Now as low as $25, flights from MacArthur Aiport to Raleigh-Durham International Airport in central North Carolina are practically free. In the Triangle — formed by state capital Raleigh, hipster haven Durham and college town Chapel Hill — you’ll find growing, diverse cities defined by much more than Duke basketball or whole hog barbecue. Rent a car to easily slip between these neighboring Southern cities, using these highlights as your local tip sheet.
Keep the savings going by staying at the Super 8 by Wyndham Durham/University Area (2337 Guess Rd., rooms from $55 a night, wyndhamhotels.com/super-8) or the Days Inn by Wyndham Raleigh Glenwood-Crabtree (6619 Glenwood Ave., from $65, wyndhamhotels.com/days-inn). Alternately, splurge by checking into downtown’s new Unscripted Hotel (202 N. Corcoran St., Durham, from $135, unscriptedhotels.com), complete with a swanky rooftop pool and street-level restaurant, Jack Tar.
After you drop off your bags, the best way to start your trip is by exploring the center city. Walking around downtown will give you a sense of place, and the variety of small businesses will keep you busy.
In Durham, meander between 9th Street Bakery, plant store Zen Succulent, the Parlour ice cream shop, Carolina Soul Records (117 E. Main St., carolinasoul.com), Beyú Caffé and cocktail bar Alley Twenty Six. Just north of downtown, act like a local by stopping for coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon (420 W. Geer St., 4thdimension.coffee), grabbing a quick bite at King’s Sandwich Shop or ordering a drink and playing games in the backyard of Surf Club dive bar. Stay in the neighborhood late by eating dinner at “down-home food” restaurant Geer Street Garden and catching live indie or hip-hop bands at Motorco (723 Rigsbee Ave., motorcomusic.com).
In Raleigh, the action is on the western edge of downtown. Crank Arm Brewing, Boxcar Bar & Arcade, Videri Chocolate Factory and the Pit BBQ practically sit on top of each other. With about 20 food vendors, Morgan Street Food Hall (411 W. Morgan St., morganfoodhall.com) is around the corner, as is vegetarian favorite Fiction Kitchen. You’ll find everything from the Raleigh Denim jeans company to the pedal-powered, beer-fueled Trolley Pub here.
If day slips into night, eat dinner at the venerated Poole’s Diner (426 S. McDowell St., ac-restaurants.com/pooles), a Southern restaurant serving modern comfort food from the mind of 2019 James Beard Award winner Ashley Christensen. Walk to Red Hat Amphitheater (500 S. McDowell St., redhatamphitheater.com), where acts from Lake Street Dive to Wu-Tang Clan take the stage this month. Head to Slim’s (227 S. Wilmington St., slimsraleigh.com), center city’s self-proclaimed oldest bar, to catch a more local band or shoot pool.
Barbecue is king in North Carolina. Here, that always means pork, preferably cooked over wood and splashed with a vinegar-based sauce. But that doesn’t mean the dining options are limited.
In addition to Poole’s, consider Christensen’s other restaurants, like Beasley’s Chicken & Honey (237 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh; ac-restaurants.com/beasleys), where you can try Carolina favorites like pimento cheese, buttermilk biscuits and braised collard greens. Celebrated chef Cheetie Kumar helms Garland (14 W. Martin St., Raleigh; garlandraleigh.com), a fantastic Indian restaurant with pan-Asian influences downtown that serves memorable small plates like beet bhel puri, a chaat with cucumbers, jicama, potatoes, chutney and tomatoes.
Less formal — but no less delicious — options abound, especially in Durham. The menu at Saltbox (608 N. Mangum St., saltboxseafoodjoint.com) changes daily because it’s fresh from the Carolina coast but often features a particularly great swordfish. Go to Dame’s Chicken & Waffles for brunch and enjoy some delicious Guatemalan food at El Chapin (4600 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., facebook.com/elchapindurham). If you see Cheerwine soda on a menu somewhere, order this local favorite for a cross between Cherry Coke and Dr. Pepper.
