Okay, so this post has been a long time coming – like 14 years coming! Not sure why it’s taken us awhile to write a post on our favorite things to do in Raleigh, NC, but here it is.
Long time readers will know we discovered our soul home here in Raleigh in 2004 after randomly being placed to teach at a school near here with an international teaching program called Participate Learning.
Since then, we’ve fought long and hard to find a way to live here permanently, which we achieved with the granting of our Green Cards this year, thanks to this travel blog!
It’s incredible how many people now want to visit Raleigh because we’ve raved about it for so long.
I mean, if an Australian family who have traveled to over 50 countries, lived in 5 countries, and could chose almost anywhere in the world to live, chose here, it must be pretty good right?
Well, we love it. You may or may not, but that’s okay. Just be sure you say hi to us when you visit and put this list of cool and fun things to do in Raleigh NC on your itinerary!
Where is Raleigh, NC?
Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina and the second-largest city in the state after Charlotte. Known as the City of Oaks for its abundant oak trees lining the streets, it also has the ubiquitous pine trees filling its parks and forest and bordering lakes.
I said to the girls the other day, “I feel like I’m living in a forest in Raleigh” and when you fly into Raleigh-Durham International Airport you will see for yourself!
It’s an approachable, walk-able, lovable city that is both cutting-edge and cool filled with a youthful vibrancy and entrepreneurial, welcoming spirit.
If you don’t know what to do in Raleigh, in this post we share with you our local Raleigh highlights. These are the places, Raleigh attractions, restaurants, cafes, and bars we take all our visiting friends and family too.
These are all the unique things to do in Raleigh that gives it a vibrant, local vibe.
This is not a city where you’ll find endless attractions like you would in New York or Los Angeles. This is a place that is about community and experiencing a richness of culture through food, music, and live events in a setting that is picturesque.
It has a beautiful blend of urban and rural for me, although as it gains in popularity the urban side is quickly overtaking the rural.
For even more tips on things to do in Raleigh NC and in-depth content, reviews, and highlights, check out our new website, ThisIsRaleigh.com where we also share our favorite getaways from Raleigh for the local readers.
You can grab our uniquely Raleigh checklist over there as well.
Lake Johnson Nature Park
Lake Johnson Park comprises more than 300-acres of land surrounding the 150-acre lake. There’s a lovely paved three-mile greenway loop walk around the lake, plus a separate two miles of unpaved trail.
There’s also a 700-foot-long boardwalk across the lake, a boat house, small beach area, and picnic shelters.
Its our favorite lake in Raleigh and we think one of the best things to do in Raleigh for those that love nature!
When we first moved to Raleigh we lived on this lake and it was a lifesaver for afternoon de-stress walks after a hard day teaching.
Now we love to go paddle boarding on Lake Johnson!
Umstead State Park
If you love nature trails through the forest, biking, trail running, picnicking, camping, canoeing, and horseback riding, then don’t miss Umstead with its more than 5,000 acres of forest.
This is North Carolina’s most visited state park and the best of the parks in Raleigh.
It’s a natural oasis surrounding three man-made lakes and located just 15-minutes from downtown Raleigh with easy access from I-40 and I-70.
Dorethea Dix Park
Dorothea Dix Park is Raleigh’s largest city park, and right on the edge of downtown. The 308-acre site blends historic architecture and rich landscapes into a unique destination in the heart of Raleigh.
It’s the place to enjoy the wide-open fields, rolling meadows and shady tree groves for picnics, solitude, festivals, events, and city views – especially at sunset.
Live Music at an Outdoor Venue
My favorite outdoor music venue in Raleigh is Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary.
Picture this, sitting on a picnic blanket in the forest beside a lake to the tunes of Jack Johnson. Best concert ever! Yes, we saw him here back in 2004. A few years later again at the much larger Music Park at Walnut Creek (another great live music venue).
Koka Booth is just so pretty and serene. They also have nighttime movies and festivals throughout the year.
Red Hat Amphitheater right downtown is also a great venue and gets beautiful sunset colors in the sky at night.
Favorite Coffee Shops in downtown Raleigh
Raleigh’s cafe scene is getting better, but still limited for truly great coffee (growing up in Australia we were spoiled for choice).
So we tend to stick to a few favorites and take all our friends there.
