Things to do in Cary North Carolina: Small-town vibe near Raleigh

by Jan 25, 2023North Carolina

Cary Main Street brewery

Cary, North Carolina, offers a small-town vibe with all the benefits of a big city – culture, arts, entertainment, world-class restaurants, amid acres upon acres of greenways. Its proximity to Raleigh and RDU International Airport makes Cary a perfect stopover for any traveler.

If you’re planning to visit Raleigh, North Carolina, and are arriving at Raleigh Durham International Airport, put Cary on your radar. Why? It’s location, size and charm make it the perfect place to spend a night before heading out or arriving on a flight to the state. Having stayed in Cary for that very reason, I’d also venture to say there are sufficient historic, fun, and interesting things to do in Cary – not to mention an army of great restaurants and pubs — to warrant planning a visit that lasts more than a single night.

Located just off Interstate 40, and a mere 20 minutes and 12 miles from downtown Raleigh, Cary celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2021. The town was formed because of the railroad, which ran tracks through the 300-acre property of Francis “Frank” Page in 1854. It’s grown a bit since those days of a few hundred or so residents. Cary has been listed as one of the fastest-growing cities in America and in 2019 its population reached 170,000. Ggreater Cary now sprawls over 60 square miles.

Don’t let its current size deter you, though. Historic downtown Cary still looks and feels like the small town it was – and is just as walkable – making it truly a small town with big city benefits. Its list of top restaurants, breweries and culture, along with arts and entertainment, have attracted residents who seek a smaller community with a neighborhood feel. Despite massive growth, the city has thoughtfully maintained its greenspaces and parks – an added benefit for anyone wanting to go for a short hike after a long day of traveling.

CaryGLOW outdoor art

This was one of the installations by the Academy Street Artwork Projects (ASAP) titled GLOW, a temporary outdoor display of light and technology art installations on view in downtown Cary. The art that appears is pop-up, temporary installations, with no corresponding event, and they are on view primarily evening hours for 1 week, 2 weeks or a month. GLOW is designed with the intent to surprise and delight viewers when the artworks are discovered.

Therese and I spent a night in the historic downtown before flying out the following day after a lengthy visit in Raleigh and other parts of North Carolina. While we didn’t get to walk around as much as we would have enjoyed due to passing thunderstorms, we still had a marvelous visit, enjoyed some outdoor art, and had a yum dinner.

Staying in the historic downtown

We stayed at The Mayton, primarily because it was central to the historic downtown, meaning we could park our car and walk everywhere. The hotel’s 44 guest rooms, while beloved by some guests for the rather funky color schemes and decor, needed updating and redesign at that time (which we were told was going to be happening at some point after our summer 2022 visit). The Georgian-style, boutique hotel lounge area – already renovated — is certainly inviting, and the restaurant seemed quite popular (although we opted to eat elsewhere), with its open and airy feel and terrace (well, when it’s not raining).

From the front doors of The Mayton, heading either left or right, there are a few things to do in Cary’s downtown that will keep your taste buds happy and your travel curiosity satisfied for a day or perhaps two. Here are a few ideas:

Explore the town’s history, parks, and murals

Guess-White-Ogle House In Cary

Guess-White-Ogle House (215 S. Academy Street) – You can’t go in but take the opportunity to appreciate an historic home that represents the most intact and best-preserved examples of Queen Anne-style architecture in Cary. The home was built in stages, beginning in the 1830s.

Downtown Park (327 S. Academy Street) – The 7-acre urban park was under construction when we were there but was slated to reopen in the summer of 2023. It features an enormous lighted fountain and has always been a community gathering place.

Ashworth Drugs In Cary North Carolina

Ashworth Drugstore (105 W. Chatham Street) – You’re not here to refill a prescription or buy deodorant (though you certainly can do that of course). The reason to step inside is to experience the old-fashioned soda fountain and lunch counter that has been serving customers since 1957. Order up a root beer float, a hot dog or a milkshake, and let your imagination take you back to the way things once were.

