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Durhamites have unwavering pride. I’m a Charlotte native, but as a Duke grad, I get it. I’m also pretty bullish on Durham.
The big picture: You’ll often hear people refer to Durham as the “Bull City” because of its roots as a banking and tobacco town. But over the years, Durham has evolved into a bustling center for healthcare and research, tech start-ups and the arts. Durham is also home to North Carolina Central University and, my alma mater, Duke University.
With a population of 287,900, Durham is North Carolina’s fourth-largest city (after Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro).
Travel in a pandemic: Durham has largely taken more conservative approach to the pandemic than the rest of the state. For example, most restaurants are open for patio dining or takeout only. But planning a fun (and safe) trip right now is still feasible.
Here’s how to spend the perfect weekend in Durham — from hotel recommendations to the best places to eat in this charming town just two and a half hours north of Charlotte.
Downtown Durham is very walkable. And of course, being a part of the Triangle Area, it’s really easy to access nearby towns like Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Center city has a lot of hotels, restaurants and shops so you could park your car and leave it all weekend. Just north of downtown is a more bar- and brewery-heavy area.
Other stops worthy of a visit include Duke University’s West Campus which is about a 10-minute drive from downtown and Southpoint Mall, just 15-minutes out from downtown.
Whether you’re looking for budget or bougie hotels, Durham has options. For this trip, I stayed at The Durham, a boutique mid-century modern hotel located conveniently in downtown. And, as an added bonus, it has a rooftop restaurant and bar with breath-taking views of Durham.
Here are more options, ranked by cost:
$: An Airbnb near downtown. Check out this Tiny Farmhouse going for $118/night. Sleeps two guests.
$$: Unscripted Hotel and Aloft Durham Downtown are great choices if you want to be right in the middle of the action. Unscripted has a rooftop pool and overlooks the city center. Aloft is conveniently located right next to the Durham Performing Arts Center and across the street from the American Tobacco Campus.
$$$$: Depending on the feel you’re going for, Duke has two on-campus hotels — there’s the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club which has a more classic and formal atmosphere. And its more contemporary younger brother the JB Duke. Rooms start around $208 and $181/night respectively.
FOOD + DRINK
We hope you brought your appetite because the food scene is Durham’s bread and butter. It’s regularly recognized as one of the foodiest towns in the south. Many in Durham’s diverse restaurant scene value sourcing ingredients locally.
Monuts: A favorite among Durham locals for their rotating, gourmet donut flavors, breakfast and lunch sandwiches, and delicious coffee. It gets busy on the weekends so get there early to beat the rush. (1002 Ninth St.)
Rue Cler (Carryout only): This charming Parisian restaurant located in the downtown loop was also a popular brunch spot pre-pandemic. Now offering French classics to-go. (401 E. Chapel Hill St.)
Heavenly Buffalo: Heavenly Buffalo, more commonly known as “Heav Buff,” is the bright orange shack that makes gamedays so much better. Their wings come bone-in, boneless and vegan with a variety of sauces and heat levels. Plus, you can add a dry rub to your fries. (1807 W Markham Ave.)
Bull City Burger and Brewery: This is the go-to spot for a burger in Durham. I went with the Over Easy Burger this time. There are also house-made veggie burgers and even a “secret burger,” but you didn’t hear it from me. (107 E. Parrish St. #105)
Foster’s Market: Foster’s is essentially a ranch-style café that serves breakfast and lunch items with a gourmet local food market attached. You can order takeout or dine outside on the patio, but seating fills up quickly (especially with capacity restrictions), so I’d recommend going during non-peak hours. (2694 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd.)
Pie Pushers (Delivery & pick up only): Have you ever heard of Durham-style pizza? Well now you have, and that’s exactly what Pie Pushers specializes in — hand-tossed thin-crust pizza made with local ingredients. (117A W Main St.)
Dame’s Chicken and Waffles: Dame’s is the no-brainer spot to get your chicken and waffle fix. These aren’t your typical Belgian waffles — flavors include the classic, sweet potato, gingerbread, organic blueberry and ‘the vegan’. And you’ll definitely want to try one of the “Shmears” which is their house-made flavored butter. (530 Foster Ste. #130)
Nasher Café (Temporarily closed): Tucked away in the Nasher Museum on Duke’s campus is the Nasher Café, an elevated brunch spot that is popular among students and locals alike. The museum and café are temporarily closed due to the coronavirus until further notice. (2001 Campus Dr.)
The Pit Durham (Temporarily closed): Bull City is big on the pig. This barbecue joint specializes in whole-hog, pit-cooked barbecue. As a southern girl myself, I’m pretty discerning about my barbecue, but The Pit is so tasty that I had one of my graduation receptions here. (321 W Geer St.)
