Walkable downtown Raleigh rich in history, museums, and public art

by Mar 31, 2023North Carolina

Skyline Of Downtown Raleigh North Carolina

Raleigh, North Carolina, is known as the “Smithsonian of the South,” a nod to its proliferation of museums celebrating art, culture, and history. Get a taste of its history and museums as well as its art on a walking tour of downtown Raleigh.

Downtown Raleigh, North Carolina is rich in history, museums and art. The best part? Most can be easily explored on foot, at a leisurely pace, winding around its walkable downtown. While much of the history you will experience in the downtown stems from the late 1800’s, Raleigh’s roots go back to several decades earlier.

Raleigh was established as a county seat in 1771, but it wasn’t until 1792 — soon after the American Revolution ended – that it became the state capital, taking that honor from New Bern. The capital was officially named Raleigh – in honor of Sir Water Raleigh, an English explorer and soldier. It was Sir Raleigh who was responsible for establishing the ill-fated Roanoke (Lost Colony) settlement there in 1587.

Significantly, Raleigh is the only state capital that was planned and created by a state to be its seat of government. The founding fathers of the capital dubbed Raleigh the “City of Oaks” and that moniker remains true today, visible as you wander the city streets – we were quite thankful for the shade the immense trees provided in the summer and you will be, too. Visitors to Raleigh will also find it is a very walkable city. We are proof of that: For several days during our visit in 2022, we left our car parked (save for a few quick trips outside the core) and explored the downtown on foot, taking in the rich history of Raleigh, its plethora of museums, as well as the proliferation of public art.

A walking tour of downtown Raleigh – history, museums and public art

Ready to join us on a short stroll as we explore the history and art of downtown Raleigh? Refer to our embedded map at the end of our article if you need help finding any of the places mentioned in our walking tour. 

Boylan Heights

Though you can start your walkabout from anywhere in Raleigh’s downtown area, we’ll start our walk in Boylan Heights, one of Raleigh’s first planned suburbs in the early 1900s. The neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 1985, one of six such districts in Raleigh. Historic Boylan Heights is just a few blocks from the downtown core, and you can park for free on many of the streets.

Raleigh History Boylan Heights Historic Homes

Boylan Avenue is the showpiece of this neighborhood, with large homes and deep property setbacks. Walk along the street and you find examples of Dutch Colonials and Colonial Revival architecture. And, you’ll also see the Heights House Hotel, an Italianate style mansion, formerly known as Montfort Hall. The hotel sits on the highest point in the neighborhood and was built in 1860 by William Montfort Boylan and British architect William Percival. During our visit to Raleigh, we stayed at the Heights House Hotel and highly recommend you do the same. The Dorothea Dix Park is a beautiful, cool greenspace to enjoy if you need a break or are looking for special events. From here, downtown is an easy mostly downhill walk – well, you do have to walk back up if you’re staying at the Heights House.

Cross the Boylan Bridge

From the Heights House, walk across the Boylan Bridge, but take the time to stop and enjoy the view. Considered one of the best views of the Raleigh skyline … sunset or sunrise. The bridge was the first to cross over the North Carolina Railroad tracks and was built in 1883 to connect downtown Raleigh to the Boylan Heights neighborhood. As you look toward the skyline, gaze down and look around a bit. If you look closely enough at where the CSX and Southern Railroad tracks split after passing under the bridge, you will see a “Y” shape … known locally as the “Wye.”  Between 1900 until the mid-1950s, this area was dominated by industry, with coal yards, ice plants, iron works, and several other large factories – all relying on the proximity to the railway and Union Station for moving freight. Little more than iron and concrete skeletons remain now.

Sunset And Storm Clouds Boylan Bridge Raleigh

Standing on the Boylan Bridge, looking at the Raleigh skyline and the Wye in sunset light with storm clouds filling the horizon.

Today, between 20 and 30 freight trains will pass under the bridge weekly and 10 Amtrak trains arrive and depart from Union Station, transiting under the bridge each day. Although we’re not suggesting you stand there all day, there’s so much more to see, the activity is fun to watch – and sunsets are great, too. It doesn’t hurt that the stupendous Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing has an admirable spot that allows one to-die-for view from the deck.

Head toward downtown on Hargett Street

Once you cross over the bridge, you’ll come to Hargett Street. Turn right and start walking toward downtown. East Hargett Street was once the center of the Black community in Raleigh. Between 1910 until the 1960s the area between Fayetteville Street and Moore Square was known as Black Main Street. During that time, Black business thrived and the brick buildings on either side of Hargett were filled with the offices and businesses of Black doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers, alongside real estate, barbershops, and retail operations.

