Durham’s enduring nickname, “Bull City,” originated from a smoking tobacco manufactured by John R. Green in the 1860s — the package was branded with a bull, and was wildly popular with both Union and Confederate soldiers. After changing hands multiple times, the enterprise was absorbed by tobacco tycoon James B. Duke’s massive American Tobacco Company — by 1874, Duke had built the first all-brick tobacco factory in downtown Durham and piloted the first cigarette rolling machines. As late as the 1980s, it’s rumored that the scent of tobacco could still be detected in downtown Durham.
Today, the restored 15-acre American Tobacco Campus is a vibrant dining, shopping, and arts scene inside the original brick structure of Duke’s tobacco factory, with many original trappings intact. A diverse dining scene throughout town distinguishes Durham’s culinary culture as a local art form. At contemporary hotels, arts centers, distilleries, museums, and on the Duke University campus, Durham’s past is preserved and revitalized, the town’s origin story key to its evolution and renaissance. Below is our guide for where to stay, how to play, and where to dine while visiting Durham, NC.
Where to Stay in Durham
Three boutique hotels and one B&B in downtown Durham are part of a new era of invention, luxury, and design. Unscripted opened within the site of the former Jack Tar Motel on Corcoran Street, a 1960s steel-frame Midcentury Modern structure with a rooftop pool and picturesque views of Durham’s skyline. Revitalization has reimagined the rooftop as The Patio, a buzzing, upbeat scene with a full menu of tasty craft cocktails and other spirits, as well as handhelds and shareables. Jack Tar and the Colonel’s Daughter is an on-site restaurant and lounge with decadent and nostalgic brunch and supper menus reflecting a subtle Tex-Mex influence. Menu highlights include poblano hush puppies and poblano biscuits and gravy, fried-to-order crullers with sweet honey cream, duck confit tamales, and a Bloody Mary that was voted the Best in the Triangle in 2020 by INDY Week readers. Also on-site is the Pour Taproom, featuring more than 60 brews on tap, and Neomonde Mediterranean, voted the Best Deli in the Triangle by INDY Week readers in 2020.
The Durham Hotel is located within the 1968 Home Savings Bank building. Its retro style, reimagined by Los Angeles-based studio Commune, instantly transports visitors to the scenes of “Mad Men.” Visit the rooftop for city views, as well as a finely curated spirits list. The signature cocktail, The Durham, combines tawny port, Mount Gay rum, cognac, Benedictine, and angostura bitters.
Durham’s 21C Museum Hotel, formerly the historic Hill Building, was restored by Deborah Berke Partners in 2015. This 1937 Art Deco structure was first designed by William F. Lamb (of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, designers of the Empire State Building and the RJ Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem). Once home to The Durham Loan & Trust Company, Central Carolina Bank, and the Ellis-Stone Department Store, the hotel is now stylish and sunlit modern lodging, showcasing the property’s original arched windows and terrazzo floors and a contemporary art space with rotating exhibitions.
Morehead Manor is a quaint bed and breakfast in a Colonial Revival-style home run by Monica and Daniel Edwards. Monica Edwards, who happens to be President of the North Carolina Bed and Breakfast Inns Association (NCBBI), and her husband have created a cozy space to stay, replete with well-appointed rooms, beautifully designed common areas, and an overall hospitable vibe. A short walk from downtown Durham, Morehead Manor was originally built for the CEO of Liggett and Myers’ Tobacco Company.
Where to Play
When the Capitol Broadcasting Company (CBC) undertook the restoration of the American Tobacco Campus in the 1990s, it was in such disrepair that trees grew from the rooftops of the factory’s brick buildings. In a historic renovation project, CBC re-envisioned the campus as a hub for creators and innovators in tech and other industries as well as a sprawling, lively, and inviting recreational space. CBC’s Chief Strategist Adam Klein believes that revitalizing old industrial sites offers a feeling of “rootedness” by connecting us to the past, while inviting new creators and innovators to participate in the same ingenuity.
