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Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to the best things to do in Downtown Durham, North Carolina! Regular readers of this blog know that I’m hard at work on a project to visit all 50 states in 5 years.
For most states, I choose to visit any city I please. If I want to visit Williamsburg in Virginia, no one can stop me. If I elect to visit Portsmouth, New Hampshire instead of Concord, none can say me nay.
But when I chose to visit North Carolina, there was only one city I could select. My best friend from college, Tori, lives in Durham, so obviously I had to spend at least 24 hours in Durham and see all the best things to do in Downtown Durham.
But you don’t need a college pal to spend a fantastic 24 hours with the best Things to Do in Downtown Durham. The Bull City is full of history, art, culture, Tim Robbins impersonators, and tobacco warehouses that have been converted into hipster boutiques. Not to mention the food. The food alone is worth the trip. Follow me and I’ll prove it to you.
Things to Do in Downtown Durham
Where to Stay?
I’ve stayed in all sorts of places during my travel: luxury hotels, large chains, hostels, cruise ships, and a sad Swiss spare room I shared with three teenage boys. So I know how important hotels can be. And when I find a brand I like, I’m pretty loyal! If you want tons of suggestions of the best hotels in Durham, just click here for more of mine!.
I also recommend you spend your 24 hours with the best Things to Do in Downtown Durham in the 21c Museum Hotel. These hotels are a smallish chain you can find all around the US. They are chic without being too pricey, have actually great restaurants, and even a little museum inside the hotel! What more could you want?
If you want to book the best possible price for this hotel, just click here.
And if you’re looking for great deals on almost 100 hotels in Durham, click here. This search engine will help you find the perfect place to stay during your plans for your day of the best things to do in Downtown Durham. With plenty of options to choose from, I’m sure you’ll find something for your schedule and budget.
Things to Do in Downtown Durham
Morning: Explore Durham
I usually like to book a food tour when I arrive in a new city. If one isn’t available, a walking tour will suffice. But because Durham isn’t a major tourist destination, there were no paid walking tours available on the day of my visit.
But do not worry, Internet Stranger! The Durham Tourism Folk publish an excellent self-guided walking tour. Their tips will help make your 24 hours in Durham finding the best things to do in downtown Durham the best they can be.
But you’re lucky because you don’t only have access to the Official Durham walking tour. You also have my guide, which is full of secrets and odd jokes. I can steer you further in the right direction with…
Approximately top 5: Things to do in Downtown Durham
1) Durham Arts Council
The Durham Arts Council building is the closest thing to an art museum you can find in Downtown Durham. It is one of my favorite things in the city because it is beautiful, free, and air conditioned. Also they have free public potties, and I know from experience that they will not object to you going in to use them more than once during the day.
There are multiple galleries open for viewing in the Durham Arts Council, which gladdens the heart. I also like seeing multiple shows because I feel like I’m getting the biggest bang for my buck!
And these shows were free, so that’s what I call a true art bang. The most memorable exhibit was probably Avant-Gardens, by a North Carolina artist named Lauren Jones Worth.
It’s great that Ms. Jones Worth gave her exhibit such a classy name. That way I can feel smug and pretentious about liking the exhibit, when really I’m just excited to spend time staring at giant weird space fish.
If you’re looking for something closer to home, Moriah Lefebvre’s exhibit Hometown (Inherited) depicts the ways that Durham has changed during the artist’s life.
I’m a sucker for mixed media, so I oohed and aahed over the way she combined photographs and paint in these pieces. Also, I always appreciate a title with parentheses in it. It seems like basically every song title in the 1980s had parentheses in it, so this exhibit evokes a sense of nostalgia. However, I must admit that I’ve never really (understood how to use parentheses) correctly.
2) Museum of Durham history
The Museum of Durham History, aka the Durham History Hub, like the Durham Arts Council building, is quite bite sized. But don’t let its size matter! It’s still one of the best things to do in downtown Durham. I left this three-or-four-room-I-forget-which museum full of knowledge about what makes Durham unique. Allow me to share for your edification…
Three fun facts about durham
A) How old is Durham?
