30 Free Things to Do in Raleigh, N.C.
Wednesday, August 28, 2019, 1pm 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 an historic carousel first built in 1911, for a small fee.
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 as of early 2019!
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 11am and 2pm) as well as explore the numerous statues and monuments on Union Square.
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. Jon boats, canoes, kayaks, sunfish sailboats and stand-up paddleboards can be rented seven days per week during the middle of summer (and on weekends in May and Sept.).
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 Garner Veterans Memorial features pillars with the names of 67 Garner-area veterans who died serving their country as well as 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.
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.
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.
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!).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 towards 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.
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.
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. Meander through the house and its surrounding gardens free of charge. Guided tours, available on Wednesdays and Thursdays this fall between Sept. 18 and Nov. 7, must be booked two weeks in advance. The Holiday Open House for 2019 will be Dec. 12-15 (no reservations needed).
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.
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!).
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 East Wake Middle School (available during non-school hours), Cedar Hills Park, Buckhorn and Zebulon Community Park, one of the top courses in the state.
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.
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.
Free live music series
With the most live music in the state happening right here in Raleigh, you can find a show to enjoy almost every day of the year. Best part? You can catch many of them for free, from the Midtown Beach Music Series in North Hills (summer), to Wake Forest’s Six Sundays in Spring (spring), to Beer & Banjos at Raleigh Times Bar (every Tues.). You can find a current schedule of live music events here.
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):
- SPARKcon, Sept. 13-14, 2019
- City of Oaks Pirate Fest, Sept. 14, 2019
- Apex Music Festival, Sept. 14, 2019
- 15th Annual Capital City Bikefest, Sept. 20-22, 2019
- BugFest, Sept. 21
- PNC Presents Wide Open Bluegrass, Sept. 26-28, 2019
- N.C. Pride at Night Festival and Celebration, Sept. 28, 2019
- North Carolina State Fair, Oct. 17-27, 2019
- 75th Annual Raleigh Christmas Parade, Nov. 23, 2019
- First Night Raleigh, Dec. 31, 2019
Cary’s Downtown Park
Truly a community gathering space, Cary’s Downtown Park provides a place for musical performances, outdoor movies, recreation, games, public art and pure relaxation. The centerpiece—a stunning, lighted fountain surrounded by plenty of outdoor seating—is an ideal spot for families and kids looking to spend time outdoors.
Summer and fall nights are the perfect backdrop for cinematic blockbusters, arthouse indie flicks and family movies. Pack a picnic basket, grab a blanket or lawn chair and head out to places like Dorothea Dix Park, North Carolina Museum of Art and Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre (to name a few!). In Sept. 2019, the schedule includes:
- Centennial Cinema Series - Avengers: Endgame (9/6)
- Centennial Cinema Series - The Secret Life of Pets 2 (9/13)
- The Hate U Give (9/20)
- Centennial Cinema Series - Toy Story 4 (9/20)
- How to Train Your Dragon - The Hidden World (9/20)
- Roma (9/21)
- Centennial Cinema Series - Dumb & Dumber 25th Anniversary Movie Party (9/27)
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, founder of the N.C. Medical Society and one-time mayor of Raleigh.
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 Oakwood Dog Park, which is just a short walk from Yellow Dog Bread Company, a great place to grab a quick snack.
Visitors have been attending 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 9am-6pm 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; Downtown Park, Brian Magee; Wake Forest Historical Museum, Keenan Hairston
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