25 Best Things to Do in Raleigh (North Carolina)

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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Founded in 1792, (by a man who you will learn more about later on) with the specific purpose of being the state capital, Raleigh is not the first choice of visitors to the state of North Carolina but does still have a lot to offer.

It has a charming downtown area with a smattering of quality and inexpensive (many are free) museums. The culture in Raleigh is becoming more sophisticated as time goes by and the art galleries, food and music in the city are quickly gaining a reputation.

Here is our list of the best things to do in Raleigh:

1. Learn about Natural Sciences

North Carolina Museum of Natural SciencesSource: zimmytws / shutterstock
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

The largest natural science museum in the Southeast of the United States, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is home to a large variety of interactive exhibits and educational programs that allow visitors to get up close and personal with science and nature.

You will find the museum in Downtown Raleigh and general admission is free.

2. Visit the State Capitol

North Carolina State CapitolSource: ESB Professional / shutterstock
North Carolina State Capitol

The State Capitol building of North Carolina is located on Edenton Street in Raleigh. The building is classed as a National Historic Landmark and dates back to 1840.

It is believed to be one of the finest examples of a building of its kind in the Greek Revival architectural style. Tours of the building include visiting the building’s impressive rotunda centerpiece which was added in 1970.

The rotunda is a copy of the statue of George Washington displayed in the State House between 1820 and 1831.

3. Go wacky at Marbles

Marbles Kids MuseumSource: North Carolina National Guard / Flickr | CC BY-ND
Marbles Kids Museum

Marbles Kids Museum is great for young children or adults that think they are still children. The museum opened in 2007 in Downtown Raleigh and is a hands-on, interactive learning experience.

Exhibits include Tree Tunes, which lets young ones have a go at making music inspired by the great outdoors, and Splash, a water themed learning zone.

There is also an Imax cinema at the museum which plays the latest blockbusters along with special educational films.

4. Enjoy outdoors at Pullen Park

Pullen ParkSource: Wileydoc / shutterstock
Pullen Park

Pullen Park is a 66 and a half acre park is just west of the Downtown area of Raleigh and right next to the University campus.

The park was opened in 1887 and is home to an aquatic center, an amusement arcade, an arts center, a cafe and an outdoor theater.

As well as all of these attractions, the park is also a great place to undertake in a variety of outdoor pursuits such as tennis or basketball or simply relax and have a picnic in one of the picnic areas.

5. Admire a large plant collection

JC Raulston ArboretumSource: Wileydoc / shutterstock
JC Raulston Arboretum

Located on the State University Campus, the JC Raulston Arboretum is one of the largest collections of plants in the Southeast United States featuring over 6,500 plants from around the world.

Tours of the Arboretum take place every Sunday between the months of March and October at 2pm.

Normal access to the gardens is available everyday to the public and is free of charge.

6. See art from around the world

North Carolina Museum of ArtSource: Carolyne Parent / shutterstock
North Carolina Museum of Art

The North Carolina Museum of Art was the first major museum in the United States to be funded by the state.

It was opened in 1956 and its permanent collections consists of European and American art that was bought with public funds.

Throughout the museum you will also find Egyptian, African and contemporary art. Daily tours of the museum take place Tuesday to Friday and are a free introduction to the museums vast collections.

7. View an 18th Century House

Mordecai HouseSource: gurezende / shutterstock
Mordecai House

Built in 1785, the Mordecai House is registered a National Historic Landmark and museum. The house and park are home to some of the city’s most valuable treasures.

The house itself is the oldest in the city and was once home to the largest plantation in Wake County.

Some areas of the house have been restored to their original state using documentation left behind by the previous resident Ellen Mordecai.

8. Tour the North Carolina Executive Mansion

North Carolina Executive MansionSource: EPG_EuroPhotoGraphics / shutterstock
North Carolina Executive Mansion

Home to North Carolina governors since 1890, the North Carolina Executive Mansion is a Victorian Style Mansion with what has been descried as the most beautiful interior of any governor’s building in the United States.

The mansion was built from materials native to the area and since its construction has been home to the families of 28 governors.

Free tours of both the house and gardens are available but must be made a minimum of two weeks in advance.

