Durham, North Carolina, is a mid-size city that welcomes visitors with big-city amenities and small-town friendliness. Whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway or a multigenerational vacation, this city has you covered.
Durham offers a bountiful buffet of world-class entertainment, an innovative food and beverage scene, historical sites, college and minor league sports, museums, and more. With all these choices, the most daunting task is deciding what to do first.
If you fly into Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the drive to Durham will take approximately 20 minutes, depending on traffic.
Author Note: Portions of our visits to Durham were generously hosted by Discover Durham, Pompieri Pizza, Zweli’s Kitchen, Graybeard Distillery, and the Museum of Life and Science. All opinions are entirely my own.
1. Duke University Campus
Get a refreshing dose of history and fresh air on a tour of Duke University, one of the most prestigious colleges in the U.S. Join an informative guided campus tour led by a Duke student. Or, explore the university’s history, architecture, and amenities on a self-guided tour.
Breathe in calming fragrances as you stroll the stunning Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the 7,060-acre Duke Forest, both located on the Duke campus. These natural amenities are in their full glory in spring and fall.
Before you leave, stop and admire the Duke University Chapel. The neo-Gothic architecture of this remarkable building, along with a 210-foot tower and 77 gleaming colored glass windows, makes it an ideal subject for photographers. If your timing is right, you can enjoy music courtesy of a 5,200-pipe Flentrop organ during services. Add the golden tones of a 50-bell carillon, and your ears will thank you.
Allow one and a half to two hours for your visit. The campus is well paved and relatively flat, making for easy walking.
2. Duke Homestead
The Duke homestead represents an important piece of Durham history. A 45-minute guided tour of Washington Duke’s 1852 home and tobacco farm gives visitors a glimpse into life in the mid-19th century.
A knowledgeable guide will usher you through the Duke family’s home, tobacco factories, a tobacco packhouse, and a curing barn. The property also houses the Tobacco Museum, which tells the story of tobacco from its place in early Native American culture to the present.
Paths are unpaved and uneven. A wheelchair or golf cart is available with prior notification. The visitor center, historic house, and restroom facilities are wheelchair accessible.
3. American Tobacco Campus
A shining example of urban revitalization, the American Tobacco Campus is an entertainment hub featuring an amphitheater, restaurants, shops, and apartments.
Once an abandoned, derelict part of town, the former Lucky Strike cigarette factory has been thoughtfully transformed into a local gem. The district attracts Durham residents and visitors with art exhibitions, special events, and free summertime outdoor concerts.
4. Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC)
DPAC is a 2,800-seat theater that draws world-class entertainment and sellout crowds to Durham. The magnificent glassed-walled building is an architectural delight inside and out.
Located in the American Tobacco Historic District, DPAC presents internationally-acclaimed productions such as Hamilton and other popular Broadway extravaganzas. The theater features concerts of every imaginable musical genre as well as comedy, dance, and other performing arts.
Performances sell out quickly, so reserve tickets well in advance.
5. Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP)
DBAP is the home of the Durham Bulls, a “farm team” of the National Baseball League Tampa Bay Rays. This modern but homey stadium seats 10,000 fans, but you won’t find a bad seat in the house.
A notable feature of DBAP is the 20-by-30-foot “Snorting Bull” — a sheet metal and wood sculpture that watches over the proceedings. When a Bulls batter hits a home run, or when the Bulls win a game, the sculpture’s eyes glow red, his nostrils blow smoke, and his tail wags.
6. The Museum Of Life And Science
You’ll need 2 to 3 hours to fully explore the Museum of Life and Science. This wondrous interactive natural science museum occupies 84 acres north of downtown Durham. There, you’ll find enough captivating creatures and hands-on exhibits to keep youngsters of all ages and their parents happily occupied for hours.
Be sure to visit the delightful Magic Wings Butterfly House, a three-story, climate-controlled glass structure containing approximately 30 species of colorful butterflies.
The museum is spread out among several buildings, featuring a wide variety of indoor and outdoor exhibits. Be prepared to do a lot of standing and walking. The complex is wheelchair accessible.