The campus now offers several restaurants, bars, retail, green spaces, and cycling trails, along with Power Plant Art Gallery and The Boiler, an event venue in the boiler room of the old power plant. Stop by Parker and Otis for sandwiches made with quality local ingredients as well as wine, coffee, North Carolina gifts, bath and body items, and custom greeting cards. Or for something more elevated, dine at NanaSteak, where you can select from an inventive menu of everything from pork ribs to Scottish salmon to, yes, steak. From most vantages, the iconic Lucky Strike tower and smokestacks are visible. Adjacent to the campus is the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) and Durham Bulls Athletic Park (the minor league team was founded as the Durham Tobacconists in 1902).
All ages will enjoy the Museum of Life and Science, now in its 75th year. The 84-acre campus is also an AZA-accredited zoo, home to lemurs, tortoises, red wolves and other wildlife, and shelters one of the largest butterfly conservatories in the country. Exhibits focus on the natural world, the earth sciences, and beyond.
On the Duke University campus, an hour-long tour of the Duke Lemur Center (reservations are required) introduces you to 17 resident lemurs and shares more about the protection of these and other endangered species within the center’s Madagascar Conservation Programs.
Don’t miss the stunningly manicured Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Admission is free, and each pathway through the expansive, 55-acre enclave offers a new vantage point on the lush, sweeping grounds. What began with 100 flowerbeds in the 1930s has burgeoned to five miles of trails featuring the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, an Asiatic Arboretum, terraced Historic Gardens, the Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden, and a new Discovery Garden.
The Ninth Street Shopping District is adjacent to Duke’s East Campus. This historic and walkable area is home to an eclectic array of dining and retail options. Hometown Apparel is a screen-printing shop that transcends the usual souvenir offerings in artistry, style, and design. Other Ninth Street treasures include Elmo’s Diner, The Regulator Bookshop, Blue Corn Café, and Cosmic Cantina, along with many other shops, restaurants, bakeries, and cafés. On nearby Market Street, check out The ZEN Succulent, a modern terrarium and plant craft business founded by mother-daughter team Margaret and Megan George. And finally, don’t miss the Nasher Art Museum and Sculpture Garden, also located nearby.
Just northwest of town, explore Eno River State Park, an expansive property filled with lush forestry, river bluffs, 30 miles of trails, and a scenic waterway ideal for wading, fishing, and fabulous photo ops. Take a dip (swim at your own risk, there is no lifeguard) via the Quarry Trail. And if you want to spend the night, book a backcountry campsite.
The Pauli Murray House is a National Park Service site preserving the childhood home of Civil Rights activist Pauli Murray, also the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. The Museum of Durham History features exhibits on Black Wall Street, North Carolina Mutual, and a timeline featuring key historical figures and pivotal moments in Durham’s history.
Main-stage programming and events are top-tier at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC). The historic Carolina Theatre, built in 1926, offers exceptional film and live music programming as well as a third-floor exhibition on the site’s history. The Hayti Heritage Center is in the historic St. Joseph AME Church, and offers visual and performing arts programs related to the African American experience.
Where to Eat
Breakfast and Brunch
Start the day at Jack Tar & The Colonel’s Daughter or Monuts on Ninth Street, where donuts as well as bagels, quiches, soups, and plates like “Durham Dreams of Shawarma” reflect an innovative approach to breakfast cuisine, fusing multicultural influences with core American mainstays.
Stop into Jeddah’s Tea for “small-scale organic, vegan-friendly, and fair-trade teas, herbs, and spices” or Guglhupf, a German bakery, biergarten, and local treasure. All received Best of the Triangle commendations from INDY Week readers in 2020, as did Cocoa Cinnamon, a “Latina co-owned and women forward” enterprise with three locations serving coffee, tea, chocolate, and enticing beverages, like a latte with house-made dark chocolate sauce and the Xochiquetzal, a rose-infused honey latte with rose petals and lavender.
Artful Dinner Fare
Chef Michael Lee’s four restaurant concepts reflect Japanese and Korean culture. M Sushi focuses on “maintaining traditional Japanese cuisine with Peruvian and Spanish influences.” M Kokko serves unparalleled Korean fried chicken; M Tempura revisits the traditional tempura omakase experience, achieving subtlety in the fry and showcasing a diversity of ingredients like North Carolina white shrimp, local oysters, Mero seabass, and more. M Pocha serves Korean tapas and “between buns,” a shrimp burger with shrimp mousse, fresh panko, spicy pickle slaw and yuzu tartar, or the Pocha burger, a two-patty burger featuring a brisket smash-style patty and a grilled meatloaf patty on a potato bun.