Located in the Warehouse District, Heirloom is a specialty coffee shop, premium tea house, and sake bar with an Asian-inspired menu and aesthetics.
The wood slat ceiling, pink chairs, green foliage and large windows create a bright, sleek venue.
It’s located around the corner from our co-working spaces so we are regular visitors. They have the best lattes in Raleigh, which is best paired with their gluten free mochi donuts!
From the coffee, to the cafe vibe, to the location and their food offerings, Jubala is our second go-to coffee shop in Raleigh.
It’s located across the road from NC State University so has a college like atmosphere with students madly typing at their computers.
Everything is made to order from their specialty coffees to their waffles and breakfast biscuits.
The girls go crazy for their banana nutella waffles
The Morning Times
The Morning Times is another of our favorite Raleigh coffee shops and one we’ve been going to for years, and a staple coffee shop with the locals.
We like to sit at one of the tables in the space upstairs that has a cozy laid-back atmosphere and also doubles as a mini art gallery. Or sit at one of their tables on the sidewalk in the sun.
If it’s busy and there’s nowhere to sit, its location in the heart of downtown Raleigh also makes it a perfect place to grab-and-go and explore downtown on foot whilst sipping on your cup of Joe!
Other coffee shops we like:
- 42 & Lawrence
- Sir Walter Coffee
- Black & White Roasters (inside Videri Chocolate Factory)
Favorite Places to Eat in Raleigh
The food scene is just so good in Raleigh and continues to get better, and most people who visit Raleigh come for the culinary scene!
Some of the best chefs in the country have moved here and restaurants such as Heirloom Brewshop and Benchwarmer Bagels have recently been included on best new restaurants in America.
You’ll have to check out our post on 50+ essential places to eat in Raleigh for ideas to suit all taste buds.
Sadly, our two favorite restaurants we take everyone to have had recent scandals and we’re unwilling to support them at this time.
Wye Hill Kitchen and Brewing
Wye Hill is also a brewery and our favorite place to eat and drink in Raleigh. We have somewhat of an attachment to it as it was once Boylan Bridge Brewery, one of the only breweries in the city.
And we have many happy memories drinking here with friends, admiring the Raleigh skyline views, and dreaming of one day being able to live here forever.
In 2019, it was taken over by husband and wife team Chris Borreson and Sara Abernethy and turned into Wye Hill.
The awesome views are still the same, but the outdoor patio is now covered, the beer is even better and matched with delicious mezcal cocktails, and outstanding food. In fact, I’d say it has some of the best food in the country.
Every meal, I take a bite and spend some time contemplating how on earth they could even know to create a dish with flavors like that and have every single bite speak to you.
How can you make broccoli taste like the best thing ever, I’ll have another plateful please?
I don’t even know what it is a fusion of – excellence, innovation, cultural diversity. It’s an enigma.
This is ‘old school Raleigh’. Irregardless Cafe has been a Raleigh staple since 1975 as the city’s first vegetarian restaurant.
But it offers so much more, including meat and seafood dishes and a kids menu. What we love about this restaurant is that’s there’s something to eat for everyone, and if you love a good brunch, it’s one of the most popular brunch spots in Raleigh!
We love the strong sense of bringing the whole community to the table here vibes, the healthy and innovative meals (and good portions too), served up in a fun atmosphere with artsy and eclectic decor and live music in the background.
Morgan Street Food Hall
Morgan Street Food Hall is in the thriving Warehouse District and the first of its kind in Raleigh – 22,000 square feet of space inside a repurposed warehouse.
20 different food concepts showcasing local eateries housed in food stalls or free-standing kiosks. Lively atmosphere and a popular place for the community to hang out. There’s something for everyone!
Don’t miss Mimosa weekends with $15 buckets of champagne and the burgers from Cowbar Burger are a Makepeace favorite!
Located on the edge of the Warehouse District across from historic Nash Square, Parkside is a retro-industrial restaurant serving traditional American comfort food and filling Southern dishes the locals love!
You get character and charm from the warm red brick and reclaimed barn wood clad bar, 25+ draft beers, and personable service.
Consider their chicken and waffle sandwich, the prime rib, or their station burger is awesome too! Parkside is another popular brunch spot in Raleigh!
