights, the Cameron Art Museum focuses on American art (there's a vast collection of Mary Cassatt prints), with an emphasis on artists from North Carolina. For an overview of the area's history, drop by the expansive Cape Fear Museum, with exhibits on everything from natural history to hometown hero Michael Jordan. Docked across the Cape Fear River from downtown, the USS North Carolina battleship is another favorite attraction.

South of downtown, Greenfield Gardens, the city's gorgeous 200-acre municipal park encompasses a rippling lake, 20 acres of dramatic gardens, and a five-mile scenic drive and bike path.

To get a sense of the entire Cape Fear region, plan a day trip through the shore communities to the south, including Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, and eventually to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, which comprises a Civil War battlefield and an archaeological and history museum. Near Fort Fisher you can also tour the impressive North Carolina Aquarium, an enormous state-of-the-art facility whose most popular exhibit, "Cape Fear Shoals," offers an up-close look at local marine life.

From Fort Fisher, catch the auto ferry across the Cape Fear River to​ historic Southport, a charming town rife with galleries and boutiques. On your way back to Wilmington, drop by Orton Plantation Gardens, home to some of the most spectacular formal gardens in the Southeast.

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Wilmington Gay Bars and Restaurants

Caprice Bistro
Caprice Bistro

Wilmington, notable for its first-rate live-music venues, also has a small but kickin' gay nightlife scene for a city its size. Most establishments draw both women and men. Stylish Ibiza, in the historic district, appeals to trendy club crawlers—the DJs spin everything from trance to the usual chart-toppers.  Among mixed gay/straight hangouts downtown, Level 5 at City Stage, is both a theater (mostly indie plays and films) and a rooftop cocktail bar and Pravda is a lounge and dance club with a slick lounge.

You'll likely notice a funky, artsy vibe as you explore downtown Wilmington, with its tattoo parlors, music stores, coffeehouses and lounges, and both edgy and sophisticated shops. Note the many cool restaurants, too, several of them near the landscaped pedestrian walk skirting the Cape Fear River. A casual spot of note, especially for delicious Southern breakfasts, is The Basics, in downtown's historic Cotton Exchange Building. Shrimp and grits and biscuits and gravy are two standouts here.

The local chain Port City Java has a cozy, gay-popular outpost in historic downtown, with its high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and polished wood floors—it's great noshing and sipping. Port City has tasty desserts, too—another fine spot to satisfy your sweet tooth is ​Sweets Bakery, which has both downtown and Wrightsville Beach locations and serves an ever-changing menu of cupcake varieties.

For a more sophisticated culinary adventure, consider swanky Deluxe, which prepares stellar contemporary American fare, such as cornmeal-crusted local flounder with spring pea tendrils, Anson Mills hominy, jicama slaw, and béarnaise aioli. Don't miss the fabulous Sunday brunch. 

Also, outstanding, warm, and elegant Circa 1922 presents a tapas-style menu of globally inspired food, along with a well-chosen list of wines by the glass. And nearby Caprice Bistro serves excellent French fare and has a relaxing sofa bar that's ideal for late-night lounging.

One of Wilmington's definitive down-home diners, the Salt Works serves delectable short-order chow, from burgers to Southern breakfasts. For mouthwatering ribs, chicken, and Brunswick stew, head to Jackson's Big Oak Barbecue; check out Kohl's Frozen Custard, in Wrightsville Beach, for a rich and refreshing dessert.

If you're touring the Cape Fear Coast, consider stopping for lunch or dinner in historic Southport, just across the mouth of the Cape Fear River from Fort Fisher. This small, charming town has several great spots to eat, including the superb seafood restaurant Fishy Fishy Cafe, whose window-lined dining room takes in the town's scenic waterfront; and the homey Pharmacy Restaurant, which is set in a vintage downtown building and fresh, creative American fare.

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Wilmington Hotels

Beachside Cottage Rental from InterCoastal Rentals
InterCoastal Rentals

Wilmington is a popular destination year-round, although spring through summer—especially out along the beaches of the Cape Fear Coast—is considered the region's high season.

Exceptional accommodation in the heart of the downtown historic district can be found at the gay-friendly Rosehill Inn, which occupies a lavish Italianate 1840s mansion with helpful but unobtrusive innkeepers and six spacious rooms with tall windows, plush floral-print bedding, luxuriant towels and robes, and inviting common areas.

With its soaring turrets and steep roof, the dramatic C.W. Worth House is another favorite gay-friendly B&B in the historic district—rooms are done with Victorian antiques, and some have clawfoot tubs and two-person showers.

