Imagine a city with world-class museums, exciting new craft beverages, a thriving nightlife, a bucolic college campus, and southern hospitality at every turn. Now multiply that by three. You’ve just arrived in North Carolina’s Research Triangle! While the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area is commonly grouped together under a single moniker, the three cities do have distinct personalities and it can be hard to figure out the best things to do in the Triangle. Should you visit Raleigh’s busy downtown, entice your taste buds in one of Durham’s newest restaurants, or stroll through the charming shops in Chapel Hill? Luckily, we’re here to help. This guide will help you determine the best things to do in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.
What is the North Carolina Research Triangle?
In the heart of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, or what is roughly the middle third of the state, lies a metropolitan region comprising Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, NC. These cities are anchored by three top-rated universities: North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, all which are about a half an hour away from each other. In addition to the research and learning that occurs throughout the three campuses, many tech and life-science companies have headquarters in the Triangle and work in conjunction with the universities to support each other’s projects. As a result, the name “Research Triangle” has been given to this area that includes the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.
With over 2 million people living and working in the Research Triangle, NC, it can be nearly impossible to figure out all the best things to do in Raleigh and which Durham attractions to visit. Read on for our tips and suggestions for making the most of a North Carolina long weekend!
Things to do in Raleigh, North Carolina
As the biggest of the three cities in the Research Triangle and the capital of North Carolina, Raleigh has a vibrant commercial downtown surrounded by dozens of residential neighborhoods, and frequently ranks as one of the best cities to live in the United States.
Discover the best bites at Transfer Co. Food Hall
Is it time for lunch but everyone in your group has a taste for something different? Luckily, the Transfer Co. Food Hall in downtown Raleigh has so many options that even the pickiest eater will leave with a full stomach. You can’t go wrong with any of the food stalls, but for a sustainable meal head to Alimentari at Left Bank which serves Italian specialties and sources their heritage-bred meat from two local farms that utilize restorative land management techniques. Or, grab a snack at Locals Oyster Bar – they make multiple visits to North Carolina coastal fishing boats each week to ensure their handpicked seafood is as fresh and locally sourced as possible.
Engage your inner mixologist at The Bittery
You’ve sampled the wine flights, you’ve done the beer tasting, and you’ve even lived out your Cocktail fantasies with a shaker in one hand and a glass in the other. Is there anything left in the world of craft beverages? How about a Bitters Class! Bitters are a key component in most mixed drinks. They are infused spirits that add just the right dash of flavor to your beverage. But to really learn how best to incorporate bitters into your mixology, head to The Bittery where you can learn the history of the spirit and try your hand at pairing from their unique line. It’s one of the most fun things to do in Raleigh, NC, and with flavors like Earl Grey, Scorched Pear, Matcha, Smoke Salt, and Black Walnut, no two drinks will be alike!
Bike along the Neuse River Greenway Trail
Discover nearly 30 uninterrupted miles of paved trail that parallels the Neuse River and winds through the picturesque wetlands and agricultural fields of southeastern Raleigh. The tree-lined Neuse River Greenway Trail crosses over two suspension bridges and is mostly flat and easy – no endurance training is required for this ride, making it a perfect Raleigh weekend activity. Fun fact: this path is part of the larger East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile route that passes through 15 U.S. states!
Need some wheels for your ride? Cardinal is Raleigh’s bikeshare program and offers both single-ride and two-hour passes. Stop by one of over a dozen docking stations located throughout the city and hit the trails! If you’re traveling by bus, OMIO is a great choice to make your connections.
Go hiking in Umstead State Park
If you’ve got some time to kill before your flight home, you’ll want to stop at Umstead State Park, one of the best free things to do in Raleigh, NC. It’s located right next to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, but with 5,600 acres of quiet wooded wilderness, you’ll quickly realize you’re in the middle of a rural oasis. There are over 20 miles of hiking trails spread throughout the park, but we suggest Sal’s Branch Trail, a moderate 2.8-mile hike that offers wonderful views of the park’s Big Lake. As you stroll through the towering beech trees, keep an eye out for glimpses of local wildlife – beavers, racoons, deer, belted kingfishers, and great blue herons are commonly spotted along the trails.
Step back in time at the Historic Yates Mill
Just south of Raleigh lies Historic Yates Mill County Park, home to a fully restored 18th-century gristmill and the last water-powered mill in the county. The park is also a wildlife refuge and environmental research center that aims to preserve one of the last Piedmont Prairie Gardens in North Carolina, an endangered ecosystem that once grew extensively throughout the state. Choose one of the hiking trails that leads through wetlands and quiet hardwood forests, and if you’re traveling with little ones in tow and looking for family fun in Raleigh, NC, stick around for a guided tour of the mill which comes with a real life corn-grinding demonstration!
Things to do in Durham, North Carolina
Durham was a key player in the tobacco industry for over a century and while tobacco use is now looked upon less favorably than it once was, the city still retains much of its industrial spirit and aesthetic. Durham is a diverse city with a gritty and artistic vibe, and often tops the list of best food cities in the country. And if you’re wondering if this is the same Durham from the movie Bull Durham, it most certainly is! The city’s Durham Bulls minor league baseball team was named after the Bull Durham smoking tobacco mascot.
