From top-notch museums — many of which offer free admission — to a thriving food and craft beer scene, the Raleigh-Durham area will surprise you with its plentiful offerings. Here are some of the area’s most popular attractions.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
If you spot a giant three-story outdoor multimedia globe, then you know you’ve found one of the state’s most highly regard museums. With more than 25 permanent exhibitions, many of which are interactive; the Nature Research Center, where you can watch scientists at work; and a host of fascinating traveling exhibits, which change every three to six months, learning about the natural world couldn’t be more engaging.
North Carolina Museum of History
Start with the museum’s signature exhibit “The Story of North Carolina” for a comprehensive picture of the state from its earliest inhabitants through the 20th century. Highlights include stone tools dating to 12,000 to 1,000 B.C., a cannon recovered from the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship, a full-size replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer airplane and a host of interactive exhibits.
The museum is also home to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, which has more than 200 items representing state sports heroes, such as driver Richard Petty’s stock car and Meadowlark Lemon’s Harlem Globetrotters basketball uniform.
North Carolina Museum of Art
With a collection ranging from Egyptian funerary art to contemporary pieces, not to mention 30 works by Auguste Rodin (the most of any museum in the southeastern United States), the North Carolina Museum of Art is a fascinating place to visit.
The permanent collection also includes European Old Master paintings, African and Judaic works of art, sculpture and vase painting from ancient Greece and Rome, and American art from the 18th through 20th centuries. Its 164-acre Museum Park, the largest in the U.S., is home to more than a dozen works of art, gardens and walking trails.
There’s a lot to do and see on this historic 8,500-acre campus, which features 11 different schools, a medical center, a 7,900-acre forest and a 55-acre garden. It’s known for its Georgian and Gothic Revival architecture, so simply strolling along its streets can be a pleasure. Guided and self-guided tours are available.
Also on campus is the Nasher Museum of Art, which displays African, American, European and Latin American artwork and includes pieces by Rodin, Picasso and Matisse.
North Carolina State Capitol
Completed in 1940, this stunning Greek Revival-style building, a National Historic Landmark, was once home to all the state government’s office. Today it is partly a museum and partly executive office space.
Capitol highlights include its domed rotunda, the original 1840 legislative furniture and a reproduction of Antonio Canova’s statue of George Washington, who is depicted as a Roman general with a tunic, tight-fitting body armor and a cape. Free guided tours are offered Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Raleigh Beer Garden
Officially home to the world’s largest draft beer selection, according to representatives from Guinness World Records who visited in 2015, this is the go-to spot to sample one (or more) beers from a menu boasting 366 options, with 144 from the state.
The enormous restaurant and bar features a rooftop deck, plenty of seating indoors and out and a typical pub menu of burgers and pizzas. If you don’t have a taste for beer, there’s also bar dedicated to whiskeys and bourbons.
Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Founded in 1934, this free 55-acre botanic garden spans five miles of allées, walkways and pathways. Meander through four different sections: the Historic Gardens, where you can see Akebono cherry trees, heirloom roses and a koi pool with water lilies; the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, a representation of the flora of the southeastern United States; the William Louis Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, with Southeastern Asian plants; and the Doris Duke Center Gardens, with a lovely and tranquil pond.
Both guided walking tours and trolley tours are available at various times, or you can pick up a map and head out on your own.
The Umstead Hotel and Spa
Indulge in a weekend at the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Umstead Hotel and Spa, which is about 15 minutes from Raleigh. With a stunning and serene setting, a world-class art collection, the excellent Five-Star Herons restaurant (which alone warrants a trip here) and a 16,000-square-foot spa, it can be hard to drag yourself away once ensconced in all its comforts.
North Carolina’s first public park, this 66-acre green space in Raleigh offers all sorts of outdoor activities, including running, biking, playing tennis and having a picnic. It also is home to a working 1911 Gustave A. Dentzel Menagerie Carousel, a miniature train and Lake Howell, where on nice days, it’s fun to rent a pedal boat.
William B. Umstead State Park
Located among the cities of Raleigh, Cary and Durham, the 5,570-acre William B. Umstead State Park provides an expansive place to enjoy the outdoors. Activities include walking, biking, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, cycling, boating and more. The rangers also lead a number of guided programs, and a visit to the Exhibit Hall is a good place to learn more about the park.