Sir Walter Raleigh never stepped foot in North America. So why name a major city after him —the state capital, no less? Well, he did sponsor a lot of the early British colonization of our eastern shore and supposedly introduced England to the potato, as well as tobacco. He was a poet and explorer, and foremost, a true gentleman, having thrown down his cape so the very first Queen Elizabeth could avoid a puddle. That pretty much captures the spirit of Raleigh today, with its warm, friendly, glad-your’re-here people, living in a culturally hip city, in the middle of the state that produces more sweet potatoes than any other. Yes, sir, that’s Raleigh!
The university life
You’ve probably heard the Raleigh area referred to as the “Research Triangle.” Some folks say there are more PhDs per capita here than anywhere else. There are a lot of high-tech research facilities, but the main reason could be the universities. There are over 10 colleges and universities in the triangle area defined by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. A visit to at least one should be on your list.
You can start with North Carolina State University right there in Raleigh. NC State athletics has created quite a name for itself and there’s always a Wolfpack game of some sport going on. Season after season. The campus is divided into several distinct areas connected by a Free Expression Tunnel. Stroll the Brickyard, and feel like your back in college again.
Up the road sits two powerhouse institutions worth a visit. Duke University in Durham and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are sometimes declared the epitome of college life nowadays. Besides classic college architecture and feel, each one provides an interesting excursion. And they’re only nine miles apart.
Often considered the “Ivy League of the South,” Duke buildings look like they really could be in the Northeast, or even England. Tall Gothic structures of learning are everywhere, but there’s also the basketball arena, Coach K’s old stomping ground. Exploring the campus, you can easily take in the ultra-modern Asher Museum of Art, known for its medieval and pre-Columbian collections, as well as the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, one of the finest in the entire southeast.
Next up would be UNC in nearby Chapel Hill, so close that suddenly the whole rivalry between these two schools becomes very clear. Several quads form the UNC campus, but take time out for the Carolina Basketball Museum and the nearby Carolina Botanical Garden, the largest in the southeast.
Back in Raleigh, you can pick and choose from three excellent museums, or see them all. They all get stars in the travel guides, and they’re all free!
The North Carolina Museum of Natural History will give you a thorough understanding the area history, as far back as prehistoric days with “Willo,” a rare example of a 66,000-year old vegetarian. You can follow along through time, up to and including Coastal Carolina’s whaling days. Then dip into the North Carolina Museum of History for a full range of NC facts and fancies, including a Harlem Globetrotter Jersey, worn by local star Meadowlark Lemon, or a stock car driven by Richard Petty.
And, if you still feel like some more culture, the North Carolina Museum of Art offers a substantial range of masterpieces, some very unique collections, plus a large number of sculptures by Auguste’ Rodin.
You probably already saw some of it near the airport, but the William B. Umstead State Park is worth a second look, with miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as boat rentals, in season. It’s a good place to get away and enjoy some flora and fauna and an occasional horseback rider. Pullen Park has a large playground and classic carousel. And if you’re into mountain biking, Daniel Dher’s Action Sports Complex offers both indoor and outdoor proving grounds to polish your skills.
For the less active park seeker, there’s always the Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden, worth visiting any time of the year due to Raleigh’s extended growing.
There are several established breweries in town, such as Bhavana, Trophy and Crank Arm. But if you want one of the biggest selections anywhere in the world, check out the Raleigh Beer Garden, with over 300 taps and counting. Many breweries offer food and activities, too. You can find the latest brew news through the North Carolina Brewers Guild (ncbeer.org) or NC Beer Guys (ncbeerguys.com).
The food…plus the barbecue!!
Pick your favorite ethnic flavor and you’ll most likely find it. Raleigh is a foodie town; for crazy good biscuits, Southern fried chicken and honey, even global street food. If you can’t settle on just one flavor, look for the Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeo on Fayetteville Street.
However, North Carolinians take their barbecue very, very, very seriously. You would be remiss if you didn’t taste test the local scene. Everyone has their favorite, if you ask a local, although Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue has been around since 1938. There’s also the scene at The Pit. If you have a car, Highway 70 east to Smithfield is known as the “Barbecue Highway.” You can eat you way all the way to the Ava Gardner Museum located there.
Other things to do
— Hopscotch Music Festival or Wide Open Bluegrass Festival
— Martin Marietta Center for Performing Arts (culture hub)
— Sir Walter Raleigh statue, usually decorated
— North Carolina State Capitol, ghosts and all
— Historic Oakwood neighborhood and cemetery
— African-American Cultural Complex
Heading to Raleigh? Book your Raleigh-Durham airport transportation here!