The Best Hidden Gems in Raleigh, N.C.
Thursday, August 26, 2021, 10am by visitRaleigh
The Raleigh area is home to some of the best-kept secrets when it comes to entertainment, food, shopping and more. For some truly-awesome experiences, be sure to add these hidden gems to your travel list.
Escape the noise of civilization without looking outside of the city and embrace serenity at a well-kept horticultural secret, the Carl Alwin Schenck Memorial Forest. Although it’s a whopping 245-acres, it’s often overlooked for more popular outdoor attractions. Make no mistake however, the Schenck delivers the goods—from birdwatching to wildlife spotting to scenic views perfect for picnic lunches. Best of all, the forest serves as a teaching and research forest for North Carolina State University. Local tip: The Frances L. Liles Trail is the most popular and easiest trail to navigate, and a small amount of parking is available along the main gravel road.
Perhaps you prefer a hidden gem you can paddle through. For that, take a short drive from Raleigh out to the town of Wendell to find Robertson Millpond Preserve, the area’s only bald cypress habitat. Here, canoeists, kayakers and paddle boarders can float peacefully through a serene, forest-like setting. Recognized today as a wetland treasure, Robertson Millpond is home to a variety of animals, many of which can be spotted in and around the water.
Note: Currently in off-season hours, open on Sat. and Sun. from 8am-sunset. Please also note that currently there are no rentals available on site.
Many consider the Neuse River Greenway Trail to be the gem of the 100-plus-mile Capital Area Greenway System. Whether it’s hidden or not is up for debate, but there’s no denying its appeal to outdoor enthusiasts—joggers, walkers, runners, cyclists, you name it. The 27.5-mile uninterrupted greenway stretching from Falls Lake in North Raleigh to the Wake County line in southeast Raleigh offers views of historical sites, scenic photo ops, wildlife sightings and good old-fashioned fun.
Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher or seek solitude in the middle of a bustling town, Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is sure to captivate and delight. Tucked away in the middle of suburban Cary, Hemlock Bluffs is a 140-acre preserve with miles of trails, unique vegetation and a forest ecosystem as old as the last ice age. Head on over to lose yourself in the stillness, break a sweat on a trail or brush up on your wildlife and history facts at the Stevens Nature Center.
On the backside of the Raleigh Little Theatre complex is another one of Raleigh’s precious natural gems, the Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden. Home to 1,200 roses of 60 different varieties, evergreen and deciduous trees, the garden is breathtakingly beautiful especially with flowers in full bloom from May until autumn. Visitors not only appreciate the roses here, but also spend enjoyable quality time with family and friends taking in outdoor plays, movies and other events.
Hidden behind the WRAL television studios and between the campuses of North Carolina State University, the WRAL Azalea Gardens have offered tranquility in the heart of Raleigh since 1959. Take a break from the day to surround yourself with beautiful azaleas of all shapes and colors—"at peak" around mid-April—as wonderful fragrances fill the air.
This 237-acre nature preserve in North Raleigh offers five miles of lesser-trafficked, mostly unpaved hiking trails that loop through heavily wooded areas around two lakes in the center of the park (not challenging terrain, but one of our top choices for peaceful outdoor exploring). Dog- and kid-friendly, portions of the trails are also open to mountain bikes. The park also offers amenities including a fishing pier, playground, sand volleyball court, bird and butterfly gardens, picnic areas and more.
Since 1940, The Roast Grill in downtown Raleigh has served up some of the best hot dogs around along with glass bottle cokes and homemade Greek desserts. Blink, and you just might miss this charming hole-in-the-wall restaurant with its old-fashioned barstools and antique memorabilia on display. Pony up to the counter to order dogs uniquely cooked to a crisp, black char and topped with a combination of mustard, homemade chili, coleslaw and onions. Best known for its “HOT WEINERS!” sign, The Roast Grill is a hometown staple inspiring loyalty from visitors and locals alike.
In North Raleigh, you’ll find a humble Korean restaurant in a quiet shopping center attracting a fair amount of attention from lovers of Korean fried chicken and BBQ. Soo Café, with its simple, homespun décor, entices patrons with staples like crispy tempura vegetables, bibimbap and, of course, craveable spicy fried chicken wings doused in a soy-garlic sauce. Drop in for an unforgettable meal or order to-go; just don’t pass this hidden gem by.
Black & White Coffee Roasters endeavors to bring exciting coffee to the people and boy do they deliver. Just like their black-and-white panda logo, the shop wholeheartedly believes that coffee should be simple and taste great no matter how you drink it. Black & White roasts new single-origin beans and beautiful complex blends sure to convert even the most avid coffee lovers. You won’t regret making a pit stop by their locations in downtown Wake Forest and Rolesville.
