12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Raleigh
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Raleigh, North Carolina was always destined to be the capital of the state. It was named for Sir Walter Raleigh, who established a short-lived English settlement here in the 1580s. But like Washington, D.C., Raleigh was designed from the start as the capital city.
From its founding in 1792, it was called the "City of Oaks," and its leaders ever since have been committed to preserving and maintaining its parks and trees. The result is an attractive and very livable city, where modern glass and steel construction is softened by parks and greenways.
And if that's not enough green space, only a few miles away is the beautiful Umstead State Park, where you can walk or bike on wooded trails or rent a canoe or paddleboat to explore the lake.
Both visual and performing arts are important here, and you'll find art museums and theaters among its most popular tourist attractions. Raleigh's African American heritage runs deep, and several sites in the city celebrate that legacy, including the Pope House Museum, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Gardens, and the 35-acre Mount Hope Cemetery.
Discover the best of the city with the help of this list of the top attractions and things to do in Raleigh.
See also: Where to Stay in Raleigh
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
1. North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Conveniently located downtown, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is one of the largest natural science museums in the southeastern United States. It has two buildings: one focused on the educational exhibits, and the other focused on the methods behind the science.
In addition to traveling exhibits, the Nature Exploration Center has permanent installations including the Arthropod Zoo; the Living Conservatory; and exhibits that explore North Carolina's coasts, mountains, and local natural history.
The Prehistoric section is the most popular, where you can meet Acro, the only genuine skeleton of an Acrocanthosaurus on display in the world. Those who like to get really hands-on will love the Discovery Room, where you are encouraged to touch and explore everything. The Nature Research Center is where you can learn about the science behind the natural world, from the DNA Investigative Lab to space exploration.
The can't-miss exhibit here, though, is the SECU Daily Planet, a three-story theater that explores the planet earth from the inside out. The museum offers detailed floor maps for self-guided tours, or you can get their app for a digital guide.
Address: 11 W. Jones Street, Raleigh, North Carolina
Official site: http://naturalsciences.org
2. North Carolina Museum of Art
The galleries at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) first opened in 1956 as the first state-funded collection. They showcase art from the Renaissance, ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and artifacts, Egyptian burial artwork, pre-Columbian works, and early American art.
The NCMA is also proud to be one of two American museums to house permanent exhibits dedicated to Jewish art. The museum offers guided tours of its galleries and special exhibits, and also hosts workshops, lectures, films, and performing arts shows. The museum grounds are worth exploring for their sculptures, gardens, and a peaceful reflecting pool.
The African American Cultural Center at North Carolina State is at the Witherspoon Student Center and features exhibits by prominent artists that focus on this rich heritage.
Address: 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, North Carolina
Official site: http://ncartmuseum.org/
3. Pullen Park
First opened in 1887, this was the first public park in North Carolina. The park's 66 acres offer far more than the typical city park. Visitors can take rides on the Gustave A Dentzel Carousel and the C.P. Huntington miniature train. Pedal boats are available to rent for a cruise around Lake Howell, and for the younger mariners there is a kiddie boat ride.
Kids will also love the huge playground, which includes water play for those hot summer days, and there are often shows in the children's amphitheater. Fans of The Andy Griffith Show will want to pose for pictures with the "Andy and Opie" statue.
The park also has a café, tennis courts, an aquatic center, sports fields, and the Theatre in the Park, as well as many special events throughout the year.
Address: 520 Ashe Ave, Raleigh, North Carolina
4. Marbles Kids Museum
The hands-on Marbles Kids Museum should be high on the list of places to visit for families with young children. It is filled with interactive exhibits, including an exploration of music at Tree Tunes; the world of horticulture at Sun Sprouts kid's garden; an energetic time at Kid Grid; and the BB&T Toddler's Hollow, where kids three and under can play and explore safely in a place just for them.
Laminated Picture Maps are available to borrow, so that the kids can plan their day, and parents will be happy to have the choice of eating at their on-site café or bringing their own lunch for a picnic. The Wells Fargo IMAX Theatre at Marbles shows both Hollywood hits and educational films on its 50 by 70-foot screen, keeping everyone in the family entertained.
