15 Best Things to Do in Downtown Raleigh

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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At first glance, Downtown Raleigh, the historic center of North Carolina’s capital city, appears to be a quiet and reserved place where there’s not much going on. Start exploring and you’ll soon discover otherwise.

Raleigh hasn’t been nicknamed the city of oaks for nothing, and yes, the streets of Downtown are broad and lined with the majestic trees. Hiding behind those trees are a mega-sized amphitheater and a street-long mall full of shops, restaurants and secret, underground speakeasies.

In Downtown Raleigh, you’ll find a beer garden with a cellar the size of a football field and more cocktail bars than you could visit in a month, plus a plethora of science and history museums, art galleries and even a chocolate factory.

Check out these top fifteen things to do in Downtown Raleigh and find out just exactly where it’s all happening before you get there.

1. Crank Arm Rickshaw

Crank Arm RickshawSource: www.crankarmrickshaw.com
Crank Arm Rickshaw

Board one of these bright yellow three-wheeled rickshaw for a fun and informative ride around Downtown Raleigh. It’s the eco way to see the Downtown sights.

The driver-guide does all the pedaling on the tour while narrating snippets of history about DT and the historical places you’re passing. They do the hard work so you’ll have your hands free to snap photos whenever you want.

The tours last for around an hour. If you’re not into history or sightseeing, try the three-hour nighttime rickshaw bar crawl instead. You’ll have a ball.

2. Fayetteville Street

Fayetteville Street, RaleighSource: Konstantin L / shutterstock
Fayetteville Street

Take a stroll along Fayetteville Street in DT Raleigh, and you’ll soon realize you’re in the bustling heart of Downtown. It is, literally, the street that never sleeps.

By day the street is crowded with shoppers browsing the hundreds of retail outlets alongside workers from the nearby buildings taking their lunch breaks on the terraces of the restaurants and cafes. At night, the bar scene begins, the club crowd takes over, and the nightlife goes on until the early hours of the morning.

Fayetteville Street hosts a weekly Farmers Market from April through to September plus several large food and music festivals throughout the year.

3. North Carolina Museum Of Natural Sciences

North Carolina Museum Of Natural Sciences, RaleighSource: Jill Lang / shutterstock
North Carolina Museum Of Natural Sciences

Two of the four facilities of the North Carolina Museum Of Natural Sciences, the centers for Nature Research and Nature Exploration, are located on Jones Street in Downtown Raleigh.

The Nature Exploration Center has four floors of exhibits displaying everything from fossilized dinosaurs skeletons to minerals and North Carolina insect life. There’s a 3D theater and conservatory with a living example of a dry tropical forest.

The three floors of the Nature Research Center are stacked with diverse exhibits including investigative laboratories, displays of emeralds and meteorites found in North Carolina, and DNA replications.It’s a fascinating place to visit.

4. Raleigh Beer Garden

Raleigh Beer GardenSource: www.theraleighbeergarden.com
Raleigh Beer Garden

The Raleigh Beer Garden on Downtown’s Glenwood Avenue has more beer on tap than any other bar in DT and quite probably any other bar in the whole wide world.

Housed in a rustic wooden building complete with a full-size tree inside, extensive outdoor seating and a rooftop terrace, the bar has over three hundred and fifty draft beers on sale. Beer also finds its way onto the food menu, and they serve beer battered pretzels and frites as well as a long list of other tasty snacks which go well with beer.

Don’t miss the daily beer tastings for newly arrived brews. The Raleigh Beer Garden is a beer connoisseurs paradise, but don’t worry if you’re not a beer drinker, they do serve other beverages too.

5. Red Hat Amphitheater

Red Hat Amphitheater, RaleighSource: James Willamor / Flickr
Red Hat Amphitheater

The Red Hat Amphitheater is an impressive, open-air event venue in Downtown Raleigh. Fronted by a massive plaza, the amphitheater on South Salisbury Street can accommodate almost six thousand spectators.

Used for hosting major concerts and dramatic acts, the venue has a six month season running from April through to October. Hire a VIP box with food and drink included or sit on the lawn with a bucket of popcorn. It’s a great place in the inner-city to have an outdoor festival experience.

6. Art To Heart

Art To Heart, RaleighSource: www.visitraleigh.com
Art To Heart

The Art To Heart is a six-mile-long walkable or bikeable trail running through Downtown Raleigh. Join the trail on Downtown’s Fayetteville Street, and it’ll take you past the Red Hat Amphitheater and Raleigh Convention Center before skirting around Pullen Park.

The trail has both on-road and off-road sections before it culminates in the park of the North Carolina Art Museum. You’ll need two wheels to explore the park and its many path side sculptures as the grounds total over one hundred and sixty acres.

The trail’s a great way to get some exercise and see some of the best parts of Downtown Raleigh at the same time. Need a bicycle? Use the DT Raleigh short-term bike share scheme which has several stations in Downtown where you can pick up an electrically assisted cycle.

7. North Carolina Museum Of Art

North Carolina Museum Of ArtSource: NC Museum of Art / Wikimedia
North Carolina Museum Of Art

The North Carolina Museum Of Art, on Downtown Raleigh’s Blue Ridge Road, is surrounded by extensive parklands studded with impressive sculptures as well as having forty internal galleries displaying artworks spanning five millenniums.

The museum’s permanent collections include ancient art from Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Modern and contemporary paintings by both European and American artists plus thirty unique sculptures, including examples of the Thinker and the Kiss, by the master sculptor Rodin.

