Born, bred, and currently living in New York City (forever and ever…), I have a true sense of wanderlust and try to travel as much as I can. And, as it happened, one such trip turned into home for the better part of the past two years.
When the pandemic hit, I happened to be in Raleigh, North Carolina. And, as the world turned upside-down, my week-long trip turned into a stay for the better part of two years. I was lucky: I was living with family friends and had no fear of racking up a permanent hotel bill, but it allowed me to experience the city and its surrounding area like a local, which is a rarity that I’ve learned to celebrate.
Ahead, find some of my top picks for your next trip down south so you can enjoy Raleigh the way the locals do.
Where to Eat:
Sitti has a special place in my heart. One of my favorite offerings of Lebanese fare, it’s one of my first stops every time I head back to the city. Located right in downtown Raleigh, it’s named for “the grandmother” in Lebanese. With a wide-open inside space, it’s almost like a converted warehouse, feeding into a string-lit patio that you can eat on during dry weather. Though you can certainly sit down and order a full entrée-included meal, I highly recommend instead opting for a selection of share plates from the appetizer menu. My can’t-misses from the menu include kibbeh nayyeh, which is a Lebanese steak tartare; Fried Cauliflower, which is topped with a blend of spices, goat cheese, and spicy tahini sauce; cheese rolls, which are basically like a pillow of gruyere, feta, mint, and Lebanese spices; and — of course — their perfectly whipped house hummus.
Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewery
The inside of Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewery is sunny and open, but it’s the outdoor patio that does it for me. With sweeping views of downtown Raleigh, the patio sits at the top of a hill in the Warehouse District, just west of the downtown area and a little bit off the beaten path. Here, you’ll find a menu that can be best described as a brewery-with-a-twist. With a menu of unique beers on tap, you can order everything from deviled eggs to beet hummus; falafel waffles, sweet potato cheesecake, and more.
Recently under new ownership, vegetarian restaurant Irregardless Café has been a staple of the Raleigh food scene since 1975. While their dinner is a fabulous array of colorful salads, vegan Asian-inspired dishes, traditional burgers, and more, it’s the brunch that really drives their excellence home. It’s here that you can order brisket benedict, smoked salmon hash, giant cinnamon rolls, and—of course—shrimp and grits. Irregardless celebrates local artists of all types, lining the walls with a gallery of Raleigh-based artists, as well as playing host to live music on Thursdays through Sundays every week.
Whiskey Kitchen is just the place to go to get American food — with a twist. Aptly named, the whiskey menu is epic, offering more than 300 whiskies from around the world, but the menu is almost as long. A former garage space, the restaurant gives off a converted industrial vibe, which sets the tone for a relaxed meal shared with as many friends as you can wrangle. And just outside lies a massive patio with picnic tables, so that you can dine al fresco on a nice day. Their crispy broccoli will make you think twice about turning your nose up at veggies, their fried chicken sandwich is expertly disguised as a half-pound burger if you glance quickly, and the Cracklin’ Biscuits might just become your new favorite carb. That said, you can’t go wrong when it comes to this menu.
Transfer Food Hall
For a casual and fun bite, head to Transfer Food Hall, which is housed in the old Carolina Coach Garage. With a soft opening at the end of 2019, it’s a new addition to the Raleigh food scene, filling 50,000 square feet with vendors that truly run the gamut. For a good old fashion southern burger with all the fixings, check out Mama Crow’s. In the mood for a few empanadas? Che Empanadas is your go-to. For a fresh place of oysters, Locals Oyster Bar will hit the spot. And, of course, you can wash it all down with a beer flight from Burial Beer Co. And that’s just the beginning of their long list of growing food vendors.
Where to Drink:
Watts & Ward
For a speakeasy feel after hours, head to Watts & Ward. Located in the basement of a building in the heart of downtown Raleigh, this cocktail bar boasts low leather couches, dimly-lit wood tables, and an outdoor patio complete with string lights. With a library-meets-speakeasy vibe, however, it stands in contrast to its multiple sprawling spaces, underground and windowless it might be. Here, you’ll find traditional drinks like margaritas and martinis, with the addition of a sprawling craft cocktail menu that you must try.