Chef Matthew Kelly’s Vin Rouge anchors Ninth Street at its north end and is a sublime escape to a classic French bistro in terms of menu and atmosphere. Kelly’s Mateo Bar de Tapas presents Spanish tapas informed by Southern fare, and his partnership with Josh deCarolis inspired Mothers & Sons Trattoria and later, deCarolis’ Alimentari at Mothers and Sons, which offers a menu of handmade from-scratch pasta, housemade focaccia, local Boxcarr cheeses, and house-cured meats.
James Beard-nominated chef Ricky Moore draws inspiration for Saltbox Seafood Joint from “classic American fish camps and waterside seafood shacks,” emphasizing local North Carolina seafood.” A “plate” is comprised of fish or shellfish fried, spiced, griddled, and served with a signature slaw of shredded cabbage, vegetables, herbs, and citrus, as well as crispy potatoes, peppers and onions, cornmeal fritters, and fried Brussels sprouts.
Plum Southern Kitchen & Bar celebrates Southern-American fare, with menu items like Parker House rolls and Johnny Cakes, chicken and dumplings, shrimp and grits with Andouille sausage and tomato gravy, and pepper-crusted steak. Reminiscent of convivial food halls and Spanish mercados, Durham Food Hall serves everything from oysters and bagels to Southern cuisine and spirits in an airy, sunlight-flooded contemporary space.
There’s no shortage of venues for sampling exceptional locally crafted spirits. Former scientists Melissa and Lee Katrincic’s Durham Distillery makes a flagship dry Conniption Gin and Conniption Navy Strength, as well as “Damn Fine Liqueurs” with local ingredients sourced from Raleigh-based Slingshot Coffee Company and Videri Chocolate Factory. They also offer a line of bright canned cocktails, including vodka soda, gin and tonic, and rosé spritz. Book a tour online and do make a reservation at Durham Distillery’s chic cocktail lounge, Corpse Reviver, located in the site of a former coffin shop. Kingfisher serves Conniption gin and other fine spirits, and its new backyard burger restaurant, QueenBurger, highlights tempting burger toppers like housemade chili, griddled onions, and old north pickles. (They also offer a house-made vegan burger!)
Alley Twenty Six offers extraordinary cocktails, tonic mixers, a line of custom cocktail syrups for sale, and has a fine menu of charcuterie and other small plates, sandwiches, and burgers. The top-shelf tonic syrup coalesces cinchona tree bark, lemongrass, limes, and sugar.
Mystic Farm & Distillery is a solar-powered bourbon distillery crafting Scotch whisky with nine-spiced tea and wildflower honey, and Bedlam Vodka of Graybeard Distillery distills vodka from long-grain rice. Honeygirl Meadery crafts traditional fruit and herb meads (honey wines) with seasonal fruits, flowers, herbs, and honey from North Carolina bees. Brothers Vilgalys is the first distillery to produce Krupnikas, a Polish spiced honey liqueur, in the U.S. For beer aficionados, Fullsteam Brewery, Ponysaurus Brewing Company, Hi-Wire Brewing taproom, and Bull City Ciderworks are all within striking distance of downtown.
For a nonalcoholic beverage, stop by Da Kine’s Café and Kava Bar. Kava derives from the roots of Piper methysticum, a plant native to the western Pacific Islands. Its name translates to “intoxicating pepper.” Drinks range from fresh to creamy to peppery to herbaceous.
In addition to Guglhupf, visit Sweets by Shayda for macarons, pastries, and other bright confections. The Rockwood Dairy Bar and The Parlour offer fresh ice cream and other sweet treats. LocoPops, a longtime local mainstay serves fruit-forward ice pops in the manner of Mexican paletas, ice cream, beverages, and a great variety of vegan and gluten-free options on the menu.
As you can see, there are so many amazing things to explore in Durham, NC. Here’s to exploring this fabulous Southern city!
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