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The city of Durham, NC, once a neglected town in the North Carolina Triangle is undergoing a transformation to rival that of Cinderella on the night of the ball.
When we lived in Raleigh back in 2004 whilst I was teaching in nearby Johnston County, Durham was a city we barely set foot in.
13 years later, it’s a city we can’t get our feet out of.
It’s a city known for sports, think Duke University and Durham Bulls, but now, out of the once abandoned streets, rise funky hotels, hip lounges, craft breweries, and award winning restaurants.
Durham is blossoming with urban funk, yet still retains much of its Southern charm, and history.
Innovative & Exciting Durham
What I love about Durham is that its focus is on local.
You won’t find too many high rises, or big corporations here, instead innovative start ups and restaurants and cafes independently owned with stories to tell.
Durham has always had an entrepreneurial spirit.
Black Wall Street in the early 1900’s was the thriving hub of African American business activity, one of the most prestigious Universities in the country (Duke), the Research Triangle Park (world’s biggest) and the American Tobacco Company call or called Durham home.
And the death of the tobacco industry was not going to keep this town in the shadows of its’ Triangle neighbors Raleigh and Chapel Hill for too long.
Culture, art and food is the new Durham blend – a much cleaner inhale exhale for you!
And now in the center of all the action and fun is DPAC, the Durham Performing Arts Center – soon to host the ever popular Broadway show, Hamilton (for a list of upcoming Durham events at DPAC go here.)
Durham, NC has a list of accolades such as:
- Most Creative City in the US (Movoto)
- Tastiest Town of the South (Southern Living)
- 3rd most Educated City in the US (forbest)
- and one of the Best Places to Travel in 2015 (Travel & Leisure)
We visit Durham all the time now as we have friends who live in nearby Duke Forest.
Each time we visit we learn something new about this city – one of the most exciting and interesting places we’ve discovered so far on our America Unplugged trip.
Things to do in Durham, North Carolina
Need insider tips on what to do in Durham?
We recently visited as guests of Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau to showcase the fun things to do in Durham NC and the best Durham activities with kids, in just 48 hours!
This is what we got up to.
Day 1. Wander Durham
Lunch at Guglhupf Bakery, Café & Restaurant
Guglhupf Bakery, Cafe & Restaurant is around the corner from our friends place, so was a recommendation we heard often from them. It was wonderful to finally sit down and eat.
The cafe has a good selection of sandwiches and entrees made from local and seasonal ingredients and prepared with a contemporary southern German Twist.
Line up for your schnitzel and reuben with sauerkraut.
Grab a seat outside on the sunny patio and admire the gorgeous building, artwork, waterfall features, and greenery. We enjoyed a fresh and tasty quinoa salad with chicken and the salmon.
You can grab some treats from the artisan bakery for your visit to the Duke Gardens. (lines can snake out to the parking lot here)
Read more reviews for Guglhupf Bakery here.
Visit Sarah P. Duke Gardens
In the West Campus of Duke University lies the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, recognized as one of the premier public gardens in the United States.
It’s a 55-acre public garden that features both wooded and landscaped areas. The garden is a memorial to Sarah Pearson Duke who was the wife of Benjamin N. Duke, a benefactor of Duke University.
There are five miles of trails and walks that wind their way through the garden, which is divided into four main areas.
Our kids loved the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden which displays, demonstrates and teaches about plants that provide people, animals, birds and insects with food and shelter.
We had a lovely impromptu lesson about the importance of bees and pollination here.
Don’t miss The Big Easy sculpture on the south lawn, made entirely from red maple and sweetgum saplings collected from Duke Forest.
It’s like a Stonehenge of woven twigs and is an enchanting playground for the kids to run in and out of the maze like structure.
Explore Duke University
Although we are mad University of North Carolina Tar Heel fans (Duke’s mega arch rivals 8 miles down the road), we urge you to pop on over to have a look at Duke University.
It was one of the first places I visited when I arrived in the US in 2004 and was when I first knew that I was in a place that was my home – it has that feel and presence!
Surprisingly though, I chose to support the UNC’s basketball team instead. You know, greatness and all that!