Downtown's well-maintained Hilton Hotel Ballast, with 272 freshly updated rooms, sits within walking distance of many restaurants and bars and has rooms overlooking either the riverfront or downtown. Less pricey is the gay-friendly Best Western Coastline Inn, which offers pleasant if perfunctory chain-style rooms in an attractive brick building on the north side of downtown, facing the Cape Fear River and adjacent to the Wilmington Railroad Museum.

In the sweet village of Southport, down near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the elegant and very gay-welcoming Robert Ruark Inn occupies a meticulously restored Victorian house. There are five warmly furnished rooms with beautiful antiques and modern touches such as flat-screen TVs and writing desks with high-speed Internet. This is the perfect overnight for exploring the Cape Fear coastal region.

LGBTQ+ options near the ocean include the Hidden Treasure Inn, in Kure Beach, a simple and cozy complex of four attractively furnished and reasonably priced efficiencies. There's a pool on-site, and the beach is just two blocks away; and the lesbian-owned Palm Air Cottages, a pet-friendly property consisting of condos and bungalows of varying sizes (some as large as three bedrooms). Deluxe units face the ocean and the pier in Kure Beach, while more economical options are a block or two inland. These fully furnished properties are great for families or groups planning an extended vacation along the Cape Fear coast.

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Renaissance Raleigh North Hills Hotel Lobby
Renaissance Raleigh North Hills Hotel

The Research Triangle, of which North Carolina's capital city Raleigh is the largest community (population 403,000), is generally considered to be the state’s most comfortable region for lesbians and gays, owing in part to the liberal politics of the area's many college students and academics and the generally progressive attitudes of the many tech and medical employees who have moved here as the region has blossomed into one of the South’s major economic forces.

Raleigh is the most prominent of the cities in this eight-county region that also includes the collegiate hubs of Durham and Chapel Hill—it's also the most geographically diffuse of the three cities, although Raleigh's downtown has undergone a dramatic revitalization in recent years, and its small but vibrant Warehouse District contains the bulk of the city's gay bars as well as the impressive new Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh.

The primary downtown thoroughfares lead from the city center into clusters of residential neighborhoods, many containing attractive pockets of Fine Arts and Crafts, Colonial Revival, and Georgian Revival architecture—and eventually to outer pockets of newer shopping centers, office buildings, and mixed-use housing and commercial developments—open-air Cameron Village is one of the nicest of these areas for upscale shopping and dining. In some respects, Raleigh feels somewhat suburban, although again, downtown now has more walkable neighborhoods than ever before, thanks to smart redevelopment projects.

Government buildings dominate the very center of Raleigh, with the North Carolina State Capitol, a regal 1840s Greek Revival structure is open for guided tours. There are several key attractions within a short walk, notably the ​North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the North Carolina Museum of History.

A short drive northwest is one of the most esteemed art collections in the South, the beautifully expanded North Carolina Museum of Art, with a broadly representative collection that ranges from Oceanic and Jewish ceremonial works to modern European and a sculpture garden with 23 Rodins.

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Raleigh Hotels

Many of the hotels in the region are outlying sections of Raleigh, but downtown has a few first-rate properties within an easy walk of great dining, culture, and gay nightlife. Top among these is the upscale Raleigh Marriott City Center, which adjoins downtown's shiny new City Plaza, with a weekly farmers market, skating rink in winter, and several shops and restaurants. If you're on a budget, consider the spotlessly kept Red Roof PLUS+, which is just a mile south of downtown. 

There are two excellent, gay-friendly B&Bs in Raleigh: With six ornately decorated guestrooms and a convenient downtown location, the Oakwood Inn is notable for its elaborate full breakfasts.

Outside of the city center, to the north, the stylish Renaissance Raleigh North Hills Hotel is a fine choice, while in the nearby town of Cary, the swanky and quite gay-friendly Umstead Hotel and Spa is perhaps the most luxurious accommodation in greater Raleigh. The full-service spa offers a vast range of relaxing treatments, the on-site Herons restaurant serves terrific regional American cuisine, and the 150 rooms are plush, spacious, and beautifully outfitted.

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Raleigh Bars, Restaurants, and Gay Pride

Sitti Lebanese Restaurant

North Carolina's capital city has a few main gay bars, all of them within an easy walk of one another, in downtown's bustling Warehouse District, which is also home to many hip restaurants and lounges drawing a mixed gay-straight clientele. The gay clubs have all been going strong for some time. The Legends is the most expansive nightclub compound with a dance floor, video bar, game room, patio, and typically the biggest crowds in the city. Downtown Raleigh has two gay pride events each year: the Out Raleigh Gay Pride Festival and North Carolina Gay Pride.