Address: 201 E. Hargett Street, Raleigh, North Carolina
Official site: http://www.marbleskidsmuseum.org/
5. North Carolina Museum of History
The North Carolina Museum of History has permanent and traveling exhibits that encompass the state's past. You will find Native American tools, housewares of early European settlers, costumes from the Revolutionary War era, and weapons and military gear from the Civil War.
African American history is featured as well, from the first days of slavery through the arduous fight for freedom and equality. This is also home to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, where visitors can learn about native sports heroes and see plenty of memorabilia.
Address: 5 E. Edenton Street, Raleigh, North Carolina
Official site: http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/
6. Walking through Historic Oakwood
Near downtown Raleigh, the historic Oakwood neighborhood is North Carolina's largest, intact 19th-century residential district, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of its hundreds of 19th-century homes have been fully restored to their former glory.
Be sure to stroll past the Tucker House, an impressive Neoclassical Revival-style home. In addition to the architecture, you'll see beautiful gardens surrounding many of the homes.
A walking tour guide can be found at the Capitol Area Visitor's Center, including a map and information about the houses and the history of the neighborhood. Maps and more detailed information can also be found at the Historic Oakwood website.
The Historic Oak View Country Park is an antebellum farmhouse built in 1885. It features the Farm History Center, the Cotton Gin House, and the Plank Kitchen. The gardens and orchards are the perfect place to bring your picnic.
7. Performing Arts in Raleigh
Raleigh is home to a wide variety of performing arts venues and organizations. Theater-goers will love the Theatre in the park at Pullen Park, which hosts several productions each year and is best known for its annual December performance of A Christmas Carol.
The Burning Coal Theatre is located downtown, and the nearby Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts hosts stage plays and musicals produced by the North Carolina Theatre, as well as the work of the North Carolina Opera.
It is also the performance home for the Carolina Ballet and hosts the nationally celebrated North Carolina Symphony. In September, the city hosts the International Bluegrass Music Association's World of Bluegrass.
8. Historic Yates Mill
About five miles south of the center, Yates Mill is the area's last remaining water-powered gristmill, a reminder of an era when 70 of these ground corn and wheat into meal and flour for residents of Wake County. The mill still has its original equipment, and operated into the mid-1950s.
On a visit to the mill, open March through November, you can see costumed millers grind corn and learn how the water wheel powered the millstones. Programs, events, and exhibits help preserve the region's agricultural heritage, and the mill sits in a park that includes a 174-acre wildlife refuge and an environmental research center.
Several miles of hiking trails extend around the Mill Pond and into the surrounding park. Two boardwalks provide a place to fish, as rural residents did when the mill was a local gathering place.
Address: 4620 Lake Wheeler Road, Raleigh, North Carolina
9. JC Raulston Arboretum
With one of the largest and most diverse collections of plants for landscape use in the Southeast, the JC Raulston Arboretum is both a tourist attraction and a source of inspiration for regional gardeners. Plants are collected and evaluated to find those best suited to Piedmont North Carolina conditions and southern landscapes, but for the casual visitor, the gardens are simply a beautiful place to visit at any time of year.
Rhododendron, iris, and wisteria bloom in April, and showy cannas, day lilies, hydrangea, and dahlias in June. Even in winter there are camellias in Asian Valley and in the Southall Memorial Garden, and in February, Chinese redbud, pink and white magnolias, squills, and snowdrops bloom.
In addition, there are perennial borders, the Finley-Nottingham Rose Garden, the Swindell Contemplation Garden, a wall garden, a white garden, and other themes.
Address: 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh, North Carolina
Official site: https://jcra.ncsu.edu/
10. Mordecai Historic Park
Mordecai Historic Park preserves the birthplace of Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States. Built in 1785, the Mordecai House is the oldest in the city still standing on its original foundation.
