Raleigh is an incredibly exciting and diverse city. Founded in 1792, Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina and the second-largest city in the state. On a recent visit, my husband and I found Raleigh to be a very approachable “big city” with a small-town feel. Known as the “City of Oaks” it is centrally located between the mountains and coast of North Carolina, the mid-way point between New York and Florida, a must-see destination, and one of the “best places to live” according to the U.S. News & World Report.
Raleigh is steeped in history and is proud of it. This can be observed throughout the city. You’ll be fascinated as you see both the old and the new when strolling about. The historic buildings downtown and other historic sites are being preserved while newer elements such as modern hotels, unique shops, and award-winning restaurants are being housed within restored centuries-old buildings, maintaining the city’s historic feel. I love that.
The City of Oaks has many facets. There is plenty to see and do no matter your age or interests. In addition to its history, Raleigh has a vibrant arts and culture scene. Venues, both indoors and out, are alive with theater, ballet, opera, symphony, and concerts. Raleigh is home to the NC State Fair, NC Farmers Market, and numerous events and festivals.
Raleigh is located in what is known as the Research Triangle (or Triangle), named after the three prestigious universities of Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State Having these universities nearby, Raleigh is a “young” and historic town. Sports and recreation abound in Raleigh, as does a fabulous foodie scene. Several national-renowned chefs and entrepreneurs call Raleigh home. With so many fantastic and fun things to do in Raleigh, one thing is for sure — you’ll want to visit time and again.
Note: Thank you to Visit Raleigh for hosting my stay. All opinions are my own.
1. North Carolina Museum Of Natural Sciences
The four-story NC Museum of Natural Science is the largest of its kind in the Southeast. Visitors can explore the state’s diverse geology, geography, and wildlife throughout nine exhibit halls. All of North Carolina’s natural treasures are on display from beetles and butterflies to whale and dinosaur skeletons. There is even a fully restored Acrocanthosaurus.
Connected by walkways, another 80,000-square-foot space houses multimedia space for live programming of science news, a 10,000-gallon aquarium, a nature research center, and investigative labs where visitors can participate in hands-on activities.
ProTip: All Raleigh’s museums (except Marbles Kids Museum) are free to the public. Allow a minimum of two hours to half a day for each. The museums are fully accessible and have restroom facilities throughout. Most have on-site cafés.
2. North Carolina Museum Of History
The two-story NC Museum of History houses centuries of North Carolina history within several exhibition halls. There are over 150,000 artifacts from native inhabitants to the 20th century. Dozens of exhibits are on display focusing on a variety of eras in state history. We enjoyed the historic full-sized houses relocated inside the museum and the 1920s drugstore replica complete with a soda fountain. The “North Carolina A to Z” exhibit was a favorite, as well as the NC Sports Hall of Fame.
Pro Tip: The café is open from Tuesday to Saturday. The huge gift shop carries a great selection of North Carolina souvenirs and gifts. All-day parking is convenient for both the Natural Sciences and History Museums.
3. North Carolina State Capitol
A Greek Revival structure built in 1833-1840, the NC State Capitol Building is magnificent. In the center of the rotunda stands a neoclassic marble statue of George Washington commissioned in 1815. On the second floor, the 19th-century legislative chambers are no longer used but are still grand, as they have been restored to the period with original furniture, paintings, and decorations. The State Library Room and State Geology Office have also been restored with an 1850s appearance. Fifteen statues and monuments are on display throughout the capitol grounds.
Pro Tip: The newly built (c.1960) NC State Legislation Building is a block from the NC State Capitol Building and open to the public. If you visit, be sure to take the elevator up to the fourth floor where you will discover four magnificent rooftop gardens.
4. City Of Raleigh History Museum
Much smaller than the NC Museum of History, the City of Raleigh History Museum (COR) is a fabulous little museum located on Fayetteville Street, right in the city center. It is housed in a historic old hardware store, Raleigh’s first skyscraper (c.1874). Unlike the much larger NC Museum of History, you can peruse the City of Raleigh History Museum in just an hour or two.
Pro Tip: Join the museum’s executive director every Saturday afternoon for a guided walking tour of the city’s historic landmarks and sites. The tour begins and ends at COR and takes about an hour. Also, be sure to visit the Historic City Market with its original cobblestone streets.
5. Pullen Park
Pullen Park opened in 1887 as North Carolina’s first public park. It is the fifth oldest amusement park in the U.S. and the 16th oldest in the world. One of the first things I’d ever heard about Raleigh is that this park is home to a 1911 Dentzel Carousel. It is a gorgeous carousel! For a small price, riders of all ages can ride on pigs, cats, ostriches, and a giraffe, as well as the famous Dentzel horses. A wheel-chair accessible chariot was added to the carousel in 2021. The park also has a lovely little lake with pedal boats, a train that circles the park, an aquatic center, a children’s playground, and food and drinks concessions.
