12 Best Things to Do in Durham, North Carolina

Durham NC

 Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

Durham, North Carolina, is a wonderful example of economic transformation. A town once dominated by tobacco factories has since become a cultural center for food, music, and the arts with former warehouses enjoying new life as centers of dining, shopping, and entertainment.

Durham is part of The Triangle, which encompasses Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, and is one of the state's busiest tourist destinations. With much of its original architecture still intact, Durham retains its colorful character, making it a big draw for tourists hoping to take in the beautiful scenery or enjoy the area's attractions and activities. From touring the campus of prestigious Duke University to taking a trek through the nearby forests, there's plenty to see and do in Durham any time of year.

01 of 12

Admire Works at the Nasher Museum of Art

Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

2001 Campus Dr, Durham, NC 27705-1003, USA
Phone +1 919-684-5135

Visit the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University for its vast Collection Galleries, a series of eight galleries featuring rotating works of historical art, as well as art curated especially by the school's students and faculty. Besides a wealth of contemporary art, other highlighted themes include art of the United States, the Americas, Africa, the ancient world (Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art), Medieval European art, and European art. All galleries showcase a variety of paintings and sculptures, as well as other important decorated objects that are worth a look.

02 of 12

See a Show at the Durham Performing Arts Center

Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC)

Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC)

123 Vivian Street, Durham, NC 27701, USA
Phone +1 919-680-2787

Whether you're a fan of touring Broadway musicals, big-name comedians, old-school rock and roll performances, or classical theater, the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) has something for everyone. Recent lineups have included the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock, Chelsea Handler, Air Supply, Steely Dan, and an ABBA cover band, as well as touring productions of "Hamilton," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Hairspray," and "To Kill a Mockingbird." Whichever type of show you choose to see here is sure to be a memorable experience.

03 of 12

Tour Duke University and the Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Don Klumpp / Getty Images
Durham, NC 27708, USA
Phone +1 919-684-8111

Duke University is one of the nation's top universities and is home to one of its most beautiful campuses. The Gothic architecture of West Campus is anchored by the Duke Chapel tower; in contrast, East Campus is Georgian in design and is centered by a rotunda auditorium that often hosts student-led theatrical and musical productions. A free bus is available to take people between the campuses, but if the weather is beautiful, it's a lovely place to walk.

Just next door to Duke's West Campus and the Duke University Medical Center, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens occupy 55 acres, and while all the Duke campuses are beautiful, the gardens are worth a stop on their own. With more than 300,000 visitors each year from all over the world, Duke Gardens is recognized as one of the top public gardens in the United States, renowned both for its landscape design and the quality of horticulture found there.

The grounds of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens are open from 8 a.m. to sundown every day of the year, and admission is free. You'll also find a cafe, gift shop, and visitor's center that occasionally hosts special events, including private occasions like weddings and receptions. Throughout the year, the Gardens also offer group tours as well as classes in gardening, photography, and natural history.

04 of 12

Look, Don't Touch, at the Duke Lemur Center

Duke Lemur Center

bnilsen / Flickr / CC BY-NA 2.0 

The world's largest and most diverse collection of lemurs outside their native Madagascar is found at Duke University. As a non-invasive research facility, the Duke Lemur Center houses more than 240 animals across 17 species and welcomes over 32,000 visitors a year to meet and learn about conservation efforts for these endangered creatures. The center also helps to study and protect all species of lemurs, including vanishing species such as the aye-aye, sifaka, and mongoose lemur. 

Make a reservation today if you want to visit the lemurs; you will not be able to see them unless you schedule a tour. Throughout the year, the Duke Lemur Center also offers educational programs and camps as well as wild workshops and events like Lemurpalooza.

3705 Erwin Rd, Durham, NC 27705-5000, USA
Phone +1 919-401-7240
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05 of 12

Explore the American Tobacco Campus

American Tobacco District

 WIkimedia Commons / CC BY SA-3.0

300 Blackwell St #104, Durham, NC 27701, USA

The former warehouses of American Tobacco—which was at one time the largest tobacco company in the world and the maker of Lucky Strikes, Pall Malls, and Tareytons—have since become the home of Durham's entertainment district. These converted spaces now host many great restaurants, theaters, special events, and concerts. It's even the home of the Durham Bulls baseball team.

While visiting the American Tabacco Campus, stop by a number of local attractions including the Full Frame Theater, the local WUNC 91.5 FM radio station headquarters, and multiple galleries and historic sites. Restaurants include Cuban Revolution, Mellow Mushroom, Moe's Southwest Grill, NanaSteak, Only Burger, Saladelia, Tabacco Road, Tyler's Taproom, and the WXYZ Bar, located inside the Aloft Hotel.

