Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill make up what is called “The Triangle” in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. All three cities host major universities, and technology is a major part of the region’s economy. With all those smart folks in one area, it’s no surprise that the towns have developed into cultural centers that are popular destinations for tourists. Since the airport is midway between Raleigh and Durham, those two towns get most of the traffic, and regardless of which direction you head, there are plenty of delicious dining options and cultural attractions to fill up a weekend. Here’s where to stay, eat and play during a weekend in Raleigh-Durham.
Where to Eat, Stay & Play in Raleigh-Durham
WHERE TO STAY
The premier hotel property in the area is The Umstead Hotel and Spa. Opened in the Raleigh suburb of Cary in 2007, The Umstead is the brainchild of Jim and Ann Goodnight. The Goodnights own the international business analytics company SAS, and the hotel is built adjoining the SAS campus. The Goodnights appreciate luxurious accommodations and are also avid art collectors, so they were looking for a place to host guests and also display some of their collection. The logical solution was to build their own resort and make sure to include plenty of gallery space inside the property.
The entire property incorporates art and nature, a fact you notice as soon as you pull into the drive and see the lovely lake behind the hotel, complete with a walking trail around it to take a nice morning or evening stroll. Even though The Umstead is located just a few minutes off of Interstate 40, the fact that it sits in the middle of 150 acres makes it feel like a genuine oasis from the city. You can just pretend the interstate noise is the ocean …
Every nook and cranny of the hotel is filled with art, ranging from a dramatic glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly to massive pottery pieces created by regional artists. A dedicated gallery space features rotating exhibits of hanging art, and you can even buy a painting to take home. (Don’t worry, they’ll ship it for you!)
The 150 rooms, including 27 suites, are luxuriously appointed, with every amenity you could ask for, including in-room VertuoLine Nespresso machines that brew barista-quality coffee. Each suite features a separate sitting area to watch television or just look out the window and gaze at the property. If you need to get closer to the great outdoors, some rooms have balconies offering fresh air.
The Umstead also manages their own spa, a peaceful retreat with steam rooms, saunas, plunge pools, hot tubs and a dedicated relaxation area. Spa therapists offer massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and other body treatments — there’s no shortage of pampering options available.
WHERE TO PLAY
Although the seductive Umstead might make you want to spend the whole weekend indoors, you’d better pack some walking shoes because Raleigh has so much to offer. The Goodnights are also huge supporters of the nearby North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), so you should definitely take the short trip to visit another of their life loves. Museum admission is free unless you’re visiting one of their special rotating exhibits. A lovely outdoor sculpture garden hosts occasional concerts, but it’s a family-friendly destination any time of year. The remarkable Rodin sculpture garden displays one of the largest collections of the French sculptor’s works in North America. Indoor galleries are divided by era, stretching back to ancient Greek and Roman artifacts and all the way forward to today’s modern art.
For a little retail therapy, make your way to Cameron Village, an array of attractive shops and boutiques close to downtown Raleigh. You can find anything from haute couture to local antiques in the storefronts as you stroll the wide sidewalks of the village. There are also plenty of eating and drinking options as well.
As impressive as NCMA is, the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) fills in some of the artistic gaps with its collection of more modern art and design. The museum is proud to present works by artists who are still producing art and showcase these talents through non-traditional exhibits, educational seminars and other cultural experiences.
WHERE TO EAT
The Piedmont sits in the middle of one of the most bountiful agricultural regions in the Southeast, and local chefs take proper advantage of their easy access to great produce. One of the best in the business is Chef Scott Crawford. At his casual neighborhood restaurant, Crawford and Son, in the charming Oakwood neighborhood of downtown Raleigh, Chef Scott offers up a menu of creative seasonal fare. Start off with a great cocktail from the bar, which is also a popular spot to dine in the cozy, crowded eatery, and peruse the menu for some shareable plates.
Pay particular attention to the section titled “Raw” where Chef Scott and the kitchen present beautiful dishes that highlight flavorful ingredients with little outside interference. Unique seasonal fruit carpaccios arrive at the table beautifully constructed, and more traditional crudos and tartares showcase seafood and beef, respectively and respectfully.
A tight menu of entrées revolves around what’s fresh and what’s local, and believe it or not, one of the dishes with a cultish devotion from fans is Crawford and Son’s warm malted wheat rolls. They go with anything. Order them!
Afterward, stop by C. Grace Cocktail Bar for a nightcap. Embracing the classic era of cocktail culture, this elegant hideaway also features live music five nights a week, usually something jazzy.