Other Raleigh restaurants we love include:
- The Fiction Kitchen (vegetarian/vegan)
- Big Ed’s City Market (Southern breakfast)
- Oakwood Pizza Box (best pizza in Raleigh)
- The Pit (BBQ)
- Lilly’s Pizza
- Hayes Barton Cafe (classic Raleigh staple – incredible cakes)
- MoJoe’s Burger Joint
- Boulted Bread (bakery)
- Whiskey Kitchen (Southern/American)
- Second Empire Restaurant & Tavern (fine dining)
- See the full list of best restaurants in Raleigh here.
Our favorite Breweries in Raleigh (so far)
When we first moved to Raleigh there were only a handful of craft breweries in and around the city.
Since then it has grown to over 30 breweries and quickly gaining popularity across the USA for its brews, as well as receiving international recognition for a top craft brew destination.
We haven’t even checked off half the breweries because we keep going back to these ones. Remember to leave your favorite in the comments.
Besides eating, one of the best things to do in Raleigh is brewery hop around the city – there’s a Raleigh Beer Trail, and if you visit Raleigh during spring, don’t miss the Brewgaloo Festival, it’s one of the top Raleigh things to do related to beer!
Wye Hill Kitchen and Brewery
Even if you don’t eat here, come for their brews and then stay for the incredible views of the downtown Raleigh skyline.
On their drinks menu is refreshing craft beers, signature cocktails, and wine. There’s a casual fun atmosphere that’s perfect for a group of friends or a date.
They have indoor seating and a lounge area and a bar. But their outdoor patio has to be one of the best places in Raleigh to sit and have a drink and overlook the skyline!
Bond Brothers Beer Company
Named best new brewery in America by USA Today in 2017, I can stand by this 100%. I’m gluten free, and Bond Brothers is the only beer I test those dangerous waters with.
They brew exceptional high-quality artisanal beers – mostly ales and sours. I’ve never had one that I didn’t like. They are also one of the few breweries that have gluten free beer.
It’s a popular local hangout with its beer garden and annual events like the Mid-town Square Summer Fest and the Guinness Book of Records 1km Flip flop run which we participated in.
It’s also in Cary, a five-minute drive from our house.
Watch: The Flip Flop World Record
Raleigh Beer Garden
With over 400 craft beers on tap – a Guinness Book of Records – this is the place to come if you are a beer lover. I love it as they have so many options for tasty ciders.
Most Raleigh breweries or bars in the city have horrid options like Angry Orchard – Miller’ Lite’s best friend.
Raleigh Beer Garden is a 8,500-square-foot venue spanning three levels, each dedicated to a different location brews, i.e. state vs international.
I also love their beer garden – it’s enormous and with their colorful umbrellas, combi van bar, and white pebbles you’ll think you have been whisked away to an oceanside tiki bar.
Cotton House Brewery
Another brewery in Cary close to our home is one of my favorites Cotton House Brewery. I love this, not so much for the brew – which Craig says is good but not as good as some others – but for its ambiance and setting.
Cotton House is housed in The Pasmore House, built circa 1900, which was originally a boarding facility for the first Cary High School student.
Choose your mood: Southern rocking chairs on the front porch, cozy table fireside in the living room, beer garden table or spacious back deck overlooking the corn hole games in the backyard.
They also have fun events like a Comedy Night, Craig and I enjoyed on a date night, and an annual Halloween Party.
Strangely, one of the breweries we haven’t physically spent time at yet is Trophy Brewing & Pizza, but Craig thinks they possibly make his favorite beers.
Other Raleigh breweries worthy of a pint:
- Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewery
- Crank Arm
- Lynwood Brewing Concern
- Clouds Brewing
- Raleigh Brewing Company
- Big Boss
- State of Beer (bottle shop, gourmet sandwiches)
Our Favorite Bars in Raleigh
Back in 2004, pre-kids you would find us bar hopping on Glenwood Ave every weekend. It was the place to go. It was pretty much the ONLY place to go.
Raleigh has blossomed with options since then and you’ll find great bars all over the city and the smaller neighborhoods.
We rarely go to Glenwood Ave anymore as it’s more for the younger crowd and we’re just not that way anymore!!
Watts & Ward
My personal trainer recommended Watts & Ward to take my girlfriend who was visiting from Australia.
We had walked past the dingy doorway entrance underground protected by bouncers on multiple occasions wondering what seediness was done there.