There’s a reason you won’t see antebellum architecture during your best Things to Do in Downtown Durham itinerary and it’s not because General Sherman burned it down or something. Durham didn’t become a city until after the Civil War. Like Atlanta, Georgia, it started as just a train station. When there was enough business booming in the area, the fine folks of the Durham area incorporated it into a town.
I was surprised to learn Durham was named after a doctor who donated the land the town needed to exist. I always thought it was named after Durham in England! Almost everything else on the East Coast is named after something British: New London, New York, New Sconesylvania, etc.
b) Why is Durham famous?
Perhaps you were wondering what I meant when I said that business was booming in the Durham area after the Civil War. In 19th century Durham, there’s really only one business worth speaking of, and that’s the tobacco business.
Perhaps you’ve heard of a little family called the Dukes? Duke University? Angier Duke? Dukes of Hazzard? Duke of Earl? Well, all these Dukes made their fame and fortune with North Carolina tobacco.
But perhaps the most famous tobacco brand to come out of Durham was the Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco. Even to this day, the Durham Minor League ball club is known as the Durham Bulls. (We’ll get to them in a bit.) (Also, kids, don’t smoke. And definitely don’t smoke and play baseball.)
c) What is some lost Durham history?
My favorite exhibit at the Durham History Hub was on Hayti. (You pronounce it Hay-tie.) Hayti is a historically black neighborhood in Durham. It was a thriving community in the periods between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War II.
Unfortunately, urban renewal projects in Durham in the 1950s led to the creation of a freeway right smack down the middle of the neighborhood. Of course many people were forced to leave their homes.
I never understand what urban planners are thinking when they kick people out of their houses in the name of giant projects like this. They are never remembered well in history! No one ever says, “Do you remember how those people were expelled from their residences so we could have a hideous freeway? That was a swell idea!”
3) Public Art
There is only one piece of public art in Durham aka The Bull City. That is the Durham Bull. See it. Love it. Touch its tail. The end.
I kid! Downtown Durham has much more interesting public art. Don’t send me hate mail, Art Nerds of the Research Triangle! This is the Durham Civil Rights mural, honoring the history of those who fought for civil rights in Durham.
The mural was actually funded via Kickstarter, which I think is pretty exciting. I find the representation of the children who were the first to integrate Durham schools to be especially moving.
24 Hour Treasure
My favorite works of public art in Durham are related to Parrish Street. This street was also known as Black Wall Street because it was home to so many African-American owned businesses in the early 1900s. This Giant Penny commemorates these businesses like NC Mutual Life Insurance and Mechanics and Farmers Bank.
I don’t understand why the world has seen a million Wall Street and Boiler Room rip-offs, but to my knowledge there hasn’t even been one movie about Parrish Street.
4) Tobacco Buildings
If you are a city, and you are suddenly left with a plethora of empty, yet sturdy, warehouses because manufacturing is all being done by robots now, what can you do with these buildings? If you are a hipster, you probably answered, “Turn them into Australian coffee and avocado-toast cafes. Or possibly stores that sell artisanal knitting materials and beard oil.” Well, Durham must have a right proper amount of hipsters because that’s just what the city has done.
Brightleaf Square is probably the best example of converted tobacco warehouses in the city, and it’s definitely one of the best things to do in downtown Durham. These harmoniously designed buildings used to be dedicated to the purposes of storing tobacco.
Of course these warehouses belonged to the notorious D.U.K.E.S. I definitely don’t get olde-tymey people. If I had structures as pretty as these buildings on my hands, I would use them as a mansion for my very own self. I would not let them get wasted on tobacco storage. Tobacco doesn’t even have eyes! How can it see if it’s in a pretty building or not?
