Way cool Raleigh: Why you should plan to visit Raleigh now

by Nov 17, 2022North Carolina

VIsit Raleigh downtown skyline with a rainbow

Consistently ranked as a top place to live and work, Raleigh exudes a Southern charm topped with a cool factor and infused with culture, arts, diversity, and openness. When it comes to Southern cities, you should visit Raleigh now.


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Raleigh – consistently ranked as a top place to live in the United States – is a charming Southern city that is cool, casual, smart, diverse, and busting with microbreweries, innovative restaurants, and a booming arts scene. There are numerous reasons to visit Raleigh — and not one involves sipping mint juleps under the shade of plantation oak trees.

Part of North Carolina’s so-called Research Triangle with Durham and Chapel Hill (a.k.a. “The Triangle”), a visit to Raleigh turned out to be so much more than we ever dreamed. Based near downtown, we found the city was a walkable surprise, embracing arts, greenspace, civil rights history, and chill friendliness. It ranks with other must-see cities, like San Francisco or New Orleans – and we are already plotting a return to this jewel of the south.

The median age is in the 30s, but whether younger or older, you won’t feel out of place or overlooked (OK, so give it up, we are older….). The youthful factor I think is one reason the city seems to be filled with creative energy spawning inspired entrepreneurs making everything from leather goods and denim apparel to skincare products, chips, and chocolate. That energy is absolutely infectious, with small business owners and innovators just gushing about what they do and why they love it —and how much Raleigh supports it.

Raleigh-downtown-streets

Shaw University is a dynamic part of downtown and has its own history to share as an HBCU or “Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

Fast-growing Raleigh maintains authenticity for all

In part, this energy permeating the streets of downtown Raleigh is due to the city’s skyrocketing growth — and frankly we are talking rocket-booster growth. Chew on this a minute: A few years ago, a Forbes study found Raleigh was THE fastest-growing metro area in the country, increasing 47 percent from 2000 to 2012. And the growth honestly hasn’t stopped and won’t soon, with predictions noting this southern city should remain the fastest-growing metro area through 2025.

And there is little doubt that to some degree, all this inspired growth has helped nurture the redevelopment of downtown in the last 10-15 years. The core has become a true hotbed of cool creativeness that is now guided by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance in partnership with the city. It doesn’t hurt that housing has grown by 91 percent since 2010 – as redeveloping cities know, if people live there, businesses will come.

In some growing cities, burgeoning happens so fast it all becomes a willy-nilly, nonsensical mess. In comparison, Raleigh has managed to allow the juices to gush while still guiding and organizing growth and redevelopment to build retail, transportation, greenspaces, and – I think this is key – “maintaining authenticity and character,” as the downtown alliance stated. Unlike other urban cores, downtown Raleigh never had an atmosphere of “oh goodness, don’t you dare go there,” we were told. Today, however, with 90 percent locally owned businesses, it has evolved, been reinvented, and returned fully to a vibrant life, becoming a “don’t you dare NOT go there.” And we so agree. Yes, visitors must go to downtown Raleigh.

Getting to and around Raleigh for a visit

A visit to Raleigh isn’t difficult to add to your travel to-do list. Situated in the northern central area of North Carolina, it is easily reached either by car from Interstates 40, 85, and on a side trip from I-95, or by plane to the Raleigh-Durham Airport. The airport conveniently happens to be nearly in the middle of that Research Triangle and just 14 miles from Raleigh, 15 from Durham, 18 from Chapel Hill, and eight from Cary. Being just a bit closer to the airport, Cary with its own small-town charm becomes a nice place to stay upon arrival (or pre-departure), especially if you are heading to or from other parts of the state such as the Outer Banks or New Bern.

Visit-Raleigh-Black-Main-Street

The former Black Main Street is now marked by a series of street murals to mark its heritage.

We tend to like walking around cities, especially downtowns. When you move slower and on foot, you get a real up-close feel for what makes a town tick and how it feels. You also discover sights and eateries you may not otherwise – like a stroll down what is called Black Main Street, which in the early 1900s due to segregation was packed with black-owned businesses and was where black shoppers headed. Today, murals decorate the sidewalk with reminders of its past.

Raleigh we found has an extremely walkable downtown core. We stayed at Heights House in Boylan Heights and never once got into our car for most of our stay, other than to head out to the over-the-top fantastic North Carolina Museum of Art.

Speaking of museums to see in Raleigh…

You could fill any visit to Raleigh with museums, if you choose. We definitely like to fill our days during a visit to any city with a variety of activities and sights – not just museums. But we made time – and so should you — for three museum gems: The North Carolina Museum of Art with a sprawling park filled with outdoor art, the intimate City of Raleigh Museum of history (COR), and the Pope House Museum, which was the former home of M.T. Pope, M.D., who had the chutzpah to run for mayor in the middle of the Jim Crow era.

Visit-Raleigh-museums

You could spend hours and hours enjoying the exhibits, gardens and outdoor art park at the North Carolina Museum of Modern Art.

If you have kids, you’ll also want to make Marbles Kids Museum of interactive education a top to-do; if modern art is what you live for, then CAM Raleigh (Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh) must be on your list to visit in Raleigh – it is a non-collecting museum that provides programming and non-traditional exhibitions by living artists. And even its exterior just looks plain cool and artistic.

Leonard Hall Shaw University Raleigh

Civil rights and black history are a huge part of Raleigh — and an important part of any visit to Raleigh. Here, Leonard Hall is noted as the first four-year medical school anywhere in the United States.