Kimmy and I walked down into the hallway expecting to see one room, and then it opened up to one classy room of leather seating, vintage artwork, rustic tables, dim lighting and bookshelves full of history, which lead to another, and then another, and then right down the end another secret room where Jazz music was playing.
And there was a beer garden. It’s enormous and full of class and fantastic cocktails.
It’s a very cool place founded upon the underground spirit of 1920s America. Looking for things to do in downtown Raleigh at night, don’t miss this bar!
Another of our favorite bars in Raleigh that also does excellent and inventive Southern food in a great location on the edge of the Warehouse District.
Whiskey Kitchen is part whiskey bar, part Southern kitchen featuring a beautiful open space and hip venue with over 300 whiskies and craft cocktails.
We love the repurposed industrial feel and and atmosphere here. Inside are tables, couches and bar seats – and you can’t miss the impressive mural behind the bar.
During the warmer month’s, there’s a garage door that opens to the outside patio which is great, and they have heated lamps for the chilly weather.
Come try a whiskey flight, plus there’s great beer options, wine and cocktails – a fun place for couples or with a group of friends!
The Raleigh Times
This is a timeless watering hole and was named after the former newspaper that occupied this 100 year old building with multiple levels and an open rooftop.
The Raleigh Times would be the most famous of the Raleigh bars – even Obama had a campaign beer here – and they serve a great selection of local craft beers and Belgian beers, plus quality American pub grub.
Come chat over a few pints whilst taking in the historic building vibes and memorabilia on display!
Walk down from Watts and Wards on E. Hargett St and look for the green light above the doorway to the Architect Bar.
If it is on, you can make your way upstairs and try to find your way into this speakeasy located in a former architect’s office.
I don’t want to spoil the fun of finding the entrance for you, so I won’t tell you how to get in to the Greenlight Bar.
Once you figure it out, you’ll enter a room big enough for about 30 people —the bar is clad with reclaimed wood, vinyl records play in the corner, and elaborate craft cocktails like the Eastern Medicine and Smooth Mamba await.
Thrillist named the Greenlight one of the “23 Best Secret Bars in the World.”
The Player’s Retreat
The Players Retreat (or PR as the locals call it) is one of the storied sports bars in Raleigh and a true landmark for NC State students and alumni.
Established in 1951, this is the oldest continuously operating tavern between Atlanta and Washington D.C.
Located near NC State University’s north campus off Hillsborough st, you’ll be drinking (and eating) with an eclectic mix of people.
This is the kind of local neighborhood bar I like to find when we travel – old school sports bar with booths, bar stools, tables on the sidewalk, pool tables, and lots of TV screens for sports.
And the PR boasts the largest collection of single malts in North Carolina!
Other cool Raleigh bars we like:
- The Haymaker (killer cocktails)
- Dram & Draught (whiskey bar + beer, cocktails)
- Fox Liquor Bar (underground – inventive cocktails)
- C. Grace (cocktails & jazz)
- Carolina Ale House (sports bar)
- Vita Vite (wine bar)
As for pubs, our fave would be The London Bridge Pub right downtown for a good crowd and some English Premier League or World Cup Football (soccer).
Explore Historic Raleigh Neigborhoods
Raleigh has several historic neighborhoods in and around downtown, and one of our favorite things to do is explore them on foot or drive through slowly.
You will see charming and beautifully restored Southern homes, plus craftsman bungalows, Queen Anne/Colonial Revivals and Dutch Colonials sitting along oak tree lined streets.
Some of our favorite neighborhoods include:
- Historic Oakwood – dates all the way back to the 1800’s that rose after the Civil War.
- Boylan Heights -one of Raleigh’s first planned suburbs.
- Mordecai – Raleigh’s oldest neighborhood.
- Cameron Park – one of Raleigh’s most attractive family neighborhoods.
- Hayes Barton – built in the 1920’s in the post World War I era.
Things to Do with Kids in Raleigh
If you’re looking for fun things to do with kids in Raleigh, one place we’ve been going to since we first moved here with kids in 2008 is Pullen Park.
Located next to NC State University on 66 acres of land, this is the first public park in North Carolina, and the 5th oldest operating amusement park in the U.S. and 16th oldest in the world.
What our kids like to do here is rent a pedal boat, ride the carousel and miniature train, and run free on the playgrounds.
We’ve also had many a picnic and grill out here on the open grass area or under the large picnic shelters.
