30 Top Picks for Your Winter Bucket List in Raleigh, N.C.
Monday, December 16, 2019, 9am by visitRaleigh
Scarves and gloves ready? Dreaming of hot chocolate? Fingers crossed for a good snow? We've got big plans this winter in Raleigh, N.C.! To jump-start your new year, we've put together this list of 30 items for your winter bucket list, perfect for planning a trip to the Raleigh area with friends and family. Need more inspiration? Follow us on Instagram or give us a shout on Twitter—we're here to help!
1. Ring in 2020 with fireworks, a 90-foot-tall Ferris wheel, performances from local musicians and more, plus a giant acorn drop in downtown Raleigh! WRAL First Night Raleigh (12/31), a downtown Raleigh New Year's Eve celebration for more than 25 years, is an all-day event with more than 100 performances (music, dance, theater, comedy and more) across 35 venues. Tons of kids activities, a countdown to midnight (where, yes, a giant acorn drops from the sky as the clock strikes 12) and celebratory fireworks highlight a full day of festivities.
2. Take on a favorite annual Raleigh tradition—the Krispy Kreme Challenge (2/1). One of America's most unique running events (and toughest eating events!), the Krispy Kreme Challenge requires competitors to run five miles, eat a dozen donuts at the halfway point and hit the finish line in under one hour. Started in 2004 with just a handful of North Carolina State University students, the annual event now draws nearly 8,000 runners decked out in costumes along with plenty of media attention. For the curious, those doughnuts total 2,400 calories and 144 grams of fat—but who's counting!
3. Speaking of running, put your running shoes on and attack The Top of the Hill Trail at Green Hills County Park, a short, steep and rocky climb (almost 200 feet of elevation are gained in just under a 10th of a mile), rewarded with a 360-degree view of Wake County that can't be found anywhere else. On a clear day you'll be able to see the downtown Raleigh skyline in the distance (nearly 10 miles away!). For more running, biking and hiking spots, check out this list!
4. Track down the ultimate holiday treat at Two Roosters, a locally-loved ice cream shop founded by North Carolina State University alum Jared Plummer that features a rotating batch of limited edition flavors each month. For Dec. 2019, the shop has partnered with Carolina Ballet to bring the sweetest features of The Nutcracker—a Raleigh holiday tradition, being performed Dec. 18-29—to life. Flavors for the month include Peppermint Pecan Nutcracker, Gingerbread Cookie Crunch, Spanish Hot Chocolate with Churros and more.
5. Explore North Carolina State University's incredible James B. Hunt Jr. Library—it's been called the "library of the future," named the 14th most beautiful library in the world and one of the 10 most amazing U.S. college libraries (among many other accolades). At 221,000 square feet, Hunt serves as the main library for engineering, textile and other science program students and faculty. It's open to the public, and individuals can take self-guided tours or walk-in tours at scheduled times. As an added bonus: it's one of the most Instagrammed spots in Raleigh, N.C.!
6. It's safe to say 2019 was one of the best year's ever for food in the Raleigh area. Chef Ashley Christensen was named America's best chef; Transfer Co. Food Hall opened to the public; and two Raleigh hot spots—Benchwarmers Bagels and Heirloom Brewshop—landed on Bon Appétit's list of the 50 best new restaurants in America. Plus, these new restaurants brought bagels, burgers, pizza, sushi and more to one of America's hottest food cities!
7. In Wake Forest, don't miss out on Piper Lights, a family-run light display that's been in action for 30 years now. The seven-acre light display that connects yards and jumps across a pond received national recognition in 2016 when they were named winners on ABC television network's Great Christmas Light Fight. Open through Jan. 3!
8. Dive deep into local favorites by exploring some of Raleigh's best hidden gems—an art museum with an extremely zen courtyard, a hidden bar that's been named as one of the "best secret bars in the world," an unusual spot to find the city's best fried chicken and more!
9. Take a walk through the jaw-dropping displays at Koka Booth Amphitheatre's North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival (through 1/12), where hundreds of larger-than-life lanterns and more than 15,000 LED lights make up 20 distinct displays, including the spectacular 200-foot-long, 21-foot-tall mythical phoenix that sits on Symphony Lake. Use our event guide to know what to expect before you go!
