30 Can't-Miss Things to Do in Raleigh, N.C.
Tuesday, February 23, 2021, 2pm by visitRaleigh
Raleigh, N.C., is a booming metropolis that offers a big city feel with Southern charm. It's a smart, modern-meets-historic destination that has a lot to offer and no matter what path you choose on your visit, we know you'll be energized by the fired-up cultural heartbeat fostered by passionate minds of Raleigh. Here are 30 things (in no particular order) you shouldn't miss, the results of people who had a passion for creating something special, something brilliant to be experienced.
Said by some to be one of the most advanced libraries in the world, the James B. Hunt Library—opened in 2013—was built to reflect North Carolina State University’s status as a preeminent technological research university. Bold and iconic, the library’s architectural design strikes a unique presence with its intriguing design of glass and zigzagging, solar fins. Inside, be dazzled by technological wonders like curved digital display screens, touchscreen kiosks and bookBot—a subterranean robot programmed to fetch books from the 1.5 million housed in an underground storage facility.
Established in 1887 and designated as the first public park in N.C., Pullen Park sits nestled between downtown Raleigh and the campus of North Carolina State University. Among the world's oldest amusement parks, Pullen is known for terrific recreational opportunities, especially for kids and families. The park includes an operating carousel built in 1911, a miniature train you can ride through the park, pedal boats to move around Lake Howell, plus tennis courts, baseball and softball fields, an arts center and an innovative performing arts venue, Theatre In The Park (Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre).
One of the premier visual arts museums of the South features an outdoor park with works of art, trails and a live music venue/theater. It also hosts two buildings filled with galleries, education studios and special exhibitions. Permanent collections include ancient Egyptian artifacts, renowned European Old Master paintings, African and Judaic works of art and innovative contemporary art. In the West Building you'll find the Southeast's largest collection of sculpture by Auguste Rodin, the museum store and Iris, the museum restaurant.
Filled with shade during the summer months and rich with color in the fall, Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve provides an easy, family-friendly way to escape to the outdoors in Cary. The 140-acre park—established 40 years ago and named for the atypical group of nearly 200 Eastern Hemlock trees that can be found here—is highlighted by approximately three miles of mulch-covered walking and hiking trails that lead to a series of small overlooks.
The 3,700-square-foot Stevens Nature Center provides interactive, educational nature exhibits and historical exhibits from the Piedmont of N.C., plus provides nature interpretation and environmental education programs for all ages throughout the year.
Up for an adventure? The Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST)—known as "N.C.'s hiking trail"—stretches more than 1,000 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks, cutting through North Raleigh near Falls Lake and the Neuse River Greenway Trail along the way. Two recommended ways to get a short taste of the trail—where the terrain is easy to tackle and provides plenty of unique plant and wildlife—are to start at either Blue Jay Point County Park or Wilkerson Nature Preserve, where you'll connect to the MST by spotting and following the white dots on tree trunks. Headed east from Wilkerson Nature Preserve to the Falls Lake Dam Visitor's Center is three miles, making the out-and-back route one of the area's best short hikes.
Make a trip with your little ones (kids ages 10 and under) to Raleigh to experience Marbles, led by one of Raleigh's passionate minds, Sally Edwards. Delivering purposeful play in a big way, the museum offers themed exhibits designed to build imagination through self-led exploration of new ideas and experiences. From the world's first and only kid-driven smart power grid to hands-on STEM learning stations, Marbles educates and inspires children. Take in a movie at the Marbles IMAX, boasting N.C.'s only 3D-capable giant screen-teens and adults can also take in blockbuster hits there!
As the only African-American house museum in the state, the Pope House Museum offers a look into the life of one of Raleigh’s prominent African-American citizens, Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope. Dr. Pope was a graduate of the Leonard School of Medicine, an officer during the Spanish-American War and the only African-American man to run for mayor of a Southern capital in the Jim Crow Era. Built in 1901, the Pope House was built in the once thriving African-American enclave known as the Third Ward, which included the 500 block of S. Wilmington St. Today, visitors can tour the home complete with original furnishings, artifacts and documents dating back to 1851. Admission is free.