Marbles Kids Museum
When our kids were younger, they enjoyed going to Marbles Kids Museum in the Moore Square district of downtown.
There’s two levels of kid-focused museum activities with dozens of hands-on exhibits and the state’s only 3D-capable IMAX theater.
So if you have kids 10 year and under, I would suggest this as one of the best things to do in Raleigh with kids.
Videri Chocolate Factory
If you’re kids love chocolate (who doesn’t) then one of the cool things to do in Raleigh with kids is visit the Videri Chocolate factory.
In “normal” times you can tour the fully-operational factory and retail space on a self-guided tour and witness all the chocolate-making from start to finish. Sample some chocolates, then take home your favorite bar!
They also have soft serve ice cream, and the attached cafe has an outdoor patio and serves up great coffee by Black & White coffee roasters!
Raleigh has been referred to as the “Smithsonian of the South” because of the quality and the amount of free museums in Raleigh.
North Carolina Museum of Art
The North Carolina Museum of Art is one of the most popular Raleigh attractions, and admission is free!
Th Raleigh art museum has more than a dozen gallery spaces showcasing art from around the world. You can self-explore, take an engaging tour, and see performing arts.
Our favorite thing here is taking a stroll through the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, a 164-acre park and trail system through natural areas featuring commissioned works of art.
And if you time it right, see the amazing sunflower field!
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
The Museum of Natural Sciences is North Carolina’s most visited museum and the Southeast’s largest natural history museum. It’s one of the most popular things to do in downtown Raleigh.
The museum has over 4 floors of exhibits featuring live animals, education and research centers, and so much more. If you love natural history and sciences.
North Carolina Museum of History
Located right next the natural sciences museum, the Museum of History was founded in 1902 and welcomes more than 400,000+ visitors a year, including 80,000+ school groups.
On display is 14,000 years and 150,000 artifacts of North Carolina history, from a full-size replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer to the lunch counter from a 1960 sit-in in Salisbury, and much more.
Where to Stay in Raleigh
Looking for the best hotels in Raleigh for your stay in the city of oaks?
Check out our guide on our Raleigh blog. We’ve hand-picked the 7 best downtown Raleigh hotels that are perfect for business or pleasure.
Favorite Places Near Raleigh
There are many awesome places to visit near Raleigh. We’re including a few of our favorites here as it’s where we’d take our family and friends.
Wrightsville Beach is our favorite beach destination in the USA for its laid back small town surfie vibe which is so like our home Australia.
At just a two hours drive, it’s one of the best day trips from Raleigh but we recommend staying a few days and visit nearby Wilmington too which we love!
We share more about it in these two posts:
Attend a Durham Bulls Game
We love to go out to Durham to watch the iconic Durham Bulls play to watch the minor league games each baseball season.
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.
It’s a cheap, fun family night out.
Durham is only 30 minutes from Raleigh and a worthy destination. We have you covered with this 48 itinerary of things to do in Durham.
See a Game at UNC – Chapel Hill
Any devout college basketball fan knows of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) – it’s where Michael Jordan went to college!
They probably also know about the legendary thing to do here – jump over the bonfires on Franklin St after a national championship win – checked that off our USA bucket list twice, ha ha. Go Tar Heels!
Yep, we’re big fans. We love Chapel Hill, this college town. We have a post here on things to do in Chapel Hill.
Simply. Go see a live college basketball or football game. We also love to go and watch the women’s soccer.
Be sure to eat and drink at the Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery (TOPO). Especially on game day if you can get in. Enjoy an Old Well White craft beer wile overlooking Franklin Street.
The university is an exceptionally beautiful campus to wander through.
Okay, our arch rival Duke University just 8-miles from Chapel Hill way in Durham also is worth walking through. Their Gothic style campus is probably more beautiful. And Duke Gardens is beautiful too!
Camping at Kerr Lake
Kerr Lake is Raleigh’s biggest hidden secret. It’s only an hour away and is full of natural beauty and scenery.
This is the largest lake in North Carolina and includes 3,376 acres of woodlands along its shores.
We love to escape for a few days of camping, boating, swimming, tubing, and s’mores. It is never too busy as there are ample places to choose from.
Read more about Kerr Lake.
I hope this guide on our favorite Raleigh things to do helps you plan your own trip to Raleigh?
There’s much more, and once you get a taste of this thriving Southern city, you just might end up living here like us!