Barcelona Wine Bar
Ok, so placing Barcelona Wine Bar in the drinking category is a little misleading, as their menu is also epic. You might come for the wine, but you will very likely stay for the endless assortment of small bites and tapas sharing plates. The restaurant prides itself as being one of the largest Spanish wine programs in the United States, offering more than 40 wines by the glass and 400 by the bottle, spanning 70 regions in Spain and South America. Though Barcelona Wine Bar has locations in nine US states and Washington D.C., you’d never know there’s more than one, with an artistic and wide-open atmosphere that makes it feel truly local. When it comes to the food, you can’t miss the Truffled Bikini. It’s basically the best grilled cheese bites you will ever taste. And cauliflower au gratin, shishito peppers, steamed mussels, and more are all must-tries.
What to Do:
North Carolina Museum of Art
Not only is the North Carolina Museum of Art home to more than a dozen galleries that range from traditional American paintings to Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures; modern and contemporary galleries, as well as a Rodin Court that houses 30 sculptures by the designer that span all phases of his career. What’s more, the museum has a countless rotation of events, ranging from Art in Bloom, with live floral installations, to yoga at night in the galleries, surrounded by works of old master painters. During warmer summer months, you can also head to the museum after-hours for an outdoor film series under the stars. And, no matter what time of year, make sure to check out the surrounding 164-acre park with giant sculptural installations. Paths wind through open greenery and covered dirt paths to offer trails for both walking and biking alike.
Founded in 1998, the Carolina Ballet is a fairly new addition to the city, but has come in with a company of dancers who rank among the best. Each season, ballets rotate on a near-monthly basis, with dancers performing everything from classics like The Nutcracker and Romeo & Juliet to more contemporary ballets that have been composed and choreographed within the last few years.
Dorothea Dix Park
Dorothea Dix Park is Raleigh’s largest city park, boasting 308 acres of greenery, complete with an off-leash dog park, events like yoga in the park, disc golf, yappy hour, and more. But, it’s during the seasonal sunflower field’s bloom that the park becomes a truly unique attraction for locals and visitors alike. If you’re headed to Raleigh in July, make sure to check out the Sunflower Field at Dix Park, where you can walk through 2.5 acres of sunflowers, first planted in 2018 and blooming every summer since.
World of Bluegrass Festival
Every fall, downtown Raleigh plays host to the World of Bluegrass Festival. For children and adults alike, the festival not only includes open-stage performances, but also conferences, showcases, awards shows, and more. It’s a destination to be seen for all-day events, but it’s a great addition to a fall trip when you’re looking for a fun evening event as well. While you can wander in and out of the ticketed stage area (that’s outdoors, so you can hear it for miles, even if you can’t see it up-close!), you can wander through the additional street stages, vendor and exhibit hall, as well as countless street vendors and art market for local shopping.
The Umstead Hotel Spa
Even if you’re not staying on the property, the Umstead Hotel Spa is worth a trip if you’re looking for an afternoon of relaxation and pampering. About a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Raleigh, it’s a sanctuary that lies just outside the city limits. Here, choose from body treatments to massages; facials, and more. In fact, you can make a whole day of it, booking a few appointments with your significant other, group of best friends, or take some time to yourself. And finish the day up with a light bite and cocktail at the hotel’s Bar and Lounge.
Rails to Trails
Founded in 1989, Rails to Trails offers miles of bike trails on abandoned railroad corridors, with more continuously added over time. The American Tobacco Trail spans more than 22 miles and is located in the Triangle Region of the state. Connecting Durham, Chatham, Raleigh, and the like. Though you can jump on and off the trail depending on how much you want to ride, it’s an all-level trail due to its paved nature, which makes it great for families and individuals alike.
If you’re in town in April, local store Unleashed hosts a K9 Spring Fling, which raises money for local rescues. At the NC State Fairgrounds, you can spend the weekend visiting boots for a variety of rescue organizations, whether you want to lend a hand, adopt a rescue yourself, or bring your existing pets along for a day of canine and feline fun. There are doggie easter egg hunts, local vendors, rescue groups and shelters, raffles, and even demos from local dog trainers.
Artsplosure is Raleigh’s longest running arts festival, consisting of a two-day event with more than 175 artists from around the country taking part in the massive art market. Not only can you shop each artist’s offerings, but there are also free arts and crafts for kids as well as a weekend full of live music performances and large-form installations peppered throughout downtown Raleigh in celebration.