Durham, North Carolina travel guide: What to see and do

Durham — a city built on the tobacco trade and home to Duke University — is in the midst of a renaissance.

In just a few years, the Bull City has morphed from a college town into a full-fledged destination in its own right. The North Carolina city of roughly 250,000 is home to a thriving craft breweries and distilleries and an emerging foodie scene. Abandoned buildings that once littered its downtown have been rehabbed into theaters, lofts, restaurants, bars and boutiques.

And with Durham just an hour-and-a-half flight from NYC and a 20-minute ride from the airport to the heart of downtown, it’s perfect for a weekend getaway.


Durham’s Brightleaf Square (905 W. Main St., historicbrightleaf.com), a three-block district of old tobacco warehouses converted into restaurants and shops, is the focal point of Durham’s downtown shopping scene. Customers can browse cute boutiques, specialty food stores and unique home goods purveyors, as well as learn about the city’s history at the Museum of Durham History (FREE admission; 500 W. Main St., 919-246-9993, museumofdurhamhistory.org).

Spend the afternoon imbibing while playing pinball and board games at the Fullsteam Brewery (726 Rigsbee Ave., 919-682-2337, fullsteam.ag), a beer hall that makes its dozen and a half types of suds onsite using local ingredients like figs and sweet potatoes. For something stronger, the Brothers Vigalys distillery (803D Ramseur St., 919-617-1746, brothersvilgalys.com) offers tours Wednesday through Saturday and tastings of Krupnikas, a Lithuanian honey liquor.

Get outdoors with a hike through Duke Forest (dukeforest.duke.edu), more than 7,000 acres of woodlands crisscrossed by trails ideal for biking and hiking, and dotted with mountains. While there, stop by Sarah P. Duke Gardens (FREE admission; 420 Anderson St., 919-684-3698, gardens.duke.edu), a 55-acre bucolic haven of landscaped gardens. And across the street from Duke’s East Campus is Ninth Street — a strip of bars, restaurants and independent stores.


Saltbox (608 N. Mangum St., 919-908-8970, saltboxseafoodjoint.com) is a hole-in-the-wall seafood spot that’s earned a large following in town. Chef Ricky Moore sources his seafood from fishermen trawling the state’s coast every morning, and closes up once he sells out — so be sure to get there early. The menu varies daily, but be sure to try the grilled scallops if available. For a sweet treat, walk to Parlour (117 Market St., 919-564-7999, theparlour.co), an ice cream shop downtown that offers frozen flavors like honey lavender and Vietnamese coffee, or Scratch (111 Orange St., 919-956-5200, piefantasy.com), a bakery and cafe off of Durham’s historic Black Wall Street area known for its chocolate donut muffins.

An ideal spot for brunch is Piedmont (401 Foster St., 919-683-1213, piedmontrestaurant.com), which serves local favorites like shrimp and Johnny cakes inside what was once an old car dealership.

For dinner, head to Pizzeria Toro (105 E. Chapel Hill St., 919-908-6936, pizzeriatoro.com) for wood-fired pies and quirky dishes like pigs’ ears with apple mostarda. Another standout is the Geer Street Garden (644 Foster St., 919-688-2900, geerstreetgarden.com), which serves new American fare with a Southern twist in a former gas station. Try signature dishes like the fried chicken and arugula salad or “The Pile” — a plate of fried chicken, French fries, jalapenos and bacon smothered in gravy, melted cheddar cheese and two sauces of your choosing.


Durham’s hotel options have mushroomed in recent years, including the year-old Hotel 21C (111 North Corcoran St., 919-956-6700, 21cmuseumhotels.com), a contemporary boutique chain that has a permanent contemporary art gallery attached to its lobby. Housed in a former department store and bank, the hotel’s tower is currently the tallest building in the city, and its modern minimalist rooms boast sweeping views of downtown.

For some bed-and-breakfast charm, the 17-room King’s Daughters Inn (204 N. Buchanan Blvd., 919-354-7000, thekingsdaughtersinn.com) is located across the street from Duke University’s East Campus. The inn’s rooms and suites are each uniquely furnished and come with iPads for guests, and complimentary breakfast includes homemade scones, fruit and granola as well as a full hot menu with staples like eggs, bacon and chocolate chip pancakes.