Guided tours are offered on the hour and include the estate and gardens as well as many additional 19th-century buildings such as St. Mark's Chapel; Badger Iredell Law Office; and the Allen Kitchen, which was re-created using descriptions left in Ellen Mordecai's correspondence.
This is also the home base for the Historic Raleigh Trolley, a one-hour narrated tour of the city's historic sites.
Address: 1 Mimosa Street, Raleigh, North Carolina
11. North Carolina State Capitol
The North Carolina State Capitol Building is considered one of the best-preserved examples of Greek revival architecture in the United States. Architect David Paton's influence can be seen in the attention to detail in its intricate molding and plasterwork, the cantilevered gallery, and the grandiose Greek elements.
Completed in 1840, the building is one of Raleigh's best-loved landmarks. Up until 1888, it housed all of North Carolina's State Government, but today it only houses the Governor's office. This sightseeing stop is on Raleigh's historic Trolley Tour.
Address: 1 E. Edenton Street, Raleigh, North Carolina
Official site: http://www.ncstatecapitol.org/
12. William B. Umstead State Park
Just outside Raleigh proper, halfway to Durham, is the expansive William B. Umstead State Park. This natural paradise is a web of 13 miles of winding trails that weave around three man-made lakes.
Umstead State Park is popular among hikers, trail runners, cyclists, and equestrians. Fishing is also a top activity, especially at Big Lake, which has canoe and rowboat rentals. During the summer, campgrounds open up for overnight stays underneath the stars.
But perhaps the best secret of Umstead State park is the art project that lies hidden among the trees. Take the Graylyn multi-use trail to discover a 25-foot fallen red oak tree, whose trunk has been carved by two artists to reveal elaborate pictures of animals, tree branches, and leaves. It is quite the site to stumble upon as you're off exploring the wooded nature trails.
Address: 8801 Glenwood Ave, Raleigh, North Carolina
Where to Stay in Raleigh for Sightseeing
Raleigh's main tourist attractions, including Historic Oakwood, the State Capitol, and most of the museums, are located downtown. For first-time visitors, this is the best place to stay. Luxury and mid-range hotels are generally found near the convention center, and the prices drop as you head out towards Interstate 440. Sports fans may want to stay to the west by PNC Arena, near North Carolina State Museum. Below are some highly rated hotels in good locations:
- Attached to the Convention Center, the Raleigh Marriott City Center is ideal for trade show attendees and offers well-appointed rooms with marble bathrooms, coupled with first-class service.
- Just west of the downtown core is the new hip and trendy Aloft Raleigh. Ultra-modern décor and the latest technology are featured throughout the property.
- Nearby, in the North Hill shopping district, is the Hyatt House. The large rooms with kitchens and the seasonal outdoor pool make this a great hotel for families.
- The recently renovated DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Raleigh, just a mile west of downtown, features oversize rooms and is within easy walking distance of several restaurants.
- Easily accessible off Interstate 440, beside the large Crabtree Mall, the Hilton Garden Inn offers comfortable rooms and an indoor pool.
- The Hampton Inn & Suites is less than a mile from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in the trendy Glenwood South District. This hotel offers an evening reception with appetizers, and plenty of restaurants and entertainment venues are just steps away.
- Conveniently located right downtown in an older building with some of the best views in the city is the Holiday Inn.
- A great-value option just two miles to the south is the Red Roof PLUS+. This hotel has recently been renovated and offers pet-friendly rooms.
- Just over ten minutes to the northwest of downtown is the Candlewood Suites. A good choice for families, this hotel has a variety of suites, all with kitchens.
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Places to Visit in North Carolina: Raleigh is near the state's center, so from here, you can easily visit more of the top tourist attractions in North Carolina. About 2.5 hours to the west is lively Charlotte and to the north, you'll find plenty of things to do in Mount Airy, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville is a good base for exploring the Great Smoky Mountains.
Places to Visit for Beach Lovers: You'll want to head east for the fabled beaches of North Carolina, many of which you'll find on the beautiful Outer Banks. For information on camping sites here, take a look at our page on the top campgrounds in the Outer Banks.