It’s estimated that over nine million people visit Durham, North Carolina each year. It’s earned national accolades as one of the best places to work, live, and play, so it’s no wonder that tourists want to see it for themselves.
Whether you go for the lively night life, award winning performing arts, action-packed sports, fantastic outdoor adventure, eco-agriculture, tons of shopping, or historical and educational sight-seeing, Durham delivers.
The city is bursting at the seams with unique and fun things to do. And while you’re there, don’t forget Chapel Hill – just ten miles from Durham, it’s another unique (and rival) town with tons to offer.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Durham:
1. Duke University
Originally Trinity College until 1924, Duke University is one of the United States top colleges. Endowed by the cigarette fortune of the Duke family, the university is known for rigorous academic programs and top ranked sports.
The main campus is Georgian style and the west campus has neo-Gothic architecture – both of which are stunning to walk through.
Do a self-guided tour or jump on an admissions tour to learn the history and legacy of this impressive institution.
2. Duke University Lemur Center
Everyone’s favourite stop in Durham is the Lemur Center. Just two miles from main campus, this is the largest collection of the endangered primates outside of Madagascar, their native country.
The centre is focused on research, scholarship, and conservation and they run guided tours on most days that are often booked well in advance.
Their mission is to promote a deep appreciation of our planet’s amazing biodiversity and the inherent power behind new scientific discoveries. It’s almost impossible not to fall in love with these wide-eyed fuzzy creatures.
Historic Stagville was once one of the largest plantations in the pre-American Civil War South. With 30,000 acres and 900 slaves, it is the site of an important piece of history.
You’ll be able to explore 18th and 19th century homes, the old slave quarters, and a one-of-a-kind barn.
In addition to tours, Stagville also has regular educational and cultural events on site – like lectures on the personal lives, struggles, and celebrations of the enslaved.
Stagville is dedicated to studying and preserving African-American culture.
4. Bennett Place
In April 1865, at Bennett Place, the largest troop surrender of Confederate soldiers occurred, effectively ending the American Civil War.
Confederate general Joseph E. Johnson met there with his rival, General William T. Sherman and surrendered all the southern armies in Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas.
Today you can explore the museum gallery and historic structures, watch special re-enactments, and visit a theatre which shows a short film called ‘Dawn of Peace.’
You can also visit the Everett-Thissen Research Library which has over 1,000 books on the Civil War era.
5. Nasher Museum of Art
Part of the Duke University system, The Nasher is home to an incredible collection of international and contemporary pieces.
The building itself is a futuristic cube that complements the more than 10,000 works of art inside.
The four permanent collections include pre-Columbian Art of the Americas, Medieval Art, Classical Antiquities, and modern contemporary with a concentration on the African diaspora.
This is one of the best university collections in the country.
6. West Point on the Eno River
This park along the Eno River covers over 400 acres and has three historic buildings. It’s the perfect combination of history and natural scenery.
There are five miles of nature trails that follow the river and some surrounding bluffs. There’s also an amphitheatre, fishing areas, rapids that are great for paddling, and picnic facilities.
The highlight of the park is West Point Mill. Once one of 32 mills along the river, it has been rebuilt on the site of what was the largest mill. At its height, it was the centre and heartbeat of a 300 family community. It’s a working mill once again and you can buy products there at the shop.
Take a tour of the restored mill owners home as well as the old tobacco pack house – which is now home to the Hugh Mangum Museum of Photography.
Southern Living recently named Durham the ‘Tastiest Town in the South.’ A distinction that is well deserved as all the local foodies will tell you. Surrounding this nationally celebrated food scene, Agra tourism has developed so that visitors can get a peek behind the scenes.
There are a number of local farms you can visit and a number of tour packages you can buy to visit several all in one day.
Blue Whistler Farm is one working farm of note, as is Funny Girl Farm with its year round farm stand.
Considered by many to be the epi-centre of North Carolina’s farm to table movement, Durham has great places to discover like Watts Grocery, Fullsteam Brewery, Durham Farmer’s Market, and the South Durham Market.
