Raleigh City Guide

Plan a Great Weekend in North Carolina’s Capital

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In a single block of downtown Raleigh, NC, you can see pieces of Blackbeard the pirate's ship, one of Dale Earnhardt’s racing suits and the bones of a full-sized dinosaur -- all for free. As North Carolina's capital, Raleigh offers so many no-charge museums that it's nicknamed the "Smithsonian of the South." That’s just the start to a laidback vacation.

Try a Carolina barbecue sandwich at Cooper’s while walking downtown, and catch a ride to your hotel from one of Raleigh’s many rickshaw drivers. (They pedal for tips.) Check out our guide to touring Raleigh cheaply, and mostly on foot.

What to See & Do
The new Nature Research Center opened in April 2012, bringing another 80,000 square feet to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The free museum, located on Raleigh’s Bicentennial Plaza, showcases wildlife and science-related exhibits. Step inside the center’s biggest attraction: the Daily Planet, a 3-story globe on display outside, and watch live programming on breaking science news on a 40-foot curved screen. You can also see another star attraction -- the acrocanthosaurus dinosaur, or "Terror of the South" -- inside the museum’s old wing.

At North Carolina Museum of History, get an up-close look at North Carolina’s rich past, through more than 150,000 artifacts spanning 600 years. See the cannon taken from Queen Anne’s Revenge (Blackbeard’s ship) and imagine what it was like to light the fuse. View a Confederate flag carried in battle at Gettysburg. And stand under a replica of the Wright brothers’ plane. You’ll also see a restored slave cabin, a lunch counter from a 1960 sit-in and racing suits worn by Dale Earnhardt and other NASCAR heroes.

A few miles away, the North Carolina Museum of Art provides a unique experience by putting much of its art outdoors. The grounds sit on 164 acres of fields, woods and trails, letting visitors flex their minds and muscle at the same time. Walk through concrete rings that rise 24 feet high, see a statue made from old prison walls or think along with Rodin’s “Thinker.”

Families will enjoy a hike in Umstead State Park, a 5,500-acre oasis in the middle of the bustling Research Triangle. Rent a canoe and fish in its lake, or picnic in the pine forest. Small children will especially like Pullen Park, the oldest in Raleigh with 72 acres to explore. The signature attraction is the 1900 carousel, which features hand-carved animals to ride on. Also popular is the miniature train, which winds around the park over bridges and through a tunnel. All rides cost a small fee. But it's free to visit the bronze statue of Andy Griffith and his son Opie of the fictitious Mayberry.

For late-night fun, Raleigh's bars range from posh lounge to scruffy dive. The most authentic Raleigh watering hole is Player's Retreat, where the walls are decked with memorabilia from the NC State University Wolfpack teams, and a row of antique beer cans lines the ceiling. Pool tables are always open, and a seasoned local is always available to share stories of Coach Jim Valvano and Wolfpack basketball glory.

Where to Eat
In the mood for barbecue? Few places -- in the country -- can beat Clyde Cooper's BBQ. A Raleigh tradition since 1938, the downtown eatery specializes in all things barbecue -- Carolina-style, of course -- with top lean pork shoulders and hams slow-cooked until they’re mouthwateringly tender. The Raleigh Times is another favorite downtown restaurant, situated inside an old newspaper office. Sample shrimp burgers, salami brie burgers and other bar food while reading the old headlines on the wall.

For dinner, check out Sitti, an authentic Lebanese restaurant downtown where the chicken shawarma, falafel and baba ghanouj are served at long communal tables. Continue your ethnic food tour at Buku. Describing itself as global street food, the restaurant is modeled on what you'd sample from a vendor's cart in Bogota or Bangkok. In a single meal, you might choose a Vietnamese crepe, Korean barbecue and Chilean sea bass. Jibarra jazzes up the traditional Mexican fare with modern ingredient combinations. Guacamole comes with crab meat or pomegranate, and the tacos may come stuffed with zucchini, corn and spinach.

Where to Stay
Raleigh has pretty standard fare when it comes to hotels. Choose the Clarion Raleigh Hotel State Capital as your base, where no-frills rooms start at reasonable rates. The building is also an easy walk to museums and restaurants.

For a more luxury feel, try The Umstead Hotel and Spa in nearby Cary, NC. Nestled on 12-acre grounds, the hotel prides itself on eco and luxury in one -- with a seasonal outdoor pool and private cabanas, a small on-site garden for fresh herbs, and 50% of its restaurant Herons’ food locally sourced. Plus, the hotel’s spa offers treatments made with local ingredients -- ask about the Smoky Quartz and Long Leaf Pine.

Getting Around
Cars are the easiest way to get around Raleigh, but the R-Line bus connects downtown points in a continuous loop, running free shuttles every 10 to 15 minutes. Triangle Transit Authority buses can easily take visitors to Durham and Chapel Hill nearby.

About the Author

Josh Shaffer is a feature writer and columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, where he lives with his wife, son and 2 dogs. He grew up in Maryland, but has been graciously welcomed by the Tar Heel state.