City Of Raleigh Museum Black Main Street

Not much of Black Main Street remains today; however, a series of sidewalk murals by the artist TJ Mundy celebrates what once was. The murals are part of the Raleigh ArtsBeats program and have arrows that point to the exact location of the businesses being remembered, some spaces now gone, while some are occupied by other tenants. The area has seen a resurgence of Black-owned businesses in recent years, such as Black Friday Market and Nashona Boutique.

Starting at Wilmington Street and heading east toward Moore Square this is what each mural depicts, with the artist’s words in quotes:

>> Grant United Order of Odd Fellows Building at 115 East Hargett St. “The Odd Fellows building was a factory until 1891, when it became the office and assembly space for the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. The Odd Fellows were a Black fraternal organization with the purpose of benefiting the community through mutual aid.”

TJ Mundy Sidewalk Street Art On Black Main Street In Raleigh

One of five pieces of sidewalk street art on Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh commemorating Black Main Street history.

>> Lightner Arcade and Hotel at 122 East Hargett St. “Built in 1921 by Charles E. Lightner, a local businessman, Lightner Arcade was one of the few places for Black travelers of the time. From the 1920s-1940s the Arcade was the premier social hub of Raleigh’s Black community & housed a barber shop, drugstore, newspaper, & restaurant.  The building burned down in 1968.”

>> Hamlin Drug Store at 126 East Hargett St.  “Hamlin Drug was purchased in 1957 by Clarence C. Coleman & Dr. John M. Johnson. It was the oldest African American-owned pharmacy in North Carolina. Dr. Johnson delivered medications by car, created a pay-what-you-can system for government employees, and ran the pharmacy counter for 60 years.”

>> Delany-Evans Building at 133 East Hargett St. “The Delany-Evans Building, also known as the Dental Building, was founded in 1926 by Dr. Lemuel Delany and Dr. George Evans, the second Black dentist in Raleigh. In 1935 the first Black public library in Wake County was founded in the building by Mollie Huston Lee, the first Black librarian in Raleigh.”

If you need a snack or a cool drink, try popping into The Raleigh Times pub on Hargett Street. It is a sprawling bar housed in the former Times building built in 1906 and painstakingly restored for its 2006 opening. The pub and bar pays homage to the former newspaper and that heritage with signage, photos, and newspaper pages on the wall.

Backtrack to the City of Raleigh Museum

City Of Raleigh Museum History Tour

From Moore Square, considered the end of then-Black Main Street, you’ll backtrack a bit to the City of Raleigh Museum (known as the “COR Museum”) at 220 Fayetteville St. We loved this museum, originally operating as a private, non-profit until 2012 when the city took it over. It is small but does an amazing job of examining and analyzing the history of Raleigh in a hands-on, entertaining manner, in part due to its passionate, dynamic director Ernest Dollar (Pictured in the photo above. If you get a chance to do a tour with him, do it!).

If you are beginning to get the sense there is a strong link to Black history in Raleigh, you would be correct. At the time of our visit, the exhibit “Let Us March On: Journey Towards Civil Rights” explored the timeframe from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s as Raleigh struggled with racial equality. The building the museum is housed in is also of interest. The Briggs Building was built in 1874 and still retains many of its original features, including the tin ceiling that can be seen in the museum gallery. The museum also, per Dollar, serves as “Raleigh’s Living Room,” and is a place to seek out visitor information or other special events and walking tours.

Pope House Museum

Raleigh Museums Pope House

From the COR Museum, you can get to the Pope House Museum after about six minutes of walking, to the southeast two blocks, one block over, and another short block down, at 511 S. Wilmington St. Built in 1901 was the home of Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope, a graduate of the local Leonard School of Medicine, an officer in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and the only Black man to run for mayor of a Southern capital during the Jim Crow Era. This is the only house museum in North Carolina, and it is free to the public. The museum contains original furnishings, various artifacts and documents that give insight into a remarkable man.

Shaw University

Another five minutes of walking south on South Wilmington Street, you arrive at the Shaw University campus, founded in 1865 by Henry Martin Tupper, a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War and a graduate of Amherst College and Newton Theological Seminary. The school was renamed to honor its benefactor, Elijah Shaw in 1870. Spend some time walking around the campus to fully appreciate the significance of the buildings you see.

Shaw University was the first historically Black university in the South (a.k.a HBCU), the first Black college in the nation to enroll women, and the first college in the nation that offered a four-year medical school at the Leonard Medical School Building. The Leonard Medical School Building still stands, its twin turrets and Romanesque Revival architecture listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated a North Carolina Historic Landmark.

Shaw University Etsey Hall

One of the main entrances to the Shaw University campus in Raleigh, here looking at Etsey Hall.

And don’t miss Estey Hall. Built in 1874, it is the oldest building still standing on the campus. It was the nation’s first women’s dormitory and built with the purpose of educating Black women. The four-story building remained a women’s dorm until 1968. Currently it is mostly offices, administration, and meeting rooms, but the exterior is spectacular. In February 2023, Estey received more than a half-million dollars of National Park Service funds for Raleigh for additional restoration and repair.

