Over the years I have visited the Research Triangle area on several occasions and have always been intrigued. Recently, I spent some time there on a solo trip and this summer we stayed in the area exploring as a family. Durham, North Carolina seems to be an often-overlooked treasure trove on the USA map. Politically the state is a moving target; once a carpet of red now slowly seeping purple as thousands of out-of-staters discovers this is no longer tobacco road. The cost of living is also a major attraction for many looking to escape the onerous overhead of their present situation. The climate likewise gives travelers a reason to return; temperate but still possessing four seasons. There are numerous excellent foodie opportunities with restaurants becoming increasingly more eclectic and there is an outstanding farmer’s market. One of the most impressive features of the Tar Heel state is its verdant ribbon of universities stretching from Duke in Durham to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to Wake Forest and beyond. As a result, the state features a highly educated populace and a recreational environment that’s hard to beat with mountains and the ocean access only 2-3 hours distant. If you like all these lifestyle aspects and long for a smaller city experience centered around a hub of some of America’s finest educational institutions, then a trip to this Southeast corner of the USA is well worth the look.
Where to stay:
Tiny Home @ Airbnb is an exceptional choice for lodging for a solo or couple. It is located amongst trees and sounds of nature in the charming Hope Valley neighborhood. Everything about this place is wonderful, including the hosts are who are responsive, helpful and have a great aesthetic vision.
Sidekick Carriage House is an amazing oasis also in Hope Valley and great for a family of three. It isn’t often you find the type of heart and soul that pulsates from this historical old carriage house renovated and transformed into a special one of a kind experience. Jane and Justin created the type of vision that will inspire you to want to stay forever. This spot comes with a saline pool, outdoor shower and all the amenities one would need to enjoy a truly unique “only in Durham” stay.
Durham Hotel – if you are wanting to be more downtown this fun hotel is centrally located with easy access to attractions such as shopping, Tobacco Campus, the Durham Performing Arts Center and more. It is walkable to The Retreat at Brightleaf spa, and restaurants such as, M Sushi, Dashi and more. The hotel as a rooftop bar with great views at sunset and food service. The intrinsically hip lobby has a massive lounging area with a coffee bar and restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Aloft Hotel is a good spot in Chapel Hill (there are other locations in Durham too) if you are needing a convenient local overnight or two in the area. It’s close to UNC Chapel Hill and good proximity to Durham too. These hotels are a chain based throughout North America and owned by Marriott International.
Where to eat:
There are a lot of great choices and eat and drink in Durham. If you are downtown, I recommend Dashi, M Sushi and Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas. If you are exploring the Durham neighborhoods, Foster’s Market, Guglhupf Bakery and Beer Garden, and Durham Food Co Op are classic spots. And don’t leave Durham without going to Cocoa Cinnamon.
Dashi – has a remarkable selection of noodle ramen choices and an inviting vibe. This Japanese ramen shop and izakaya (Japanese pub) in Downtown Durham has a focus on ramen noodle bowls and the menu also features innovative small plates and unique desserts.
M Sushi – is located right next to the Durham Hotel and has an underground speakeasy feel to it. It is the Triangle’s first sushi restaurant dedicated solely to high-quality seafood, sourced directly from Japan, Korea, and the US. The menu is small and purposeful and uses only fresh ingredients.
M Kokko – is right next to M Sushi and you might miss it if you don’t look hard enough and is the same chef at M Sushi. It’s a tiny joint but has all the deliciousness you could ask for in a ramen place with Korean and Japanese influences. I’d argue it’s even better than Dashi.
Cocoa Cinnamon is a vibe and I love love love the coffee, drinks and CHURROS here. There are three locations in Durham and they are all groovy. Authentic, Good and uniquely Durham.
Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas– this is a great option and wonderful because it is open 7 days a week from 11am – 9pm and located in Downtown Durham with another location in Carrboro. It is where South American meets the American South. The menu has a large selection that fits all types of diets from meat lovers to vegan. I got the grain bowl and a very strong Paloma margarita. Perfection.
Foster’s Market – this family-owned restaurant and market has been around for over 30 years, and you can’t get any more of the southern hospitality vibe than it. It has everything – great breakfasts, to quick grab and go sandwiches, salads, pastries, deli offerings and more. It’s open daily from 9am – 3pm with indoor and outdoor options. Get there early on Saturdays because right around 9am you will see a line forming to enter this gem of a spot.
Guglhupf Bakery Café and Biergarten – located a stone’s throw away from Foster’s Market at 2706 Durham Chapel Hill Road is an equally delightful progressive and modern spot with indoor and outdoor dining. Known mainly as a bakery and café, it also has a beer garden emphasizing it’s German roots but without the Lederhosen.
Durham Co-op Market – if you want to get a feel for the Durham community and needing groceries, I recommend a stop at this community owned and operated grocery store. On their website you can read how this amazing spot got started and how it operates https://durham.coop/our-values/. I personally love seeing these types of progressive and positive agricultural initiatives happening across America.
Where to go:
Eno River State Park is located 20 minutes outside downtown Durham. It is easy to access and has several hiking trails to explore. Taking a hike under the fall canopy of red maple, beech and oaks trees is marvelous. Cox Mountain trail is a great loop – cross of the suspension bridge and keep following the signs to enjoy the 90 minutes to 2-hour hike.
Broken Spoke Farm is close to Eno River State Park and a great after hike visit to pick up fresh bounty AND great soft serve ice cream. This lovely farm runs on the honor system so pack up your goods and put some cash or venmo over your money to the owners. Explore the grounds, say hello to the sheep, cows and the vibrant plants and garden. If you are like me and love a bit of country and nature life with city life, then this will inspire you and what is even more excellent is that it is only 20 minutes to the city with no traffic.
Sarah P. Duke Gardens or Duke Gardens (for short) is recognized as one of the premier public gardens in the United States, renowned for its landscape design and high-quality horticulture. Take a leisurely stroll through these gardens and enjoy the slow time. It’s easy to meander around and take in the variety of plants, flowers, sights, and sounds. The gardens are right next to Duke University and another few yards, and you’ll be at the gorgeous Duke Chapel.
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University is also located nearby Duke Gardens with free admission and high-quality collections. There are three main pavilions with rotating exhibitions. The day I was there they had a Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960 and if you are lucky, you can listen in on lectures from Duke professors happening with their group of students. If you love art, this is a don’t miss experience.
Falls Lake State Recreation is great for swimming, paddling, kayaking, hiking and fishing (if that is your thing). It is incredibly easy and quick to get to from anywhere in Durham because it seems this area is blessed with no traffic and no crowds! We hit this spot on a moody overcast day but still hopped into the lake and got some good old fashion swimming and splashing done.