The definition of hidden, The Green Light is literally tucked away behind a secret bookshelf inside The Architect Bar & Social House. It's a small, dimly-lit room with a 1920s speakeasy feel—the bar is clad with reclaimed wood, and vinyl records play in the corner. This is the spot to disappear, sit, relax and enjoy a serious cocktail. But don't just take our word for it—Thrillist just named it one of the "21 Best Secret Bars in the World ."
If you happen to zip down Capital Blvd. too quickly, you might just miss Aggie’s Grill Station, a unique hidden gem of an eatery that’s well worth doubling back for. Aggie’s puts their own creative spin on classic dishes, using fresh ingredients to create delicious experiences. As a well-known cornerstone of the community, the restaurant regularly dishes out a variety of outstanding cuisine that you probably won’t find anywhere else in the city. We’re talking fried chicken wings, tasty shrimp fried rice, hot subs, cheesy quesadillas and a whole lot more! For a local spot with community ties and plenty of Raleigh character, Aggie’s is the place.
Whether you’re looking for a hot new brunch spot or somewhere classy to have a nice dinner, you can’t go wrong with SmokeStacks. For more than 20 years, the restaurant has offered the local community a welcoming and relaxing atmosphere to both dine and chill out. Swing through to gobble up brunch favorites like French toast, biscuits and shrimp and grits, or try dinner plates featuring BBQ sandwiches, ribs, salads and more. Wine lovers can also pair their meals with the perfect glass of vino from the restaurant’s collection and purchase a bottle from the bottle shop to take home. At SmokeStacks, having an amazing experience you won’t soon forget is par for the course.
Amazingly delicious, Chuan Cafe delights diners with authentic, Szechuan-style Chinese cuisine as well as other Asian-inspired dishes. Get a taste of it all from delectable dim sum to crave-worthy chicken, pork belly and veggies dishes. Chuan is also known for having some of the best noodles in all of Raleigh. Drop by to appreciate a tasty meal inside a well-designed interior space with monochromatic, cream hues reminiscent of bamboo and wicker. Dine in for the friendly and courteous hospitality of the restaurant’s staff or order takeout to savor yummy goodness to go.
Tucked away inside an unassuming shopping center off of Buck Jones Rd. is a Cary, N.C., hidden gem everyone should get to know. Baker’s Dozen does donuts the old-fashioned way with few frills and flourishes. Expect nothing but the best traditional flavors paired with the most tantalizing bakery smells! While you certainly can’t go wrong with any choice of treat here, locals do swear by the apple fritter for a guaranteed taste of heaven in every bite. But if you’re looking to try more than one (and trust us, you will), you can easily grab an assorted dozen without breaking the bank (and your friends and family will thank you!).
Berkely Cafe, Raleigh’s home for live music since 1980, sits inside the former lobby of a small hotel that was built in 1915. Since 2015, it has transformed into an intimate space were folks not only soak up the sounds of live music, but also grab good food and drink. Stop in to enjoy a customized five-cheese grilled cheese, a juicy burger and fries or a signature cocktail from their full-service bar. In the evenings, catch folk and rock performances from up-and-coming performers and old pros on the cafe’s main stage. Just remember to keep your eyes peeled for the easily overlooked entrance right across from the big oak tree in Nash Square Park.
Come experience what a true neighborhood bar feels like. Hoppy Endings, both a full bar and bottle shop, boasts the largest collection of bourbon, whiskey and scotch in the Southeast. We’re talking 1,500-plus varieties! For the beer connoisseurs, there are more than 500 craft and specialist beers available as well as 17 beer taps in constant rotation to choose from. At Hoppy Endings, it’s easy to find a drink to appease just about every taste and budget. Saddle up to the bumper sticker-covered bar or grab a seat out on the outdoor patio and take a load off in a one-of-a-kind, relaxing atmosphere.
Looking for an authentic artisan bakery specializing in handcrafted European/Italian pastries and bake goods? Then head on over to Utica Bakery in Apex where you can nosh of everything from cream-filled cannoli and decadent cheesecake to warm soft breads and humble tomato pie. Everything here is baked fresh daily using old world techniques and fresh ingredients. The great customer service at Utica also has a certain old world charm. Local tip: Preorder by 6pm the day before or get there early to snag your favorite baked goodies.
Third Place should probably be one of the first places you think of when it comes to delectable dishes, delightful baristas, local art and handmade crafts. Set in a nondescript spot along Glenwood Ave., this offbeat oasis is begging to be discovered and enjoyed. Come relax with a cup of joe and a bite to eat while also enjoying the art, antiques and exotic décor of warmly-hued walls, rich red Oriental rugs and exotic glass lanterns.
NOFO @ the Pig has been recognized several times for having the best brunch in Raleigh, but its location set back from the main drag in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood can make it easy to miss for visitors. A shame since this combination café/food market/gift shop is visually vibrant, quirky and unique. Snag a reservation to be dazzled by delectable Southern fare and a quirky pig-themed dining room. Make sure to head upstairs before or after your meal to shop all things North Carolina and Southern.
