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Greetings, Internet Stranger! I’m Stella Jane, author of the travel guide Get Lost, and welcome to some of the most unique things to do in Durham NC. Durham, North Carolina is part of the area known as the Research Triangle. It’s kind of like the Bermuda Triangle because both are known for numerous mysterious disappearances. But the Research Triangle is also known for three major universities and their attractions.
So Raleigh has North Carolina State. Then Chapel Hill is the home of UNC. And of course, Durham is where Duke University hangs its hat. Many famous people have gone to Duke University from Mad Men’s Jared Harris to disgraced journalist Charlie Rose to a whole bunch of lacrosse players.
Aside from academics and celebrities, the university is also famous for its stunning architecture. Plus, Duke home to Durham’s best museum, the Nasher Museum, and the best botanical gardens.
In short, no trip to Durham is complete without a stop at Duke University! And lucky for us, we get to spend 24 hours finding the best unique things to do in Durham NC, so that definitely includes Duke! Just watch out so we don’t get kidnapped by Blue Devils.
Unique Things to Do in Durham NC
Morning: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
When I was in Austin, I’d had a great time visiting the Blanton Museum. This is the art museum that belongs to the University of Texas at Austin. I think it’s such a wonderful idea for a university to have its own museum.
After all, you wouldn’t think of opening a university without a library would you? (Unless you’re The University of Phoenix, I guess.) And surely the visual arts are just as important to human flourishing as the written word!
I was in luck during my trip to Durham because Duke University has its own cultural palace: the Nasher Museum. It will surprise no one to learn that the museum in Texas is bigger.
But nevertheless, The Gnasher has enough paintings and whatnot to entertain your eyeballs for an hour or two. And it’s definitely one of the most unique things to do in Durham NC. I’ll point you in the right direction with…
Approximately top 5: nasher museum edition
1) Igbo Mask
The Nasher Museum has an incredible collection of African masks. The curator notes are excellent too, so you can learn about the different cultures each mask comes from. My favorite was this Igbo mask on the left. This is a maiden spirit mask, which means it is worn by young male dancers during religious rituals.
The young men put on anatomically correct women’s clothing and make feminine gestures while wearing the mask too. What a cool and progressive idea! I’m going to make my young male students do the same and then definitely get fired.
2) Garland Painting
Technically the title of this painting is “A Garland of Flowers Surrounding a Mocking of Christ” but that’s too long for me to fit into a headline. I always enjoy learning about a new genre because I’m a complete nerd. So I was delighted to find that “garland paintings” were a popular subject in Northern Europe in the 17th century.
It’s really easy to make one at home with a friend. One person does the painting in the middle. It should be on a religious subject for authenticity. Then the other person paints a gracious garland of flowers around the religious image. Voila! You have your very own garland painting.
3) First Crop
This 1944 beauty was created by Midwestern paintsmith Thomas Hart Benton. It was actually designed to be an ad for the American Tobacco Company. But of course the company wouldn’t accept it because there are black people in the painting. So Benton had to resubmit with a painting of white people.
Nowadays I think a tobacco company would be grateful if anyone wanted to be associated with them. As an American, I always feel afraid to read the curator notes about any American artwork I like. So many of them seem to have a racist backstory.
4) Maplewood Cemetery
It’s possible you’ll have some time to kill in between the Nasher Museum and lunch. If the weather is fine and sunny, why not get a little gloomy with a stroll in nearby Maplewood Cemetery? You might expect this fine old cemetery to go back to colonial times, but it doesn’t. That’s because pretty much nothing in Durham predates the Civil War.
Any Durhamite who’s anyone is entombed in this landscape of corpses. You might stumble across a member of the Duke family. You could even find the tomb of Dr. Durham, for whom the city is named. Truly, this is one of the most unique things to do in Durham NC.
If you squint carefully, you can see a Durham gravestone in the background of this picture, next to that of late President Frank Underwood.