Pro Tip: Two miles across town, John Chavis Memorial Park (with sensational views of the Raleigh skyline) is home to a lesser-known but equally impressive carousel — a 1923 Allan Herschell which features 35 hand-carved wooden “jumpers” and two chariots. Both carousels are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
6. Warehouse District
This vibrant and trendy district is six blocks of iconic, red-brick, former warehouse buildings. A revitalization project Raleigh can be proud of, the Warehouse District is the perfect space for an eclectic array of shops, artisan galleries, innovative businesses, restaurants, craft breweries, Videri Chocolate Factory, and more.
Pro Tip: There are several fine eating establishments within the Warehouse District. While there, be sure to check out Morgan Street Food Hall — a trendy 22,000 square foot “hall” of favorite local eateries and food retailers all sharing a large common seating area.
7. North Carolina Museum Of Art
Opened in 1956, the NC Museum of Art is just 10 miles from downtown Raleigh. It houses more than 5,000 works of art including paintings, artifacts, and sculptures spanning history. Visitors can see original Renaissance paintings, ancient Egyptian artifacts, and contemporary international works of art. Eight centuries of Western art include works by Winslow Homer, Claude Monet, and Georgia O’Keefe, among others.
Outside the museum, the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park is a serene 164-acre park featuring a dozen major works of art throughout the lush green fields and forest groves. Stroll or bike around the museum park with an on-site bicycle rental at Cardinal Bikeshare.
Pro Tip: Parking is free with plenty of accessible parking. However, the walk to the east building is approximately 600 feet. The park has accessible hard-gravel paths with some steeper small hills.
8. JC Raulston Arboretum
After two full days of museums, we were ready to get outside and enjoy the sunshine. We found the perfect place. The 10-acre JC Raulston Arboretum, part of North Carolina State University, is one of the largest gardens with the most diverse collections of landscape plants in the Southeast. Stop at the visitor center for a guide and map. Take a stroll through a dozen or so different gardens including a Japanese garden, rose garden, white garden, oak grove, conifers, and boxwood collections.
Pro Tip: Parking and entrance to the gardens are free. The parking lot is paved and several paths throughout are accessible, as well as the visitor and education centers.
9. William B. Umstead State Park
One of the main things that impressed me about Raleigh is the amount of green space within the city. Everywhere we looked there were trees, flower beds, parks, and walking trails. If you are looking for a great green space complete with outdoor adventure, Umstead State Park is just 10 miles from downtown Raleigh, near the Raleigh-Durham airport. The park features 34.5 miles of hiking trails, biking (13 miles), horseback riding (13 miles), kayaking and fishing on three lakes, bird watching, picnicking, and overnight camping. The main entrance and visitor center are at the Crabtree Creek entrance off US Highway 70.
If shopping is your bag (pun intended), you’ll find plenty of it in Raleigh. In addition to the various shops around downtown, North Hills is an outdoor shopping area in Midtown with more than 100 acres of retail stores, unique shops, boutiques, restaurants, salons, and a movie theater. Nearby Cameron Village offers more than 100 distinctive shops and eateries. If you still need more shopping, Crabtree Valley Mall has long been a premier destination and is one of the largest indoor malls in the Southeastern United States.
11. Governor’s Executive Mansion And Other Historic Homes
Preservation is a priority in Raleigh and these historic homes are worth visiting. We’ll start with the impressive (and some say haunted) North Carolina Executive Mansion. Located on North Blount Street, this mansion has been the official residence of North Carolina’s governor since 1883. Built in 1785, the Mordecai House is located on the last three acres of the 1,200-acre Mordecai Plantation, now the Mordecai Historic Park. There are several other historic buildings on the grounds including President Andrew Johnson’s birthplace (c.1795). Additionally, the Heights House Hotel in the Boylan Heights neighborhood is a gorgeous refurbished pre-Civil War house turned boutique hotel. The Parlor is open to the public.
The only African-American house museum in the state of North Carolina, the Pope House Museum offers a glimpse into the life of one of Raleigh’s most intriguing and prominent citizens, Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope. The Joel Lane Museum House (c.1769) is the home of one of Raleigh’s founding fathers and is thought to be the oldest existing dwelling in Wake County.
Pro Tip: If you love historic homes, there are numerous historic old mansions in the Oakwood Historic District on Blount Street (one-way south) — Heck-Andrews House (c.1870), The L.L. Polk House, and more. I suggest visiting the Mordecai house first, then driving (or walking) south on Blount toward the North Carolina Executive Mansion.
For more information on traveling to North Carolina, check out these articles: