30 Top Picks for Your Winter Bucket List in Raleigh, N.C.
Friday, December 14, 2018, 3pm 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. 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 Crawford and Son—the intimate, Scott Crawford-led dinner spot that demands an adventurous appetite—a week in advance if possible!
2. Take a walk through the jaw-dropping displays at Koka Booth Amphitheatre's North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival (through 1/13), 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 Chinese Dragon that sits on Symphony Lake. Use our event guide to know what to expect before you go!
3. 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. 2018, the menu includes Christmas Tree, a sweet cream base with pine-infused syrup and toasted pine nuts; Spiked Eggnog, the classic holiday drink in ice cream form featuring dark rum from Raleigh Rum Company; and The Nutcracker, a chocolate base with homemade brown butter pecan bars that pairs perfectly with a trip to see the play by the same name performed by Carolina Ballet (through Dec. 23!).
4. 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.!
5. Ring in 2018 with fireworks, a 90-foot-tall Ferris wheel, performances by local acts New Reveille, Boulevards 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.
6. Experience a Winter Wonderland at Bond Park (1/25-26) in Cary, where an amazing sledding hill will be created with man-made snow, and tubes will be provided so you can catch some speed as you fly downhill (dress accordingly and register in advance!).
7. Make reservations to grab lunch, dinner or drinks at Brewery Bhavana, the brewery, bookstore, flower shop and dim sum restaurant in downtown Raleigh that was named one of the "Top 10 Coolest Places to Eat in 2018" in the world by Forbes! Brother and sister Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha, who own Brewery Bhavana along with brewmaster Patrick Woodson, are no strangers to good food and big accolades. They're also the masterminds behind Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant right next door that's one of the most sought-after dining spots in the city. Brewery Bhavana, which opened in March of 2017, was also named one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country in 2017 by Bon Appétit.
8. Don't miss out on a huge list of big-name acts set to perform on big stages this winter: Justin Timberlake (1/6), Cher (1/27), Metallica (1/28), Elton John (3/12) and Mumford & Sons (3/17) will all play at PNC Arena; Kruger Brothers (2/2) and Hozier (3/16) are scheduled at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts; and local band American Aquarium will play two shows at Lincoln Theatre (1/25-26).
9. 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!
10. Pay a visit to Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, the beloved movie theater brand known for its passion towards film, food and beer, which has officially opened its first N.C. location in Raleigh! The 11-screen complex, with theater capacity ranging from 49 to 109 seats, also features an Alamo first: the Video Vortex bar, an immersive video-themed bar where you can enjoy nearly 50 local beers on tap (or take them home in a 32-ounce "crowler" can) plus dive into one of the largest rental collections of cinema in the country (75,000 classics, obscure releases, foreign films and more are on hand!).
11. 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!
12. Take on a favorite annual Raleigh tradition—the Krispy Kreme Challenge (2/2). 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!
13. Grab your drinking buddies and take a trip to The Hideout, Lonerider Brewing Company's West Texas-themed brewery and taproom headed up by passionate mind Sumit Vohra. Get your Raleigh Beer Trail Passport stamped, then make your way to other breweries to start earning your prizes!
14. 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-percent 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!
15. Plan a weekend around the African American Cultural Celebration (1/26)—a statewide kickoff of Black History Month—at the North Carolina Museum of History. This 18th 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.
16. 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.
17. Take a day to discover downtown Raleigh's Warehouse District, recently named one of 12 "neighborhoods across America about to get crazy popular" by Thrillist. You'll find hand-sewn denim, Carolina barbecue, locally-brewed beer, a contemporary art museum, a gourmet chocolate factory and more—all within a two or three block radius.
18. Join the Redvolution and cheer on the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Canes (as they're locally called) should 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 action in person. Check out the Hurricanes Homegrown Series to find out about some of the best chances to pair hockey with local food, music and beer at the arena!
19. Plan a visit to the capital city around an exhibition of contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art from renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who revolutionized ways to see ordinary things. The Beyond: Georgia O'Keeffe and Contemporary Art Exhibition (through 1/20/19) brings together a significant group of O’Keeffe’s works (featuring enormous flowers, luscious color and desert landscapes) as the centerpiece of an exploration of her continued force as a touchstone for contemporary art.
20. Have your children play music and be inspired by the great outdoors in TreeTunes, a new exhibit at Marbles Kids Museum where kids can work in harmony to play xylophones, bells and more, use their feet to play a giant banjo or kick back and relax while shaking some chimes. Bonus: Outside the museum, you'll find Color Pop Corner—a colorful playground and mural by artist Lisa Gaither—and just across the street, you'll find this temporary, holiday-inspired mural by artist Emily Jo Walton.
21. Wear your green and celebrate St. Patrick's Day in the Raleigh area! The Raleigh St. Patrick's Day Parade and Wearin’ ‘O the Green Festival (3/16) celebrates the great St. Patrick as well as Irish and Celtic traditions and culture. Enjoy food and drink, plus activities for kids on Leprechaun Lane. Shop Celtic-inspired jewelry and arts and crafts, and take in live music from the Shamrock ‘n Roll Stage and the Courthouse Steps Stage all afternoon. As a bonus, admission is free!
22. 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.
23. 2018 has been another banner year for foodies in the Raleigh area. James Beard Award nominations, major new openings and seriously-good press (The New York Times, The TODAY Show and more have taken notice!) have shined a spotlight on the City of Oaks. From fried lotus root snacks paired with vacuum pot coffees to cake-style doughnuts, Raleigh’s food scene is hotter than ever. Check out 10 of our favorite spots that opened during the previous 12 months!
24. Hey, foodies! How about a whole week built just for you? Triangle Restaurant Week (1/21-27) 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.
25. Take time to visit Raleigh's pay-what-you-can cafe, A Place At The Table, the brainchild of Maggie Kane and recent subject of a feature on NBC's TODAY Show. Open for breakfast and lunch in downtown Raleigh, The menu is presented with suggested prices, and diners have the option to pay that price, to pay more, to pay less or to volunteer as payment for their meal, truly providing a sense of community around the table.
26. 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.
27. 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!).
28. Winter cocktails crafted to pair perfectly with sweater weather? Sign us up! Eggnog, cider, Hot Toddy's and more are being served up at six of our favorite bars to help battle the cold weather this season. Bonus: Explore 11 of the coziest bars in the Raleigh area here!
29. 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. If you hurry, you'll find this chocolate babka and this drool-worthy bacon brioche available on weekends during the month of Dec.!
30. 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.