North Carolina’s capital and anchor of the Triangle (along with Durham and Chapel Hill), Raleigh has grown from a stately planned town to a dynamic Southern city.
The City of Oaks is both steeped in rich history and moving boldly into the future, with a large population of students and scientists drawn to the area’s universities and the tech companies that dot Research Triangle Park.
Downtown Raleigh especially has expanded by leaps and bounds in recent years, with forward-thinking startups and co-working spaces opening next to government buildings and local artisans, retail entrepreneurs and award-winning chefs keeping the area buzzing after hours.
Here’s where to get a taste of the Carolina capital.
North Carolina Museum of Art
In 1947 North Carolina became the first state to earmark public funds to build an art collection, and the state museum has expanded to include 40 galleries, several dozen Rodin sculptures and the country’s largest museum park.
The admission-free permanent collection ranges from ancient Egyptian ceramics to the contemporary Rabble, an installation of mechanized butterflies soaring above the East Building lobby.
Summer concerts and movies are held in the park amphitheater alongside picturesque walking trails and site-specific works of art, like the moody silver tree, Askew, a popular backdrop for many visitor photos. NCMA also draws crowds for its eclectic special exhibitions, like Eudora Welty’s historic portrait photography and sleek art deco cars.
Downtown Raleigh Museums
A small but respectable clutch of free downtown museums are dedicated to the area’s natural and cultural history. The North Carolina Museum of History details the past and present of the Tar Heel State (including that peculiar nickname), from its pre-European roots and role in the Civil and world wars to its evolving industries, from furniture to tobacco to technology.
The Museum of Natural Sciences showcases the region’s wildlife and landscapes, its prehistoric life and ancient fossil record. Highlights include the living conservatory with butterflies and a two-toed sloth, the Acrocanthosaurus “terror of the South” dinosaur skeleton, and a hands-on naturalist center.
Even locals can learn something from the City of Raleigh Museum, a collection of city artifacts and historic documents preserving the city’s past for generations to come.
North Carolina State Farmers Market
North Carolinians have been eating locally and drinking out of Mason jars since long before it was trendy; “authentic” and “farm-to-table” food aren’t new concepts here; they are time-honored standards.
The State Farmers Market is open daily until 6 p.m., with vendors in open-air stalls selling produce and plants and the enclosed market building dedicated to baked goods, meats, cheese and edible souvenirs from honey to hot sauce.
After perusing the bounty of healthy vegetables, abandon your promises of eating lean and green with a homestyle meal at one of the onsite restaurants.
The State Farmers Market Restaurant menu centers around “real biscuits” made with N.C.-milled flour and buttermilk, and the Market Grill window serves up Carolina-made greasy spoon favorites. The Seafood Restaurant may lack an ocean view, but the crowds who come for platters of fried fish and hush puppies tell you it’s legit.
Small-scale breweries are big business in North Carolina; the state is home to the largest number of craft breweries in the South.
There are more than a dozen taprooms and brewpubs in Raleigh alone, from the bicycle-centric Crank Arm Brewing in downtown’s Warehouse District to the all-women-owned Bombshell Beer Company just outside the city in Holly Springs.
Trophy Brewing’s brews can be enjoyed on their patio at the downtown production facility alongside an upscale Southern meal at Tap + Table restaurant, or try or the classic combination of pizza and beer at their original bar.
Want to sample more than one label? Clouds Brewing pub has 10 rotating taps on a self-serve beer wall and more craft beers in bottles from around the country.
Raleigh is unique in that it was chosen and planned as the capital city from the start, and several of the gracious buildings surrounding the Capitol date back to the early 1800s.
A few blocks northeast of the Governor’s Mansion, Historic Oakwood’s colorful Victorian-era homes are most vibrant around the December Candlelight Tour and before Halloween (don’t miss the T-Rex at 504 Oakwood Avenue — the centerpiece of a stellar haunted house in October but often seasonally attired in other months).
Adjacent to Oakwood, the Mordecai Historic Park includes the birthplace of President Andrew Johnson and Raleigh’s oldest house, once owned by descendants of the Mordecai family, one of the early Jewish families in the Colonies.
In between these residential neighborhoods, a cluster of restaurants and shops have popped up around Person Street, including the chef-driven Crawford & Son restaurant and locally made menswear at Lumina Clothing.