10. Head to downtown Raleigh's N. Person St. neighborhood, where "blocks from the Capitol, a less buttoned-up Raleigh is cultivating its entrepreneurial spirit led by an expanding creative class," according to a recent piece from Food & Wine. You'll find restaurants, bars, bakeries, creative boutiques and more, all within a couple blocks, which makes it easy to spend an entire day or night exploring. Pro tip: Don't forget to make reservations at Jolie—the intimate new French bistro from chef Scott Crawford that demands an adventurous appetite—as far in advance as possible!
11. Discover the who, where and why of the City of Oaks' earliest days by reading the story of Raleigh's founding. Ultimately chartered on Dec. 31, 1792, visits to the North Carolina Museum of History, Joel Lane Museum House, North Carolina State Capitol, City of Raleigh Museum (COR Museum) and other spots around town help put all the pieces of the 227-year-old puzzle together.
12. Settle in for a meal at Poole's Diner, the retro-chic Southern diner where chef Ashley Christensen first launched her empire of Raleigh eating and drinking spots 11 years ago and has helped build bigger and better things for Raleigh's food scene ever since. Pro tip: You can't go wrong with anything on the ever-changing chalkboard menu, but Christensen's famous macaroni au gratin sells nearly 15,000 dishes per year—almost every table orders one!
13. Plan a weekend around the African American Cultural Celebration (1/25)—a statewide kickoff of Black History Month—at the North Carolina Museum of History. This 19th annual event brings together 75+ musicians, storytellers, dancers, chefs, historians, artists and more in downtown Raleigh for a day of pride and celebration of culture.
14. It's been a good year for good beer in the Raleigh area! New breweries and exciting expansions and additions to old favorites have put the City of Oaks on the map for hops aficionados everywhere. Download your Raleigh Beer Trail Passport, then make your way to more breweries to start earning your prizes!
15. What pairs well with a beer trail? A hot dog trail! This (extremely unofficial) trail hits three of the area's most historic restaurants plus two raved-about newcomers in downtown Raleigh. Kick things off at The Roast Grill, a legendary, no-frills shop in business since 1940; head to Cow Bar—one of 2018's best new restaurants—serving 100% all-beef dogs on New England-style buns; hit Char-Grill, a throwback, drive-in style restaurant serving dogs alongside burgers, shakes and fries; hop just one block down to Snoopy's Hot Dogs & More, famous for crinkle fries and Carolina-style hot dogs with mustard, onions and chili on steamed buns; and finish things off at The Cardinal, a relatively-new craft beer and create-your-own hot dog bar that overlooks Glenwood South. Happy eating!
16. Mark your calendars and save the dates for more of these special winter events:
- NYE at Transfer Co. Food Hall, Dec. 31
- North Carolina Symphony presents The Music of Elton John, Jan. 17-18
- Raleigh Little Theater presents The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Jan. 17-Feb. 9
- Raleigh Roasts, Jan. 18
- UFC Fight Night, Jan. 25
- Jurassic World Live, Feb. 6-9
- North Carolina Theatre presents Kinky Boots, Feb. 11-16
- 11th Annual Raleigh Blues Festival, Feb. 21
- Billie Eilish - Where Do We Go World Tour, March 12
- Raleigh St. Patrick's Day Parade and Wearin' 'O the Green Festival, March 14
17. It's always a good time for barbecue in the City of Oaks! That's why we put together this guide to barbecue in Raleigh, N.C. Read up on 10 of our favorite spots for pulled pork sandwiches, hush puppies, banana pudding and more, then let the taste-testing begin! A good place to start? Smokey's BBQ Shack—an East-meets-Lexington style joint that goes heavy on the hickory smoke and packs plenty of flavor—or Clyde Cooper's BBQ, serving lean, clean pork shoulders however you like it (chopped, coarse, sliced, on a sandwich, with slaw, beside a pile of hush puppies etc.) in downtown Raleigh since 1938.
