30 Free Things to Do in Raleigh, N.C.
Wednesday, October 05, 2022, 9am by visitRaleigh
Explore what the Raleigh area has to offer without breaking the bank! Here are 30-plus free (or nearly free) experiences and attractions that can anchor any trip to the area.
William B. Umstead State Park
N.C.’s most visited state park maintains its status as a peaceful and affordable getaway thanks to its sheer size. With more than 5,000 acres of forest, trails and lakes, this natural oasis is a must-do destination for outdoor enthusiasts—hikers, cyclists, horseback riders and canoeists included!
Local tip: Park at the Old Reedy Creek Rd trailhead for one of the best ways to take advantage of the park’s multi-use trails. Take a look at the full map here.
Hunting for murals
The expansive public art scene in Raleigh is quickly proving that beautiful and awe-inspiring art can easily be found both inside and outside of the area's awesome museums and galleries. Slip on your walking shoes and hit the streets to find more than 30 inspiring pieces that make for perfect photo ops!
Pictured here: "All Aboard!" by artist Sean Kernick at 122 W. Chatham St. in downtown Cary.
Downtown Raleigh's Artspace gives 100,000 visitors per year the chance to witness creativity in action. Visitors can peruse 30,000 square feet of galleries, get an up-close-and-personal look at artists as they work, create and display masterpieces of your very own and even purchase that piece you can’t live without.
Nearby eats, drinks and activities: Oak City Meatball, Tonbo Ramen, The Pour House Music Hall & Record Shop
You can’t go wrong with a visit during any of the many festivals happening here in the Raleigh area and open to the public free of charge. Visit Raleigh in the spring, summer and fall to experience major events like these (free or low-cost):
- Raleigh Christmas Parade, Nov. 19, 2022
- American Indian Heritage Celebration, Nov. 19, 2022
- First Night Raleigh, Dec. 31, 2022
- HerbFest, April
- Spring Daze Arts and Crafts Festival, April
- Meet in the Street Festival, May
- Got to Be NC Festival, May
- Artsplosure - The Raleigh Arts Festival, May
- Out! Raleigh Pride, June
- Lazy Daze Arts and Crafts Festival, Aug. 27-28, 2022
- African American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County, Sept. 3-4, 2022
- BugFest, Sept. 17, 2022
- La Fiesta del Pueblo, Sept. 18, 2022
- IBMA Bluegrass Live! powered by PNC, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2022
- Cary Diwali Festival, Oct. 8, 2022
- N.C. State Fair, Oct. 13-23, 2022
State Farmers Market, Raleigh
The State Farmers Market, one of the best and most modern markets in the U.S., boasts 75 acres of indoor and outdoor vendor space. Sample and shop some of the freshest fruits, vegetables, meats and gift products from across the state year-round. Also check out the specialty gifts shops, plus the ever-popular State Farmers Market Restaurant (don't miss the biscuits!).
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.
North Carolina State Capitol
This National Historic Landmark stands as one of the best-preserved examples of a civic building in Greek Revival-style architecture. Originally, the Capitol building housed the governor’s office, cabinet offices, legislative chambers, state library and state geologist’s office. Today, you can tour all three floors of the building (guided tours are available at no cost each Sat. at 11 am and 2 pm) as well as explore the numerous statues and monuments on Union Square.
Lake Johnson Park
Located near North Carolina State University, Lake Johnson Park is a popular spot for students and professionals to get some exercise—a paved, three-mile greenway loop, plus two miles of unpaved trails, draw lots of joggers and walkers (and dogs, too!). The lake itself spans more than 150 acres and offers a wide variety of boats for rent during the height of summer (note rentals close for the year on Aug. 14, 2022).
Neuse River Greenway Trail
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.
Local tip: Read up on what you need to know about the Neuse River Greenway Trail with this handy guide.
The Pope House Museum
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 Saturdays, 9 am-4 pm and Sundays, 1-4 pm. Tours can be arranged by calling 919.996.2220 for more information.
Garner Veterans Memorial
The Garner Veterans Memorial features pillars with the names of 67 Garner-area veterans who died serving their country as well as a historical narrative about the wars and conflicts in which the nation has been involved. Dedicated in 2013, the memorial is located at Lake Benson Park, which features trails, playgrounds, picnic shelters and open space areas.
Also recommended: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Gardens, Fallen Firefighters Memorial at Nash Square Park, Veterans Freedom Park
Tour Historic Oakwood for a wonderful array of late 19th- and early 20th-century Victorian-inspired homes featuring a diversity of architectural styles. The homes, some with the most beautiful gardens, have been lovingly restored to exude old-world charm and splendor. You can explore this 30-block neighborhood by car or on foot. For a self-guided tour brochure, visit the Raleigh, N.C., Visitor Information Center.
Note: The Historic Oakwood Candlelight Tour is one of the Raleigh area's favorite annual events. The 2022 event is scheduled for Dec. 10 and 11.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
If you love museums and are fascinated with the natural world, you’ll want to experience one of the Southeast’s most valuable cultural resources. With four floors of exhibits—some including live animals—there’s plenty to learn and be amazed by. All exhibits can easily be explored via self-guided tours. Learn more about the state's most visited museum here.
North Carolina Museum of History
A literal hop, skip and jump across a walkway from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the North Carolina Museum of History—founded in 1902—allows visitors to access more than 14,000 years and 150,000 artifacts of N.C. history in a dynamic and immersive setting. Artifacts range from a full-size replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer to the lunch counter from a 1960 sit-in in Salisbury, N.C. (plus much, much more!).