Amid the gay bars of the Warehouse District, you'll find some of the city's top eateries, including, Humble Pie, a quirky, Southern-inspired tapas restaurant with a fab tiki bar and delicious food, from shrimp and grits to grilled andouille sausage with cheddar-jalapeno bread pudding. In one of the nation's best states for barbecue, you should make every effort to dine at The Pit, which has earned international acclaim for its addictive pumpkin-skillet cornbread, pimento cheeseburgers, and sublime Carolina-style spare ribs and chopped bbq turkey. Another neighborhood standout is the Berkeley Cafe, known for live music and a huge menu of creatively topped burgers.

Sitti is another downtown eatery receiving national acclaim, in this case for exceptional Lebanese and Middle Eastern fare, served in an airy, elegant, and contemporary space. Trendy Solas is an upscale restaurant and nightclub on three levels (including a swish rooftop space), drawing a see-and-be-seen bunch of locals—the contemporary world-beat cooking here is quite good, and it's a fun place to people-watch. Nearby Lily's Pizza produces arguably the best pizza in the region, using organic, high-quality ingredients. The quirky Irregardless Cafe has been a favorite hangout of artists, activists, and regular folks for years—brunch a big to-do here, and there's live jazz at dinner.

For the opportunity to watch everybody from gruff politicos to pierced hipsters, drop by Big Ed's City Market, which serves hearty, stick-to-your-ribs down-home Southern fare. A longtime tradition for burgers, fries, and malts, Char-Grill is a classic drive-in that's grown into a regional chain, but the original is near NC State campus (it's open late, too).

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Chapel Hill and Carrboro

Aerial shot of UNC Campus
Ryan Herron / Getty Images

An idyllic and unabashedly liberal university town prized for its delightful and highly walkable downtown, Chapel Hill—especially its lively West End—buzzes with nationally acclaimed dining, indie shopping, and eclectic nightlife. The city has a population of 58,000, more than half of whom are students at the prestigious University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which is notable for its many historic buildings and a uniformly attractive and well-planned appearance.

Chapel Hill is the smallest component of North Carolina's intellectually endowed "Research Triangle" and each September it takes an active part in the region's North Carolina Gay Pride festival. Chapel Hill is also very close to one of the most charming and liberal towns in the state, Carrboro, which became the first community in North Carolina to elect an openly gay mayor in 1995, and also the first to extend domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples. It's worth noting that Chapel Hill was the state's first town to elect an openly gay council member, and its town council was the first in the state to favor repealing of the NC Defense of Marriage Act.

Most of Chapel Hill's key attractions are on the campus of UNC. These include the Morehead Planetarium, the impressive Ackland Art Museum, the Wilson Library (with its engrossing special collections on rare books, Southern Folklife, and North Carolina history), and the lush and stunningly laid-out North Carolina Botanical Garden.

For a small city, Chapel Hill receives an unusual amount of attention for its stellar restaurant scene, with long-time favorite Crooks Corner among the longtime culinary stars. This restaurant specializing in contemporary Southern fare is along Franklin Street, which is home to many fine eateries. Foodies should also stop by Weathervane, which is situated inside the fabulous Southern Season gourmet market—the market also has a terrific cooking school. Also worth trying are Mint, for creative and contemporary Indian cuisine; the stylish Asian-Fusion eatery Lantern, and romantic 411 West for first-rate Italian food and wood-fired pizzas—and that's just scratching the surface.

For first-rate coffee, beer, wine, and baked goods—and great people-watching—pay a visit to Caffe Driade, one of the favorite hangouts in town among LGBTQ+ locals and visitors. The neighboring town of Carrboro also the veggie-friendly Spotted Dog and the progressive co-op and bakery Weaver Street Market.

In the absence of specific gay bars, consider that most of the restaurants noted above also have lively bar scenes and pull in a good mix of gays and straights. There are also several popular gay bars in the nearby cities of Durham and Raleigh. In Carrboro, the justly famous Cat's Cradle books first-rate musicians, including many with queer followings, throughout the year—Melissa Ferrick, the Indigo Girls, the Gossip, and Pink Martini have all performed here. Its Chapel Hill spinoff, the Nightlight Club, is another cool mixed gay/straight venue that's fun for catching live shows, and Carrboro's Open Eye Cafe is a wonderful, gay-friendly spot for fine coffee, drinks, art shows, music, and mingling.

There are several distinctive, gay-friendly hotels and inns here, including the beautiful Siena Hotel, a handsomely designed boutique property with the decor and design inspired by the aesthetic of Siena, Italy. Rooms are spacious with warm colors and fabrics. The on-site restaurant, Il Palio, serves fine Italian fare. The swanky and beautifully furnished Franklin Hotel is an easy walk from campus and many of the best restaurants in town—rooms have a modern, airy feel. Adjacent to campus and with a rich history and an elegant design, the Carolina Inn has been Chapel Hill's most prestigious place to stay since it opened in 1924. Afternoon tea at the hotel is a longtime tradition, and the tasteful guest rooms emphasize locally crafted furniture and sustainable materials.

