14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Durham, NC

Written by Anietra Hamper
Updated Dec 24, 2023
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Author Anietra Hamper has spent time traveling around North Carolina and enjoyed exploring the walkable city of Durham on foot.

When it comes to finding things to do in Durham, North Carolina, you never have to go very far. This walkable, bike-friendly, dog-friendly city has big-town amenities in a small city space. Some of the top attractions in Durham are only a few miles apart, meaning you can pack in more experiences during your stay.

Downtown Durham
Downtown Durham

The town is rooted in the tobacco industry, so you will see many references to it, like the American Tobacco Campus, a modern urban district with activities, entertainment, and recreation that is set in the backdrop of the train stop and tobacco factories.

Duke University is another dominant presence and the city's largest employer. Many of the top things to do are on the Duke campus, including the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Nasher Museum of Art, and the Duke Chapel, making it easy to plan a Duke day for your visit.

The best starting point for your visit to Durham is in the CCB square, where you can get a photo of "Major," the bronze bull statue, and orientate yourself before exploring on foot.

Find out more about the best places to visit with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Durham.

1. Walk the Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Sarah P. Duke Gardens | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

If you plan a full day at Duke University, you may want to start at Sarah P. Duke Gardens and make your way to the Duke Chapel. The Sarah P. Duke Gardens is one of the top spots to visit in Durham because of its stunning garden displays that are considered among the best in the United States.

The 55 acres of gardens are located on the Duke University campus and are free to visit. There are more than five miles of walkways with sections of gardens like the Historic Gardens, Native Plants, and Asiatic Arboretum featuring hundreds of plant varieties, fountains, koi ponds, and elaborate landscaping.

Take a guided walking tour or just stroll at your own pace using the garden map. For an extra fee, you can take a guided trolley tour through the gardens, which is a nice option for those with limited walking ability or for a family to get in all of the highlights in one visit.

The gardens feature regular classes and lectures that cover topics from landscaping to nature photography. While visiting the gardens, make your way to the Duke University Chapel, the crown jewel of the campus, which is featured on the "you are here" maps along the walking paths.

Address: 420 Anderson Street, Durham, North Carolina

2. Socialize on the American Tobacco Campus

American Tobacco Campus
American Tobacco Campus | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

The American Tobacco Campus is one of the most exciting areas in downtown Durham, with an eclectic mix of restaurants, green space, water features, recreational sporting cages, and entertainment. The one-million-square-foot district is the former Lucky Strike cigarette factory complex, which has been transformed into a multi-use gathering place for locals and visitors.

The complex is a mix of business and pleasure, with an event, concert, or block party happening most nights of the week. There are a variety of food options, from food trucks to tapas; baseball games at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park; pick-up games on the basketball court; quiet places to read in the green space by the man-made stream; and evenings at the documentary theater.

The campus is also home to the Burt's Bees headquarters and is a regular spot for concerts beneath the Lucky Strike smokestack.

Address: 318 Blackwell Street, Durham, North Carolina

3. Watch a Performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center

Durham Performing Arts Center
Durham Performing Arts Center | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) is one of the biggest draws in Durham, ranking third in the United States for ticket sales for a performing arts center. The center draws Broadway shows like Hamilton and major performing artists in the 2,700-seat theater.

There are more than 200 performances to choose from each year, ranging from concerts and comedy to dance and theater. The center's architecture is as popular as its performing arts with modern angles and magnificent walls of glass.

Plan a full evening out by adding in dinner before the show. There are many restaurants within walking distance of the DPAC, with casual to fine dining options and many offer pre-show dining discounts.

Address: 123 Vivian Street, Durham, North Carolina

4. Learn about Local History at the Bennett Place Historic Site

Bennett Place Historic Site
Bennett Place Historic Site

History buffs will want to put Bennett Place Historic Site on their itinerary. It is the site of the largest troop surrender of the American Civil War. The museum has a large collection of artifacts from the last weeks of the Civil War, and stories from the Bennett family.

The museum exhibits chronicle the end of the Civil War in 1865, when Confederate General Joseph Johnston and Union General William Sherman met in Durham at Bennett Place for the surrender of the Southern armies in the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia. The site is free to visit and there are tours that start at the top of every hour.