Anyway, Brightleaf Square is now home to stores that sell books, antiques, olive oil, and whathaveyou. I haven’t been in all the stores, but according to the websites of many of the shopping establishments, they are “curated”, “artisanal”, and “sustainable”, which I assume means that they sell clothes that cost more than one of my paychecks.
5) Lunch at Parker and Otis
Since we’re already at Brightleaf Square, why not stop for lunch in the area at Parker and Otis? They use local flavors and fresh-baked bread to create sumptuously Southern sandwiches. I selected a turkey and pepper jelly sandwich. My parents come from the South and I spent every summer there growing up.
There are certain Southern foods that taste just like my childhood and pepper jelly is one of them. It has a combination of sweetness and spice that is unforgettable.
6) Ice Cream at the Parlour
I think it might violate the Geneva Convention to go to downtown Durham and not get ice cream at The Parlour. Its ice cream appears on every Best of Durham list for good reason. Their most popular flavor is the rich Salted Butter Caramel. I get this every time I come, but I pair it with a scoop of something more experimental.
This time I tried Vietnamese Coffee. The combination of bitter and sweet in the coffee ice cream was interesting with the salty-sweet Salted Butter Caramel. But they have different flavors each day, so you can never be sure what’s in. I suggest throwing yourself on the mercy of the servers and just getting what they suggest.
The Parlour is conveniently located across the street from the Bull statue. You can share the ice cream with the bull if you are feeling generous.
Things to Do in Downtown Durham
Afternoon: Durham Entertainment
If you’re lucky enough to be in Durham when its Triple A baseball team is playing a home game in the afternoon, you simply can’t afford to miss it. The Durham Bulls are the most famous Triple A ball club in the country. Of course, this is thanks to the movie Bull Durham, which is about two minor league pitchers for the Durham Bulls and the woman who loves them both.
This movie is also famous for being the set where Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon met. The Durham Bulls even have actors who dress up like Robbins, Sarandon, and Kevin Costner and prance around for your entertainment.
Cheer them on, but don’t try to shout Costner’s speech about believing in long wet kisses that last for days. This is a child-friendly stadium.
24 hour treasure
My favorite performer at the game was neither the ball players nor the Kevin Costner impersonator. I vote for Wool E. Bull, the Durham Bulls mascot. In a surreal piece of performance art, Wool E. came out onto the field and was chased by all of his little bull mascot children. Then they sacrificed him to the gods in some sort of horrible Minoan ritual.
Wool E. Bull’s name is a double-joke to me. First there’s the reference to the song “Wooly Bully”. But it also reminds me of Tim Robbins in Bull Durham singing, “Oh she may get wooly…because of all the stress” while he butchers the lyrics to “Try a Little Tenderness”.
24 Hour tip
If the Bulls aren’t playing a matinee, you’ll just have to suck it up and attend a show at the fabulous Art Deco Carolina Theatre. While you wait in the lobby, you can see memorabilia from back in the day when stars like Katherine Hepburn and Ronald Reagan visited the theater.
When I was in Durham, the Carolina was showing a series of short films on transgender themes. I was interested to support this project because North Carolina had come to national attention recently for passing a bill that denied transgender people rights in public restrooms.
The quality of the films was pretty par for the course for a festival of short films by emerging filmmakers. Some, like a documentary about Stella Walsh, were fascinating. Others were…the best I can say is that they were well-intentioned. But I’m glad I attended the festival nonetheless.
Things to Do in Downtown Durham
Late Afternoon: The Durham
Durham’s hottest club is The Durham. It has everything: Minoan bull sacrifices, tobacco warehouses that have been converted into mustache grooming parlors for your bikes, a hideous and sentient freeway…
Sorry about the digression into Stefan-territory. What The Durham really has is delicious cocktails and the most pleasant rooftop view you are likely to find in all the things to do in Downtown Durham. It’s a charming spot to relax for a drink with an old college friend before the real main course…
Things to Do in Downtown Durham
Evening: Dinner at Mateo
I’m a big fan of fusion restaurants. I like any meal that makes me think, and at a fusion restaurant I need to concentrate all my mental energy to figure out what’s being fused. Mateo is that rare beast, Spanish-Southern fusion. It’s the perfect place to go with a dining companion because it’s a tapas restaurant. But I’m always hungry enough to eat my weight in tapas anyway.
