15 Best Things to Do in Downtown Raleigh, NC

Downtown Raleigh, NC skyline
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Downtown Raleigh is one of seven areas that make up the municipality of Raleigh, North Carolina.

This center captures the cool and laid-back atmosphere of North Carolina’s second-largest city while also thrumming with its historic roots.

The city is home to passionate thinkers, creators, and leaders, and many of them converge upon Downtown Raleigh as a hub of activity.

This neighborhood is likewise home to a burgeoning creative culture, with musicians, artists, awarded chefs, tech companies, and innovative creators all carving out the Downtown Raleigh experience in their daily lives.

Downtown Raleigh thrives with world-renowned museums, outside spaces, government buildings, Southern eateries, iconic neighborhoods, breweries, cocktail bars, and performing art venues, all creating an amazing cultural tapestry.

Here, find a giant beer garden, step into history and science museums, indulge in Southern dining, try on vintage clothing, admire contemporary art, and so much more in one neighborhood.

If Downtown Raleigh calls your name, peruse our list of the best things to do in this historic center.

Stroll Into Historic Oakwood

Name sign of Historic Oakwood
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How about strolling a beautiful neighborhood that has its feet in the 19th and early 20thcenturies?

Historic Oakwood has hundreds of stunning Victorian homes and is North Carolina’s biggest intact 19th-century neighborhood.

A victorian house at Historic Oakwood
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Its architecture echoes the period after the Civil War, with some homes built in the French style and some in the Italianate style with cornices and arched windows.

Most of the homes bear the North Carolina Victorian style, known for sawn work fixings and wraparound porches.

With the 20thcentury came neoclassical homes with pastel colors, lead windows, and classical columns.

Exterior of a house at Historic Oakwood
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Check out the Theophilus Snow House, the oldest home in Oakwood, and the Vivian E. Denton House, a Neoclassical Revival structure.

Admire the Italianate style Marcellus Parker house with its central tower and the Octavia Winder Skinner House with its remarkable leaded and stained glass windows.

Exterior of a victorian house at Historic Oakwood
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Know the Natural World at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Exterior of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
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The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is hard to miss, with its colossal globe and four floors stacked with exhibits, live animals, and 3D movies.

It is the most expansive institution of its kind in the Southeastern United States and the most visited one in the state.

Its mission is to illuminate the natural world and inspire its conservation, with a vision for an intelligent, empowered society making science-informed decisions.

Dinosaur exhibit in North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
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In its Nature Exploration Center, see diverse, amazing inhabitants and natural habitats of North Carolina, from ancient beasts to prehistoric arthropods, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains.

In its Nature Research Center, investigate the known natural world and uncover techniques, tools, and curious scientists who study meteorites, mammoths, the vast ocean, the changing weather, and more.

Watch presentations at the SECU Daily Planet, a 3-story theater detailing the glory of nature on Earth.

Front exterior of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
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Take a Joyride with Crank Arm Rickshaw

If you want a unique Downtown Raleigh perspective, take a ride on a rickshaw!

Ride aboard these bright yellow, three-wheeled open-air rickshaws while your driver tells you stories of the city, its historical spots, and the best dining and shopping places.

Their city tours will give you 15 years' worth of experience as they showcase their knowledge of Downtown Raleigh.

At their historic tours, learn the storied pasts of Fayetteville Street, Nash Square, the State Capital, the Legislative Court, the Duke Process Energy Center for the Performing Arts, and others.

They also have a bar crawl service at 2-3 stops per hour where you can check out a variety of bars and get around the city safely.

They will act as your personal concierge, build you a personalized series of stops, and even blast music at their stereos to keep the party mood going!

Step Into Olden Times at North Carolina Museum of History

Exterior of North Carolina Museum of History
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The North Carolina Museum of History presents a look into North Carolina and Raleigh’s intriguing past, with over 14,000 years and 150,000 artifacts.

It collects and preserves artifacts and historical objects hailing back to the heritage and history of the state.

The museum presents them in a local, regional, national, and international context to help people see the intertwining of the past and the present.

Statue in front of North Carolina Museum of History
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One of its excellent permanent exhibits tracks life in North Carolina from its origins to the 20thcentury.

A part of this exhibit is the replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer from the Wright Brothers’ first flight on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

You can see exhibits on the making of the iconic movie Gone With The Wind, or cash crops from North Carolina’s agricultural industry.

Others are centered on Black North Carolinians in World War Il and law and justice in the state’s Supreme Court.

Side exterior of North Carolina Museum of History
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Have Fun with Your Friends at The Tower Escapes

Escape rooms are amazingly fun spaces for a swell time with a group of friends or a romantic date!

The Tower Escapes is a prime zone in Downtown Raleigh for puzzles galore and challenges afoot.

The Castle of Loches puts you in the shoes of a CSI squad investigating a mysterious crime enacted during a fatal poker night.

Sir Walter Speakeasy takes you to a questionable 1928 election in North Carolina, giving you 60 minutes to affect its outcome.