5) Mad Hatter’s Cafe and Bakeshop
There aren’t a million options near the Nasher, but we don’t need a million options. We just need one good one. And fortunately, Mad Hatter’s is a charming place to get lunch for your un-birthday. (If it’s not your un-birthday, why are you spending your special day following a rando itinerary from someone you don’t even know, Internet Stranger? Look at your life, look at your choices.)
If it’s a hot day in Durham, which I’m sure it is, a salad is a refreshing option. I selected a watermelon and feta salad. It cooled me off, and I’m pretty sure it has negative calories in it because of the watermelon. I instantly negated the negative calories with one or ten glasses of Mad Hatter’s Sweet Tea.
You can get your tea Sweet or Unsweet but just note if you choose Unsweet, you are wrong. Sweet Tea is the house wine of the South. Drink it as often as possible when you are down there.
I can hear Stadler and Waldorf in the back there saying they don’t like sweet things. Get over yourself! You’re just a couple of old Muppets! But I’m sure everyone else out there is willing to give Sweet Tea a try.
Unique Things to Do in Durham NC
Afternoon: Duke Gardens
The official name of this institution is The Sarah P. Duke Gardens, but my local friend Tori laughed at me when I called it that. Apparently everyone in the city just calls it Duke Gardens. It is a popular destination for both tourists and locals because it’s completely free.
The Duke Gardens are financed by Duke University and charitable donations, not admissions. And it’s also one of the most unique things to Do in Durham NC.
On my most recent trip to Durham, I learned Duke Gardens is apparently a popular destination for Pokemon Go addicts because on the day I visited they were competing in some sort of Pokemon: The Gathering event. Fortunately I didn’t get stepped on by people more interested in looking at their cell phones than flowers.
More helpful that the Poke-fiends are the volunteer docents scattered around the gardens like so many fallen rose petals. Between them and the Gardens website I easily gathered…
Three fun facts about duke gardens
1) what kind of plants are in the garden?
You can find any type of plant in Duke Gardens, from exquisite roses to something called Dissected Beardtongue. Apparently Dissected Beardtongue is endangered. That doesn’t surprise me because who wants to tell people they are growing Dissected Beardtongue in their backyard? It sounds like a sex act that’s definitely outlawed in North Carolina.
But my favorite area is the Asiatic Arboretum. It’s full of ducks, moss, and peaceful flowing water. Also Duke Gardens is working on adding a Japanese garden to this area. The name will be Pine Clouds Mountain Stream, which is definitely the first line of a haiku. I see what you did there, Duke Gardens.
2) who built the garden?
Like everything else in Durham, the Duke family is lurking behind the creation of this garden. But I don’t want to kid around too much here. The garden has a tragic history worthy of an episode of This is Us.
It was founded by Dr. Frederic Hanes and his friend Sarah P. Duke. Unfortunately terrible things began to happen to the garden. There were floods and famine. Iris rot! A fire started by a crockpot! And then Sarah P. Duke died, but no one knows why.
Fortunately her daughter Mary paid for the garden to be fixed so they could be dedicated to her mother. Now her mother’s ghost haunts the garden making sure that everyone drinks their sweet tea and no one gets iris rot.
3) why is this peony called the terrific gal?
This discovery crushed my heart because as soon as I learned this fact, I realized that my own dream in life was for someone to name a plant after me and call it Terrific Gal.
And now that dream is impossible because someone else has already had this happen for them. Oh what tragedy to have my dreams crushed at such a young age. Farewell, Cruel Blog!
Unique Things to Do in Durham NC
Late Afternoon: Duke University
Hi, I’m back. Now that we’ve seen Duke University’s museum and Duke University’s gardens, it’s time to meet the museum itself. You’re allowed to wander freely about campus provided you don’t try to sneak into any dorm rooms or take organic chemistry classes under false pretenses.
The Duke University campus looks aged as Old Father William, but it is relatively young as universities go. The reason it looks elderly is because the prettiest part of the campus was designed in Collegiate Gothic style. I’d think Collegiate Gothic would involve a lot more clothes from Hot Topic and pierced ears, but then I am not an architecture expert.