Sunni Sky’s Ice Cream, the small-town ice cream hangout shop located about 20 minutes south of Raleigh in Angier, has a menu loaded with more than 90 flavors. With hours that stretch until 11pm seven days a week during the warmer months, the shop, along with the front porch and signature rocking chairs waiting outside, is nearly always packed (with a line that moves quicker than you'd expect thanks to a hustling staff). More than 120 homemade flavors are crammed onto the menu—Blueberry Cheesecake, Pumpkin Pie, Coconut Fudge, Sour Apple Sherbet and plenty more (ask to taste as many samples as you'd like, and they'll happily oblige). With super-low prices (it's just $4 for a triple cup or cone—cash only, by the way), it's no wonder why this ice cream parlor is a favorite for so many.
Stroll through the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park at the North Carolina Museum of Art to find the Cloud Chamber—a unique work of art that mixes fairy tale design with medieval technology to create the most unique space. Step inside and close the door to find the world gone topsy-turvy. Functioning as a camera obscura, a tiny pinhole in the chamber’s roof results in an inverted image of the outside world. The Cloud Chamber allows visitors to virtually walk among the clouds and the treetops using a technology that requires nothing but sunshine.
One look at this art piece, and you’ll immediately see that life in Garner is in full bloom. Every aspect of this mural by local artist Sean Kernick adorning the side of Full Bloom Coffee and Craft Cafe has vibrant energy from the native N.C. flora and fauna to the elements of Garner’s historic railroad heritage. Find it at 141 W. Main St., Garner.
In 2015, a storm blew over a massive oak tree in William B. Umstead State Park. But, instead of becoming firewood, the debris was transformed into a beautiful work of chainsaw art. Artists spent a week carving a series of animals, tree branches and leaves in the downed tree that lays off the Graylyn multi-use trail—one of six inside the park. This hidden treasure is a showstopper for park-goers and makes for the perfect Instagram photo opp. Read more about it here.
For an intimate encounter with the arts, catch a show at the Kennedy Theater. This 170-seat black box theater, discreetly tucked away behind Meymandi Concert Hall at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, provides performance space for innovative groups like Theatre Raleigh (whose 2020 show lineup includes Into the Breeches, Oh, What a Night! and Chicago). During every exceptional play and musical, you’ll feel less like a spectator and more like a part of the show. Local tip: Shows here are general admission, so get to the theater early for the best seat selection.
Did you know that Raleigh, N.C., is the first destination in North America to celebrate gaming culture and the esports lifestyle through a permanent art installation? Unveiled in 2021, “8-BIT TO 5G” celebrates Raleigh’s connection to esports and video gaming. Created by Raleigh native Taylor White, this augmented-reality mural adorns the side of the parking deck at 429 S. Wilmington St. A collage of shapes, characters and graphics, the mural showcases gaming history and the evolution of technology. It also acknowledges the Raleigh area’s love for video games and esports as well as its commitment to supporting the industry’s future.
When it comes to a classic movie-going experience, The Rialto wins hands down. With its retro movie marquis, large theater with Dolby sound, comfortable old-school rocker seats, friendly staff and ample concessions, the place is a veritable trip to a simpler time in cinema. Head on over to catch foreign and independent films as well as the Rocky Horror Picture Show, showing every Fri. at midnight.
Burning Coal prides itself on showcasing theatre that is experienced and not just seen. For more than 25 years, the company has provided a home for visceral live productions, guest playwrights and mind-blowing events. Billed as Raleigh’s small professional theater company, Burning Coal was built on a mission to bring more professional theatre to the southeastern United States. Today, the company showcases its performances at The Murphey School Auditorium, a dynamic theatre space with exposed brick, original architectural details and plenty of history, character and art. Grab tickets now for the 2021-22 season and experience the area’s best talent in gritty, explosive new versions of classics, modern classics and plays.
Seventy feet long and 17 feet tall, "Oliver"—the world's largest tobacco worm—was painted in late 2016 by artist Michael Brown across a building in downtown Wendell, commissioned by the town in order to pay homage to the town's tobacco heritage. Oliver can often be found wearing a hat depicting the current season, and you can find this mural at the corner of N. Cypress and W. 4th Sts. in downtown Wendell.
For many years, Saint Agnes was one of the few well-equipped hospitals for African Americans between New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and the only hospital serving blacks in N.C. up until 1960. Opened in 1909, the hospital was also the site of the state’s first nursing school for African American students. Portions of Saint Agnes remain standing today, and history buffs can view the condemned property from a safe distance and imagine the place as it once was.
