Located in east-central North Carolina, Raleigh is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Part of the Research Triangle (which is comprised of the university towns of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill), the state's capital draws nearly 17 million visitors annually due to its abundance of sporting events, museums and galleries, craft breweries and restaurants, parks, and music venues. From viewing the largest collection of Rodin sculptures in the Southeast to sampling local brews at the Raleigh Beer Garden, here are the top 15 things to do in the City of Oaks.
From butterflies, turtles, and snakes to prehistoric fossils and whale skeletons, the four-story, interactive museum has more than 25 permanent exhibits dedicated to North Carolina's wildlife and habitats. Highlights include a tropical dry forest brimming with live plants like pineapples and orchids as well as animals, including a two-toed sloth. The museum also has nature art galleries and a 3-D theater showing films about science and nature. Admission is free.
Located just 2 miles west of North Carolina State University's main campus, this internationally renowned garden has one of the Southeast's largest collections of landscape plants. Featuring more than 6,000 species of domestic and international plants across several distinct gardens, you'll get to enjoy the likes of a kid-friendly butterfly garden, Japanese garden, and an eco-friendly rooftop terrance. There is no charge to visit, and the arboretum offers free guided tours on Sundays at 2 p.m. from March through October.
Founded in 1947, the North Carolina Museum of Art was the first state-funded museum in the country. Their permanent collection rivals that of any big city museum, and features Italian Baroque paintings created by masters like Raphael; ancient Greek and Roman sculpture; contemporary African art; and significant Mayan, Judaic, and American pastoral works. Don't miss the garden that houses 30 Rodin sculptures—the largest collection in the Southeast—or the 164-acre museum grounds, which include permanent and temporary art exhibits, 3 miles of walking trails, and an outdoor amphitheater that hosts movies and concerts.
You can sample more than 350 different brews at the Raleigh Beer Garden, which claims to have the largest beer selection in the world. With a scenic rooftop garden and outdoor patio with fire pits and ample seating, the three-story space is massive. Among the beers on tap? Options from local breweries like Trophy Beer Company and Lonerider Brewing Company as well as seasonal, experimental, and international brews. In addition to the beer selection, the spot also has an extensive menu that includes pizzas, burgers, salads, sandwiches, and appetizers like buffalo wings and a beer-battered pretzel.
Founded in 1887, Pullen Park is the oldest public park in the state of North Carolina. Spanning from Western Boulevard to Hillsborough Street, the 66-acre green space boasts a number of attractions, including a historic carousel, amusement park rides, an aquatic center, arts center, several playgrounds, and walking paths. Check the park's calendar for special events like Theatre in the Park, which hosts productions ranging from Shakespearean classics to contemporary dramas in a red-brick theatre on the park's northern edge.
From Argentinian empanadas to Boba teas, macarons, tacos, and katsu sandwiches, find more than 20 local and globally-inspired snacks, foods, and specialty items under one roof at the 22,000 square-foot Morgan Street Food Hall in the Warehouse District. Grab a truffle burger at Cow Bar, the pork dumplings at MKG Kitchen, or the butter chicken at Curry in a Hurry, then snag a seat in the main hall or belly up to the onsite indoor/outdoor bar, The Arbor.
Located just 11 miles northwest of Raleigh, William B. Umstead Park is the perfect urban retreat. The almost 6,000-acre property includes 22 miles of hiking trails, 13 miles of multi-use trails, and three manmade lakes for recreational activities like fishing, paddling, and boating. For a true rustic experience, bring a tent or book a group rental to sleep surrounded by the sounds of nature under a canopy of hardwoods.
Discover Food, Art, and More in the Moore Square District
Shop at eclectic boutiques, browse local art galleries, and dine at some of the city's best restaurants on the cobblestone streets of this downtown district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Stroll through the three-story Artspace to view exhibitions and watch more than 30 jewelers, painters, and other artists at work, then visit the Marbles Kids Museum, whose IMAX Theatre is the state's only 3-D-capable giant screen. For food, try lauded chef Ashley Christensen's Beasley's Chicken + Honey for fried chicken, biscuits, and other Southern treats.
For contemporary art and design from emerging artists, head to CAM Raleigh in the formerly industrial Warehouse District. The first of its kind in the city, the museum is non-collecting, which means that the exhibits are constantly in flux—but you can expect everything from mixed media sculpture to paintings and photography. CAM is free and open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Discover Historic and Present-Day Durham
Located 25 miles from downtown Raleigh, Durham forms the northwest part of the Research Triangle. Start with a self-guided downtown walking tour, which begins at the Durham Visitor Info Center—housed in a historic 1905 Beaux Arts-style building—and takes you to points of interest like the Carolina Theatre and the Gothic revival Trinity United Methodist Church. Be sure to check out the historic Black Wall Street, a district on Parrish Street where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and Civil Rights-era sit-ins took place. Learn more about the area's rich past at the Durham History Museum, then follow it up with a visit to the Hayti Heritage Center, a multidisciplinary venue that hosts art exhibits, poetry slams, a quarterly music series, and film and blues festivals.
Built in 1931, this sprawling, historical cultural complex in downtown operates four distinct venues that present everything from Broadway shows to touring rock musicians, stand-up comedians, and author readings. The home venue of the Carolina Ballet as well as the North Carolina Opera and North Carolina Symphony, the Duke Energy Center also has an on-site gallery featuring the curated work of North Carolina-based artists.
From the Wright Brothers to Michael Jordan, the state of North Carolina has produced several greats. You can learn more about them, as well as the state's history, at the North Carolina Museum of History, an affiliate of the Smithsonian. "The Story of North Carolina" dives into the past, starting with the state's earliest inhabitants and taking visitors through the darkness of colonization, slavery, and the Civil War before landing on the present day. Among the artifacts, you'll find prehistoric stone tools, items recovered from Blackbeard's shipwreck, a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer, and a lunch counter from a 1960 sit-in in Salisbury. The museum also houses the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, with memorabilia and displays ranging from Michael Jordan and Richard Petty to the Carolina Hurricanes and North Carolina Women in Sports.
Eat Carolina Barbecue
It's not a trip to the Tarheel State without sampling North Carolina barbecue. The state has two signature styles: Eastern, a whole-hog 'cue characterized by its vinegar and pepper sauce, and Western, pork shoulder served with a tomato-based red sauce. Try the latter at Backyard BBQ Pit in Durham, where they slow-smoke the meat over hickory wood coals and offer all the traditional sides like mac n' cheese, collard greens, and baked beans. For the city's best Eastern style, head to The Pit, housed in a restored 1930s warehouse downtown, and order the chopped BBQ.
Hear Live Music
Raleigh has a thriving music scene, with more than 80 live venues ranging from massive arenas to laid-back dive bars. Head to the intimate KINGS downtown for touring indie acts like Sharon Van Etten and War on Drugs, or Pour House Music Hall for grunge, rock, and metal (they also have an on-site record store). Other notable venues include the Red Hat Amphitheater, the Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek, and the Cat's Cradle in nearby Carrboro.
Tour Duke University
While technically in nearby Durham, Duke University's gothic architecture and and lush grounds are worth the short drive. After strolling through the guard and scenic West Campus, head to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens to see majestic magnolias, a koi pond, and a wisteria-covered gazebo.