7. Tours Galore
An excellent way to get to know a destination or attraction is via a tour. Durham offers a wide range of self-guided and group-guided tours to help you get acquainted with its history, food and beverage scene, and more. Here is a small sample of available Durham tours:
- Take a self-guided walking or driving tour. Maps and information are available at the Visitor Info Center.
- Trace Black history in Durham from enslaved individuals and contributors to Durham’s growth and prosperity with a guided Whistle Stop Tour.
- If you’ve worked up a powerful thirst, you can drink and let someone else drive on a three- to four-hour Beltline Brew Tour that introduces you to a variety of breweries in the Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill Triangle.
- Not that thirsty? Keep it local with a tour and tasting at Graybeard Distillery. Their superbly smooth and flavorful Bedlam Vodka will make you rethink everything you know about the spirit.
- Food tours are a delicious way to sample a city’s edible side. Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours offers walking tours that will keep your feet moving, your mind engaged, and your tastebuds happy. Not only will you discover new and inspired foods, but you will also have the opportunity to meet chefs and learn the backstory of each restaurant you visit.
8. Central Carolina Bank (CCB) Plaza
Perhaps the most prominent display of the city’s love for all things bull is the larger-than-life bronze statue of this noble creature located in CCB Plaza in the heart of Durham.
A popular CCB Plaza attraction is 21c, a boutique hotel with an unusual history. Located in the former Central Carolina Bank building, the hotel has repurposed identifiable aspects of the bank while maintaining its character.
A unique feature of 21c is the rotation of modern art exhibits. Located on the first and second floors, the exhibits are free and open to the public.
Drop into the Visitor Info Center right around the corner. There you’ll find information, free Wi-Fi, a place to recharge your phone, and friendly folks who will be happy to help you find your way around Bull City.
9. Durham’s Exciting Food Scene
If it’s edible, Durham has it. The selection of restaurants representing every imaginable ethnicity and style is impressive.
Located in a former fire hall, Pompieri Pizza specializes in outstanding Neopolitan pizza. Pompieri is committed to food and families, so on Sundays, you can enjoy a set menu that includes all-you-can-eat pizza. You will also be encouraged to turn off your phone and put it away.
A prime example of the ethnic diversity you’ll find in Durham’s food scene is Zweli’s Kitchen. In this homey Zimbabwean restaurant, Chef Zweli Williams recreates the foods she ate growing up in Zimbabwe, adding her personal flair to her family’s authentic recipes.
10. Drink Up Durham Style
Durham is home to an ever-growing craft beer scene. You’ll find an impressive variety of innovative, locally produced beers from which to choose.
Ponysaurus Brewing Co is a spacious, friendly brewery and taproom that came from humble beginnings as an attic loft microbrewery. Today, Ponysaurus serves a lively crowd with a thirst for excellent beer, of which there is plenty.
Bull City Burger and Brewery combines family-friendly food and craft beer to create a congenial atmosphere where everyone is welcome. Everything is homemade down to the buns, beef hotdogs, mustard, pickles, and even sauerkraut. Tour the brewery, or simply enjoy the product.
11. Historical Accommodations
You should have no problem finding accommodations in Durham unless you plan to visit during major college sports events or graduations. Although the city offers a variety of chain hotels, staying at a historic bed and breakfast or boutique hotel will give you far more than a good night’s sleep.
Unscripted Durham is a sleek but charming, 74-room downtown boutique hotel. Formerly a 1960s hotel, Unscripted offers amenities such as on-site dining, a bar, and a seasonal rooftop pool. Its central location makes it an excellent option for both business and pleasure stays.
Arrowhead Inn is ideal for a special occasion splurge. Located 15 minutes from downtown Durham, this historic 18th-century estate prides itself on its elegant guest rooms, artfully prepared breakfast, as well as six acres of lush gardens and lawns!
Pro Tip: Durham is located in close enough proximity to Raleigh and Chapel Hill to have a stress-producing rush-hour. If possible, time your arrival, departure, and driving around the city to avoid the heaviest traffic.
Are you adventuring in North Carolina? Here are some of our other recommendations in the area!