Raleigh (pronounced “rah-lee”) is the capital city of the state of North Carolina. Home to about half a million people, the City of Oaks is known for its universities and parks, as well as its historical and cultural institutions.
The city was named after English explorer, writer, and politician Sir Walter Raleigh. While he never visited, Raleigh sponsored the founding of the lost Roanoke Colony in modern day North Carolina. This connection might cause you to wander around town with John Lennon in your head singing, “And curse Sir Walter Raleigh / He was such a stupid git!” (The lyric is apparently in reference to Sir Walter bringing tobacco to England and has nothing to do with his namesake city, but I digress.)
The downtown area of Raleigh is a great place to spend the day. It has several historical and educational sights with plenty of restaurants, plus it’s budget and family friendly and easy to get around on foot.
Here’s your guide for what to do with one day in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.
First up on the to do list is breakfast. For some classic Southern breakfast food, head to Big Ed’s City Market. Big Ed’s has been around since the 1950s and has three restaurants in the area. The downtown location opened up in 1989.
On the menu at Big Ed’s you’ll find plenty of regional specialties, like country ham with gravy and fried catfish; Southern staples, like biscuits and grits; and breakfast classics, like omelettes and pancakes.
The restaurant is also decorated with unique vintage pieces. Everything from decades-old bicycles to historical household items hang from the ceiling and adorn the walls. Last, but not least, the friendly staff at Big Ed’s will give you a healthy dose of Southern hospitality.
Check Out the City Market Area
Big Ed’s is located in the historic City Market area of the city. When you’ve finished breakfast, spend some time exploring this quaint part of town.
In 1914, the original City Market opened and the area thrived in the following decades as merchants came from within the city and across the state to sell their goods. The area fell on some harder times beginning in the 1950s, but was then added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Since then, the City Market district has prospered once again.
Today, the City Market is home to a variety of shops, restaurants, and bars. Walk off some of those biscuits by perusing the boutiques and admiring the cobblestone streets and brick facades.
Visit the North Carolina State Capitol
Next, pay a visit to the North Carolina State Capitol. This historic capitol building was home to the state government for decades, but today most state business takes place elsewhere. The General Assembly now meets at the State Legislative Building, for instance. However, the governor’s office is still on the first floor of the building.
The original North Carolina State House was destroyed by a fire in 1831. The current building was constructed throughout the 1830s in a Greek Revival style. Around the building are statues of United States presidents and figures from history.
Inside the building, the skylight of the tall dome ceiling brightens the white stone walls, with a statue of George Washington in a Roman general’s uniform in the center. Memorials to those who made significant contributions to North Carolina and the U.S. adorn the walls. On the first floor, you can catch a glimpse of the governor’s office before heading upstairs. On the upper floors, you’ll find the rooms where state legislators met, as well as the original library and Supreme Court.
Entrance to the capitol building is free. Visitors must go through a security check upon entering the building as well. The capitol is open Monday through Saturday and is closed on Sunday.
Touring the North Carolina State Capitol doesn’t take a lot of time, and it’s an interesting sight to see. It’s a great way to learn about the local history and admire some beautiful architecture. And don’t be surprised if you see several class field trips during your visit.
After exploring the capitol building, it’s time for lunch. For something unique, head to Capital Club 16. This traditional American restaurant with a twist is located in a historical downtown building.
The Capital Club Building was built in the late 1920s and originally served as a social and literary club for men. The building is a registered historical property, and the restaurant’s classic interior design serves as a nod to its past.
The restaurants serves brunch, lunch, and dinner. The lunch menu features midday basics, like salads and sandwiches, with a modern touch. The seasonal salad, for instance, is full of fresh, local greens and topped with a crispy potato pancake.
See the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
After lunch, head to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Originally opened in 1879, it’s the state’s oldest museum and currently the largest of its kind in the Southeastern U.S.
The museum’s Nature Exploration Center houses exhibits on coastal North Carolina, local mountains, prehistoric creatures, and a living conservatory, among others. The museum’s new wing, the Nature Research Center, is home to various exhibits and research areas, like a deep sea exploration, weather research center, and animal health center.
Plus, for those who read Delia Owens’s recent bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing, you’ll feel like you’re getting a deeper glimpse into the world described in the book. Wandering through the exhibit on coastal North Carolina, you’ll learn more about the habitat and creatures found in the story. It’s a great experience, especially for those who were’t too familiar with the N.C. coast prior to reading the novel.
Entry to the museum is donation-based. There are clear donation bins in the lobby where you can provide as much cash as you see fit for your visit. The museum shows educational films as well, which do require tickets. Visit the desk in the lobby for more information or to purchase movie tickets. The museum is open seven days a week (but closed on some holidays).
Cheers to Happy Hour!
Ah, yes, now it’s time for happy hour! What a lovely time of day, eh? For happy hour, walk over to Whiskey Kitchen, located near Nash Square.
Whiskey Kitchen is a large, open space with ample indoor and outdoor seating. Beautiful murals and vintage-inspired decor brighten up the walls. The bar and eatery serves brunch, lunch, and dinner, with late night food, plus extensive whiskey, cocktail, wine, and beer lists. On the menu you’ll find upscale bar food with a local twist.
Order yourself a cocktail and some snacks, then just relax and enjoy the atmosphere.
Explore the Shops and Green Spaces
What is one to do between happy hour and dinner, anyway? It’s essentially just free time until you eat and drink again, so spend it walking around and seeing more of the city. Take some time to explore on foot, learn a bit more local history, check out some shops, and see what you uncover.
Right across the street from Whiskey Kitchen is Nash Square. At the center of the square is a memorial to the state’s firefighters. Around the memorial are walking paths and benches throughout the open green space, dotted with large trees.
There are also plenty of shops in the downtown area to explore. One worth stepping into is Apex Outfitter & Board Co. The locally owned shop is focused on outdoor apparel, with camping and sporting gear, plus plenty of fun accessories.
If you’re like me and you’re usually thinking about your next meal, and possibly the one after that, and perhaps planning a snack break as well, make a pit stop at Raleigh Provisions. It’s a small market offering lots of local fare. Grab some snacks here for later, if that’s your style.
Once you’ve had enough of exploring on foot, stop by The Raleigh Times for dinner. This downtown institution extends across three storefronts, each with their own vibe, and serves modern American bar food and drinks.
The Raleigh Times is so named because it’s located in the former home of the The Raleigh Times newspaper. The Raleigh Times was founded in 1879 under a different name, and after undergoing some name changes and relocations, The Times found its home in 1906, where the restaurant is today. The newspaper went through its ups and downs in the ensuing decades and published its final edition in 1989.
Today, nods to the building’s history are still present. A photo of the newspaper boys from 1912 covers the wall at the entrance to the bar and paper clippings from throughout the years decorate the walls.
The menu is full of American bar food with international influences. You’ll find staples, like burgers and chicken strips, as well as creative dishes, like Carolina poutine and salmon fried rice.
The Raleigh Times is a great place to conclude your day of exploring the culture and history of the city.
Raleigh’s downtown area isn’t too large, so you can get most places on foot. Everything on this itinerary you can reach by walking about 10 to 15 minutes.
However, if you do find yourself unable to explore on foot, or want to venture further into other areas of downtown, there is a free public transportation option. The R-LINE is a free hybrid bus that runs in a loop through downtown. The bus runs Monday to Wednesday 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday to Saturday 7 a.m. to 2:15 a.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.
In downtown Raleigh, history and culture are all around. Plus, it’s pretty budget and family friendly as well. For fans of historical sights and museums, as well as delicious food and drink, it’s a great place to spend the day. Cheers!