Back to Duke University, which is often referred to as the ‘Harvard of the South’ and is one of America’s most prestigious colleges.
It is definitely one of the most beautiful universities I’ve wondered through with it’s gothic inspired buildings and . Spend time roaming the grounds to admire the beauty of it.
If you can’t get tickets to a Duke game (near impossible) and are looking for things to do in Durham, North Carolina that involve Duke, pop into the Duke Basketball Museum & Sports Hall of Fame.
Located adjacent to famous Cameron Indoor Stadium, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the history and strength of Duke Basketball – 5 time National Champs.
Whilst there take a peak inside of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Walk the outer corridor and take in all the history.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated rated Cameron Indoor Stadium fourth on a list of the top 20 sporting venues in the world in the 20th Century, and USA Today referred to it as “the toughest road game in the nation.”
Duke Chapel on West Campus is an example of neo-Gothic architecture and is an awe-inspiring structure that inspires a sense of wonder.
It’s constructed of volcanic stone from a quarry in Hillsborough, North Carolina (known as Hillsborough bluestone) and features huge stone piers, ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and flying buttresses.
Originally built as a house of worship for Methodist Protestant’s, the Chapel now has areas for Catholic prayers and for Jewish, Buddhist, and other spiritual beliefs.
Indulge in Ice Cream at The Parlour
There’ s a story behind so many of Durham’s local businesses.
With The Parlour, it all began with Yoni and Vanessa Mazuz serving their handmade ice cream in a modified pink-painted mini school bus all over the triangle.
In 2013, they opened up a permanent location downtown funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The long lines out the door resulted in an expansion of the space in 2014.
You know that sounds like ice cream you want to line up for?
Their delicious flavours are made from local farmers whenever they can and are rotated to match the seasons giving you unique flavors like:
- orange spice cake
- goat cheese
- coriander and girl scout mint
The Parlour always offer vegan options, including fruit sorbets and creamy flavors made from coconut milk. AND gluten free cones!!
Plus, they are committed to paying their workers a living wage, giving back to the community, and creating happiness through ice cream.
I was sure happy! My Vietnamese coffee and pistachio crunch was delicious. The girls loved their cookies and cream too – their ice cream standard.
Wander around the American Tobacco Historic District
Take your ice cream and walk down to the American Tobacco District, one of the most historical places to visit in Durham.
This area of Durham, NC was formerly the headquarters of the American Tobacco Company and the Lucky Strike Cigarette Factory. It was abandoned in the late 80’s when American Tobacco (the backbone of Durham economy) left.
It’s now been redeveloped into a live, work, play district know as the American Tobacco Historic Campus.
It consists of 17 historic structures that house the Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, a radio station, culinary school, documentary theater, shops, restaurants and bars, and even has a man-made river.
The rustic factories and red-brick warehouses make it a lovely space to walk around.
You’ll see people playing basketball in The Cage and in the warmer months laying around on the grass under the iconic Lucky Strike smokestack listening to live music on the stage.
Burt Bees also has its headquarters here
The founder, Burt Shavitz’s rustic cabin from Maine was relocated here to honor his life.
Peer into the window to see the life Burt lived in the woods of Maine. It’s a reminder that the Bee Man taught us to never lose sight of our relationship to nature”.
The District also houses The American Underground which launched in 2010 and is becoming the counter-story to Silicon Valley.
It’s creating a diverse startup scene rich in innovative ideas and deep city engagement. Today, it supports 275+ startups across four locations and has been dubbed the “Startup Capital of the South.”
Durham is for doers and innovators and it’s bringing an exciting and vibrant air to the city.
Dinner at Pompieri Pizza
One of the best things to do in Durham, North Carolina is eat. And if you love pizza you’ll love it here.
Located in the historic Fire Station Number One building in the heart of Downtown Durham, Pompieri Pizza is an ode to the buildings original heroes.
Pompieri is Italian for Firefighters.
The interior has casual elegance with a large seating area inside and an outside area perfect for kids and warmer nights. Pay attention to the goldfish swimming in large tanks that supply water to hydroponically grown basil as you enter the restaurant.
