Rediscover Raleigh with our guide to local sites worth staying home for.
By Jessie Ammons Rumbley
“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things,” Henry Miller once wrote. In search of perspective—and, yes, to keep restless children occupied—we often travel. New places, new faces, they can be a refreshing change of pace and eye-opening way to learn. And, maybe best of all, travel can make returning home all the sweeter.
This summer, why not take a staycation? Go through all the usual motions: choose the dates; clear your schedule; research the area; make an itinerary. If you’d like, go ahead and pack your bags, leaving home for a nearby hotel. (If you want to go totally crazy, swap homes with close friends that you’d normally travel with.) The catch is that you won’t go farther than a few dozen miles. Raleigh, after all, has a lot for you to do. Staycationing should not be a time to frequent all of your favorite restaurants or play hooky in lieu of shopping for a few days. Staycationing should be an invitation to discover, or rediscover, the area with the spirit of your traveler self. Look at maps. Book tours. Try a new activity. Drive to the part of town that feels far away from your day-to-day but completely acceptable during a weekend on vacation (45 minutes? No problem!). Don’t check your email. Within a few days’ time, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the new faces and new places in even your quotidian setting. This trip might be sans scratchy sheets and unfamiliar pillows, but still challenge yourself to take the bus or otherwise break up your ordinary routine. What follows is not a comprehensive guide or suggested itinerary—not even close—but it is a well-rounded collection of things to do in Raleigh, meant to serve as a starting point (and perhaps a reminder).
If you give credence to statistics, these say a lot: for the fourth year, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences ranks as the most visited historic attraction in the state, according to the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Last year, 946,486 visitors walked through the museum’s doors. It’s a big place, for one; “it’s too big to take in in one visit,” says director Emlyn Koster, with over 1,500 living animals, discovery stations for children, and sweeping seasonal exhibitions. “This place has surprises every visit.” In the museum’s 3D theater, there are a few film options, including one especially well-suited to a staycation: Backyard Wilderness is “a surprising journey into what’s in the garden behind any suburban home,” Koster says. “Cameras go deep into nests, move along the forest floor, and go down under the bottom of ponds to show us the habitats and animals which may elude our everyday experience.”
Admission to both the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and N.C. Museum of History is free. They are located practically next-door to each other downtown, and combined with the nearby N.C. Legislative Building and Halifax Mall, a hidden gem of an enclosed public park, there is a humble local Smithsonian setting. Also free: most city-owned parks and all public greenways. The Capital Area Greenway system has over 100 miles of trails that encircle the city as well as connect to a few surrounding ones. Besides biking, walking, kayaking, swimming, and fishing, there are creative park uses, too. There are recreational drone gatherings every month or so, which even a novice can drop in on. If you’d rather just watch, enthusiasts often host drone races at Dix Park. You can watch larger machines in flight at the RDU Observation Park. Open from sunrise to sunset, the park overlooks the Raleigh-Durham International Airport’s runway. From the raised deck’s vantage point, airplanes are surprisingly majestic to observe. And there’s never radio silence: speakers broadcast Air Traffic Control Tower’s logistic banter.
North Carolina’s first public park is near downtown Raleigh: Pullen Park. Technically considered an amusement park, Pullen’s campus includes pedal boats, a carousel, an indoor pool, and a miniature train. The C.P. Huntington mini-version is a near-replica of the actual locomotive, which is said to have inspired the appearance of The Little Engine That Could. For 1 dollar, you can hop aboard the roughly 80-seater for a jaunt around the park. “It’s a nice smooth ride around the park, allowing you to observe the complete Pullen Park facility and all its attributes—the landscape, the pond, all of the rides,” says “conductor” (ride operator) Bob Robertson. Robertson and his colleagues clock each ride at just over 6 minutes (6:15, to be exact). He says summer passengers range from 3 days old to 98 years, but his favorite are “the senior riders that say, ‘I rode this train when I was 4 or 5 years old.’ And now they’re in their 70s.” Each July, tickets go on sale for the annual Holiday Express, a ride through Pullen in its festive best with holiday lights, fake-snow-covered hillsides, craft stations, and more. “It’s really something,” Robertson says. Tickets historically sell out in less than an hour, so you might want to mark your calendar now for July 31 at 5:30 a.m.
Consider this a friendly reminder that we have outstanding art museums in Raleigh. Among them is the North Carolina Museum of Art, which has won national awards for its architecture and design as well as for its innovative statewide outreach programs. The permanent collection spans art from most regions and cultures of the world and periods of time, such as Egyptian, Judaic, Ancient American, and African. In 2009, the museum recieved a donation of 30 sculptures by French artist Auguste Rodin, whose work was formative for modern sculpture. This Rodin collection is the most extensive one between Philadelphia and the West Coast, installed in a serene court and garden. The site is an oldie and a goodie place for a few moments of respite.
Whether you’re in search of water aerobics, a lazy river for a family float, or just a place to jump in and cool off, there are a plethora of options at city-owned pools. For a few dollars ($2-4 for Raleigh residents), you can jump in for a day. Many of them have water slides, including the three-story one alongside a lazy river at Buffaloe Road Aquatic Center. Should gloomy weather strike, the pool at Optimist Park operates year-round and during most conditions thanks to a tension fabric roof. For an indulgent swim, you can book a spa treatment at The Umstead Hotel & Spa. Besides the escape of your spa time, treatments include access to the outdoor seasonal pool for the entire day. (For weekend treatments, The Umstead opens its spa schedule to non-guests each Thursday morning at 10 a.m., and it’s worth staying on hold to keep your place in line.)
Satisfy any needs for speed in South Raleigh at the Wake County Speedway. The 56-year-old quarter-mile track was recently renovated and improved to suit modern race fans—or curious newcomers, or just families looking for a high-energy night out. The small track size means races move fast; and there are also novelty races such as camper-pulls (you read that right: cars tow trailers and campers around the track). Plus, the hours are reasonable, says owner Charlie Hansen. “In the summer, we start at 8:15 p.m. and it’s over by 10:30 p.m. It’s not a real long, drawn-out process. It’s in-your-face, action-packed, two-and-a-half hours of fun. You’re so close to the action. Then you still get home at a decent time and have the rest of your weekend to be on to your next destination.”—Jessie Ammons Rumbley