If you have extra time, you can extend your visit by taking a stroll on the nature trail that goes through the forests and former farmland of the Bennett Family. It only takes about 15 minutes, but it is well worth your time for a more in-depth experience on the family's large farmstead.

Address: 4409 Bennett Memorial Road, Durham, North Carolina

5. Cheer on the Bulls at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park

Durham Bulls Athletic Park
Durham Bulls Athletic Park | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park is one of the top things to do while you are visiting Durham. The ballpark is home to the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team, and the fan game experience is unforgettable. Besides the game, the ballpark has unique eats beyond the typical hot dog fare and quirky ways to engage fans in the excitement.

Keep your eyes focused on the bull billboard at the top of the stadium during home run hits. If a player hits the bull, he wins a free steak dinner. A mile away from the ballpark is a treasure for true baseball fans and fanatics of baseball-themed movies.

It is the location of the original stadium, which was the home of the Durham Bulls for more than 50 years and the location where the movie Bull Durham was filmed.

Address: 409 Blackwell Street, Durham, North Carolina

6. Get Experimental at the Museum of Life & Science

Museum of Life & Science
Museum of Life & Science | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

Once you step inside the Museum of Life & Science, it is easy to see why it is one of the top attractions in Durham, especially for families. It's a center for non-stop activities for kids, with hands-on experiments and interactive exhibits, but it is just as entertaining for adults.

The science museum has popular exhibits on weather patterns, space exploration, math, health, and various lab spaces for experiments and presentations throughout the day. There is a space for native North Carolina animals, which gets you up close to species like the screech owl and barred owl, which you are not likely to see unless you plan a night hike to the woods during your stay.

There is a spacious outdoor area to see rescued lemurs and black bears and a popular butterfly conservatory. You will easily spend a few hours at the museum, so you can plan on a pit stop or coffee break at one of the two cafes.

Address: 433 Murray Avenue, Durham, North Carolina

7. Enjoy Artistic Culture at the Nasher Museum of Art

Nasher Museum of Art
Nasher Museum of Art | Photo Copyright: Durham CVB

The Nasher Museum of Art is on the Duke University campus, featuring galleries of pre-Columbian and Meso-American artwork, classical paintings and sculptures, African masks, contemporary pieces, photography, and much more.

The museum is also a learning institution, with classes, lectures, and film series programs centered on the visual arts. After visiting the galleries, plan to have lunch at the Nasher Café in the main lobby, which features unique and artsy sandwiches, salads, and appetizers.

Address: 2001 Campus Drive, Durham, North Carolina

8. Hike at Eno River State Park

Eno River State Park
Eno River State Park

While the urban center of Durham is expanding, the city maintains nearly 30 miles of trails and natural scenic areas at Eno River State Park. It is the go-to outdoor recreation area of Durham and a peaceful green space during lunchtime and on the weekends. The Eno River is a regular spot for locals and visitors looking for recreation options like hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, and fishing.

The river flows by forests, bluffs, and a historic mill. There is a diverse number of wildflowers along the river, and if this is of particular interest to you, it is worth the effort to find Willie Duke's Bluff on the lower Eno River.

The 60-foot-high bluff is surrounded by many wildflowers, and it is one of the most picturesque spots along the river. If you find the time to include a little more outdoor adventure, try going for a hike at Cox Mountain.

Address: 6101 Cole Mill Road, Durham, North Carolina

Read More: Top-Rated Mountain Towns in North Carolina

9. Appreciate Animal Conservation at the Duke Lemur Center

Meditating sifaka lemur at the Duke Lemur Center
Meditating sifaka lemur at the Duke Lemur Center

The Duke Lemur Center has the largest collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar. You can get an up-close look at the lemurs and the research facility. Find out how the center combines conservation efforts and scientific research to help protect this threatened animal.

More than 39 species of lemurs have been at the center since it opened in 1966. A unique area of the Duke Lemur Center is the Division of Fossil Primates, which is a research collection of primate fossils that includes 13 million-year-old fossils of New World monkeys, found in Colombia, and other primate fossils that are more than 50 million years old.

There are regular tours available, but if you plan ahead, you can make a reservation for the habitat experience, which gives you the most intimate and interactive opportunity, but space is limited and it fills up quickly.

Keep in mind that tours are season-dependent, so most public tours are available from May through September and more limited options the rest of the year, so look at the center's website and calendar for updates.