Splash pads and spraygrounds
Nothing cools your family off faster on a hot summer day than a public splash pad or sprayground. Luckily, there are several here you can happily wade into at little to no charge!
- Jack Smith Park splash pad—Cary, free admission.
- Taylor Street Park sprayground—Wake Forest, free admission.
- Moore Square splash pad—downtown Raleigh, free admission
- Knightdale Station Park splash pad—Knightdale, free admission
- South Park splash pad—Fuquay-Varina, $2 per child for non-residents.
JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University
Stroll through 10 acres of floral beauty at this nationally-acclaimed garden with one of the largest and most diverse collections of landscape plants. With more than 5,000 plants collected from all over the world on display, you catch blooms any time of the year. Nearly 20 different gardens can be explored, each with a unique theme and space—a Japanese garden, a butterfly garden, a rooftop terrace filled with heat-tolerant plants and more.
Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden
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.
Read about Raleigh Little Theatre's 2022-23 season here!
Art lovers rejoice! First Friday draws thousands downtown for a free, self-guided tour of cutting-edge cultural hot spots—local art galleries, art studios, alternative art venues and museums. Tour stops can feature music, a variety of creative works, wine samples, hors d’oeuvres and more.
Local tip: Look for the First Friday flags to easily locate participating venues. You can also pick up a detailed map/guide at each stop.
City of Raleigh Museum (COR Museum)
The COR Museum examines and interprets the city’s history with the goal of “preserving Raleigh’s past for its future.” Past and present exhibits include an exploration of Raleigh’s journey toward Civil Rights, an examination of local democracy as well as a survey of Raleigh’s music scene from 1976 to 1985. See what’s currently on display, here.
Dorothea Dix Park
At a whopping 308 acres in the heart of downtown Raleigh, Dorothea Dix Park offers beautiful rolling hills, huge shade trees and stunning views of the downtown skyline. Open to the public from dawn to dusk, the park plays host to a range of outdoor activities—sunset watching, bike riding, soccer matches, picnics, yoga and more.
North Carolina Executive Mansion
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once described the North Carolina Executive Mansion as having “the most beautiful governor’s residence interior in America.” Home to 30 N.C. governors since 1891, the Victorian-style mansion is filled with fine 18th and 19th-century furnishings and art.
Note that tours of the interior of the Executive Mansion are currently suspended due to COVID-19. Guided tours of the gardens are offered for groups of 5-20 people on Wednesdays and Thursdays and must be scheduled two weeks in advance. It is currently unknown of the Executive Mansion will hold a Holiday Open House in 2022.
James B. Hunt Jr. Library
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.
North Carolina Museum of Art
One of the most visited attractions in entire state (and ranked by Insider as one of the top 25 museums in the country!), the North Carolina Museum of Art and its permanent galleries are open to the public free of charge. Visitors would also be wise to stroll through the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, with its monumental public art installations and miles of multi-use trails weaving throughout.
Top-level courses from Apex to Zebulon make the Raleigh area one of the nation’s top destinations for disc golf. So, grab your discs and try your hand at free courses like Cedar Hills Park, Buckhorn, Zebulon Community Park and Diavolo at New Hope (ranked as one of the top courses in the country!).
Historic Yates Mill County Park
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.
Joel Lane Museum House
Plantation owner and early settler Joel Lane sold 1,000 acres of his plantation to the state of North Carolina for the establishment of a capital city in 1792. The oldest home in Wake County, Lane's 18th-century manor house is widely known as the birthplace of Raleigh. Guided tours are provided by costumed docents, with offerings that vary by season. See website for current details.
Lake Crabtree County Park
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 (including free rentals of kayaks, sailboats and more).
Looking for affordable family entertainment while visiting Raleigh? Then Pullen Park is the place to visit! Entertaining families since 1887, Pullen Park—nestled between downtown Raleigh and the main campus of North Carolina State University—was established as N.C.'s first state park (and it's the fifth oldest amusement park in the U.S.). Admission and access to the playgrounds, grassy and tree-shaded areas, picnic shelters, grills and tables are all free. Families can also enjoy amusement rides, including a historic carousel first built in 1911, for a small fee.
Wake Forest Historical Museum
Discover the rich past of Wake Forest, one of 11 municipalities in the Raleigh area and the birthplace of Wake Forest College (now Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.). The Wake Forest Historical Museum houses a vast collection of photographs, books and artifacts, while offering an even deeper dive into history with guest speaker lectures. Also check out the restored home of Dr. Calvin Jones, physician, and founder of the N.C. Medical Society and one-time mayor of Raleigh.
The best dog parks
Stretch your legs and soak up the warm Carolina sun at one of many dog parks in the Raleigh area. A local favorite is Millbrook Exchange Off-Leash Dog Park, recently renovated after winning a nationwide contest sponsored by Purina. In addition to fun agility elements, dig pits and water fountains, the park also features separate play spaces for large and small breeds.
Other great parks to check out include Jack Smith Dog Park in Cary, Apex Nature Dog Park and the Dix Park Dog Park, a newly relocated off-leash play area for pups in one of the city's most popular outdoor hangouts.
The Raleigh Market
Visitors have been attending the Raleigh Market (formerly the Raleigh Flea Market), located on the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, every weekend since 1971. More than 600 vendors turn up every Sat. and Sun. from 9 am-6 pm to showcase everything from antiques and collectibles to handcrafts, furniture, homemade goodies, clothing, jewelry and more.
Photo credits: Pullen Park, Chris Richman; Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden, Brian Magee; COR Museum, Keenan Hairston; Lake Crabtree County Park, Chris Richman; Wake Forest Historical Museum, Keenan Hairston
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