Welcome to Raleigh! While you are here, you’ll likely want to take in some of the local experience that has made the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) one of the best places to live in America for just about every generation. The food, architecture, and entertainment events here are more than enough to handle, certainly in a weekend. We’re a lot cooler than you think. We just don’t talk about it.
The Triangle experience is unique, but in a subtle way. We don’t have a expressly tourist district. We don’t have centuries-old ethnic customs. Rather, the Triangle is a great place to raise a family and live a normal life.
Because much of Raleigh’s growth has happened in the last 45 years, there is a strong suburban component here that has been attractive to hundreds of thousands of transplants. While there is plenty of Anywheresville stuff, there is more do to and enjoy than most have the time or money to do. Eat a southern hot dog, some barbecue, and a hot doughnut as you ride around and take in the area that so many people decided to call home.
In the Triangle the car is king. The area has excellent roadways, though some of the nomenclature confuses some newcomers and visitors. There are a few key points to mastering the roads in the Raleigh area: map it
- I-440 is an old, bell-shaped highway that joins I-40 at both ends. Wade Avenue is a westward radial out of (just north of) downtown Raleigh that extends past the RBC Center and spills into I-40. Glenwood Avenue is Raleigh’s longest street, and is a radial that extends out of downtown in a northwest direction. Other important radials include St. Mary’s Street/Lassiter Mill Road and Wake Forest Road on the north side, and Hillsborough Street and Western Blvd on the southwest side.
- I-440 and the portions of I-40 between the connections with I-440 have traditionally been called “The Beltline”. Do not be misled, however, into thinking that this is a closed circular highway. Older parts of Raleigh are inside the beltline, or “ITB”. ITB vs. OTB is a big thing with some here.
- I-440’s two directions are “West” and “East”. They literally refer to the section of Raleigh where you will eventually connect back with I-40.
- I-540 is a relatively new, incomplete arc that exists in the northwest and northeast quadrants Raleigh.
- Edwards Mill Road connects the RBC Center at Wade Ave. and Crabtree Valley Mall at Glenwood Ave.
- St. Marys St./Lassiter Mill Road connects downtown to North Hills (at I-440)
- The most reliable parking access to the RBC Center is usually accomplished by taking Hillsborough St. to Youth Center Drive (map it), which leads directly into the stadium parking lot. Once inside the stadium lot, bear left and park as close to the football stadium as possible. If you are approaching the RBC Center from the west (From the airport side), DO NOT attempt to use the “recommended” Wade Avenue/Edwards Mill route. This will guarantee being late to your event. (instead, stay on I-40 past the Wade Ave exit and take Hillsborough Street eastbound to Youth Center Drive.) I-40 can be a nightmare, so be prepared to navigate the highway 54 alternative.
- Downtown Raleigh has free, counterclockwise circulator bus called the R-Line. It is particularly useful for getting around downtown Raleigh. There is bus service from Downtown and from North Hills via the Caniac Coach.
- If you are visiting the Raleigh Convention Center, here are some hints about easily accessing this facility. (map it)
If you want to take a driving tour, here are some high points for each region of the Triangle
- NC Museum of Art – The recipient of the AIA’s best building of 2010 award has to be appreciated from the inside, where much of the NCMA’s fantastic collection is held. Highlighting the impressive collection are 30 Rodin original pieces. (map it)
- Jim Hunt Library – NCSU’s Centennial Campus is home to the stunning library of the future. With its impressive bookbot, the building’s design focus is on the needs in future of education. It is regarded by some as the most important building in the U.S. in the last decade. Free tours available Wednesdays, Fridays, and some Saturdays.
- NC Museum of Natural Sciences and Nature Research Center – The largest museum of its kind in the Southeast features many impressive permanent exhibits, but none matches the Acrocanthosaurus, the most complete specimen of its kind in the world. The Nature Research Center wing is an impressive hands-on museum space. (map it)
- NC Governor’s Mansion – The 1891 mansion occupying one full block in downtown Raleigh is one of the largest public executive residences in the U.S. (map it)
- Raleigh Convention Center – Be sure to take a peek at the ceiling in the grand ballroom on the top floor. (map it)
- Shimmer Wall – Contained in the Convention Center’s west facade, the Cree Shimmer Wall is especially impressive on a sunny, windy day. (map it)
- NC State Capitol – Built in 1833 the NC Capitol is largely an historic site with some offices for top governmental positions. The legislative Building is where the House and Senate have done their work since 1963. (map it)
- There are many bars on Glenwood Ave in downtown, however the bars are a little more laid back in the Fayetteville and Wilmington Street area.
- The Cupcake Shoppe on Glenwood is always fun stop on the R-Line. (map it)
- Dorton Arena – This 7,610-seat architectural marvel was built in 1952 on the NC State Fairgrounds. It is a hyperbolic paraboloid that was a major influence in the design of Calgary’s Saddledome. (map it)
- PNC Arena – At the junction of Wade Ave and Edwards Mill Road, near I-40, the 1999-born PNC Arena is the shared home for the Carolina Hurricanes and the N.C. State men’s basketball program. The Center shares a large parking lot with N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium, and is home to the NHL’s Largest Tailgating Party. (map it)
- RDU Terminal 2 – If you arrived at Terminal 1, first of all, I am sorry. Terminal 2, however, is an impressive, beautiful facility. (map it)
- Crabtree Valley Mall – High-end shopping mall containing notables such as: H&M, Forever XXI, J. Crew, Lego, Coach, Apple, Arhaus, and the nearby The Container Store. (map it)
- Triangle Town Center – Saks, Orvis, Z Gallerie. Other than those 3, definitely skip it. (map it)
- Angus Barn – Legendary steak restaurant. It has been named to the Nations Restaurant News Hall of Fame and to their 50 All-American Icons list. Steaks, ribs, blue cheese dressing are excellent. Get some cheese to-go when you head back to the airport. (map it)
- Notable houses exist at: 2745 Lakeview Dr., 1625 Oberlin Rd (Tatton Hall), 1006 Harvey St. (Mt. Vernon replica), 330 Hillsborough St., 309 N. Blount St., but there are many, many more.