8. Foundation Bar

Foundation Bar, RaleighSource: facebook.com
Foundation Bar, Raleigh

Tucked away out of view in a basement on Fayetteville Street in Downtown Raleigh is the Foundation bar.

The staff at the underground cocktail and bourbon bar know a thing or two about mixology and produce superiorly crafted beverages for clients with discerning tastes. The décor is polished wood and bare brick. It’s speakeasy dark, and the drinks are decadent.

Look for the glowing red neon sign with the bar’s name on at number two one three Fayetteville Street; it’s not easy to spot as it’s halfway down a flight of stairs. Don’t miss it.

9. Videri Chocolate Factory

Videri Chocolate FactorySource: facebook.com
Videri Chocolate Factory

There’s a quaint, historic brick building on Davies Street in Downtown Raleigh where magical alchemy happens. Yes, the production of that all-time favorite sweet treat takes place at the Videri Chocolate Factory.

Watch through the viewing windows as the cacao beans are roasted, ground and then made into delicious slabs of chocolate.

Enjoy coffee and chocolates in the Coffee Bar then try to resist purchasing one of everything from the Chocolate Counter before you leave. It’s an impossible feat.

10. North Carolina Museum Of History

North Carolina Museum Of History, RaleighSource: Daderot / Wikimedia
North Carolina Museum Of History

Discover facts about North Carolina and Raleigh’s fascinating past at the North Carolina Museum Of History in Downtown Raleigh.

The museum has four floors and over fifty-five thousand square feet of exhibit space where you can investigate the effects of cash crops like tobacco on North Carolina’s agricultural industry or learn about the making of the legendary film Gone With The Wind.

There is also an independent exhibition, North Carolina’s Sports Hall of Fame, dedicated to the state’s most famous sports personalities.

11. Roast Grill

Roast Grill, RaleighSource: facebook.com
Roast Grill, Raleigh

Drop in at the Roast Grill for lunch or dinner on West Street in Downtown Raleigh, and one of the things you won’t get is fine dining. There’s only one item on the menu, and that’s hot dogs.

Open over seventy years, and still serving the top-it-how-you-want-it hot dog from a choice of onions, chili, mustard and slaw, the Roast Grill has become a Downtown Raleigh tradition.

There are no fries, no sides, no cheese, and no ketchup. In fact, the list of things they don’t serve is longer than the one of stuff they do. If hot dogs aren’t your favorite food, this is not the diner for you.

12. Raleigh Times Bar

Raleigh Times BarSource: facebook.com
Raleigh Times Bar

The Raleigh Times Bar on DT Raleigh’s East Hargett Street is almost as much a museum as it is a bar.

Housed in a century-old building which was once the offices of the Raleigh Times newspaper, the bar is decorated with press related memorabilia. Read snippets of Raleigh’s bygone days while sipping on one of the bar’s specialist imported beers or tucking into one of their signature dishes like catfish and chips.

The Raleigh Times Bar has a rooftop terrace with stunning views of the DT skyline. It’s the perfect watering hole to end the day at.

13. Historic Oakwood

Historic Oakwood, RaleighSource: www.historicoakwood.org
Historic Oakwood

Historic Oakwood is a district of Downtown Raleigh which appears to have got stuck in the nineteenth century. The neighborhood is full of restored houses and mansion-size properties which are all architectural museum pieces.

If you’re in DT Raleigh in the Spring, catch the Garden Tour and Tea, when members of the public are given entry to the house’s private gardens followed by a Victorian tea. If you’re there in December, the annual Candlelight tour allows you to go inside some of the properties and see how they are furnished internally.

14. CAM Raleigh

CAM RaleighSource: James Willamor / Flickr
CAM Raleigh

The Museum Of Contemporary Art in Downtown Raleigh is a twenty-thousand square foot refurbished warehouse which houses continually changing exhibitions of modern art.

The eye-catching building on DT Raleigh’s Martin Street has a geometrically sloped roof and glass-fronted entrance. Inside the open-ceilinged galleries make it luminous, airy and ideal for displaying the colorful artworks.

Expect to browse anything from basketball-related sculptures and paintings to portraits of ex-president Barack Obama.

15. Pit Authentic BBQ Restaurant

Pit Authentic BBQ Restaurant, RaleighSource: facebook.com
Pit Authentic BBQ Restaurant, Raleigh

Downtown Raleigh loves its barbecue, and they don’t do it by half. At the Pit Authentic Barbecue on West Davie Street, only a whole hog roast will do.

Following the North Carolina state’s traditional method of pit-barbecuing, the Pit serves up pulled pork, racks of ribs in multiple combinations, smoked meatloaf, and blackened salmon. It’s not all meat, and there are vegan options of pit-grilled tofu or soy nuggets too along with a staggering fifteen sides and countless salads to choose from.

15 Best Things to Do in Downtown Raleigh:

  • Crank Arm Rickshaw
  • Fayetteville Street
  • North Carolina Museum Of Natural Sciences
  • Raleigh Beer Garden
  • Red Hat Amphitheater
  • Art To Heart
  • North Carolina Museum Of Art
  • Foundation Bar
  • Videri Chocolate Factory
  • North Carolina Museum Of History
  • Roast Grill
  • Raleigh Times Bar
  • Historic Oakwood
  • CAM Raleigh
  • Pit Authentic BBQ Restaurant