Explore the campus at Duke University
Located in the heart of Durham, Duke University is one of the country’s top colleges. Most people head straight to the stadium to cheer on the famous Blue Devils basketball team, but there are two other places you should put on your radar when visiting Duke. The Sarah P. Duke Gardens offer 55 acres of peaceful gardens in the middle of the bustling campus and is one of the top Durham, NC attractions. Relax underneath a wisteria-covered pergola, discover 900 species and varieties of regional native plants, and stop and smell the heirloom roses that surround the historic Roney Fountain.
And for your daily dose of adorable animals, visit the Duke Lemur Center, which houses the world’s largest and most diverse population of lemurs outside their native Madagascar. Lemurs are the most endangered group of mammals on Earth, and Duke’s non-invasive research and conservation breeding program has helped preserve and protect this vanishing species. Over 200 lemurs live at the Center, and you can meet many of them on a guided tour of the facility or at the annual Lemurpalooza, which wins our prize for the best-named animal festival.
Taste authentic North Carolina BBQ
Trying some North Carolina-style barbecue is one of the best things to do in Durham. Made with a vinegar base, this tangy, peppery sauce is also referred to as Eastern-style and notably does not contain any ketchup or tomato products. Whether you pour it on a whole rack of ribs, slather it over a pile of pulled pork, or simply eat it with a spoon (we won’t tell), you haven’t truly experienced the best of North Carolina until you’ve sampled its sauce.
Not into meat? No problem! Durham’s Pure Soul serves up authentic southern comfort food that just so happens to also be fully vegan. Their *BBQ* is made from locally grown soybeans that are textured, seasoned, and sauced to plant-based perfection.
Sip a Sustainable Craft Brew
With dozens of local breweries, Durham is quickly becoming one of the best cities in the country for craft beverages. You can’t go wrong with asking for a taste of experimental beers like Gizmo BrewWorks’ Damn Right Strawberry Milkshake IPA, a Lemon Ginger Wit from Ponysaurus Brewing Co., or the Glass Jug Beer Lab’s Donut Touch My Coffee Blonde Ale.
If you’re looking for a sustainable sip, mission-driven Fullsteam Brewery celebrates the farm and food traditions of the American South by patronizing regional suppliers from plow to pint and encourages entrepreneurship within the post-tobacco South. Also, Bull City Burger & Brewery serves pasture-raised beef and repurposes spent brewers grain into delicious dog treats for your beloved pup!
Paddle the rapids in Eno River State Park
You might not think of Durham as a city with outdoor adventure activities, but that means you haven’t heard of Eno River State Park. Located just ten miles northwest of downtown Durham, the park boasts over 4,000 acres of protected natural area, unspoiled wildlife habitats, and some of the cleanest water in the county. Hike along 28 miles of river bluff trails, pitch a tent for some epic backcountry camping, and when the water’s right, tackle the river’s Class I, II, and III rapids. And if you’re looking for one of the most fun things to do in Durham, follow the Eno all the way to its headwaters in Falls Lake and take this guided excursion where three rivers converge to form the Neuse River.
Things to do in Chapel Hill, NC
Of all three cities in the Research Triangle, Chapel Hill has the most “college-town” feel. It’s also the smallest of the three and where you’ll find a charming downtown, quiet residential neighborhoods, and one of the best public school systems in the country.
Explore the campus at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
You probably know it as the school where Michael Jordan learned to shoot. But there’s more to UNC-Chapel Hill than their winning Tar Heels. Alongside rotating exhibitions, Ackland Art Museum’s permanent collection of over 20,000 works includes 8th-century pottery, 17th-century still lifes, and 21st-century sculptural installations, making it one of North Carolina’s most important art museums and a top Chapel Hill attraction. If you prefer to turn your eyes to the skies, visit the historic Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, the first and largest full dome planetarium in the South and the training ground of dozens of astronauts who developed the country’s space program. Explore the constellations from underneath a full dome star show, watch live science demonstrations, and hear what current research is taking place in Morehead’s Breakthrough Hub.
Finally, catch a breath of fresh air at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, stretching across one thousand acres of cultivated landscapes and wild forests. Explore a centuries-old stone amphitheater, wind through an old-growth forest on nature trails dotted with wildflowers, and try to spot a Carolina Chickadee in the Mason Farm Biological Reserve, a much-loved birding hotspot and one of the best places to go in Chapel Hill.
Other places to visit in North Carolina
North Carolina is a big, beautiful, and scenically diverse state that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains. You could spend a lifetime exploring all that the Tar Heel State has to offer and still not see everything, but put these locations on your radar if you’re looking for other places to go in North Carolina.
- Outer Banks – go for wild beaches, towering sand dunes, protective lighthouses, and steady sea breezes.
- Bald Head Island – go between July and November to witness the annual hatching of endangered loggerhead sea turtles.
- Asheville – go for stately homes, fresh mountain air, chill artsy vibes, and a startling amount of craft beverage options.
- Blue Ridge Parkway – this one’s a road, not a specific location, but it’s considered America’s Favorite Drive and offers stunning overlooks, quiet mountain towns, and one heart-stopping swing bridge. Be sure to stop in Boone, a local favorite and home to some of the best bluegrass music in the country.
- Mount Airy – invite your mom and go for some serious retro fun – this is the real-life town that served as the basis for Mayberry, the fictional town in The Andy Griffith Show.