- Cary is a huge bedroom community for RTP, essentially. There are some excellent local sauces available at The Meat House on Kildaire Road. Also worthy of note is the Umstead Hotel and Spa, which has received a 5-diamond award for two years running, and their restaurant, Herons, is one of the area’s best.
- A Southern Season – If I didn’t live here, A Southern Season would be on my must-stop list while visiting. It is a large specialty food and cooking store that has a large volume of catalog sales. It is a 20 minute drive from the RBC Center. (map it)
- UNC Basketball Museum, Dean Smith Center – One of the storied college basketball programs in history has an impressive museum next door to the 21,000 area. (map it) The rest of the UNC campus is beautiful and worth a quick drive thru, especially Cameron Ave by the Old Well. (map it)
- Shrimp and (Cheese) Grits at Crooks Corner – Grits are like polenta, and the incredible Shrimp and Grits dish as born at Crooks Corner. Be sure to also get some Hoppin’ John. (map it)
- The Lantern – This upscale Asian restaurant is head-spinningly good. Chef Angela Reusing was named the 2011 Best Chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation. (map it)
- Blue Cross/Blue Shield – This floating parallelagram building is notable. (map it)
- Duke University, Duke Chapel, Cameron Indoor Stadium – Duke is a small, private university that likes to call itself a southern Ivy Leaguer. It’s consistent Gothic architecture creates a gorgeous setting. However the essence of Duke lies in visits to Duke Chapel (map it) and to Cameron Indoor Stadium (map it). Duke is also one of college basketball’s legendary programs, and they have an impressive basketball museum adjacent to their intimate arena.
- Durham Athletic Park – The filming site (map it) for the movie “Bull Durham” was actually used by the Durham Bulls until 1995 when the team moved to the excellent DBAP.
- Durham Performing Arts Center – A new auditorium where The Lion King is currently running. It is next door to the DBAP. (map it).Magnolia Grill – Home of one of the nation’s best chefs, Ben Barker. The restaurant is in the Nations Restaurant News Hall of Fame. (map it)
- RTP’s Burroughs-Wellcome building was featured in Natalie Wood’s final movie, Brainstorm, but unfortunately Glaxo has allowed trees to obscure the view from Durham Freeway. (map it)
- Streets at Southpoint Mall – Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, Crate & Barrel. (map it)
The food that sets this region apart is Eastern North Carolina barbecue, a spicy, vinegar-based preparation of shredded pork. In this area “Barbecue” is only a noun, and is never, NEVER, a verb. The best houses for barbecue are in small towns mostly 1 hour to the east of Raleigh. However there are three good representations of this product at The Pit and Cooper’s BBQ in downtown Raleigh, and The Q-Shack in North Hills. Not to missed along with your bbq is the Brunswick Stew. The Pit is the best of the three, and is likely to be very crowded. It has been featured in all of the magazines and TV shows since it opened a couple of years ago, and is actually the product of one of those Eastern N.C. towns. Raleigh by preservationist Greg Hatem brought Ed Mitchell in start this member of the Empire Eats group of restaurants. Please note: Dickey’s BBQ in downtown Raleigh is not Eastern N.C. BBQ. It is a Dallas-based chain that is good in its own right, but should not be included in a brief tour of the area.
Another good option for BBQ is Smithfield’s Chicken and BBQ. They have stores that are a 10-minute drive from downtown and 5 minutes from RDU in the RTP area. From downtown, get on I-40 East and take Exit 303. Turn left at the light (map it). The location near RDU is on Davis Drive at Aviation Pkwy (extended), and I suggest using a map to find it. (map it). If you are there for lunch, get a BBQ sandwich with slaw and a side of Brunswick Stew.
Other foods popular in North Carolina are hot dogs with chili and slaw, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Chick-Fil-A, and Bojangles. Popular places to get the NC hot dog are Snoopy’s (map it), The Roast Grill (map it), and the Village Deli (map it). Krispy Kreme was founded in Winston-Salem in 1937, but opened one of their first expansion stores here in Raleigh (map it). Be sure to get one of their doughnuts when the “Hot Doughnuts Now” neon light is on in the window. (Note: the KK outlet in Raleigh’s City Plaza does not sell the hot doughnuts, so in order to get the full experience, visit the old site). Chick-Fil-A was founded near Atlanta, and has been a staple in southeast shopping malls for decades. They are finally entering northern markets such as Chicago, and have found immense popularity. (The downtown Raleigh location for CFA is not the chain’s strongest stores) (map it) Bojangles is based in Charlotte, and features a spicy, cajun style of fried chicken that people here love. (map it)
As far as the best restaurants in the area, The News & Observer’s Food correspondent, Greg Cox, of the News & Observer, has assembled a can’t miss list of possibilities. I have had particularly good meals at Bida Manda, Gonza Tacos, Buku, Mo’s Diner, Bloomsbury Bistro, Jose & Sons, Humble Pie, Raleigh Times, Stanbury, 518 West, Sitti, Second Empire, Busy Bee, Mez, An, Coquette, Vivace as well as several others in the Raleigh area such as the award-winning Poole’s Diner. Restaurants are likely to be extremely busy this weekend, but don’t despair. Just throw a dart at that list. You’ll be fine. There are plenty of good restaurant seats in the area if you’ll stick with my list and Cox’s list.
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We hope that you enjoy your stay here. Y’all have a good time and come back soon!
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