Note: The Pope House Museum is open for tours by appointment every Sat. from 9am-2pm, and every Sun. from 1-4pm. If you are interested in visiting the museum or scheduling a tour, please call in advance at least 30 minutes prior to the tour. Tours last approximately 30 minutes.
Pre-COVID-19, it was widely agreed that the food scene in the City of Oaks was thriving, doing better than ever thanks to tasty endeavors from a community that’s passionate about good eats and drinks (the accolades range from one of America's hottest food cities to one of 12 global destinations to travel to thanks to our culinary prowess).
Restaurants in the Raleigh area—and across the state—have certainly faced challenges over the last two years, and they've battled back (and you're invited to dine in, take out, purchase a gift card for later or just say hello). Go here to see a list of some of downtown Raleigh's best restaurants right now.
One of America's most spectacular gardens—a secret among some locals but a sanctuary to plant lovers around the world—is open to the public just eight weekends per year in Raleigh, N.C. Located 12 miles south of downtown Raleigh, Juniper Level Botanic Garden is a 28-acre campus showcasing more than 27,000 different kinds of native perennials, exotic plants, rare delights and unusual specimens of trees and shrubs not found many (or any) other places on earth. This "Eden of rare plants" draws gardeners, researchers and fans of beautiful plants from across the globe each year for select open house dates.
Speaking of blooms, there’s the Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden—a landmark at the center of the Raleigh Little Theatre campus. Tucked away behind Hillsborough St., the garden sports thousands of flowers which boom each spring, including more than 60 varieties of roses. It’s a serene, relaxing atmosphere accessed freely from sunrise to sunset. In the summer months, a free outdoor movie series is a local-favorite activity.
Outdoor lovers can use 22 miles of hiking trails, 13 miles of bridle or mountain bike trails, camp, fish and paddle all within the nearly 6,000-acre urban recreational area. The park is located only 15 minutes outside of downtown Raleigh and is also a habitat for beavers, raccoons, deer and unique bird species, such as the great blue heron.
The state-of-the-art indoor climbing and fitness center, led by passionate mind Joel Graybeal and his Raleigh-smart team, features both lead and top-rope climbing, expansive bouldering terrain and a comprehensive fitness area. The Morrisville facility has the largest and tallest climbing structures in the nearest five states and includes 100 climbing lanes and walls spanning to 55 feet.
Looking for big entertainment? Drive Shack—the interactive golf complex that caters to big groups—opened in 2019 in Raleigh. The three-story complex includes 96 climate-controlled golf bays, a full-service restaurant, a rooftop bar, more than 300 televisions, an arcade area, meeting rooms and more.
The 260-yard-long driving range combines physical targets to aim for with augmented reality and virtual games. The range utilizes TrackMan technology, pinpointing the flight of your golf ball and allowing you to virtually play real-world championship golf courses or go head-to-head against friends to collect points for hitting physical targets (games are tracked and scored on television screens inside your bay).
Located in what was originally the exact middle of Raleigh, this National Historic Landmark was first built in 1796. A catastrophic fire destroyed the building in 1831, and the building that stands today was completed in 1840. Today, the governor, lieutenant governor and their staffs occupy offices on-site, and the building continues to be used for official state business, including bill signings, press conferences and historic commemorations.
Each year, more than 100,000 visitors take part in free tours, educational programs and events at the Capitol in downtown Raleigh.
At Rush Hour Karting, your entire crew can enjoy the fast track to a seriously good time. Located in Garner, Rush Hour offers indoor, high-speed karting on a 1/3-mile track. Visitors can hop behind the wheel of European-designed karts which boast max speeds up to 40 mph. Race around hairpin curves, high-speed straights and winding turns to claim your place in the winner’s circle. Finally, karting isn’t the only thing to enjoy at Rush Hour. You can also go rock wall climbing, play video games, shoot pool, throw parties and for the adults (sorry, kids)—axe throwing. For post-competition indulgences, a restaurant with 20 beers on tap awaits!