Any of the Gothic buildings are worth your time, but Duke Chapel is the most famous. It was built in the 1930s and is one of the tallest buildings in Durham, which must mean Durham has few tall buildings.
It was in the news because the chapel’s statue of Robert E. Lee was removed. Given that the chapel was built in the 1930s, I have a hard time seeing any good reason why someone at Duke University wanted to put a statue of Lee in the chapel in the first place.
Unique Things to Do in Durham NC
Evening: Dinner at Juju
Last night in Durham, we tried some Spanish-Southern fusion. Let’s add a new twist to life with Asian-Southern fusion at Juju. This restaurant is definitely one of the unique things to Do in Durham NC. At Mateo we had sweet tea sangria, but at Juju we get…
lychee sangria! I think more restaurants should experiment with putting surprising fruits in sangria. I’ll try bilberry sangria next time.
These are a highly Southern twist on wontons. They’re served with pepper-jam and cream cheese, and it doesn’t get more Southern than that. I still don’t understand why pepper jam/jelly hasn’t swept the nation yet. It’s like candy for your meat and vegetables!
These are crispy Brussels sprouts with dried apricots and peanuts. I’m not sure if anything is Asian about this dish, but it’s great fun to eat. The bitterness of the Brussels sprouts, sweetness of the apricots, and saltiness of the peanuts really complete each other. Of course the peanut is very Southern. Southern peanut farmers are so respected they even get elected sometimes.
This lettuce-and-schmear was actually bulgogi lettuce wraps. Anything you have to make yourself at the table with your hands is obviously the start of a fun evening. I was dining with my friend Tori who ordered these and she asked me not to “PF Chang’s shame” her for choosing bulgogi lettuce.
I’m from New York City, so I don’t know what PF Chang’s is. But I’d never shame anyone for ordering something so delicious. The green peppers and kimchi added an extra kick to lettuce. Lettuce face it, lettuce usually needs several kicks in the flavor department.
Our classiest dish was the duck confit with kimchi cold slaw. Of course we had to make the duck a little country by frying it. Just be grateful the restaurant didn’t stuff the duck instead a chicken and then that inside a turkey and then fry the whole dang thing.
I had never had fried duck before and it was really moist and tender. This is a preparation that should really catch on.
Our first dessert is bruleed yuzu curd with strawberry yogurt and pistachios. I’ve had lemon curd a million times but never yuzu curd. Juju is certainly consistently doing clever things with fruit. The graham cracker crust adds a sprinkling of Southern charm and some much needed crunch.
Once again, we meet a dish whose existence I had never contemplated. I’ve had chocolate pot de creme many times but never brown butter pot de creme. But I never met a food that wasn’t made better by adding a ton of butter.
How clever for the restaurant to go straight to serving the customers a dish of butter. The sour creme on top added a little sourness to cut through so you’re not overwhelmed by the richness of the brown butter.
Also I found out that brown butter in French is beurre noisette and why does everything sound better in French? In English this dessert would be called a Brown Butter Pot of Cream and that sounds disgusting.
Unique Things to Do in Durham NC
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!
I also recommend you spend your 24 hours with the most unique things to do in Durham NC 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 tons of other 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 most unique things to do in Durham NC. With plenty of options to choose from, I’m sure you’ll find something for your schedule and budget.
That’s Unique Things to Do in Durham NC!
What are your favorite Unique Things to Do in Durham NC? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Durham? Is all American art secretly racist? Have you ever PF Chang’s shamed someone? Also, what is a PF Chang’s? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 in Durham with the most Unique Things to Do in Durham NC.
You can also try a day with the best things to do in Downtown Durham. Look for the best hotels in Raleigh Durham NC. Experience 24 hours in Charleston. Why not try a one day in Charleston itinerary? Go for the best tours in Charleston South Carolina.