A quintessential college town, Chapel Hill offers much to experience. From historic cafés and breweries to beautiful landscapes, learning and relaxation fill your weekend. You get the noble feel of Southern culture mixed with the creative energy of a university, all within walking distance.
Founded in 1793 alongside the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill was established to support the university students and faculty. The name comes from the New Hope Chapel, seated on the crest of the hill, which is now the site of the gorgeous Carolina Inn. Today, the town of around 60,000 people is small enough to feel neighborly while large enough to host plenty of places to dine and explore.
Things To Do In Chapel Hill
Depending on the time of year and the weather, spend the day exploring the large, attractive campus, dig into local history, or delight in interesting art. There is also a strong music scene and options for student theater productions.
Explore The UNC Campus
The University of North Carolina is home to almost 20,000 students. Start your exploration of the 729-acre campus by strolling down Cameron Avenue to the Old Well. There is a legend among students that if you drink from the well, you will earn good grades in your classes. The well’s classical columnar style provides a beautiful entry into McCorkle Place, one of the university’s two grassy quads. You can wander the paths among the greens and trees while gazing at majestic buildings and imagine you are back in college. The 172-foot tall Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, built in 1932, chimes every 15 minutes.
Browse Ackland Art Museum
Finding an interesting and extensive art collection in a small art museum is always a wonderful surprise. Ackland Art Museum is one such place, offering over 20,000 works of art in a peaceful setting. While the typical European and contemporary pieces are impressive, the Asian and African galleries most held my interest. “Peace, Power, & Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa” displayed a large number of jewelry, scepters, weaponry, and sacred objects. On the second floor, the gallery held many fascinating works that have been used by professors as inspiration for their students.
Walk Historic Franklin Street
Start on the east end at the Horace Williams House, which is actually on Rosemary Street. The house was built in stages between 1840 and 1880. Horace Williams, a UNC philosophy professor, bought the home in 1897 for $1,450. The original floors, windows, and mantels are still in place along with period furniture. You can view the house and pick up a brochure with a map of the historic homes along Franklin Street.
As you stroll along Franklin Street from Boundary Street to Columbia Street, you will pass 11 historic homes. The first house on your right is the Trabue-Cobb House built in the colonial revival style. Collier Cobb’s construction company paved Franklin Street. Many of the other houses were built for or later inhabited by professors at the university. The house of the president of UNC is nestled among trees on this street. The Puckett House sports two towering brick chimneys and is thought to be the oldest house in town.
Relax In Coker Arboretum
On the northeast edge of campus, Coker Arboretum holds a peaceful space with paths to meander and benches for contemplation. A small stream traverses the arboretum under small wooden bridges. As I was visiting in the early spring, the trees were still bare of leaves, but daffodils and other flowers provided some color among the grasses. This is a perfect spot to rest with a book or cup of tea after a walk around campus or on your way to Franklin Street.
Visit Morehead Planetarium And Science Center
To visit the first planetarium built on a university campus, head to Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Choose from among several star shows and multimedia shows in the planetarium. You can also enjoy the interactive science exhibits and live science demonstrations.
Hunt For Murals And Painted Crosswalks
Throughout Chapel Hill and the adjacent town of Carrboro, you can find over 30 murals on building walls. The first one, The Blue Mural, was painted in 1989 by local artist Michael Brown. Don’t forget to look down for art as well. In the past few years, artists have livened up the streets by painting the crosswalks with designs such as one depicting the Old Well.
Best Restaurants In Chapel Hill
Whether you love exciting craft brews, high-quality food, or a little of both, you’re sure to be satisfied by the local restaurants and breweries of Chapel Hill.
Top Of The Hill Restaurant And Brewery
Whether you dine indoors next to the huge brewing vats or out on the second-story patio overlooking Chapel Hill, Top of the Hill offers a fun atmosphere and great food. While the beer options were very tempting, I opted for the watermelon-rita, which was refreshing. The menu includes a wide range of salads, sandwiches, grain bowls, and entrees. The delicious blueberry chicken came smothered in blueberry barbecue sauce and sat atop arugula and fresh tomatoes. The crème brulee cheesecake tasted as amazing as it sounds.