Pompieri Pizza: Located right next to Bull City Burger, Pompieri serves up Neapolitan-style pizza plus daily specials. You can place an order for carryout or dine outside on the patio. (102 City Hall Plaza)
Cosmic Cantina: Cosmic’s caters to burrito lovers and night owls alike. They’re open until 2 am and serve up some of the best Mexican-fare in town. Who said burritos couldn’t be a midnight snack? (1920 Perry St.)
Shrimp and Pasta Dankery: Don’t let the unassuming food truck fool you. The Dankery is popular among Duke, UNC, and State basketball players. Dwayne Wade even made his way over to The Dankery during a Durham visit. Orders or ‘Dank Trays’ can be served up with your choice of wings, tenders, shrimp, crab, and steak with a side of fries. On top of that, any Dank Tray can be customized with one of 20+ rubs and sauces. (1007 W Main St.)
Café Parizade: For a more upscale dining experience, head to Cafe Parizad. This Durham staple offers exceptional Mediterranean fare and expansive patio dining. (2200 W Main St.)
Mad Hatter’s Cafe: Baked goods and all-day breakfast items served in a casual setting. Their Creme cheese brownie is a popular choice. (1802 W Main St.)
Bars + breweries
Hi-Wire Brewing: Hi-Wire has full-sized shuffleboard courts, soccer pool tables and table tennis. The drink selection includes 24 taps with Hi-Wire beers, as well as wine, local cider, and guest taps from neighboring breweries. (800 Taylor St.)
Durty Bull Brewing Company: Known for having an extensive sour beer program, Durty Bull prides itself in using bourbon and wine barrels to craft sours as well as other unconventional brews. (206 Broadway St. #104)
Fullsteam Brewery: Fullsteam regularly partners with local farms to source their ingredients, helping them achieve what they describe as “distinctively Southern beer.” There’s something on tap for everyone, even the beer novice like myself. I went with one of their mainstay brews called “Paycheck.” (726 Rigsbee Ave.)
Motorco: Pre-Covid, Motorco was a proper music hall where you could enjoy a drink and catch performances from local artists. While concerts are on hold for the moment, you can still roll in for a drink in their new Covid-friendly indoor space or outside on the veranda. (723 Rigsbee Ave.)
The Roof at The Durham Hotel: Who doesn’t love a good rooftop? Not only does The Roof at The Durham Hotel have unbeatable 360-degree views of downtown, but you’ll also find seasonal craft cocktails, a thoughtfully curated beer list, and a collection of wine. During the colder months, The Roof is enclosed and fully heated. If you’re in the mood for a cocktail, go with their namesake cocktail, which is a blend of cognac, rum, 10-year tawny port, Benedictine, and angostura bitters. (315 E Chapel Hill St.)
Durham is one of those cities that sneaks up on you. And by that, I mean it has everything you didn’t know you needed. It’s quaint but there’s still plenty to do.
Here are 10 things to do to add to your itinerary.
Visit the iconic Bull statue downtown. Apparently, the bull has a name too: Major. It’s hard to miss. They say if you rub and pat Major you’ll be granted good fortune.
Take a gallery tour at the 21c Museum Hotel. This former bank building houses a full collection of rotating modern art exhibits and it’s free to the public. (111 North Corcoran St.)
Grab some ice cream at The Parlour. Just a stone’s throw away from the bull statue. Flavors are inspired by seasonal ingredients as well as childhood favorites. There are even non-dairy and vegan options. I went with the raspberry stracciatella. (117 Market St.)
Check out the American Tobacco Campus. The architecture speaks to its history as a former tobacco factory. The American Tobacco Campus is like Durham’s version of Camp North End — it’s a revitalized, mixed-use facility that has restaurants, retail and office space. But a few landmarks include the iconic Lucky Strike smoke stack and water tower. (300 Blackwell St. #104)
- Fun fact: Burt’s Bees is headquartered out of the American Tobacco Campus.
Catch a game at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The season starts up in May and on the 18th, The Bulls will go head-to-head with the Charlotte Knights. (409 Blackwell St.)
Make a stop by the Duke Chapel (Temporarily closed). I may be a bit biased, but don’t take it from me. In a non-pandemic year, the chapel would see upwards of 250,000 visitors. The inside of the chapel is closed until further notice, but the exterior is a sight to see as well. (401 Chapel Dr.)
Visit the Duke Lemur Center (Temporarily closed). Few people realize this but the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) is the largest lemur sanctuary and research center in the world. And while it’s temporarily closed to visitors, lemur enthusiasts are invited to take advantage of the DLC’s virtual tours. (3705 Erwin Rd.)
Catch a performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC). Due to the pandemic, shows and performances are on a temporary intermission but are slated to resume in the spring of 2021. Show updates can be found on the DPAC website. (123 Vivian St.)
Explore the shops on Ninth Street. You’ll find a little bit of everything on Ninth Street: bookstores, gift shops, and diners to name a few.