Not unlike the famed university in its midst, Durham is one of North Carolina’s most well-rounded destinations. You’ll find blooming gardens, craft breweries, eclectic restaurants and loads of entertainment for all ages and budgets. The biggest challenge is simply deciding where to begin.
Duke University is an integral part of the Durham experience. You’ll need to plan ahead to visit its extraordinary lemur center, though the campus offers plenty of more spontaneous activities, including taking in its admission-free gardens. Of course, there’s much more to explore beyond Duke, from seeing a performance in the vintage Carolina Theatre to taking a harrowing but highly recommended journey into the past at Historic Stagville.
Learn about the people who lived in bondage at Historic Stagville
Historic Stagville flips the script on typical plantation tours, and focuses on the lives of the enslaved men, women and children who toiled on this vast property north of Durham. Back in 1864, the Bennehan and Cameron plantations stretched over 30,000 acres, with some 1000 people in bondage working in mills, on farms and inside workshops.
You can learn about the many hardships they endured on a visit to one of Durham’s most important historic sites. Admission is free, though it’s worth paying the small nominal fee for a guided tour.
Watch ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center
If you don’t have the chance to visit Madagascar this year, book a visit to the Duke Lemur Center instead. Here you can see the world’s largest collection of these wide-eyed primates outside of their African island home. Over 200 lemurs and bush babies, representing over a dozen different species, reside in this wooded 85-acre sanctuary.
The center offers both self-guided tours and small-group specialized tours - such as the ‘walking with lemurs’ tour where you visit right at meal time. Book well in advance as all tours tend to sell out. If you’re looking for unique things to do in Durham, the Duke Lemur Center should be at the top of your list.
Hike through the forests of Eno River State Park
Leafy nature escapes are just a car ride away from downtown Durham. Eno River State Park, with its 28 miles of trails has a good mix of easy and challenging hikes. One of Durham’s best is the Cox Mountain Trail, a 3.8-mile loop that crosses a suspension bridge, takes you up to a hilltop and then back down along the trickling, forest-lined Eno River. It’s about a 15-minute drive northwest of Durham.
Stroll Durham’s liveliest district on 9th Street
Not unlike New York’s East Village, Durham’s 9th Street is packed with eye-catching restaurants, indie stores and inviting cafes well placed for taking in the passing street scene. You can munch on artisanal donuts while sipping a mocha latte at Monuts, nurse a house-made craft beer at Flying Bull or browse for vintage vinyl at Hunky Dory Record Store. The street’s easy-to-walk-to location makes it a great option when looking for things to do near Duke University.
Spend a fun-filled (and secretly educational) day at the Museum of Life and Science
One of the best attractions for kids in Durham is the sprawling Museum of Life & Science, located three miles north of downtown. Be forewarned: you could spend hours exploring the interactive exhibits scattered across 84 acres.
Highlights include the butterfly house, sound garden, insectarium, outdoor play areas, a budding builder’s lab and a barnyard full of farm animals. Don’t miss a ride on the open-sided narrow-gauge railroad or a romp through woods that are dotted with life-sized dinosaurs.
Watch the actors take the stage at the Carolina Theatre
Though Duke hogs all the attention, Durham has much more up its sleeve than just its (admittedly renowned) university. You’ll find some great things to do in downtown, especially when it comes to entertainment. The 1000-seat Carolina Theatre is a restored 1920s beauty that stages wide-ranging fare.
You might catch a whimsical dance performance, a raucous gospel choir or a comedy show, though there’s also independent film screenings and the odd big-name band that takes the stage.
Spend date night at Vin Rouge
Durham doesn’t lack options when it comes to planning an intimate dinner. Amid French country ambiance, Vin Rouge earns high marks for its beautifully turned out French bistro classics (onion soup, escargots, duck confit). Top-notch seafood is also a hit - particularly the bouillabaisse, which is an aphrodisiac according to some chefs in Marseille (where the dish originated).
The excellent wine list adds to the appeal. You can also come for a decadent Sunday brunch - a great choice for couples looking for fun things to do in Durham.
Sip some of Durham’s finest craft cocktails at Kingfisher
A vibrant bar scene offers ample variety when seeking out fun things to do at night in Durham. Named one of the city’s best bars after opening in 2019, Kingfisher serves up imaginatively crafted cocktails made from locally sourced spirits and seasonal ingredients.
The handsomely designed downstairs space features works by resident artists and makes an inviting backdrop to lingering over libations like the Shire Folk (vodka, nasturtium leaf, boissiere dry vermouth and lime).
Catch a baseball game or see a performance at the American Tobacco Campus
The former home of the world’s largest tobacco company is now the epicenter of a vibrant entertainment district. Historic red brick buildings form the backdrop to locally owned shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. At DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center) you can catch musicals, comedy shows and concerts.
Also on campus is the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home to the city’s minor league baseball team (famously depicted in the 1988 Kevin Costner film Bull Durham). It’s great fun to see a game during the season, which runs from mid-April to early September.
Smell the flowers in bloom at Sarah P Duke Gardens
There are loads of free things to do in Durham, from picnicking in the park to seeing special exhibitions around town. One of the best places for cost-free adventure is the Sarah P Duke Gardens, a botanical wonderland of forested paths, lily-covered ponds and over 2500 plant species. Walking paths meander through the various sections, with myriad photo opportunities.
Sip craft beers by the fire at Ponysaurus Brewing
Even when the temperatures plummet, Durham has appealing things to do in the winter. In the beer garden of Ponysaurus Brewing you can stay warm and toasty by the fire pits while sampling one of their signature ales or barrel-aged sours. The local craft brewer also has hot non-alcoholic apple cider and even smores, not to mention the excellent thin-crust pizzas that are available year-round.
Go on a scavenger hunt at the 21c Museum Hotel
One of Durham’s best boutique hotels is also a showcase for innovative artwork. Across two stories of gallery space, the 21c Museum Hotel hosts changing exhibitions and site-specific installations - and there’s never an admission charge. Afterward, take a peek inside the former bank vault (now a lounge) or enjoy a contemporary take on regional flavors at the stylish Counting House restaurant. For a bit of adventure, you can partake in one of the hotel’s DIY scavenger hunts.
The 21c is set in the 17-story art deco Hill Building, which is something of a mini Empire State Building. In fact, it was designed by the same NYC architecture firm in the 1930s.