Address: 3705 Erwin Road, Durham, North Carolina

10. Embrace the Past at Stagville State Historic Site

Stagville State Historic Site
Stagville State Historic Site | Photo Copyright: Durham CVB

The Stagville State Historic Site is one of three historic sites in the county. It is a former plantation that was the largest in the state. It sits on the land of the plantations of the Bennehan-Cameron family, who owned more than 900 slaves. The site houses important history about slaves and even has slaveholding records available for visitors to research.

The plantation is preserved, with several buildings to see, including the Bennehan House, Holman House at Horton Grove, and the Great Barn.

A must-see at the site is the preserved slave quarters. There are four located on the grounds, which provide a compelling glimpse into the life of a slave on one of North Carolina's largest plantations. Tours take place throughout the day and last about an hour.

Address: 5828 Old Oxford Highway, Durham, North Carolina

11. Take in a Performance at The Carolina Theatre

The Carolina Theatre
The Carolina Theatre | KAD Photo / Shutterstock.com

An important part of the arts community in Durham is the restored Carolina Theatre. The non-profit performance center is the vintage backdrop for concerts and film festivals throughout the year. The interior décor and exterior façade pay homage to the theater's roots as a 1920s movie house.

The theater featured the world premiere of the movie Bull Durham, which featured the city's beloved baseball team, the Durham Bulls. The theater hosts special performance events but also a collection of daily films, which you can see in the historic movie house.

For families visiting Durham, if your stay includes a Saturday, a perfect time to visit the Carolina Theatre is for the Family Saturday Series. Each week, the theatre showcases programs ranging from live music to storytelling suitable for all ages for just $5 a ticket.

Address: 309 West Morgan Street, Durham, North Carolina

12. See the 1800s Preserved at the Duke Homestead State Historic Site

Duke Homestead State Historic Site
Duke Homestead State Historic Site

Step inside the Duke family home on the Duke Homestead State Historic Site. It is preserved in much the same way that it was in the 1800s, when Washington Duke started his tobacco empire, forever changing the Durham landscape and the U.S. tobacco industry. Walk through the homestead and see the buildings on the Duke family farm, tobacco barns, and the original factory.

The Duke family was one of the wealthiest families in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Learn more about the family whose name is attached to Duke University and Duke Energy. There is a museum about the evolution of the tobacco industry, and guided tours are available.

There are events and festivals held at the homestead throughout the year, which are an enjoyable way to visit the site.

Address: 2828 Duke Homestead Road, Durham, North Carolina

13. Buy Local at the Durham Farmers' Market

Durham Farmers' Market
Durham Farmers' Market | Photo Copyright: Discover Durham

If your visit to Durham includes a Saturday, you should plan a weekend morning stop at the Durham Farmers' Market. Local vendors fill the stalls at the Pavilion at Durham Central Park with fresh and locally grown produce, flowers, bakery items, honey, crafts, and artisan foods.

The market started in 1999 and became a favorite and permanent staple of the Durham culture. As part of the commitment to buy local, farmers and other vendors who sell items must be established within 70 miles of Durham.

The best time to visit the Durham Farmers' Market is Saturday morning, when they are open from 8am to noon, April through November. There are Wednesday afternoon markets that run weekly through September.

Address: 501 Foster Street, Durham, North Carolina

14. Explore Durham's Street Murals

Durham Street Murals
Durham Street Murals | Photo Copyright: Discover Durham

A fun way to explore Durham is by taking a self-guided tour around local streets to find and admire the 26 elaborate and artsy murals on local buildings. There are more than 40,000 square feet of murals in the University Hill district.

The area is redeveloped into mixed-use spaces for business, housing, social spots, restaurants, and retail, so there is plenty to experience along the way. You can find a Mural Durham map online or pick up a mural finder guide in the Discover Durham Visitor Information Center in the heart of downtown, so you can check them off along the way.

Where to Stay in Durham for Sightseeing

The Durham lodging scene is diverse. To fully embrace the local flavor, stay at a bed-and-breakfast in one of the historic inns like the Morehead Manor Bed & Breakfast, a large elegant manor with private, spacious rooms located a mile from downtown.

Three boutique hotels downtown are within a block of each other, with amenities that are open to the public and guests like the art museum at 21C Museum Hotel Durham, the rooftop view of the city at The Durham Hotel, and the pool and social deck at the retro Unscripted Durham hotel.