The Secret of the Tower Keeper introduces William, a man immersed in crusades, medieval times, ancient artifacts, and the Holy Grail, giving you an hour to discover a secret.

The Tower Escapes also hosts special events and gives hands-on escape room experiences at your birthday, family reunion, or other special occasions.

They entertain corporate events, providing team building, puzzles, and linear and nonlinear scenarios.

View Modern Art at CAM Raleigh

Name sign of Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh
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The Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh, or CAM Raleigh, is a non-collecting contemporary art museum in Downtown Raleigh.

It cultivates a milieu for transformation via cultural experiences, educational programs, and daring, uncommon exhibitions of living artists.

It is on grounds settled by indigenous people, recognizing the history of injustice and oppression threaded throughout.

The CAM Raleigh building will catch your eye, a beautiful 20000 square foot warehouse with a glass-front entrance and geometrical sloped roof.

See exhibitions of creators such as Mikael Owunna, who reimagines universes for Black and LGBTQ people, and Alun Be, who highlights the strength and perseverance of Senegalese women.

Admire creators like Kennedi Carter, who reimagines privilege with period costumes, Lakea Shepard, who focuses attention on African art, and Taylor White, who reinterprets facets of the human condition.

Indulge Your Sweet Tooth at Videri Chocolate Factory

Exterior of Videri Chocolate Factory
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If you’re a chocolate lover eager to support a local Downtown Raleigh business, head on over to Videri Chocolate Factory!

It is a chocoholic’s paradise, a chocolate factory with a bean-to-bar mindset, handpicking each ingredient to create the best quality hand-crafted chocolate around.

You can go on a self-guided tour through the factory: search for posted signs and find your way as you learn about the chocolate-making process.

Watch through the viewing windows as they roast and ground cacao beans and turn them into your favorite tasty slabs of chocolate!

Their products are nut-free, gluten-free, egg-free, and soy-free, and they source fair trade, inorganic ingredients.

Taste their specialty bars such as Crunch Bundle and 70% Cocoa Nib, or their signature bars like 55% Dark Milk, 70% Sea Salt, and 70% Classic Dark.

And sample their chocolate fondue jar, bonbons, hot chocolate mixes, and cocoa tea.

Take Your Children to Marbles Kids Museum

Exterior of Marbles Kids Museum
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At the heart of Downtown Raleigh, Marbles is the premier kids’ museum in Raleigh.

It is an interactive museum that helps children spark imagination and discovery with play.

It has two floors and dozens of kid-centric museum activities, with plenty of hands-on exhibits, play areas, musical displays, and the only 3D-capable IMAX theater in the state.

Marbles Kids Museum serves families, community organizations, and school gatherings with summer camps, themed exhibits, feature films, IMAX documentaries, and year-round events.

The name “Marbles” comes from the slang word for brains and the place’s light-up marbles.

At Marbles, they believe that play stimulates kids’ social, emotional, and intellectual skills in life and learning.

They promotes health and physical development, encourage imagination, kindle curiosity, and teach cooperation.

Their summer camps have museum displays, weekly themes, and active outdoor games, with engaging activities that feature hands-on play, games, and crafts.

Have a Drink at Raleigh Times Bar

Raleigh Times Bar has become an anchor in Downtown Raleigh nightlife and is practically a museum as much as a bar.

It is a timeless hangout and the most famous bar in Raleigh, even once hosting former president Barack Obama.

The Raleigh Times newspaper once thrived under John A. Park’s leadership, circulating news about the World Wars and the Prohibition.

Raleigh Times Bar is in a 100-year-old building that once held the Raleigh Times newspaper and still holds press-connected memorabilia.

As you chug the bar’s special imported beers and sample their signature dishes, view old press clippings and images capturing the city’s rich political and cultural history.

Try their cuisine featuring creative spins on classic bar favorites and their creative drink menu with a wide Belgian beer selection.

The bar hosts receptions, dinner parties, cocktail parties, meetings, receptions, and even weddings in their 2nd-floor rooftop and intimate private dining room.

Have a Shopping Spree at the Historic City Market

People walking along Historic City Market
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Downtown Raleigh’s Historic City Market first opened in 1914, and the public converged to buy produce, fresh flowers, seafood, home-baked goods, and essential meats.

The National Register of Historic Places recognized the market in 1980.

Today, it thrives downtown, providing dining opportunities and specialty shopping for visitors and residents.

The market features lovely cobblestone streets, and lights are strung across its thoroughfares at night.

The street of Historic City Market
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Here you can swing by for an authentic Southern breakfast in the morning and a chilly, refreshing brew in the evening.

Taste Asian flavors at MOFU Shoppe, swig wine at Apero, eat Japanese cuisine at City Market Sushi, and slurp ice cream at Treat.

Find earthy gifts at Bella Vita, spoil your furbabies at Unleashed, buy dresses at White of Raleigh, and find fresh goods at City Market Produce.