Sutton’s Drug Store
As you walk into Sutton’s, you feel like you are part of a long tradition of the town. Hundreds of photos of customers paper the walls and even hang from the ceiling along with UNC jerseys. You can fill your prescription here and get lunch while you are at it. My cheeseburger was juicy and my sweet potato fries crunchy. I would have liked to have tried the Oreo milkshake instead of the chocolate. They also offer an array of hot dogs, deli sandwiches, and wraps. There is also a simple breakfast menu if you arrive early in the day.
At Epilogue, you can browse and buy a good book, then settle in with your choice of eight flavors of hot chocolate, 22 options of coffee, or five types of tea. As time passes, grab a pastry or churros with dipping chocolate and eventually order a beer or glass of wine. There is plenty of seating in the back of the store for more quiet or at the front by the gorgeous mural looking out onto Franklin Street. My green tea was served in a shiny teapot with a cup and saucer and perfectly accompanied the sweet churros and chocolate.
Gizmo Brew Works
If you enjoy craft beer and want a choice of over 30 types, stop in at Gizmo Brew Works. They offer three sizes so you can try several 4-ounce beers or grab a 16-ounce of your favorite. I tried Raspberry Chocolate Cake Stout and Apis Honey Bun Pastry Stout and enjoyed them both immensely. There is plenty of room to hang out with a group of friends or plant yourself at the long bar.
Located just outside Chapel Hill in neighboring Carrboro, Oakleaf provides farm-to-table cuisine in an artistic space. The menu changes daily to reflect fresh, local ingredients. I started with the market greens salad with quinoa, roasted vegetables, goat cheese, and honey-apple vinaigrette. Next, the saffron risotto was served with pastured pork meatballs, which were tender and flavorful. Our waiter was charming and knowledgeable and made every effort to provide a delicious meal for my dining companion who has dietary restrictions.
While it may look like a typical hotel bar and restaurant, Crossroads at The Carolina Inn provides friendly service and great food. I joined some friends having a meeting at the hotel and we were able to spread out on the patio and inside the bar area. Our bartender remembered each of our drinks from the previous night and wasn’t deterred by our boisterous calls to him for another round. I tried out the breakfast in the restaurant one morning and sampled from the wonderful café, Provisions, for the second.
Best Hotels in Chapel Hill
The hotels of Chapel Hill offer a unique balance between classic historic style and the modern amenities that travelers look forward to after a busy day.
The Carolina Inn
Although I would typically want to try different hotels for repeat visits to a town, any future trips to Chapel Hill will need to include a stay at The Carolina Inn. Built in 1924, the inn and its red brick and white columns are perched on the edge of the UNC campus. The gorgeous old Southern charm does not distract from the contemporary amenities. A large lobby includes several conversation areas and a grand piano with a vase of beautiful pink tea roses. Throughout the inn, framed photos and colonial-style furniture give a sense of history.
My room opened on a small foyer with an armoire and dresser. The four-posted bed sat opposite a wooden hutch that hid the television and coffee maker. My paned window looked out onto a courtyard with flowering trees. The luxurious bathroom sported a large bathtub and double sinks and wooden shutters over a large window.
AC Hotel Chapel Hill Downtown
A couple of blocks off campus, AC Hotel is a contemporary hotel in the Marriott family. The hotel offers simple elegance and includes a fitness center and spacious outdoor terrace. A lounge and breakfast spot is available and the hotel is within walking distance of many restaurants.
The Siena Hotel
2 miles up Franklin Street sits The Siena Hotel, a member of the autograph collection of Marriott. It invokes an Italian villa with Ionic columns and lush furnishings. It also boasts Il Palio, the only four-diamond restaurant in North Carolina.
If you are visiting the University of North Carolina for an event or just want a fun weekend in a historic college town, check out Chapel Hill.
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