Raleigh is much more than a sleepy Southern capital. It offers a wealth of noteworthy dining establishments, craft breweries, a lively arts scene and first-rate museums, all within a compact, walkable downtown. What’s more, it’s easy to reach—just a two-hour flight from Boston—so it’s perfect for a three- or four-day trip.
Start by checking into the revamped Hampton Inn & Suites Raleigh Downtown in the Glenwood South district. The rooms are comfortable, the staff exceptionally accommodating—the on-site security guard is happy to give you a lift in his golf cart—and you’ll want to fuel up on the complimentary breakfast since you’ll be exploring on foot.
Glenwood South, a neighborhood of repurposed brick warehouses, is home to the Raleigh Beer Garden, which boasts the world’s largest selection of draft beer offered in one restaurant. Also notable is the nearby State of Beer. Owned by the local Trophy Brewing Company (and yes, they brew a “Trophy Wife” beer), it’s a casual spot that resembles an old-fashioned country store, except that the shelves are stocked from floor to ceiling with beer. Beer-tenders provide expert guidance. Lunch is served seven days a week and ranges from small plates such as pimento cheese and charcuterie to superb sandwiches. Try the Bluebird: smoked turkey, blueberry vinaigrette, white cheddar, pickled red peppers, white onion and mixed greens on thickly sliced artisanal bread.
If you’re still thirsty—for beer, coffee or local color—don’t miss Devolve Moto. It’s a retail/cafe hybrid that’s equal parts tough and twee: Locals decked out in tattoos and man buns, accompanied by their itty-bitty dogs, drink honey-lavender lattes and munch buttermilk-fig scones before stocking up on skull rings, utility boots and “Damn Handsome” beard oil.
Take a stroll to the Capitol Area Historic District, a few blocks away, and you’ll understand why Raleigh has been called “The Smithsonian of the South.” The State Capitol Building, the North Carolina Museum of History and the enormous North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences are within steps of one another. The last, deservedly the state’s single most popular tourist attraction, comprises two buildings connected by an indoor bridge. Highlights include a Living Conservatory populated by tarantulas, milk snakes and a two-toed sloth, a three-story theater featuring a 42-foot-tall screen showing 3-D educational films as well as presentations by guest speakers and scientists, and computer stations that encourage hands-on investigation of robotics and augmented reality technology. You could easily spend an entire day here.
Meanwhile, the Museum of History is currently featuring a special exhibit on the history of Miss North Carolina. Memorabilia such as crowns, gowns and swimsuits commemorate the 80th anniversary of the pageant—and remind you that you’re not in Boston anymore. Unlike many museums, both are open most Mondays and admission is free.
At the center of downtown’s grid-patterned streets is the State Capitol, a mostly intact exemplar of Greek Revival architecture. Built in 1840, it replaced the original building, which—fun fact alert—burned down in 1831 while undergoing a fire-proofing procedure.
Nearby is the extremely popular Bida Manda, the first Laotian restaurant in the region. Dinner reservations can be hard to come by, so stop in for lunch or a drink to check out the decor. It’s a transporting setting of walls covered with hand-tied bundles of sticks (three tons’ worth) sourced from North Carolina mountains, reclaimed wood furniture and Laotian art and artifacts. The food is pristinely fresh and flavorful. Try the Hazelnut Manhattan, an on-trend concoction of bourbon, hazelnut, Italian herbal aperitif Cardamaro and black walnut bitters. Next door and under the same ownership is Brewery Bhavana, an ambitious synthesis of brewery taproom, carefully curated bookstore, flower shop and elevated dim sum restaurant: General Tso’s chicken is sauced with hibiscus, and the Peking duck is free-range.
But when it comes to fine dining in Raleigh, Second Empire sets the standard—and sets it high. The elegant rooms in this circa 1879 historic home are reminiscent of the former digs of Boston’s L’Espalier, and the food is equally exquisite. A dish simply titled “Empire Blue Crab & Pasta Casserole” is a fantastic combination of flavors and textures, the richness of pancetta and red pepper cream sauce cut by the tingle of harissa and balanced with roasted cauliflower and wilted spinach. Most entrees are under $30, and downstairs the Tavern offers more casual fare at even lower price points. Whatever you choose, it’s sure to be a memorable taste of Raleigh. ◆
Although Pepsi was invented in North Carolina, Cheerwine is the state’s unofficial soft drink. Marking its centennial this year and featured at the White House’s “Made in America” event, the cherry-flavored “Nectar from North Carolina” is extra carbonated and pairs well with barbecue.
Bida Manda, bidamanda.com; Brewery Bhavana, brewerybhavana.com; Devolve Moto, devolvemoto.com; Hampton Inn & Suites Raleigh Downtown, hamptoninn3.hilton.com; The North Carolina Museum of History, ncmuseumofhistory.org; The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, naturalsciences.org; Raleigh Beer Garden, theraleighbeergarden.com; Second Empire, second-empire.com; State of Beer, stateof.beer