All Aboard Mural In Cary North Carolina

Cary All Aboard Mural (122 W. Chatham St.) – Completed in 2019 by artist Sean Kernick, the colorful mural celebrates Cary’s roots as a railroad town.

Cary Then and Now Mural (220 W. Chatham St.) – A 150-foot-long mural by artist Val Fox that uses imagery to tell the history of the town. “Read” or view the story from left to right.

The Cary Theater (122 E. Chatham St.) – Built in 1946, this historic building housed Cary’s first indoor movie theater and it hosted live performances too. In less glamorous years, it also housed a clothing store, an auto parts store, and served as a recording studio. As part of its downtown renovation plan, the Town of Cary acquired the building in 2011, renovated it, and reopened it in 2014 as a 175-seat art house and theater showcasing classic and independent films, live music, and comedy performances.

Page-Walker Arts And History Center

Page-Walker Arts and History Center (119 Ambassador Loop) – Originally the hotel for the railroad — built by one Frank Page in 1868 — this Victorian building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as a museum and arts center with more greenspaces around and behind it.

Eat and drink

Esteamed Coffee (114 S. Academy St.) – Absolutely delicious coffee and in fact, one of the best lattes I have had in recent years. But deliciousness aside, we love this coffee shop because it’s a non-profit and offers job opportunities for individuals with various “intellectual, developmental, communication and/or visual impairments,” per the website.

Cary things to do La Farm Bakery

LaFarm Bakery (220 W. Chatham St.) – Inside the brick walls of this downtown bakery, you’ll discover the creations of master baker and owner, Lionel Vatinet. Close your eyes and breathe deep to inhale the delicious scents of an authentic artisan bread bakery, and you might just find yourself transported to a tiny boulangerie in France. Breads of all shapes and sizes, tarts, pastries, sandwiches … oh la la. So delicious. If you’re lucky — and staying more than a night — perhaps you can time your visit to take a bread-making class with Vatinet. There is also seating around the building, and it seems to be yet another community hang-out.

Cary things to do Chatham Wine Bar

Chatham Street Wine Market (111 W. Chatham Street) – A small neighborhood wine shop that is chock full of unique, small-production wines from around the world. And yes, this is reason enough to stop in. But what we really loved was heading inside and curling up with a glass of a delicious viognier. There was outside seating that looked lovely had it been warm and dry, but in the pouring rain, well, not so much. Still, indoors was cozy. Best of all — and we made a note for our next visit — outside food is welcome as long as you are drinking the wine market’s wine. One couple brought in a pizza to enjoy with a bottle of wine they shared. Brilliant!

Bosphorus Restaurant (329 N. Harrison Ave.) – This location is a 5- to 10-minute walk from the downtown so some may prefer to drive. Therese and I, as is our habit almost anywhere, walked – despite the deluge. We had a craving for Mediterranean cuisine and heard about this family-owned Turkish restaurant. The atmosphere is very basic, but the food is anything but! Everything on the menu is made from scratch and flavored with fresh spices and herbs that fill the restaurant with so many wonderful aromas. Kebabs, gyros, vegetarian dishes, grilled meats, baklava … yes, we were in food heaven.

Cary things to Eat di Fara pizza

Di Fara Pizza Tavern (111 E. Chatham St.) – Was Cary ever thrilled to win this outlet to a popular New York City pizzeria! Opened in early 2020 (yea, we know, good timing), it’s known for making its pizza dough with specially treated water to lend it that realy New Yawk taste. Therese had the chance to dip in for a slice late one night prior to our stay, and found the staff especially nice – even giving her 2-for-1 since it was late in the evening. This is a cavernous tavern that leans toward a sports bar-like atmosphere – TVs roaring from all corners. Open late, too.

Whew … that’s probably just enough to get you started enjoying all things downtown Cary – don’t forget all the breweries (such as the Cotton House pictured in the lead photo), too. While I didn’t really touch on greenspace, in his 2021 State of Cary report, Mayor Harold Weinbrecht noted that 30 percent of Cary’s 60 square miles is preserved as park and natural area. Good news for anyone seeking a place to stretch their legs and mind between travels.

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