8. The Durham Bulls
Made famous by the 1988 movie Bull Durham, the nationally acclaimed Triple-A baseball team is a must see for any sports fans. The 10,000 seat stadium itself has a 32-foot-tall wall behind left field and a towering bull on top.
To connect the modern day with the historic era, the architecture of the stadium matches the original Durham Bull’s stadium as well as the historic tobacco warehouses in the neighbourhood.
Have the ultimate American experience with a beer, a hotdog, and the Durham Bulls.
9. Brightleaf Square
Durham has done a fantastic job of renovating its historic past in order to make it a functional part of modern day city life. The best example of this is the Brightleaf Square District. It’s anchored by two renovated tobacco warehouses which have been turned into fabulous restaurants, shops, and bars.
Over the years the area has branched out along Main Street as the popularity and reputation of Brightleaf has grown.
The warehouses were built in the early 20th century in order to store and age tobacco being grown in the area. It’s now a part of the National Register of Historic Places and some of the best that Durham has to offer can be found here.
10. Eno River State Park
Just ten miles from downtown, the Eno River State Park provides the perfect balance of nature to downtowns busy bustle.
The river flows for 33 miles through the city and ends in Falls Lake. Along the way it passes lovely bluffs, a historic mill, and pine forest and with five access points into the park, it’s an easy escape.
Enjoy fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and overnight camping. With over 30 miles of trails this is the place locals come to unwind and sink into what’s beautiful about Durham.
11. The American Tobacco Trail
The American Tobacco Trail is a Rails-to-Trails project that runs for almost 23 miles through the Research Triangle in Eastern North Carolina.
Built out of the abandoned railroad tracks that were originally built for the American Tobacco Company in the 1970’s.
You can bike, hike, walk, horseback ride, and run and it’s incredibly popular with locals. The trail begins in the south near New Hill and ends near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
12. Duke University Chapel
Located on the university’s West Campus, Duke University Chapel is a truly magnificent piece of history and architecture. Built in the 1930’s, this neo-Gothic building has a striking 210-foot tower with 77 colourful, glass windows depicting various scenes from the bible.
It also has pointed arches, stone piers, flying buttresses, and ribbed vaults. History has it that during the two years of construction, students routinely gathered at the stone mason’s huts to watch as the chapel was being built.
It now has an interdenominational congregation known for its inspiring music and worship.
13. Falls Lake State Recreation Area
Falls Lake is a 12,000-acre reservoir with more than 300 campsites, five swimming beaches, boat ramps, and great paddling.
Near the Beaverdam access point there are wonderful mountain bike trails.
There are also extensive hiking trails, including the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail that winds through the area and is considered its centrepiece.
14. Local Eats
Durham’s reputation is that of a ‘foodie’ city. This is a town full of one-of-a-kind dining experiences. Everything from soul food, southern cooking, and international cuisine can be found on the best of the best lists. Fresh, local, and family owned are the buzz words.
Each year each of Durham’s media outlets host voter polls to determine the new must visit restaurants. Some recent non-chain winners include Guglhupf Bakery, Bull City Burger and Brewery, Foster’s Market, Mateo Bar de Tapas and Vin Rouge, and Elmo’s Diner.
If you’re interested in local breweries check out Sam’s Bottle Shop and the best late night meal is said to be at the Parts & Labor Motorco.
15. The Golden Belt
If you’re looking for what’s innovative in Durham, you don’t have to look further than The Golden Belt. A refurbished and repurposed textile mill that originally made the pouches for Bull Durham tobacco, it is now a LEED Gold certified complex that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Golden Belt has galleries, artist studios, event spaces, apartment homes, offices, live music, dance and theatre performances, restaurants, and much more.
The space is also interactive. Guests are able to tour the artist studios, speak with the artists themselves and fully explore this exciting hub of creativity.
Yoga classes are available, as well as a salon, and a tattoo shop. Every third Friday of the month all 30 studios are open at the same time for tours.