Hungry late? Grab a milkshake, hush puppies, a burger or pulled pork barbecue at Cook Out, a North Carolina-based chain that’s beloved by locals. Speaking of cheap eats, no trip would be complete without a stop at Bojangles or Biscuitville, dueling North Carolina chains that are both home to crowd-pleasing fried chicken biscuits.
The Museum of Life & Science (433 W. Murray Ave., Durham; $16-$21, lifeandscience.org) has everything. Whether you’re into dinosaurs, outer space or wildlife, this museum provides hours of fascination. There’s a “treehouse village” that’s every bit as cool as it sounds.
The North Carolina Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Rd., Raleigh; ncartmuseum.org) is free, so whether you’re walking through the sculpture garden or perusing classics in the permanent collection, it won’t feel like a waste if your kid throws a tantrum and you need to leave early.
The Duke Lemur Center (3705 Erwin Rd., Durham; $12-$14, lemur.duke.edu) is exactly what it sounds like. Home to more lemurs than anywhere in the world outside Madagascar, this educational center requires reservations. If time allows, consider a leisurely stroll through the adjacent Duke Forest (dukeforest.duke.edu/recreation).
Drink local beer
North Carolina is home to more breweries than any other Southern state, and many call the Triangle region home. The most famous may be Raleigh’s Brewery Bhavana (218 S. Blount St., brewerybhavana.com), a remarkable dim sum restaurant celebrated by Bon Appétit and others. Additional standouts include Neuse River or Trophy Brewing in Raleigh and Ponysaurus (219 Hood St., ponysaurusbrewing.com) and Fullsteam in Durham.
If you’re a die-hard craft beer fan, consider booking a multistop excursion with a group like Beltline Brew Tours (beltlinebrewtours.com) or downloading a free Raleigh Beer Trail passport (visitraleigh.com/foodie/drinks/raleigh-beer-trail) and building your own adventure. If beer doesn’t do it for you, tour women-run Durham Distillery (711 Washington St., Durham; $15, durhamdistillery.com), known for its gins, or the Brothers Vilgalys Baltic-Style Spirits (803 D Ramseur St., Durham; $5, brothersvilgalys.com), where the spiced honey liqueur is the star.
North Carolina’s natural beauty seeps into its cities, too. Whether you want to rent a canoe, swim in a quarry or just relax on a lakeside beach, you won’t have to drive to the coast or the mountains to find nature.
At Eno River State Park (6101 Cole Mill Rd., Durham), a short drive from downtown Durham, you’ll find 30 miles of serene trails. Plan a family picnic or fishing excursion, or join the Sunday morning bird walk. Raleigh’s Umstead State Park (8801 Glenwood Ave.) is loved by trail runners and cyclists alike, but it’s also an ideal place to rent a canoe or other boat for just $7.
If that’s not enough, Jordan Lake is a popular destination a little farther out, offering beachfronts, swimming and trails galore.
The Triangle is teeming with venues. South of downtown Durham, you’ll find the legendary Durham Bulls Athletic Park (409 Blackwell St., tickets from $9, milb.com/durham). A block away, the Durham Performing Arts Center (dpacnc.com) hosts acts ranging from Styx to comedian Ali Wong. Raleigh offers added variety, from an emo dance party at Kings (14 W. Martin St., $10, kingsraleigh.com) to Carly Rae Jepsen at the Ritz (2820 Industrial Dr., ritzraleigh.com) to stand-up at Goodnights Comedy Club (861 W. Morgan St., goodnightscomedy.com).
The most memorable trips are the ones laced with accidental adventures. Maybe you’ll start at the Regulator Bookshop (720 Ninth St., Durham; regulatorbookshop.com) before wandering around the corner for a mango paleta at Pincho Loco or a burrito upstairs at Cosmic Cantina. You might get lost in the extensive tap menu at Raleigh Beer Garden (614 Glenwood Ave., theraleighbeergarden.com) to kick off an impromptu bar crawl down the street. You’ll never see it all, so use these tips as a starting point and make it up as you go.