You just know good pizza is on the way, dished up by fast and attentive service.
Pompieri’s is known for it’s authentic Neapolitan handmade and wood fired pizzas using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible.
There’s some innovation happening here with pizzas called The Pork Belly and Drunken Horse.
We loved the lamb special:
- Fresh Garlic + Oil Base
- House Smoked Local Lamb Loin
- Goat Cheese with Rosemary & Chili Flake
- finished with Charred Scallions and a Balsamic Lamb Reduction
and the BC Pie
- Roasted garlic base
- portobello mushrooms
- caramelised onions and rosemary
- goat cheese &sicilian olive oil
We paired it wonderfully with the fresh kale salad and finished with some gelato and panna cotta!
We loved that the pizzas came with scissors instead of pizza cutters!
And no pizza is better served then with a glass of wine noted for its “Yummy” flavours. You had me at Yummy and it was. Or, you can pair it with a beer from the Bull City Burger brewery next door.
Plus, you’ve got gluten free and vegan pizza options here! If you want a bit of pizza porn, check out their Instagram account.
Read more excellent reviews of Pompieri here.
Day 2. Natural fun in Durham
Tour the Duke Lemur Center
I am embarrassed to say I thought lemurs were just of the King Julian kind.
Within the first two minutes of visiting the Duke Lemur Center in Durham I learned that there are actually over 90 different species, including sub-species.
I also learned that Hollywood got it completely wrong (again) as King Julian really should be Queen Julie as the lemur family is matriarchal.
All the more reason to love these delightfully cute primates.
The Duke Lemur Center has 250 lemurs (21 species), which is more lemurs in the world outside their native Madagascar.
You’ll be happy to know that this is a research center which focuses on behavioral sand social research.
The lemurs are taken care of and many programs are implemented to help endangered lemurs, with especially useful programs like teaching local villagers in Madagascar sustainable farming practices for reliable food sources.
You learn all of this and more on an engaging tour through the facilities. The girls especially loved pretending to be a lemur with their delightful sideways gait and the cute Aye-Aye in the nocturnal area.
You must have a reservation to visit the Duke Lemur Center. The center offers nine different tour types catering to a variety of ages, interests and budgets.
Tours sometimes book out two weeks in advance so reserve your spot early.
I’d grab an early lunch before you head out to the Museum of Life & Science (details below).
The museum has the Sprout Cafe, and the food is fairly decent for a museum cafe (it is Durham after all) but I think there are more exciting food options to experience in Durham, if you have the time.
A few places we love:
- Bull City Burger & Brewery – prepare for delicious, healthy and well priced burgers. Grab a craft brew to match your beer. Bull City is the sister restaurant to Pompieri Pizza.
- Luna Rotisserie & Empanadas – excellent Southern American cuisine.
- Happy + Hale – on Ninth Street (Plenty of affordable places to eat on this street popular with students).
Museum of Life & Science
If you’re looking for fun and educational things to do in Durham, North Carolina as a family? Go here!
It’s one of the most popular Durham attractions for kids. And you know a museum must be great if you end up spending six hours in it. So unlike our family.
The Museum of Life & Science in Durham is all about play and interaction – inside and out.
There are over 84 acres of amazing outdoor exhibits which includes a two-story science center and gorgeous outdoor exhibits that are safe havens for rescued black bears, lemurs, and endangered red wolves.
The biggest hit for our girls were the handcrafted tree houses connected by rope bridges.
They also liked digging for fossils in the dinosaur section and chasing butterflies in one of the largest butterfly conservatories on the East Coast.
And the walk around the grounds on the boardwalk is gorgeous.
Once we entered inside, we learned a lot about astronauts and outer space and building machines in the forces and motion room. Perfect homeschool experience to learn and spark the imagination!
Go to a Durham Bulls Game
If you are visiting during baseball season, one of the best things to do in Durham, North Carolina is go to a Durham Bulls baseball game.
The Bulls are a Triple-A minor league baseball team that currently plays in the International League.
Durham Athletic Park was built in 1994 so it’s modern and fun-filled. All seats have pretty good views and you can walk around bar hopping or to watch the game from different angles.
