After spending a significant portion of the past 14 years traveling the USA (my family moved here in 2005!), I can safely say that while I have seen A LOT of the country, my list of where I want to travel only ever seems to get longer. This country is huge (to put it lightly) and has so much to offer every type of traveler. The “major” cities (New York, LA, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Fran) are wonderful to visit, but I also like to take any possible opportunity to venture out to other smaller cities to see what is going on there. In my experience, it is these mid-sized cities that make for the best weekend getaways (Portland being one of my all-time favorites!)
We ended up in Raleigh because we wanted to go away for Memorial Day weekend, I required that it had to be somewhere I had never been before, R required that there had to be a direct Delta flight from Cleveland…that left us with not too many options. As soon as I started researching Raleigh, I had a feeling that we were going to love it. While there wasn’t an awful lot written about it, what I could find praised its foodie scene, world-class art offerings, and laid-back locals. In other words, the things that pretty much comprise my favorite places.
As always, the trip was made so much better by your recommendations, so thank you to everyone who took the time to write me their suggestions! I ended up with an extremely long list of dining establishments that looked slightly ambitious – even for me. To spread the love, I thought I would gather up all the best spots, should you find yourself in the area any time soon. Here is my guide to Raleigh, North Carolina…
As mentioned, we flew direct from Cleveland to Raleigh on Delta, which only took about an hour in the air! Raleigh airport is located not too far outside of the city which always makes the journey feel a lot easier when you don’t have to spend just as long transiting from the airport as you did in the sky.
Raleigh has Uber, but we decided to rent a car (R surprised me with a red convertible!) because we knew we wanted to spend a couple of days outside of Raleigh in Chapel Hill/Durham. If possible, I would highly recommend that you rent a car when in this area, particularly if you don’t want to just remain in the downtown area. While the city itself isn’t too big, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of public transportation, so I could foresee Uber rides quickly adding up. In terms of driving, there was not too much traffic, and the roads were easy to navigate (I say as the one who didn’t do any driving). We did finally try out electric scooters – you can rent Lime scooters through the Uber app – which was fun and an excellent way to get around downtown Raleigh. TIP: even though they are electric, you have to do a little push-off to get them going at first.
After weighing up a few different options, R booked us into the AC Hotel in North Hills, which was located about 15 minutes outside the city center. While the hotel itself was lovely (comfy beds, great gym, rooftop restaurant, friendly staff, and a hydration station!), the location isn’t necessarily ideal. If you have a car, then it won’t make much difference, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you are car-less or are planning on drinking in downtown Raleigh and then needing to get back to the hotel.
EATING & DRINKING
Most mornings we had an RX bar (peanut butter all the way) and a cup of coffee from the hotel room to get us going before indulging in big lunches and even bigger dinners – a combination that is best limited to vacations. One morning we did bypass this routine and had our am meal at The Morning Times, a lovely, local coffee house that came recommended by one of our dinner servers. Other coffee shops/breakfast joints that garner a lot of local love include Irregardless Cafe, Jubala Coffee, and Sola Coffee.
For lunch, I am always a sucker for a good food hall and, as Raleigh’s newest offering, Transfer Co. Food Hall certainly didn’t disappoint. For our first meal in the city, we indulged in oysters from Locals Oyster Bar, empanadas from Che Empanadas, and paneer tacos from Chhote’s (which means ‘little’ in Hindi) all of which kept us going until our mid-afternoon treat at Videri Chocolate Factory. One of Raleigh’s most prized local businesses, here they create handcrafted bean-to-bar chocolate which you can see on the self-guided factory tour (although, I didn’t realize they only made chocolate Monday – Friday from 10 am – 3 pm and so was understandably a little disappointed to not see the Willy Wonka like magic with my own eyes on Saturday afternoon.)
At this point, it will probably come as no surprise to you that it was the dining opportunities in Raleigh that thoroughly convinced me that this was going to be a city for us. Specifically, it was learning about Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant that is run by a brother and sister duo, and received excellent praise across the board. Given that (thus far in my life), I have not managed to visit Laos nor sampled its cuisine, I was intrigued by the fact that I could change one of these things in – of all places – Raleigh, North Carolina. This place is so popular that even though we made a reservation two weeks in advance, we were still only able to get a table for 10 pm on a Saturday night. So, consider this your warning! Brewery Bhavana was another place asterisked on my list; but, as soon as I realized it was next-door-to and owned by the same siblings as Bida Manda, there was no way we weren’t going to try it out. This brewery/dim-sum restaurant/bookstore/flower-shop is not only an aesthetic dream but the food was NEXT LEVEL and the vibe completely unpretentious (despite just being named one of the coolest restaurants in the world). It is worth a trip to Raleigh just for their turnip cakes.
