Durham, North Carolina, is a wonderful example of economic transformation. A town once dominated by tobacco factories has become a cultural center for food, music, and the arts; former tobacco warehouses now enjoy new life as centers of dining, shopping, and entertainment. In fact, 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 the prestigious Duke University to taking a trek through the nearby forests, there's plenty to do and see in Durham any time of year.
Duke University is one of the nation's top universities and arguably 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.
Sign up to take a guided tour led by the Admissions Department, especially if you are a student hoping to attend the university. However, even non-students are welcome to tour the campuses of Duke University—though some buildings require a student identification to enter when not on a tour. A free bus is also available to take people between the campuses, but if the weather is beautiful, it is also a lovely walk.
Duke Gardens occupies 55 acres and is adjacent to Duke's West Campus and the Duke University Medical Center, and while all of the Duke campuses are beautiful, the gardens are worth a stop on their own. With more than 300,000 visitors per year from all over the world, Duke Gardens is recognized as one of the top public gardens in the United States, renowned both for 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. There is also a cafe, a gift shop, and a visitor's center on-site 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.
Look but Don't Touch at the Duke Lemur Center
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 over 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 like 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 one of the many tour options available. The Duke Lemur Center also offers educational programs and camps as well as wild workshops and events like Lemurpalooza throughout the year.
The former warehouses of American Tobacco—which was at one time the biggest tobacco company in the world and the maker of Lucky Strikes, Pall Malls, and Tareytons—have become the home of Durham's entertainment district. These converted spaces now host many great restaurants, theaters, special events, and concerts, and it's even the home of the Durham Bulls baseball team.
While visiting the American Tabacco District, you can 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 in the district include Cuban Revolution, Mellow Mushroom, Moe's Southwest Grill, NanaSteak, Only Burger, Saladelia, Tabacco Road, Tyler's Taproom, and the WXYZ Bar, which is located inside the Aloft Hotel.
If you're looking for a family-friendly activity for sports enthusiasts, catch a minor league baseball game throughout the summer at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in the American Tobacco Historic District. The Durham Bulls are Durham's AAA minor league baseball team and are currently affiliated with the Tampa Bay Devil 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 including 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.
Brightleaf Square, whose warehouses are also a legacy of American Tobacco, is where you can now find fine restaurants, locally-owned stores, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the nightlife of Durhman.
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, which is just perfect for eating alfresco. While there, you can even tour Clouds Brewing, a local and regional favorite brewery, and if you're in town at the right time, you can catch one of the popular summer concerts or take advantage of the discounts at second Saturday shopping days each month.
Although it's not quite as famous as its counterpart in New York City, Central Park in downtown Durham is hopping with live music, food trucks, restaurants, shops with art made by locals, and a farmer's market in the Pavilion that is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays year-round.
Additionally, Central Park is home to one of the best places in the city to eat is at Motorco Music Hall, a repurposed mid-century car dealership that serves up eats, drinks, and nationally touring acts in its 450-seat venue. From late spring through early fall, Central Park also hosts a variety of events including food truck rodeos and volunteer opportunities.
The Streets of Southpoint is a regional shopping destination anchored by top-notch national retailers like Nordstrom, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and Restoration Hardware.
Restaurants at The Streets at Southpoint include California Pizza Kitchen, The Cheesecake Factory, Dough & Life, and Firebird's Wood-Fired Grill, and there is a P.F. Chang's in the adjacent shopping area across the street. Additionally, if you don't feel like shopping or eating, The Streets at Southpoint are also home to the Southpoint Cinemas, an AMC Theatres anchor store.
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 over 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. From Labor Day to Memorial Day (fall to spring), the Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays; from Memorial Day to Labor Day (summer), the Museum is open seven days a week.
If you'd rather get out of the city and enjoy some of the fantastic natural scenery of North Carolina, you can head out to Eno River State Park, a 4,200-acre park northwest of Durham. Eno River State Park offers hiking, camping, canoeing, and fishing areas along the Eno River as well as several miles of nature trails in the woods outside the city limits.
Events at the park include various bird-watching, nature, and 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 on camping at the park, you must register online (or in person) and check in at the park office upon arrival, and there is a fee to use the various facilities.
If you want somewhere more secluded to camp, head out to Falls Lake State Recreation Area, which is a little over 10 miles east of Durham. Located along the shoreline of Falls Lake, this collection of seven access areas cover over 12,000 acres of wilderness cross-crossed in trails with ample spots for camping.
Day-use areas are typically open year-round but only a few select campgrounds are open after November 30 or before March 15; check the Falls Lake State Recreation Area website for more details on access and the camping seasons.
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, 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.