As for kids, there is plenty of entertainment and a cool kid zone section set up for the kids to shoot basketballs, run through mazes and jump around.
The stadium even has it’s own craft brewery, Bull Durham Beer Company. It’s the only brewery in the country based in a minor league baseball park.
For Durham Bull Games they have promotions such as $2 Taco Tuesday, $1 concessions on Thursday nights and Friday night Fireworks, which is what we experienced.
Dinner at Dame’s Chicken and Waffles
Dame’s Chicken and Waffles is a Durham institution.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding how this unusual food pairing came about.
The most prominent story is that to satisfy hungry party goers in the jazz scene of Harlem, a popluar venue serving southern cuisine, Wells Supper Club, created a late night/early morning dish pairing left over chicken from dinner with their sweet breakfast waffles.
We could not try them because of our gluten free requirements, but Savannah sure gobbled it up with BACON. And our friend’s vouch for its awesomeness, especially the flavored butters known as shmears.
They do have gluten free options and we enjoyed a meal of blackened salmon and delicious side of collard greens – southern style!
Alternatively, we loved Tyler’s Taproom in the Tobacco District.
Day 3. Experience an Artsy Morning
Breakfast at Elmo’s Diner
A Durham breakfast institution is Elmo’s Diner on Ninth Street.
It’s a casual, kid friendly restaurant with an extensive menu. Breakfast is served all day!
Coffee and Churros at Cocoa Cinnamon, Lakewood
We can’t write about things to do in Durham, North Carolina without indulging in coffee.
What began on a bike riding around the streets offering coffee to workers and farmer’s market addicts, has now turned into three popular Downtown cafes, each with their own distinctive Cocoa Cinnamon flavors and offering.
But each cafe has one thing in common – great coffee and a wonderful story to tell. Espresso, coffee and chocolate are available at all three shops, with churros only available at the Lakewood location!
Just like The Parlour, owners Leon and Areli Barrera de Grodksi are making a large community impact with a living wage guarantee of all staff and by using local and sustainable ingredients.
Cocoa Cinnamon operated on the idea that coffee, chocolate and tea are age old lubricants for ideas, so has cultivated a space in which diversity of ideas and backgrounds are celebrated and fostered.
We visited the Lakewood location of Cocoa Cinnamon Cafe, a community chosen for its ethnic diversity and the offerings in this cafe are inspired by classic churrerias and street vendors in Mexico and with subtle allusions to Andalusia, North Africa, and Sicily.
Cocoa Cinnamon’s third location is a vibrant and beautiful space.
Whimsical umbrellas hang from the ceiling and colorful patterned tables showcase the cafe’s Mexican influence.
The original coffee bike stands near the counter as an espresso bar and there is a micro-roastery where Cocoa Cinnamon will roast its own beans under the name 4th Dimension Coffee, sourcing them only from importers who buy direct from growers.
Signature drinks are created based upon stories in history and flavour characters that make them up.
Dr Durham is a drink that honor’s Durham’s namesake and the doctors who made the early medicinal root tonics. Dr Durham donated land for the train station which later became the area Durham.
With this latte you’ll find slightly frothier micro-foam with homemade vanilla topped with macca root powder, ginger root powder and black lava salt.
All syrups are made in house and the chocolate is made in the style of Modica in Sicily (a cultural melting pot), which comes from the ancient Aztecs secret recipe.
I highly recommend the La Frida, a nod to the prominent Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo.
This latte brings together elements of spice, mole (homemade chocolate sauce) and topped with rose petals.
Smooth and with a hint of rich chocolate, this latte was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. I’m ready to return for another.
And the kids enjoyed their hot chocolates.
Cocoa Cinnamon in Lakewood Durham is my favourite cafe of the year for its innovation, diversity, attention to detail, vibrancy, community feel and amazing coffee.
While we sadly could not partake in the famous churros (gluten free requirements) we did enjoy a delicious affogatos with icecream from The Parlour!
The Scrap Exchange
You wouldn’t think a thrift store would make the list of things to do in Durham, but Durham’s creative resource center is a little different.