This year, Ashley Christensen was named Outstanding Chef at the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards due to being the chef and owner of several (incredible) restaurants in the South. Death and Taxes is the one we chose to dine in because considering its “dedicated to the technique of cooking with wood fire,” we felt it would make our taste buds very happy. And, boy, were we right. The perfect order? In my humble opinion, the octopus and roasted oysters to start, the NC shrimp, prosciutto, cauliflower cacio e pepe & capers for main, followed by the coconut sorbet and a french-press coffee from Counter Culture.
If you are looking to get out of the city and crave a little bit of relaxation, then the Honeysuckle Tea House is right up your alley. About a 40-minute drive from Raleigh proper (and only open Fri-Sun), the tea house is built on shipping containers and other repurposed materials while being surrounded by herb gardens, a playground, a hammocks garden (!!!), mandala garden, and farm fields. The menu consists of lots of teas, and a few different smoothies that can also be made into smoothie bowls (recommend!), so this isn’t the place for a full-on lunch or dinner, but is ideal for breakfast or a large snack. I LOVED our time here, it was so peaceful, and I will never not enjoy taking a nap on a hammock.
The art offerings here are really one of the main highlights, and we found each one to deeply tickle our creative fantasy – for free! The NC Art Museum is FANTASTIC and has the most wonderful outdoor sculpture park. We did one of the free “Explore the Collection” daily museum tours and Docent Doug really brought to life several pieces that we otherwise (probably) would have walked right past. You could spend all day wandering around and, if I could redo the weekend, I would spend more time here and bypass the Raleigh Flea Market (don’t bother with this!) We just happened to walk into Artspace and were blown away by everything that was going on inside there. In addition to rotating exhibits (we saw two fantastic ones by Lien Truong and Michela Martello), there are 28 studio spaces for professional and emerging artists to work and hold open hours. The artists represent a wide variety of media, making this an ideal place to get a souvenir while supporting local artists.
If you are interested in some of the history of this area, then make a quick stop at the North Carolina State Capital (where I learned that three presidents were from this state) which is right by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the Bicentennial Plaza. For architecture lovers, the James B Hunt Jr Library is supposed to be an extraordinary building (we didn’t make it!), while the historic neighborhood of Oakwood is home to a variety of 19th-century houses. We did a little bit of this self-guided tour, before wandering into the Oakwood Cemetery and paying our respects at the Confederate Cemetery.
One of the draws of traveling to Raleigh is that you can also spend a day or two in the neighboring cities of Durham and Chapel Hill (both about a 30-minute drive). As a surprise for R, I booked us on a tour at the Duke Lemur Center, which was highly unexpected but also very interesting and a kooky thing to do. They have the largest collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar! The 90-minute tour is well worth it, and it is definitely what we have talked about most upon our return. Afterward, we headed into Durham for lunch at Lucky’s Delicatessen and a cup of 4th Dimension Coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon. (If we weren’t so full we would have also had a scoop of Vietnamese Coffee ice-cream from The Parlour). If it hadn’t have been so hot (100+ degrees!) then we would have strolled around the Sarah P Duke Gardens and headed over to Chapel Hill to do this self-guided mural walking tour; but, alas! We were overheating and so, therefore, spent three minutes at the American Tobacco Campus before heading back to our hotel for some much needed AC.
Most of the food recommendations were for Durham so here are some other spots to ensure you don’t go hungry or thirsty: Durham Hotel (rooftop cocktail bar), Monuts (local cafe and bakery), M Kokko (noodles and ramen), Dashi (ramen shop and Japanese pub), Motorco (bar and music venue), Mateos (Spanish tapas), Picnic (BBQ), Mother’s and Sons (Italian), Saltbox Seafood Joint (fish stand feat. local catch), and Piedmont Restaurant (locally sourced contemporary American fare).
I didn’t actually purchase anything in Raleigh (not even a patch!) thanks to my carry-on only situation, but I still wanted to highlight the Raleigh Denim Workshop where they make the denim in-house (although there seemed to be more of a men’s selection) and allow you to see the process. Also, Deco Raleigh, where we spent almost an hour browsing the large selection of locally made gifts, housewares, books & cards.
+ See more of the city in my Raleigh travel vlog