Vibrant and international, Durham livens up the Research Triangle.
Advertisement
duke university durham
Credit: Getty Images

Located in North Carolina's famed "Research Triangle," Durham is a small, atypical Southern city. A vibrant international community composed of brainy students, young technology and science entrepreneurs, and retirees from all around the world make The Bull City a progressive and creative place.

Durham has a revitalized downtown that honors its tobacco-rich history. Old brick factory buildings and warehouses house modern lofts, theaters, and trendy restaurants. Groovy hotels, craft cocktail lounges, and small boutiques scattered around downtown's few blocks are easily accessible on foot. Durham is particularly interesting for those who enjoy art, architecture, and history, though there are lots of places nearby to escape urban life and get closer to nature. If you have a few days or just a weekend to spend, here are some things to do in Durham.

Stay

The Durham is a comfortable, midcentury modern 53-room hotel set in the former Home Savings building. You can see North Carolina roots across the property—from Raleigh Denim custom-made blankets in the rooms to the Durham-based Burt's Bees bath amenities, and kitchen ingredients sourced from local farms. Executive chef Shane Ingram leads the team at The Restaurant and The Roof panoramic rooftop bar—both located at the hotel.

Across the street are other equally trendy places to rest for the night. The 1960's motor-lodge style Unscripted Hotel boasts funky rooms overlooking a pool deck and bar. Occupying the historic Hill Building is the 21c Museum Hotel, a charming boutique hotel that doubles as a contemporary art museum. The original building was designed in 1937 by William F. Lamb, who was also responsible for the Empire State Building in New York City. The museum portion of the hotel is currently open to hotel guests only.

Eat

Catering to a younger audience, most restaurants in Durham are casual, offering extensive craft cocktail and specialty coffee menus. Start with brunch at Press Coffee+Crepes, a popular hotspot for Southern-inspired crepes and loaded hash browns. Jack Tar and The Colonel's Daughter is especially known for their brunch pancakes, fried catfish and grits, as well as fried-to-order crullers.

Head over to Saltbox Seafood Joint for a fish-shack style lunch. Owner and chef Ricky Moore (semifinalist for a James Beard Award—Best Chef Southeast) sources the catch of the day from Carolina purveyors and raises awareness about eating seasonal seafood.

Opened during the 2020 pandemic, Durham Food Hall is a casual place to taste different chef-driven local eateries serving everything from pizza and bagel sandwiches to tacos and ramen.

Take an afternoon break with a behind-the-scenes tour of Durham Distillery, where you can see how traditional gin-making is combined with modern chemistry. The downstairs Corpse Reviver Bar and Lounge cocktail lounge (located in a former coffin shop) is artistically vibrant and serves memorable dirty martinis.

Head to Plum Southern Kitchen and Bar for dinner. The modern family-run restaurant serves Southern small plates such as deviled eggs, smoked trout, biscuits, and shrimp and grits using locally-sourced ingredients often bought at the Durham farmers market. Find a bustling late night scene at Durham's newest bar, Queeny's, and the intimate basement cocktail bar, Kingfisher.  

Do

The best way to get familiar with the historic neighborhoods of Durham is by taking a self-guided walking tour. Witness the transformation of a Historic American Tobacco District into a mixed-use area encompassing a campus, housing, event spaces, startup incubators, and even a man-made river. Visit Burt's Bees founder Burt Shavitz's original cabin transported from Maine and watch a short at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

African-American enterprises thrived on Parrish Street in the late 1800's and early 1900's, giving reference to the term Black Wall Street. To learn more about Black history in Durham, visit the exhibit "The Black Wall Street of America" at the North Carolina Mutual Bank.

If you prefer to hobnob with the locals, watch a minor league baseball game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The 10,000-seat state-of-the-art stadium is home to the Durham Bulls. Beyond the games, there are themed nights (Stranger Things, Star Wars), Bark in the Park (bring your dog to the game), and Friday night fireworks.

For some fresh air, head over to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens for a stroll through the 55-acre botanical gardens, tranquil ponds, and five miles of pathways. Duke University and Duke Chapel, with their gothic-inspired architecture, are also worth a visit. On the west side of the campus is the Nasher Museum of Art, which displays African, American, European, and Latin American artworks.

There are a few options for live entertainment and nightlife in Durham, especially on the weekends. Watch a Broadway musical or a well-known artist at the world-class performing arts theater, Durham Performing Arts Center. A movie or concert at the old glam Carolina Theatre is also a great way to end the day.