9. Pay your respects at the City Cemetery

City Cemetery of RaleighSource: Cgb628 / Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0
City Cemetery of Raleigh

Established in around 1798, the City Cemetery is divided into separate areas for citizens of Raleigh, visitors and blacks (mainly slaves).

The iron fence that surrounds the cemetery was built to keep straying cattle trampling the area.

Tours are possible although occasional interments still take place here and obviously take priority.

10. Learn at the City Museum

City of Raleigh MuseumSource: Olesia Bilkei / shutterstock
City of Raleigh Museum

Located in the historic Briggs Hardware Building the City Museum is dedicated to telling and preserving the history of the city.

The museum is made up of temporary and permanent exhibits that explore the people, places and events of the city and consist of more than 5,000 artifacts.

The museum is located on Fayetteville Street and open six days a week: closed on Mondays.

11. See the Dorton Arena

Dorton ArenaSource: KAD Photo / shutterstock
Dorton Arena

The J S Dorton Arena was originally built to serve farmers and other industry and commerce but has gained international acclaim since its construction in 1951.

The building now holds regular concerts, athletics, circuses and the North Carolina State Fair. What makes the design of the building so special is that the suspended roof needs no steel supports and therefore no matter where you sit, your view will not be impeded.

12. Pop into the Little Theater

Raleigh Little TheaterSource: James Willamor / Flickr | CC BY-SA
Raleigh Little Theater

Raleigh Little Theater is a community theater that produces around 10 of its own productions each year in an aim to educate and entertain the community with performing arts.

This year, the productions include Monty Python’s SPAMALOT, Sweeney Todd and Cinderella.

The theater dates back to 1936 and, if you intend to see a play whilst in the city this is where you should see it.

13. Visit Yates Mill

Yates MillSource: Paul Brady Photography / shutterstock
Yates Mill

Yates Mill, the centerpiece of the Yates Mill County Park, is a restored mill located around five miles outside of Downtown Raleigh.

The mill is believed to date back to around 1756 and is the only one in Wake County still standing. Tours of the mill consist of Open Mill Tours or Corn Grinding tours all of which carry the same fee.

The park itself is worth exploring and consists of 574 acres of land and is also a wildlife refuge.

14. Learn in an educational forest

Clemmons Educational State ForestSource: Wileydoc / shutterstock
Clemmons Educational State Forest

Clemmons Educational Forest is just one of North Carolina’s Educational Forests. It opened in 1976 and has well marked trails with educational exhibits along the way.

There are also ranger taught lessons about wildlife and the forest itself. The forest has plenty of picnic areas to relax in when all the learning gets a bit tiring.

Like many of Raleigh’s attractions the forest is closed on Mondays but open every other day of the week.

15. Explore the Pope House Museum

Pope House MuseumSource: Wileydoc / shutterstock
Pope House Museum

Just a few blocks away from the State Capitol, the Pope House Museum is the only African-American house museum in the state.

The museum features exhibits and original furnishings from the time in which Dr Manassa Thomas Pope, the only African-American to run for mayor of a southern capital in the Jim Crow Era.

Dr Manassa Thomas Pope was a remarkable man and the museum offers a fascinating insight into the life of him and his family.

16. Visit the state’s museum of history

North Carolina Museum of HistorySource: zimmytws / shutterstock
North Carolina Museum of History

When a museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian, you know it is going to be of a high standard and the North Carolina Museum of History does not buck that trend.

The museum, located in Downtown Raleigh, has exhibits such as Treasures of North Carolina and The Story of North Carolina which offer an insight into the history of the state.

As well as these permanent exhibits, the museum also host traveling exhibits which currently include two photography exhibitions.

17. Visit the St Paul AME Church

St Paul African Methodist Episcopal ChurchSource: Nicholas Oren Rawlings / Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0
St Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church

The St Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church is an impressive Gothic building in Downtown Raleigh but it is the history of the building and the people who run it that are most fascinating.

The church was built by the first independent congregation of African American’s in Raleigh.

A walk around the church tells the fascinating story that actually began ten years before the construction of the church.

18. Go shopping at the Triangle Center

Triangle Town CenterSource: Chadarat Saibhut / shutterstock
Triangle Town Center

The Triangle Center, located just off of Highway 1 is arguably the best place to shop in the city of Raleigh.

The mall has all of the major shops you would expect from a city mall as well as some good places to eat.