24 hour treat: sweet tea sangria
This is such a brilliant idea. Sweet tea is often called the house wine of the South, and sangria has been one of the house drinks at any Spanish restaurant I’ve been to in New York. It’s a match made in heaven.
These ribs are prepared with pepper jelly, which sounds completely Southern to me. But then I looked up the kind of pepper they used in the jelly, the Espellette, and I learned it is from the Basque region. This is what I mean by fusion restaurants making me do my homework.
24 hour treat: albondigas
Albondigas, which is just Spanish for meatballs according to Google Translate, are one of my favorite tapas. These are served with a watermelon rind slaw. Nothing is more Southern than using the watermelon rind. I’m used to seeing it pickled, but the slaw was equally fresh and delicious. I’m always happy at seeing all parts of the plant reused in some way.
Now we move on to using local tomatoes. This was pate served with a green tomato marmalade. The sweet-and-sour marmalade definitely helps cut the richness of the pate.
The simple fresh tomato salad got a boost with the salty-spice of these charred shishito peppers. I could eat shishito peppers all day. They say one out of every 100 is super-spicy, so eat with care!
24 hour treat: Manchego, Southern-style
Of course I can never pass up a cheese plate. That’s just science. My friend Tori and I shared the Manchego, which is probably Spain’s most famous cheese. It’s the Penelope Cruz of cheeses. My favorite thing about the cheese plate was that they used a much more Southern peanut instead of the traditional walnut. Jimmy Carter would approve!
24 hour treat: sherry banana pudding
No dessert is more Southern than ‘nana pudding. You make it with Nilla wafers, for God’s sake! People up north just don’t think that way. But what how can you make such a Southern classic Spanish? If you run Mateo, you just flavor the ‘nana pudding cream with a little high-class Spanish sherry. My Nana would not approve, but my tastebuds certainly did!
Things to Do in Downtown Durham
What to Pack?
- A cell charger so you can keep your cell phone charged for a full one day of the best things to do in downtown Durham.
- Of course you can’t go to Durham without checking out the sexiest baseball movie ever, Bull Durham. Go ahead and watch. I’ll wait.
- The most reliable travel umbrella that is small enough to fit in my purse, but strong enough to stand up to powerful winds during our day of the best things to do in Downtown Durham.
- These great TSA approved clear toiletries bags, so I can always keep spare toothpaste and travel sized toiletries in any carry-on.
- My book Get Lost, that I wrote myself with all my best travel tips. This book will show you how travel can take you on a journey of self-discovery.
Things to do in Downtown Durham
How to Get There
Now, I wish I knew where you lived, Internet Stranger, because I could send you an excellent Kevin Costner costume. But sadly, I do not, and so I can’t tell you exactly how to get from your home to your one day of the best things to do in downtown Durham.
But I can tell you that you can use a lovely airplane to get from my hometown NYC to the Raleigh-Durham airport, and I recommend Expedia for the best way to find the cheapest flight to Durham at the best time of day. You can also get to Durham by bus, if you’re traveling from a nearby city like Richmond, Virginia, or you can get there by train from places like Washington DC.
You can even use Expedia to rent a car so you’ll be all set when you arrive at your destination. (I can’t drive, but if you can, this must be helpful.)
Just click here to start looking for the best possible deals on your flight, so you can head out to the best things to do in downtown Durham ASAP.
That’s the Best Things to Do in Downtown Durham!
What do you think are the best things to do in Downtown Durham? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Durham? What is your award-winning idea for Southern tapas? And have you ever witnessed a bull sacrifice at a baseball stadium? Please email me at email@example.com and let me know!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours with the Best Things to Do in Downtown Durham.
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