The Warehouse District

As you wind your way back toward the start of your walking tour, head northwest and back toward Hargett Street, a few blocks west of the Convention Center. You will enter the now trendy and eclectic Warehouse District. The Warehouse District is a six-block area filled with historic, red-brick buildings that in a former life were all about industry and their proximity to the railroad. From the 1880s through the 1950s, this district was made up of freight and passenger depots, hotels, cafes, shops, and warehouses. Nash Square, bordered on the north by Hargett Street, dates to 1792 when it was drawn in Raleigh’s first city plan – though it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it evolved from its previous iterations as a military campground and a plant nursery to an actual park.

As the railroad declined in importance to shipping and public transportation, also in the early 20th century, warehouses and buildings were abandoned. Many buildings became unusable by the 1980s – which is exactly what attracted artists and boutique entrepreneurs. By the 1980s, the area began its gradual transition to an arts and entertainment district. Today, the Warehouse District is home to an amazing concentration of art galleries, studios, restaurants, clubs, the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh (known as CAM), Union Station (redesigned and reimagined), and numerous restaurants, bars and unique retail businesses.

Raleigh Warehouse District Denim Shop

If you’re feeling a bit peckish, we’d recommend the Whiskey Kitchen, on the south edge of Nash Square – and you don’t even have to drink whiskey. It’s also worth taking a tour of the Videri Chocolate Factory, especially if you’re seeking dessert and a free chocolate sample. But we’re not here for the food or the shopping this trip. You’re walking the Warehouse District for its proliferation of public art.

Raleigh Warehouse District Murual By Mikael Owunna

Nommo Die and Nommo Titiyane mural in the Warehouse District of Raleigh, North Carolina by artist Mikael Owunna. Located at 409 W Martin Street.

It may surprise you, but downtown Raleigh boasts over 140 pieces of public art – sculptures, street art, murals — and the largest concentration of this artwork can be found in the Warehouse District – click on the link to open an interactive walking map that will guide you.

As long as we are on the subject of art, do take the time to visit CAM Raleigh. Open since 2011, this museum is a living work of art, quite literally as it has no permanent exhibition and instead showcases the works of living artists, both local and national.

Union Station and Raleigh rail history

Raleigh History Union Station

Finally, it’s not often we will give a shout out to a train station (though there are definitely notable ones around the world and certainly in the U.S.A.). However, the Raleigh Union Station deserves a nod. Open since 2018 as a modern hub, this is an official Amtrak station and a cornerstone of the Warehouse District, residing in a modernized and rehabilitated 1940’s warehouse. But it is designed to be so much more than just a train station. There are free public restrooms (always a bonus find in any city) and a wonderful, air-conditioned seating with free Wi-Fi. Tucked away in the stairwells and on walls you’ll also find nods to the railroading history of the region. And it is where you can find bike share and scooter share vendors to make it easier (if you are tired of walking) to get around downtown.

You see the Union Station from near your walk’s starting point, looking down at the Wye from Boylan Bridge.

More than a walk, but worth a visit

When it comes to art, museums and recognizing history, Raleigh is a city of firsts and superlatives. And it’s not without merit the city is, as noted, referred to as the “Smithsonian of the South.” There are two more places we think you need to see, important for art and history, but keep in mind it will require you to jump into your car.

Raleigh History MLK Park

The first is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Gardens at 1215 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The garden park is small, but significant as it was the first public park in the nation devoted solely to Dr. King. There is a life-like bronze statue of Dr. King and a granite water monument.

Gyre Sculpture By Thomas Sayre

Gyre, created in 1999 by Thomas Sayre, is one of more than a dozen outdoor sculptures at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

The other place you must see is the North Carolina Museum of Art. It opened in 1956 as the first major museum collection in the nation to be formed by state legislation and funding. Today, the museum has over 40 galleries, and it sits on 164 acres of public land filled with over a dozen outdoor sculptures to wander past and through – the nation’s largest museum park. You could easily spend an entire day there. Now, if you have a bike, you can also cruise around the sculptures on paved paths to continue your in part human-powered exploration of walkable Raleigh’s history, museums and art.

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  1. TJ

    The Black Main Street Murals begin at Moore Square and move towards S Wilmington. There is a 5th mural you missed stating “Welcome to Black Main Street.” The mural regarding The Lightner Arcade has since been corrected with the right name of the owner, “Calvin E. Lightner”

    • <div class="apbct-real-user-wrapper"><span>Michael</span><div class="apbct-real-user" title="The Real Person (TRP)"><div class="apbct-real-user-popup"><span class="apbct-real-user-title">Michael acts as a real person and passed all tests against spambots. Anti-Spam by CleanTalk.</span></div></div></div>

      Thank you TJ! Where is the “Welcome to Black Main Street mural located?

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