La Farm Bakery is just a quick jaunt from The Umstead, and it’s ideal for breakfast and a cup of bracing coffee. Don’t let the strip mall location fool you; La Farm is operated by one of the premier bakers in the country. Lionel Vatinet has been nominated by the James Beard Society for his expertise with breads, thanks to his years of experience working in France and America. He’s best known for his massive sourdough loaves and has written an entire book on the art of making bread. A pleasant cafe adjoining the bakery serves up delectable sandwiches including a Croque Madame that would be at home in any restaurant in Paris.
While there’s plenty of artistic culture available to locals and visitors alike, yeast is a local culture, too. And some of the little yeasty beasties’ finest work is on display at the Raleigh Beer Garden. This huge two-story shrine of beer offers an amazing 366 taps with different beers. Not only is that a record number for any American drinking establishment, it means you can drink a different beer every day for a year and still ask for seconds on New Year’s Eve!
When many foodies think of Raleigh, one name comes to mind. Chef/restaurateur Ashley Christensen has basically put the city on the culinary map with her multiple eateries that have helped to revitalize downtown. For a casual lunch, visit Beasley’s Chicken + Honey. Chef Christensen has a penchant for focusing on one particular food in some of her restaurants, and Beasley’s revolves around her love for crispy fried chicken drizzled with local honey. You can order the chicken in several different configurations, but a simple fried yardbird sandwich accompanied by a decadent slab of baked pimento mac and cheese is always a winner. There’s also a full bar featuring clever cocktails and local beers.
For a casual evening meal, head to Hummingbird, a unique establishment that’s part bar, part cozy eatery, part private event space and all fun. Located in what was once an A&P Distribution Center that was the largest warehouse in the region, Hummingbird actually occupies the space that housed the bathrooms in the truck depot. But don’t worry, they’ve cleaned it up a lot. A pleasant outdoor patio is dog-friendly and the ideal spot to enjoy one of the bar’s punny cocktails with names like “Let it Bee,” “Stamen It All on Love” or “The Long and Vinding Road.” The short bar inside the front door is a gathering spot for locals who share small plates of creative tapas like cold smoked marinated oysters or a beef bone marrow dish served with a shot of bourbon on the side and a bracing sip of pickle juice to add acid to cut through the rich marrow.
If you’re looking for a more refined dinner experience, you need travel no further than the lobby of The Umstead. Herons is the resort’s premium signature restaurant, named after the majestic birds that have been spotted on the pond behind the hotel. In fact, a dramatic wooden sculpture of a heron greets diners at the front door of the restaurant. One of only 64 Forbes Five Star restaurants in the world, Herons offers a dining experience in a spectacular ambiance with refined artwork hanging on the walls and service on par with the best fine dining in the country.
Dinner at Herons is intentionally laid out like a trip through an art gallery, with the choice of a three-course or four-course prix fixe tasting menu. Or you can opt for what they call “The Art Tour,” and put yourself in the capable hands of Executive Chef Steven Greene to send plate after plate to your table, each dish beautifully presented and flawlessly executed. Some of them are almost too pretty to stick a fork into, but edible art is meant to be appreciated. Dig in.
One of the most popular brunches in town is again courtesy of Ashley Christensen. Poole’s Diner is the flagship restaurant of her group. The unassuming eatery is in a downtown building that was once a popular pie shop. Christensen strives to maintain the homey feel of Johnny Poole’s luncheonette while elevating the menu to modern foodies’ preferences. The menu is written on chalkboards around the restaurant, and the mid-day weekend meal features both sweet and savory treats. There’s also a full bar serving bracing cocktails to take the edge off of the day or to complement your meal of upscale breakfast classics. Christensen’s take on Eggs Benedict is always a wise choice.
As they say, when in Rome … Since you’re in North Carolina, you must try some legit eastern North Carolina barbecue, and Picnic fits the bill. Pitmaster/owner Wyatt Dickson is committed to preserving the traditions of regional barbecue, but also to glorifying the heritage breed hogs that make the best smoked meat. Instead of purchasing commercial pigs from huge factory farms, Wyatt selects his animals from a local farmer who he respects so much that he has actually joined Picnic as an owner/partner. Wyatt and his team cook whole hogs over oak smoldering at a low temperature. The meat takes hours to slowly come up to the perfect temperature for pulling. The result is a prototypical version of NC ‘que, served as a plate lunch or dinner with slaw, hush puppies and your choice of two more side dishes. Picnic pays a lot of attention to their sides as well as their main dishes, so you can’t go wrong with any choice. (But get the bacon-braised collards. They’re insanely good!)
If you need even more recommendations than these to help craft your perfect Raleigh-Durham itinerary, the city’s visitor website is a tremendous resource. Do some research at visitraleigh.com, and then plan your weekend getaway to this beautiful Southern destination.
All photography by Chris Chamberlain unless otherwise noted.
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