The Scrap Exchange is a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote creativity, environmental awareness and community through reuse.
One of the founders, Chris Rosenthal is an Australian and the The Scrap Exchange was modeled on an Australian organization Reverse Garbage Truck. Woop Woop.
The Scrap Exchange is now a model for creating effective reuse centers around the world.
The center contains a retail store, and art gallery, a design center that hosts classes, and more.
To stop gentrification in its place, The Scrap Exchange purchased the northern end of the Lakewood Shopping Center which they will turn into a Reuse Arts District (RAD).
RAD will be a multi-faceted cultural, environmental, historical, recreation and community-based destination.
Rad alright! I told you Durham was innovative, local and cool!
For $5 you can enjoy some self-directed creativity in the Make N Take room, where budding artists can use recycled materials to create works of art.
Our girls had a wonderful time creating a water park. They demonstrated excellent team work and problem solving skills.
Where to Stay in Durham NC
The King’s Daughters Inn
Looking for boutique hotels in Durham NC? Then consider staying in a historical building at The King’s Daughters Inn.
We enjoyed our stay here. It has an ideal location near Duke East campus, the popular 9th avenue and downtown.
The King’s Daughter’s Inn is in a handsome brick building that dates form the 1920’s. Formerly a retirement home for elderly women, it’s now been renovated and converted into a boutique hotel.
It offers the class and amenities of a first class-hotel with the intimacy and warmth of a B&B.
Each floor has a different color scheme and painted designs on the wall and each room is individually styled and tastefully decorated.
We stayed in the spacious Farthing suite decorated in restrained neutrals – warm grey, black, and cream textured and contrasting patterns. It was comfortable and relaxing. The girls slept on a pull out sofa in the living area.
High on my radar for our next overnight stay are the following trendy hotels in downtown Durham.
The location puts you in easy walking distance to the hottest Durham restaurants and close to DPEC and the trendy Tobacco Warehouse District.
The rise of these three relatively new hotels speaks to the growth that Durham is experiencing.
What do you do with a mid-century motor lodge making the downtown look a little bland?
Revamp it to be a vintage cultural hub for the vibrant community. Unscripted blew me away with its funky elegance. It’s a hotel to get excited about.
The parking garage and hotel entry (and stairwell) is covered in art from hand-picked street artists. It makes you immediately pay attention and feel good.
Graffiti and typography are on the walls of the lobby, which is tastefully decorated to honor the 1960 lodge but with modern twist.
I love the welcome mats at the doors reminding you to have fun and the rooftop pool and retro inspired patio has an unscripted whitewashed style and grace.
Not to mention the incredible views!
The lobby and rooftop patio are open to the public in addition to guests, making this space just as much about local community as it is visitors.
The rooftop patio will regularly host movie nights, live music and pool parties.
The Durham Hotel
A mid-century modern classic boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Durham. The design is colorful and chic.
There’s also a restaurant by a James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing and a rooftop bar (the first in Durham), open to the public and very popular with visitors and locals for its panoramic Durham views. It was the first rooftop bar.
Hotel guests also get free access to rooftop yoga classes! Hello Mommy’s time out.
21 C Museum Hotel
Once the SunTrust Bank, this restored building is now a 125-room boutique hotel was and doubles as a contemporary art museum.
It’s eclectic and inspiring design and museum adds to the innovative and exciting spirit of Durham..
The museum portion of the hotel is open to the public with plenty of art work on the walls. Be sure to head all the way down to the lower level and enjoy the old bank vault, which has been converted into a mini lounge.
The kids will love the secret passageway granting them access to run around the vault in the dark nark barrow hall.
Be sure to pop your head in the elevator to see a few penguin friends in there. I hope they haven’t gone!
Getting to Durham
One of my favorite things about living in the Raleigh Durham NC area is the easy access to the airport (RDU).
It’s not unusual to breeze straight through check in and security in 10 minutes. RDU airport is an easy 20-minute drive to Durham. Unless you’re traveling in peak times you won’t experience any traffic at all.
You can rent a car from the airport here.
If you are driving, Durham is right off the I-40, or I-85.