The mall is open from 10-8 Monday – Saturday and Noon until 6pm on Sundays.

19. Visit the Joel Lane House

Joel Lane HouseSource: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES / shutterstock
Joel Lane House

Also known as Wakefield, Joel Lane House was built in the id 18th Century and is the former home of Joel Lane otherwise known as the Father of Raleigh.

In 1769 Joel Lane built his home in a rural part of North Carolina and it was here that he facilitated the location of North Carolina’s capital city.

The home is fully restored and looks as it would have done when Joel Lane lived within. The house was once described as the best house for 100 miles.

20. Sample the country club lifestyle

GolfSource: photoinnovation / shutterstock

The North Ridge Country Club is set on around 400 acres of lush, green, rolling hills and is a place for the wealthy to socialize and interact.

If you are visiting the state, it makes a good place to visit to sample the good life or try your hand at the 18 hole golf course which is immaculately maintained.

The Country Club also holds many charity and special events throughout the year which are open to non-members and worth visiting.

21. Eat at Poole’s Downtown Diner

RestaurantSource: ifriadrei2 / shutterstock

Serving a fresh take on Americas most classic and comforting dishes, award winning chef, Ashley Christensen had taken over the down town culinary scene by storm.

Poole’s Downtown Diner only serves the finest ingredients sourced locally from North Carolina farms.

22. Visit the William B Umstead State Park

William B Umstead State ParkSource: Wileydoc / shutterstock
William B Umstead State Park

Only a short detour fro the Interstate 40, the William B Umstead State Park is located handily for anyone looking for a day trip from Raleigh and offers a chance to sample the beautiful nature of North Carolina.

The park is a great place to hike, cycle or even ride a horse along one of a number of well marked and maintained trails. The park covers an area of almost 6,000 acres and has something for all outdoor lovers to enjoy.

There are a number of lakes too which mean that anglers are also catered for.

23. Visit a chocolate factory

Videri Chocolate FactorySource: Wileydoc / shutterstock
Videri Chocolate Factory

The Videri Chocolate Factory epitomizes the love of sweet things that is ever present in the Southern states. The chocolate factory not only lets you try the good stuff but also fills you in on the art of making it.

The entire production of chocolate is explored in detail from start to finish and you will leave your trip feeling like you could start your own factory (maybe).

The best part is saved until last: the sampling.

24. Give the Oak City Coffee Roasters a pat on the back

CoffeeSource: Africa Studio / shutterstock

Aside from being a great accompaniment to your chocolate from the chocolate factory, Oak City Coffee Roasters also created a program that employs adults with learning difficulties to make custom Oak City cups.

The roasting business started out in 2013, making it a fairly recent addition to the Warehouse District, and its mission is to bring the rarest and richest coffees from South America to Raleigh.

25. Take a free ride around downtown

R Line busSource: James Willamor / Flickr | CC BY-SA
R Line bus

Something of a “travel hack” in Raleigh for tourists is the R Line bus which is a hybrid bus service that loops around the downtown area of Raleigh every 15 minutes.

Although not a long journey, it is a good way to see a few sights from the comfort of a modern bus and at no cost at all.

Raleigh may not be known for its transportation infrastructure but it is certainly on the money with this free hybrid bus. The bus runs until 2 in the morning on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

25 Best Things to Do in Raleigh (North Carolina):

  • Learn about Natural Sciences
  • Visit the State Capitol
  • Go wacky at Marbles
  • Enjoy outdoors at Pullen Park
  • Admire a large plant collection
  • See art from around the world
  • View an 18th Century House
  • Tour the North Carolina Executive Mansion
  • Pay your respects at the City Cemetery
  • Learn at the City Museum
  • See the Dorton Arena
  • Pop into the Little Theater
  • Visit Yates Mill
  • Learn in an educational forest
  • Explore the Pope House Museum
  • Visit the state's museum of history
  • Visit the St Paul AME Church
  • Go shopping at the Triangle Center
  • Visit the Joel Lane House
  • Sample the country club lifestyle
  • Eat at Poole's Downtown Diner
  • Visit the William B Umstead State Park
  • Visit a chocolate factory
  • Give the Oak City Coffee Roasters a pat on the back
  • Take a free ride around downtown