06 of 12

Watch the Durham Bulls Play Baseball

Durham Bulls

bnilsen / Flickr / CC BY-NA 2.0 

409 Blackwell St, Durham, NC 27701, USA
Phone +1 919-687-6500

If you're looking for a family-friendly activity for sports enthusiasts, catch a minor league baseball game throughout the summer at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, part of the American Tobacco Historic District. The Durham Bulls are the city's AAA minor league baseball team and are currently affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Opening day of the season usually takes place around the beginning of April, but the Durham Bulls also host several events in the off-season like the annual Fan Fest, which takes place in early March. Book your tickets in advance and be on the lookout for special promotions during the regular and off-seasons.

07 of 12

Eat, Shop, and Dance in Brightleaf Square

Brightleaf Square in Durham, NC.
Caroline Culler / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0
905 W Main St Suite 18A, Durham, NC 27701, USA
Phone +1 888-663-6331

Brightleaf Square, whose warehouses are also a legacy of American Tobacco, is where you'll find fine restaurants, locally-owned stores, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the nightlife of Durham. The two warehouses, built in the early 1900s, are now home to local restaurants like El Rodeo, The Little Dipper, Mount Fuji, Pine Cone, Suite 19 J, Toreros, and Suite 18A, that face a courtyard, providing a perfect environment for enjoying your meal alfresco. Tour Clouds Brewing, a local and regional brewery favorite, and if you're in town at the right time, catch a summer concert or take advantage of the discounts during second Saturday shopping days each month.

08 of 12

Have a Picnic in Central Park

Durham Central Park

 dreid1987 / Flickr / CC 3.0

Central Park, Durham, NC 27701, USA

Although it's not quite as famous as its counterpart in New York City, downtown Durham's own Central Park is hopping with live music, food trucks, restaurants, shops with art made by locals, and a farmer's market in the Pavilion that's open on Wednesdays and Saturdays year-round. Central Park is also home to Motorco Music Hall, a repurposed mid-century car dealership that serves up food, drinks, and nationally touring acts in its 450-seat venue.

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09 of 12

Learn Something at the Museum of Life and Science

North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, Hideaway Wood Exhibit

Museum of Life and Science 

433 W Murray Ave, Durham, NC 27704, USA
Phone +1 919-220-5429

The Museum of Life and Science isn't just a building—it's 84 acres of fun things to discover and do. Highlights include an enchanting butterfly house, an outdoor dinosaur trail, recreated natural habitats for more than 60 species of living animals, and plenty of hands-on exhibits. Throughout the year, the Museum also hosts a variety of different programs including Space Camp, Tinkering Family Workshops, and educational tour groups.

10 of 12

Hike and Camp in Eno River State Park

Eno River State Park

Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

If you'd rather get out of the city and enjoy some of North Carolina's fantastic natural scenery, head to Eno River State Park, a 4,200-acre park northwest of Durham. There are plenty of places to hike, camp, canoe, and fish along the Eno River as well as several miles of nature trails in the woods just outside the city limits.

Make time for one of the various bird-watching, nature, or history hikes led by park rangers—these interpretive programs often require pre-registration, but otherwise, the park is free to enjoy from sunrise to sunset year-round. If you plan to camp, register online or in person and check in at the park office upon arrival, as there is a fee to use the park's camping facilities.

6101 Cole Mill Rd, Durham, NC 27705, USA
Phone +1 919-383-1686
11 of 12

Escape for the Weekend at Falls Lake State Recreation Area

Falls Lake State Recreation Area

Ildar Sagdejev / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA 4.0

If you want somewhere a little more secluded to camp, head out to Falls Lake State Recreation Area, located a little over 10 miles east of Durham. Situated along the shoreline of Falls Lake, this collection of seven access areas covers more than 12,000 acres of wilderness covered in trails and with ample spots for camping. Day-use areas are typically open year-round while only a few campgrounds are open after November 30 or before March 15; check the website for more details on access regarding the camping seasons.

13300 Creedmoor Rd, Wake Forest, NC 27587, USA
Phone +1 984-867-8000
12 of 12

Relive History at the Bennett Place Historic Site

Bennett Place Historic Site

Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau

Durham, North Carolina, is also home to the site of the last surrender of a major Confederate army during the American Civil War—Bennett Place is where Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to William T. Sherman. Stop by the visitor's center to learn about the significance of this historic landmark, browse the gift shop, pick up brochure information, enjoy the museum gallery, and watch a 17-minute film called "Dawn of Peace" about the historic surrender.

4409 Bennett Memorial Rd, Durham, NC 27705-2307, USA
Phone +1 919-383-4345
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12 Best Things to Do in Durham, North Carolina