18. Indulge in hand-made pasta and the perfect glass of wine while sitting pool-side in Mulino Italian Kitchen + Bar's secluded courtyard, find out for yourself why The New York Times said that Stanbury is "serving the most exciting food in Raleigh" and eat a legendary breakfast (hot cakes, grits, biscuits and more) after a night on the town at Big Ed's City Market Restaurant (plus check out these other 97 things to do in downtown Raleigh!).
19. Join the best fans in hockey and cheer on the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. After last season's magical run to the Eastern Conference Final, the Canes (as they're locally called) are expected to once again be in the thick of the playoff hunt all season long. They've been spectacular at home this year, too, so scoop up some tickets to catch the fast-paced action in person!
20. Plan a visit to the capital city around a very special exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection presents the paintings of two icons of the 20th century—few artists have captured the public's imagination with the force of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907–54) and her husband, the Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera (1886–1957).
21. Treat yourself in the best way possible with a weekend getaway at one of Raleigh area's most relaxing retreats. Check into Guest House Raleigh, a historic, eight-room boutique hotel that a husband-and-wife team saved from demolition and relocated to its current location in 2017 (where a backyard courtyard, skyline views and more await!). Or, settle in at The Umstead Hotel and Spa, a AAA Five-Diamond property in Cary that has a spa and restaurant on-site that live up to the hype. Need more ideas? We've got 'em about !
22. Stand in awe inside the Terror of the South diorama at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) where Acro—one of only five (and the most complete) Acrocanthosaurus skeletons ever found—towers over visitors on the first floor at the museum. Discovered in 1983 in a mud-filled swamp, the dino has called the NCMNS home since 2000.
23. Do some digging at Cheshire Cat Antique Gallery—one of the area's largest antique shopping stops with more than 20,000 square feet of vintage collectibles, furniture, jewelry, art, books and more in Cameron Village—or hop over to The Mercantile, a local favorite in Knightdale that carries vintage furniture and home decor (plus pairs particularly well with a stop for a beer at Oak City Brewing Company, just down the street).
24. Explore what the Raleigh area has to offer without breaking the bank! Home to more than 30 free (or nearly free) attractions and experiences that can anchor any visit to the area, use this article as a starter when building a weekend trip with family or friends.
25. Hey, foodies! How about a whole week built just for you? Triangle Restaurant Week (1/20-26) is a week-long celebration of culinary excellence throughout the Raleigh area. Participating restaurants offer special three-course menu options and fixed pricing ($15 for a three-course lunch, and $20, $25 or $30 for a three-course dinner), making this the perfect chance to try out a new spot or return to an old favorite.
26. Spend a night experiencing the work of rockstar chef Cheetie Kumar, co-owner of three nightlife spots on one corner of downtown Raleigh. Kumar, who was recently featured in The New York Times, is a James Beard-nominated chef at the Indian-inspired restaurant Garland, plus has a hand in the indie music venue KINGS (where her band Birds of Avalon sometimes takes stage) and the cozy cocktail bar Neptunes Parlour.
27. Spend a cozy weekend at North Hills—the shopping haven in Midtown Raleigh that's an eclectic mix of 130-plus local shops, restaurants bars and hotels—where a stay at the AC Hotel by Marriott Raleigh North Hills or Hyatt House Raleigh/North Hills provides easy access to local favorites like Quail Ridge Books, Happy and Hale, Vita Vite Midtown, Gena Chandler, Midtown Yoga, Vivace and more.
28. Plan a date night at Dock 1053, a mini-neighborhood where artists, creatives, entrepreneurs, retailers and others have revitalized a warehouse space with so much to do. You can't go wrong with dinner and drinks at chef Coleen Speaks' gorgeous restaurant Hummingbird, scratch-made Southern food at Wilson's Eatery or locally-crafted beers at Lynnwood Brewing Concern (where there's plenty of space for dogs on the patios outside!).
29. Winter cocktails crafted to pair perfectly with sweater weather? Sign us up! Eggnog, cider, Hot Toddys and more are being served up at seven of our favorite bars to help battle the cold weather this season. Bonus: Explore 11 of the coziest bars in the Raleigh area!
30. Experience centuries-old bread baking traditions in a modern-day bakery and café at one of Lionel Vatinet's three La Farm Bakery locations in Cary, where you'll find artisan breads, pastries, baked goods and breakfast sandwiches that draw big crowds.