There is a reason why Chapel Hill is consistently rated as one of the best places in America to live, and as being the best college town in the States.
It’s a town that is created around the college, which was one of the first public Universities in the country. Franklin St, at the front of the college, is the street where all the vibrancy lives through it’s many restaurants, cafes, bars, and of course the ubiquitous Carolina blue merchandise stores.
Chapel Hill, is our favorite place to hang out, and at times it’s really hard to describe why. Sometimes a love for a place is unexplainable because its a connection you find with the energy that vibrates from there. And there is plenty of energy in Chapel Hill.
A college town; a major US basketball college town. In fact one of the best basketball colleges in the country. It is the place Michael Jordan says ‘made him who he is today,’ and is why, when he was flying through the air and winning any number of championships for the Chicago bulls, underneath his uniformed shorts were Carolina blue ones. Maybe that might explain a little the pull that this place has on you.
Here are 7 of our top picks for things to do while in Chapel Hill:
Sutton’s Drug Store
Four years of visiting Chapel Hill and we walked past this pharmacy every time without venturing inside. Why would we? We didn’t need medicine. On our last visit to Chapel Hill, we needed some gum, so walked into Sutton’s to buy some and discovered instead a Chapel Hill icon. It was a step back in time.
At the back of the pharmacy, the chemist in his white lab coat, walked around chatting to his guests sitting in the crowded diner. A small counter wrapped around the tiny cooking area, and patrons sat on spinning stools eating hamburgers, hot dogs and fries, or waiting for the food to be cooked in front of them. Along the walls and hanging from the ceilings were hundreds of photos of happy diners. On further investigation we found photos of Tyler Hansborough, Sean May, Danny Green and all our favorite basketball players.
“Where was Micheal Jordan?” we asked.
“Upstairs in the safe.”
This is a true local hangout. In fact if we were only there a couple of hours earlier we could have had breakfast with Sean May. Craig was pretty devastated about that miss. We came back for lunch and had the tastiest vegetarian hamburger and then learned that Sutton’s is noted as the 10th best hamburger in America. A recommended try are the potato munchers; which is potato, cheese, and jalapeno all wrapped up in a long ball and fried. Delicious. A burger will set you back at around $5.
Carolina Basketball Museum
Again, another treat we only discovered on our last visit to Chapel Hill and it is completely free. You could just watch the first 6 minute introductory video and be hooked already on Carolina basketball. Even if you are not a Tar Heel or basketball fan, you will enjoy learning about the tradition and history of Carolina basketball and lessons of success. Reading the stories, listening to the audios, watching short video clips, and seeing memorabilia such as MJ’s championship rings, recruitment letters, the size of Sean Mays’ feet with his match winning Carolina shoes on display, and the four championship trophies that stand proudly on display at the end of the tour, make for a pretty memorable visit .
Take a Walking Tour of the Campus and Shop for Carolina Blue Gear
There is a lot of history in Chapel Hill, and it is well worth taking a stroll through the campus to see it’s historic buildings, oak tree lined parks, and beautiful gardens. If you happen to be here during college time, there will be a hive of bustling activity to inspire you to perhaps enroll at the college yourself. Take a walk from the Old Well down to the football stadium; the walk that the football team do every home game, to cheers of their loyal Tar Heel fans. Throughout Franklin St and the campus you will find many book stores and T-shirt shops where you can shop for Carolina blue gear. We can’t help but buy something new each time we visit. We found the best store for variety and price was the student bookstore right in the middle of the campus in the famous Tar Pitt.
Catch a Final Four Game at a Bar on Franklin Street and then Jump Fires on the Street when we Win.
On many of the walls of the establishments in Chapel Hill, sits a common two photo spread. One side shows Franklin St deserted, the other, shows an hour later where the same street cannot be seen through the thousands of bodies crammed on the street celebrating a NCAA win in wild Carolina tradition. Twice we have found ourselves amongst the action.
Within the bar, no room for even our elbows amidst the sea of blue, we hollered, jumped, and cheered with each ball through the net, successful defensive plays and eventually the final victory bell. And then we ran, with the crowd out the doors and onto the streets. Bodies stream out from every bar on the street to celebrate with each other- all running straight for the fires. Crowds gather around fires that are fueled by whatever can be thrown in it, T’shirts, street signs, bar receipts… and then the jumping starts. Egged on by the crowd with cheers and claps, you take a short running start and leap over the fire, hoping that no one does it at the same time as you on the other side. Check that one off your travel bucket list!
Old Well White at the Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery
There are many places to choose from in Chapel Hill for dining and red wining. One of our favorite places to have a drink is the Top of the Hill restaurant and bar. As the name suggests, you are at the top of, not the hill, but Franklin Street, overlooking it from the 3rd story establishment. Top of the Hill is where Franklin and Columbus Street converge, and it is the place where the madness of NCAA fire jumping is in full swing. If you’re not brave enough to be jumping then this would be the best place to be a spectator from. Whenever we head to the Hill for a game, you can find us on the balcony enjoying one of our favorite all time beers, brewed by the restaurant, Old Well White which is a Belgian wheat style beer. It’s a top notch place to have a drink even when a game is not on.
Go to a Live College Game
Whether it is football or basketball, get yourself to a live game. The atmosphere is buzzing and you will witness first hand the fervour that comes from loving UNC. We sat in the stands at the game when UNC football team upset Miami, at the time, rated as one of the nation’s best. On the final bell, the crowds from the stands moved out onto the field mobbing the players and each other. We watched in fascination as they climbed either of the goal posts rocking them until they fell down onto the crowd below, and crowd surfed them around the field. The next day, the Dean in commentary about it said something to the effect of, “Oh well, we’ll replace them. This is the spirit of Carolina. It cannot be contained.”
Secret tip: If you have a child (if not borrow one) enroll in the Tar Heels kids club. Through this club we managed to get $10 tickets to the opening football match with fantastic seats right on center line. We also were invited to attend a special kids club meet and greet with the basketball players. Craig could hardly contain his excitement as he raced around the courts getting autographs from his favorite players, dragging little Kalyra around with him and elbowing his way through the 10 year old crowd, whispering in Kalyra’s ear, “Let me do all the talking. Just smile and be cute.”
Weaver St Market
Next to Chapel Hill is the even smaller, alternative town of Carrboro. Weaver St market is a popular place to sit on the lawn with a wholesome lunch and a coffee and watch the hula hoop twirlers dance by or listen to some Sunday Jazz. There are a few boutique stores within the complex you can shop around in if you get bored by the entertaining Weaver St Patrons.