The 10 Most Essential Free Attractions to Visit in Raleigh, N.C.
Wednesday, March 08, 2023, 9am by visitRaleigh
Often dubbed the "Smithsonian of the South" thanks to an abundance of free museums, historic attractions and educational institutions, Raleigh, N.C., has long been known as a budget-friendly family getaway destination for those in the Tar Heel State and beyond (Southern Living recently named the City of Oaks one of the seven best affordable Southern destinations for travel). The attractions below are a perfect place to start in checking the Raleigh area's standout attractions off your must-visit list!
- Spend a morning, a day or a night at the North Carolina Museum of Art
- Tour the library of the future at Hunt Library
- Explore 300,000 square feet of science and nature at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
- Take part in skyline picnics and sunrise yoga classes at Dorothea Dix Park
- Visit one of the world's oldest amusement parks at Pullen Park
- Meet Tar Heel icons at the North Carolina Museum of History
- Tackle hikes or ride bikes at William B. Umstead State Park
- Stop and smell the flowers at JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University
- Earn your dessert with an active day at Historic Yates Mill County Park
- Jump into fun with family and friends at a free festival
One of the most cherished indoor and outdoor spaces in all of Raleigh, the North Carolina Museum of Art is one of the premier visual arts museums of the South. Aside from two buildings filled with galleries, educational studios and special exhibitions, the museum's 164-acre outdoor park is the biggest of its kind in America, featuring walking trails, flexible seating and event spaces, a bikeshare station and an amphitheater that hosts live music and movies in the warmer months.
Permanent collections at the museum 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 NCMA Café.
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 North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences delights, entertains and educates nearly a million visitors per year with fascinating exhibits, both featured and permanent, about the natural world. The museum’s four floors are divided into two parts—the Nature Exploration Center (where you’ll find the Terror of the South) and the Nature Research Center, an unmistakable architectural icon that opened to much fanfare a decade ago. Exhibits range from detailed dioramas to actual ecosystems with living animals—all of which can be explored through various self-guided tours.
The museum also hosts lectures, discussions, classes, live scientific programs and more. Visitors can enjoy family-friendly, educational movies inside the SECU Daily Planet—a 70-foot diameter globe that doubles as a three-story theater—and immerse themselves in 3D movie showings in the WRAL 3D Theater located in the Nature Exploration Center.
At a whopping 308 acres in the heart of downtown Raleigh, Dorothea Dix Park offers beautiful rolling hills, huge shade trees and top-notch views of the city skyline. Open to the public from dawn to dusk, the park plays host to a range of outdoor activities—sunset watching, hammocking, bike riding, soccer matches, picnics, yoga and more (including a schedule of regularly held events and festivals).
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, particularly 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).
The North Carolina Museum of History showcases more than 14,000 years and 150,000 artifacts of state history, from native inhabitants to the 20th century. Dozens of exhibits on display focus on a variety of eras in state history, and there are always new exhibits to explore (don't forget to take a special trip to the third floor, home of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame).
The museum’s permanent exhibit, The Story of North Carolina, holds amazing artifacts, multimedia presentations, dioramas and interactive features, along with two, full-size historic houses and many recreated environments. Notable artifacts include recovered items from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Civil War flags and weapons, a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer and a lunch counter from a 1960 Salisbury, N.C., sit-in during the American civil rights movement.
One of N.C.’s most-visited state parks, William B. Umstead State Park remains a peaceful getaway thanks to its sheer size—more than 5,000 acres of forest, trails and lakes sit on the edge of Raleigh, Cary and Morrisville. With 13 miles of multi-use trails that follow a series of rolling hills (perfect for horseback riding, jogging and cycling) and 22 miles of dedicated hiking trails, this is a must-hit destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
Pro tip: Begin your spring afternoon stroll at the park’s entrance off of U.S. 70 and then head to the nearby Lonerider Brewing Company to toast to good weather and good times with a Shotgun Betty hefeweizen!
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. The arboretum is also a popular spot to host an affordable wedding (or a pretty backdrop for engagement photos, bridal portraits etc.).
At the 174-acre Historic Yates Mill County Park, more than 250 years of history waits to be explored. Yates Mill, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, was restored to working order through a grassroots community effort in 2005 and today stands as the area's last operating water-powered gristmill. The park also features approximately three miles of hiking trails, winding through hardwood forests and using footbridges and boardwalks to cross wetland areas.
Bring the family and tackle a hike, then head just a couple hundred yards up the road to Howling Cow Creamery, a North Carolina State University-owned farm that produces some of the area's best ice cream right on site.
Planning a trip to see the above attractions around one of Raleigh's favorite free festivals is always a good idea. A few picks to save the date for in 2023:
- Out! Raleigh Pride, June 24
- CaribMask Carnival, Aug. 19
- Packapalooza, Aug. 26
- Lazy Daze Arts and Crafts Festival, Aug. 26-27
- 14th Annual African American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County, Sept. 2-3
- BugFest, Sept. 23
- IBMA Bluegrass Live! powered by PNC, Sept. 29-30
- N.C. International Festival, Nov. 3-5
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