At 174 acres, this wildlife refuge and environmental research center has it all—hiking trails, a 24-acre pond and Historic Yates Mill, Wake County’s last remaining gristmill (fully restored and operable!). Tour the mill to learn about the “farm-to-fork” process, witness the corn grinding process and purchase bags of ground yellow and white cornmeal. Admission is free, but the mill tour (available to the public March through Nov.) will cost $3-5.
The Neuse River Greenway Trail—a 27.5-mile paved, uninterrupted greenway that stretches from Falls Lake in North Raleigh to the Wake County line in southeast Raleigh—is a year-round haven for outdoor recreation. With views of historic sites as well as winding boardwalk areas and suspension bridges crossing over wetlands, the trail is open to joggers, walkers, runners, cyclists, roller-bladers and others. Many consider the Neuse River Greenway Trail to be the gem of the 100-plus-mile Capital Area Greenway System.
Tucked into 12 acres of woodlands overlooking a private lake in Cary, a world-class getaway awaits—literally! The Umstead Hotel and Spa—previously recognized by AAA as a Five-Diamond property and by Condé Nast Traveler as the third-best hotel in the U.S.—has earned another major accolade. Forbes Travel Guide has named The Umstead Hotel, its fine-dining restaurant Herons and The Umstead Spa as Five-Star award winners, the highest-achievable ranking.
How big of a deal is that? No other hotel, restaurant or spa in the state of N.C. earned a Five-Star rating, and The Umstead is one of only 12 properties in the world to earn triple Five-Star status. To start planning your trip, you can browse seasonal packages on the hotel's website.
25+ local breweries have popped up between Wake Forest, Raleigh, Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina. Take your own brewery tour with the Raleigh Beer Trail. Many of the breweries will provide free tours to visitors so you can learn the difference between beers like porters and dopplelbocks and sound like the beer connoisseur you plan to be for the future.
Raleigh's food scene? It's booming. What else is booming? Food halls. The trend to build massive venues that hold a large number of smaller restaurants—anchoring neighborhoods and shopping centers in urban areas across the U.S.—has officially landed in Raleigh, N.C., with Morgan Street Food Hall and Transfer Co. Food Hall having quickly become go-to destinations for visitors to downtown Raleigh. Here, you'll find bagels, burgers, barbecue and more all under one roof (plus drinks and patio space for an evening well spent!
With more than 350 beers on tap, the Raleigh Beer Garden has the world's largest beer selection, made official when representatives from Guinness World Records visited in 2015. Located in downtown Raleigh's Glenwood South entertainment district, the venue has plenty of outdoor space, including a rooftop "garden" with seating that makes it the perfect warm-weather hangout. And this beer garden does more than just beer—a full dining menu includes everything from handcrafted pizzas to cheese and charcuterie plates.
Visitors have been attending the Raleigh Flea Market every weekend since 1971. More than 600 vendors go out Sat. and Sun. to showcase everything from antiques and collectibles to handcrafts, furniture, homemade goodies, clothing, jewelry and more.
Perfect for hikers, kayakers and mountain bikers, this county park (which was the first county park established in the Raleigh area) welcomes all to the shores of the 520-acre Lake Crabtree in Morrisville. With nature trails, seasonal boat rentals, playgrounds, picnic facilities, a fishing pier and more, there are tons of recreational activities to take part in at little to no cost.
Fun for the whole family, two treetop adventure courses have big fun in mind. At Go Ape, ages 10 and up can take on a canopy course that includes a 500-foot-long zipline, platforms as high as 50 feet in the air and more than 40 obstacles to make their way through (total course time between two and three hours). A smaller course is available for younger children as well. At TreeRunner Adventure Park, seven courses and three difficulty levels are made up from more than 70 total obstacles that reach as high as 40 feet. On Fri. nights through summer, the park puts on Glow Nights, featuring color arches, LED sequence lighting, lasers and glow attire given to all paid climbers.
