Family trips are a delicate balance of finding activities and places that appeal to a variety of ages, interests and tastes. Parents might prefer to spend their vacation days on historical walking tours, not waterslides, and kids will be unimpressed with the reservation you scored for that hot-on-Instagram restaurant.
Yet Raleigh successfully combines active, educational and cultural pursuits, fueled by a mix of artisanal and comfort foods, to inspire to the whole family.
Too nice of a day to spend inside? Go out to the science museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation for some good, not-so-clean fun outdoors. The Nature PlaySpace encourages kids to climb, dig and build on natural playgrounds and structures.
Regular storytelling hours, wildlife education and other learning events are held at the outdoor classroom. Hiking trails invite further exploration and can even lead to the North Carolina Museum of Art’s park (about a half a mile away) with its outdoor sculptures, gardens and miles of trails.
The hottest ticket in town each year is the Santa Train at Pullen Park, but most of the park’s charms are best enjoyed outside of the month of December. Pullen Park is the oldest public park in the state and one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. Take a pedal boat for a spin around Lake Howell or ride the mini locomotive around the park.
The 1911 carousel is one of about two dozen originals in the U.S. made by Gustav Dentzel, a German woodworker and merry-go-round pioneer. The park also contains multiple playgrounds, from toddler to tween; an arts center; a theatre; and an indoor aquatic center.
Ask a Raleigh parent for a child-friendly museum recommendation, and they’ll tell you about Marbles Kids Museum, an interactive children’s museum downtown with hands-on exhibits and play spaces aimed at kids 10 and under. However, they may also suggest that you bring earplugs, especially on the weekends when it gets loud and very crowded with children.
For a more all-ages experience, look to several other museums downtown.
Older kids will also like the Living Conservatory, a dry tropical forest with fluttering butterflies and a two-toed sloth, and everyone loves the giant dinosaur fossils. Before you go, take a family photo framed by the teeth of a megalodon shark.
Pro tip: The museum is open daily, but its Discovery Room and Living Conservatory are closed Mondays.
Across the street, the Museum of History has an exhibit not only for children, but made by them. The Tar Heel Junior Historian Association Discovery Gallery shows off local students’ documents and depictions of North Carolina history, encouraging children to not just learn about history, but participate in gathering artifacts and primary sources.
Tuck into something novel at Read with Me, a children’s bookstore and art shop near Marbles downtown. Get book recommendations tailored to your children’s interests, curl up in a reading nook or sit for story hour. The art gallery shows off work inspired by favorite books, and craft and sketching classes are held regularly.
Feel like a kid in a candy store at NOFO @ the Pig (the building is a former Piggly Wiggly supermarket), which is part restaurant and part general store. The space is jam-packed with eclectic gifts and goodies, from gourmet nut butters to clever pins to North Carolina–inspired puzzles, plus books, toys and candy.
Fortify yourself with a Southern-style brunch before you decide on what souvenirs you’re bringing back and which of them you’re keeping for yourselves.
Though you can buy their candy bars at NOFO or other specialty stores, most kids will still be sold on a visit to the Videri Chocolate Factory solely on the following words: free samples.
Take a free, self-guided tour to learn the process of chocolate-making from bean to bar and then sample a few of Videri’s final products. Parents can sip a cappuccino from the on-site café or nibble chocolate on the patio with some BYOB from a local brewery. Check the website for schedule details; Mondays, when they roast the beans, smell the sweetest.
Near the warehouse district you’ll find modern patisserie Lucette Grace, sophisticated enough for parents while selling the sweets kids love.
Check the pastry case for the day’s selections, and try not to drool: birthday-cake macarons, triple-chocolate croissants and brown-butter Rice Krispies treats are a few examples of the beautiful work coming out of this bakery. There’s also a selection of salads and sandwiches served on French bread baked in house.
Need something more substantial? Downtown restaurant Raleigh Times is a classic spot for burgers and beers and a good spot for families, too: It’s big enough that there’s rarely a wait for a table (with a forgiving volume level for young children), and the food appeals to different appetites, with a dedicated kids menu.
There’s also an educational opportunity here: The entire building is loaded with history, including President Obama’s pint glass from a 2008 campaign stop.