Oakwood Cemetery, with its winding roads, glistening stream and towering oak trees, provides a tranquil final resting place for more than 28,000 residents. For 150 years now, the cemetery has told the stories of generations: families who formed Raleigh, soldiers who honored our country and the people of today who chose to rest among the historic oaks. It’s also an excellent example of Victorian landscaping and mortuary art.
As the only African-American house museum in the state, the Pope House 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.
Museum and family fun gems
Why just buy the milk when you can learn about milk production from start to finish as well? At the Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum, the non-farming public can get a brief education in the ways of the modern dairy farm. Tour the North Carolina State University Dairy Farm and let your children learn about dairy cows by playing with the museum’s interactive exhibits. At the end of the tour, visitors get to enjoy a sample of Howling Cow ice cream. Need to know: You'll need to schedule a tour in advance before visiting.
In the southwest corner of the Raleigh area is one of the area’s best-kept secrets for anyone interested in trains, history or just an off-the-beaten-path adventure. Dedicated to the preservation of railway history in N.C., the North Carolina Railway Museum offers visitors fascinating exhibits, including several vintage train cars, locomotives and a collection of historic memorabilia. Check out the gift shop, housed in a renovated rail car, to shop a variety of unique gifts and souvenirs. Local tip: The Railway Museum is also home to New Hope Valley Railway which offers one-hour excursion train rides on vintage equipment.
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. In late 2019, documents were uncovered that revealed the original house was likely painted a vivid red color, instead of the soft yellow that has been on display for many years (work to re-store the original color is in progress!). Guided tours are provided by costumed docents, with offerings that vary by season. See website for current details.
Dubbed the “best museum you haven’t been going to,” the Gregg Museum of Art & Design boasts a collection of more than 35,000 objects and artifacts from ceramics to photography to modern furniture. Additionally, the museum houses the largest collection of pieces by self-taught artists in N.C. Perched on the edge of the North Carolina State University campus, the museum is a work of art itself with its bright and airy lobby and terrace that overlooks the Rose Jackson and Evelyn Thiem Pollinator Garden. You won’t find a museum like the Gregg anywhere else, so it’s well worth the trip.
Popular with aviation enthusiasts of all ages, the RDU Observation Deck provides an expansive view of RDU International Airport's 10,000-foot runway. Watch in amazement as massive, metal birds taxi, take off and touch down right before your very eyes. Accessible via elevator as well as stairs, the elevated deck features educational displays on various types of planes and audio speakers where you can listen to pilot-tower communications. Smaller kids will love playing on the playground (complete with its own runway), and there are wheelchair-accessible picnic tables, bathrooms and free parking onsite.
Sassafras All Children’s Playground—the largest in the City of Raleigh park system—is a gem that’s accessible to all children including those with special needs. Located at Laurel Hills Park, the playground includes an elaborate wooden play structure of tunnels, bridges, towers, swings and rings built over soft sand. There’s also a 50-foot-long zipline, a basketball hoop and therapeutic, independent play elements to help build body strength.
Looking to visit a cool museum around an incredibly hot topic? Then check out the Raleigh Fire Museum which displays hundreds of artifacts and photographs presenting the story of firefighting in N.C.’s capital city. Learn about Raleigh's volunteer firemen of the 19th Century and the development of the career fire department that protects the city today. You can also view a variety of antique fire engines on display at the museum as well as other station locations throughout Raleigh. Local tip: The museum is typically only open to the public on the second Sat. of each month, from 10am-2pm.
Green and glamourous, the ZEN Succulent is where you’ll find unique gifts for those with a true green thumb. The neighborhood plant shop has recently taken root in downtown Raleigh but has specialized in unique greenery and handcrafted gifts since 2012. Drop by not just for the shopping, but also the workshopping where you can learn how to build modern terrariums and walk away with a creation of your very own.
Although it’s been voted one of the top gift shops in the Raleigh area, the Green Monkey is more commonly known as one of the best neighborhood bars in Raleigh. The fact that they sell craft beer and wine shouldn’t deter you from making a stop to browse their curated selection of souvenirs, quirky cards and unique gifts created by small makers from across the city, state and country. This hidden gem is a welcoming safe space chock full of goodies that keep customers coming back for more.
Whether it’s a stop along the way or the only stop of the day, leaving Escazú without a sweet treat is nearly impossible. Boasting their bean to bar chocolate, original ice cream flavors and hot chocolate bar for the cooler months, Escazú has been a sweet staple of the downtown community for more than a decade now.
Zest Cafe & Home Art offers a feast for your eyes, your palate and your artistic sensibilities. On one hand, it’s an inviting, casual restaurant serving an ever-changing menu of contemporary American fare made with locally-sourced ingredients. On the other, it’s an amazing boutique of colorful, sometimes cheeky home furnishings, art, accessories and more. As the perfect marriage between dining and shopping, Zest packs a lot of punch for customers lucky enough to stumble upon its modest location.
Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts. Menconi's latest book,... View More
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