When in Raleigh, learning more about civil rights and black history is a must and that includes your own walking tour in and around Shaw University. Although there are no formal tours, getting a look at historic Estey Hall and reading historic markers will help you learn more. Built in 1874, Estey Hall was the first building in the United States for the higher education of African-American women. And a piece of trivia that will stun most people: When classes began at Shaw’s Leonard Hall in 1882, it made history as the first medical school in the United States to offer a four-year curriculum – yes, among ALL universities, including white institutions.

Get a great view of Raleigh on your visit

Who doesn’t want to get a sky-high view of any city on a visit? There is something remarkable about seeing a city’s skyline, sunset, or stars twinkling over the buildings from a high viewpoint. We personally like to “summit” any place we go – and in urban areas like Raleigh North Carolina, that of course will mean a tall building.

The-Dillon-view-Visit-Raleigh

A night view over Raleigh’s skyline from the terrace at The Dillon, a multi-use project that is a bit of a community hub.

Our quest for a view took us to The Dillon in the hip, friendly, artsy Warehouse District of Raleigh. The Dillon takes up an entire 2.5-city block with an 18-story building housing an eclectic mix of offices, residences, restaurants, and retail. Ah, the secret is the terrace on the 9th floor. Every first Friday, it is open for free to everybody until 11 p.m. for the best skyline view of Raleigh and the area. Of course, if you are a resident’s guest or otherwise buddy up to somebody, you can get up to that amazing high view any time you want. Just sayin’….

VIsit-Raleigh-WYE-view

And then there is the view of the skyline — night or day — from Boylan Bridge over the so-called Wye train tracks that are shaped like, yes, a “Y.”

Another great spot for a sunset or sunrise view is on Boylan Bridge overlooking what is called the Boylan Wye, barely more than a quarter mile away from the Dillon. Why the Wye? Because you are looking down on and over a huge railroad junction that is shaped, yes, you got it, like a Y. This junction is a dynamic part of Raleigh’s industrial past during the city’’s bustling railroad days in the first part of the 1900s. Its “Y” shape allowed trains to back in and out of Union Station, which today is right at the junction. You can’t miss the bridge – especially since photographers with smartphones and tripods are a common sight there. When we were there, a storm was rolling through, casting an amazing rainbow over the city – and the local news truck showed up to film an opening segment from the Wye. So don’t miss it!

HITT Tip: The new Union Station between the Wye and The Dillon is a sweepingly open, bright space with tables and free wifi, not to mention free restrooms. If you need a break, this is a good place to seek out.

Food for foodies, beverages for connoisseurs in Raleigh

Raleigh-downtown-restaurants

We took a break for lunch at Whiskey Kitchen where Michael and I enjoyed creative non-alcoholic cocktails on a hot day.

From whiskey flights to dim sum, from microbrews to oh-so-yum pizza, and from coffee-for-snobs to exotic Laotian cuisine, Raleigh doesn’t want for great eats. Nope, foodies, won’t despair in this Southern city.


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In the downtown districts alone, such as Warehouse, Fayetteville, Moore Square and Capital, you can’t take more than a few steps down most any street without finding yourself staring in a window and drooling. Take it from me, you will not be subjected to just grits, biscuits, and barbeque even in this southern city – although you likely want to indulge in a little of that, too.

We had fantastic feasts, beverages, and snacks at Bida Manda, Oro Restaurant & Lounge, Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing, Whiskey Kitchen, Rebus Works, Young Hearts Brewing, and the Transfer Co. Food Hall. And we were only in the city for four days.

Retail in Raleigh so much more: Go shopping now

Retail in downtown Raleigh is not about chains or department stores. The downtown core is awash in small shops offering creative goods, and in hot spots all over the city you’ll find entrepreneurs doing what they love.

Our nose also led us to Videri Chocolate Factory, where you can taste its wares (made on site) before buying, but our eyes drew us into the Raleigh Denim Workshop, which uses raw, unprocessed denim for all kinds of cool products – also made right on-site. Watch the magic happen through a doorway into the sewing facility, then peruse the shop for jeans, bags and tops.

Visit-Raleighj-downtown-The-Factory

Johnny Hacket in the foyer of The Factory co-manufacturing space in Raleigh.

Plus, there are residents encouraging and nurturing others who want to become boutique entrepreneurs: We happened upon Johnny Hackett who launched a state-of-the-art co-manufacturing facility called The Factory.

Hackett’s goal is to combine a co-working model with a business model so those who use the facility can also become their own bosses. We walked the floors at The Factory, looking at a fully outfitted photo studio, vinyl cutters for decals, a heat press for fabrics, a high-definition printer for flyers and poster, laser engravers, and all kinds of desk, meeting, and workspaces. “Nobody is doing what we’re doing,” Hackett said. Indeed, it was impressive.

What was most fascinating, though, was getting a great feel for how creative residents, like Hackett with The Factory, are helping each other. At the Black Friday Market shop in the heart of former Black Main Street, co-owner Jasmine Bullock told us about the concept that started as a pop-up at Friday markets where local creatives sold their wares. Came the question over and over: “Where can I buy this?” And thus the brick-and-mortar shop was born (Hackett is also a co-owner along with Jay Flagler).

Black-Friday-Market-Raleigh-downtown

Sellers with everything from paintings and jewelry to shoes and stickers have no contract and get 100 percent of all sales (after paying a fee). When we talked to Bullock, there were about 80 different sellers up to age 76, with the youngest at that time being 7. Those younger than 17 don’t even have to pay a fee, Bullock pointed out.

One success story now sits right next door to Black Friday Market with a shop called Nashona. Its vibrant clothing line fuses modern lines with traditional African fabrics from Tanzania. Founded by Lilian K Danieli, a Tanzanian native living in North Carolina, Nashona means “I sew” in Swahili.

Cool, artsy, creative Raleigh is ready to welcome the world for a visit.

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