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North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, Hideaway Wood Exhibit
North Carolina Museum of Life and Science

The vibrant, collegiate city of Durham (population 230,000) is, at least around its city core, has a more industrial feel than the other components of North Carolina's Research Triangle, the beautiful campus of Duke University notwithstanding. But Durham has turned many of its historic factory buildings and warehouses into hip restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques, and the city's downtown has plenty of spirit these days.

Downtown is crisscrossed by numerous railroad tracks and loomed over by smokestacks and water towers with names like Lucky Strike painted on them—this was a tobacco town for many years, and Liggett Group tobacco manufacturer still thrives here. The city retains a somewhat gritty feel in spots and an almost nostalgic countenance. It also has a rich African-American heritage, especially along Parrish Street, which was known as “Black Wall Street” in the early 20th century owing to its many African-American insurance and banking concerns.

On the west side of Durham, the leafy and dignified campus of Duke University provides a rather aristocratic counterpoint to downtown. On-campus attractions include the stellar Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and the 55-acre Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Between here and downtown you can see evidence of the city’s impressive historic preservation efforts in the way of old warehouses that have been converted into modern businesses. Brightleaf Square, with elegant shops and eateries, is a fine example. Adjoining the eastern edge of Duke’s campus, 9th Street is a cute and attractive strip of shops and upscale eateries.

The name Duke is synonymous with Durham’s heritage, both as a tobacco and education leader, and you can tour the Duke Homestead State Historic Site and Tobacco Museum. A short drive east is the highly impressive North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, which is a favorite with kids for its many outdoor and indoor interpretive exhibits.

West and south of Duke toward Chapel Hill you begin to see evidence of how the New South economy has affected Durham. Specifically, between Durham and Raleigh, an ever-growing edge city called Research Triangle Park contains numerous headquarters of Fortune 500 companies, plus the usual slew of modern hotels and upscale restaurants.

One of the most inviting lodging options in downtown Durham, the Morehead Manor B&B occupies a former tobacco executive’s mansion (built in 1910). The interior is decorated with a tasteful but bold blend of art, fabrics, and antiques from both Africa and North America. Common areas include a stately library with a fireplace and a dining room in which breakfast is served overlooking the landscaped grounds.

Part of the hip Indigo Hotel brand, the Hotel Indigo Raleigh-Durham Airport has a prosaic but convenient setting an easy drive from all of the communities in the Research Triangle. Rooms are smartly furnished and have plenty of high-tech gadgets. Right in the heart of downtown, the Durham Marriott City Center is a nicely outfitted, full-service hotel that's steps from excellent restaurants.

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Durham Bars

The Bar at the Beyu Caffe
Beyu Caffe

The Bar is in downtown Durham's Warehouse District. This is a space that's held an LGBTQ+ bar for more than two decades. The Bar is women-owned and draws a mixed crowd. This private club brings in a fun mix of all ages and styles. The owners have completely revamped the space, which has darts and karaoke some evenings and dancing to a DJ on weekends.

Also, right in the heart of downtown Durham, the hip and bohemian Pinhook Bar has live music, edgy art installations, old-school arcade games, and a definite following among Durham gays and lesbians. Many LGBTQ+residents of Durham head to Raleigh for nightlife, as there are more popular gay bars there.

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Durham Restaurants

Bustling 9th Street, near Duke’s campus, has several excellent eateries. Along here you’ll also find Blue Corn Cafe, a simple, homey dining room with great Latin American food like spinach-and-cheese empanadas, and plantain-encrusted mahimahi. It's right by The Regulator Bookshop, a respected and gay-friendly independent bookstore, and also close to student-favored coffeehouse and cafe, Bean Traders. In the same neighborhood are funky and inviting Elmo's Diner and sophisticated but casual Vin Rouge French Bistro, which has a lovely patio (perfect for brunch on a warm day).

On Duke campus, the Nasher Museum of Art Cafe is a terrific spot for lunch or brunch. The kitchen sources locally and comes up with some wonderfully inventive fare, such as a sweet-and-salty panini with prosciutto, gruyere, Fuji apple, Dijon apricot jam, and rustic house bread. In the historic Brightleaf Square complex, try El Rodeo for filling if fairly predictable Mexican fare.

Downtown notables include the dapper coffeehouse and cocktail bar Beyu Caffe, which has live music many evenings, and reliably good breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare. The food is eclectic, with salads, pizzas, Thai curries, and soups on tap, with plenty of veggie selections, too. And the stellar Italian sandwich shop, Toast at Five Points, which serves delicious panini.

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