Open from 9am-5pm daily, the State Farmers' Market, Raleigh is made up of 30,000 square feet of fresh vegetables, produce, flowers and specialty goods. What's in season right now? Watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches and more summertime favorites.
Smart, modern and a little unexpected, CAM Raleigh (Contemporary Art Museum) is hands down a favorite among locals, and for good reason. This striking, non-collecting contemporary art museum, located in downtown Raleigh's rapidly-growing Warehouse District, displays new and emerging work by local and national living artists. Every exhibition is unique, bold, highly memorable and designed to be thought-provoking and transformative. Opened in 2011, this expansive, light-filled gallery space is now free-admission!
Note: Open Fri., 4-8pm, and Sat. and Sun., noon-5pm.
Historic Oakwood Cemetery, with its winding roads, glistening stream and towering oaks, provides a tranquil final resting place for more than 28,000 residents. For 150 years now, the cemetery has told the stories of generations: families who formed Raleigh, soldiers who honored our country and the people of today who chose to rest among its historic oaks. It’s also an excellent example of Victorian landscaping and mortuary art.
North Carolina State Fair (Oct.)
Visitors flock to Raleigh during the month of Oct. to be one of the million attendees of the 11-day N.C. State Fair. The state's largest event features livestock, agricultural, arts and cultural exhibits, amusement midway and nightly musical performances. The fair signals the end of each night with a spectacular fireworks show, a tradition that goes back to the 1950s.
Note: The 2022 event is scheduled for Oct. 13-23.
Up for a paddling adventure? While kayak rentals are on hold due to COVID-19, if you're lucky enough to have one yourself, there's still fun to be had on the water this summer. One great spot to launch your 'yak? Robertson Millpond Preserve, in the town of Wendell, is a hidden 85-acre refuge for nature lovers, canoeists and kayakers. Opened to the public in 2015, the blackwater swamp property is the only bald cypress habitat in the Raleigh area, creating a unique experience of paddling through a forest-like setting.
Note: Open with off season hours through March 2022 (Sat. and Sun., 8am-sunset)
Visit Raleigh in the spring, summer and fall to experience major events like these (some are free or low-cost):
- Tacos 'N Taps, April 2, 2022
- Dreamville Festival, April 2-3, 2022
- North Carolina 'Cuegrass Festival, April 16, 2022
- Brewgaloo, April 22-23, 2022
- Spring Daze Arts and Crafts Festival, April 30, 2022
- 41st Annual Apex PeakFest, May 7, 2022
- Artsplosure - The Raleigh Arts Festival, May 21-22, 2022
- Out! Raleigh Pride, tentatively June 25, 2022
- Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival, Aug. 5-6, 2022
- Lazy Daze Arts and Crafts Festival, Aug. 27-28, 2022
- World of Bluegrass, Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2022
- 78th Annual Raleigh Christmas Parade, Nov. 19, 2022
Discover an eclectic mix of 130-plus local shops, restaurants, bars and hotels in this outdoor shopping haven. Known for it's upscale finds, and also friendly for the entire family, you'll find it easy to spend a day browsing the racks of designer clothes at Gena Chandler or Vermillion, shopping for china and crystal at Quintessentials and picking out monogrammed stationary at Paperbuzz. After (or in between) shopping stops, grab some food and a handcrafted brew at local favorites like The Cowfish at North Hills, Vivace or Yard House.
Planning a trip? Whether driving or flying, exploring the outdoors or tasting the area's best food and drinks, we look forward to soon welcoming you to Raleigh, N.C. From transportation to lodging, dining and attractions, your health and safety are top priority for the hospitality industry. No matter how you travel, or what you do, you can travel confidently. Click here for the latest updates on COVID-19 and openings in the Raleigh area.