Then have your nails done at Sass Nails and get pampered at The Design Gallery Salon.

Exterior of a restaurant at Historic City Market
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The City of Raleigh Museum or COR Museum is on the main street into Downtown Raleigh, housed in the 1874 Briggs Building.

The COR Museum is a vital part of the community, serving the public with knowledge about its state capital.

Its stated mission is preserving and protecting Raleigh’s past for the future and interpreting its history.

It displays exhibits, curates a collection of about 5000 artifacts, and holds educational programs centering on Raleigh’s history and heritage.

It has hosted exhibits that explore the city’s government and democracy and offer glimpses into Raleigh’s blooming cultural landscape.

One exhibit has encouraged the pursuit of self-care during stressful times via art therapy through resting, reflecting, and responding.

Another exhibit chronicles the seeking of equal suffrage during the 1920s, shows women wielding votes over the century, and introduces the organizers, suffragists, and officials who shaped women’s roles.

Run Outdoors at Dorothea Dix Park

Sunflowers at Dorothea Dix Park
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Dorothea Dix Park is a true green escape in the heart of Downtown Raleigh with its wide fields, sprawling meadows, and cool tree groves.

It has a complex history as the hunting and gathering grounds of Native Americans, a plantation worked by enslaved people, and the state’s first psychiatric hospital.

Today, the 308-acre park serves the city and state by honoring its storied past and restoring nature’s open spaces to citizens.

Trees at Dorothea Dix Park
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At the Big Field, enjoy the rolling hills and flat spaces as you run, fly drones and kites, walk pets, hold games, have picnics, and attend festivals.

At the Grove, chill on a shaded hillside, glimpse Raleigh’s skyline, frolic along the Rocky Branch Greenway, and go sledding when winter comes.

Run into a winding path of daffodils at Flowers Field, take photos in the shade of Harvey Hill, and attend Yoga in the Park at Williams Field.

Landscape of Dorothea Dix Park
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Get Creating at Artspace

Artspace is a non-profit visual art center, one of the biggest open-space home studios in the country.

It has 20 studios with exhibitions of community and national artists,

It hosts over 35 artists working in a variety of media, its artists in residence, and art classes for all ages and abilities.

It prides itself on being a space for social practice and creativity, with exhibitions, arts education, artist residencies, and community outreach.

In Artspace’s youth, teen, and adult classes, students work with artists, learning from them in a stimulating studio environment.

Some of their guided home activities are neon light bending, storytelling, coloring, postcard-making, and nature painting.

Their summer camps offer eight weeks of enjoyment and creativity, with professional artists encouraging students to create, explore, and produce one-of-a-kind projects.

Students can meet working artists and view creations from exhibiting artists at their facility in Downtown Raleigh.

Admire Artworks at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Inside the walls of North Carolina Museum of Art
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The North Carolina Museum of Art or the NCMA has wide outdoor parklands scattered with art installations and 40 indoor galleries with artworks spanning five millennia.

It also has an amphitheater for outdoor performances, public programs, and celebrated exhibitions.

Its permanent collections hold artworks from ancient Greece, Italy, and Egypt, plus contemporary paintings from America and Europe.

Other highlights are 30 Auguste Rodin sculptures and work by artists like Jaume Plensa, Roxy Paine, Ellsworth Kelly, David Park, and El Anatsui.

Huge ring sculptures at North Carolina Museum of Art
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The NCMA offers concerts, debates, chamber music displays, day-long seminars, poetry slams, and live dance performances throughout the year.

Its film programming comprises contemporary and classic shows and feature-length movies across various genres, languages, and countries.

Its largest annual fundraiser is Art in Bloom, which pairs pieces from the museum with talented floral artists who complement them using fresh flowers.

The museum is the place to be for seeing amazing exhibitions, making outstanding art, and taking eye-opening tours into culture and creativity.

Exterior of North Carolina Museum of Art
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Spread Good Cheer at Goodnights Comedy Club

Give your friends, family, or significant other a lighthearted treat at Goodnights Comedy Club, where good cheer and comedy shows abound.

Split your sides laughing with the best comedy talents around in an intimate theater setting.

Enjoy live standup comedy and performance art with shows that comprise an opener, feature, and a headliner, with national entertainer recognition.

As an additional treat, choose from a wide selection of food, beverages, entrees, desserts, craft beer, and cocktails.

Goodnights also holds comedy classes comprising six 2-hour-long sessions at the club.

Their Stand Up Comedy 101 classes teach students to mold an original routine, translate ideas to a proper joke structure, experiment with improvisation, and sharpen joke-crafting skills.

Their Improv Comedy 101 classes teach students to develop improvisational skills with long-form games, mold topics into original characters and translate ideas to connect with any audience.

Final Thoughts

Downtown Raleigh at the city’s heart is a wonderful place to eat, drink, shop, learn, create, ride, party, and explore.

Start ticking off items on this list if you’re interested in communing with the city’s vibrant center.

To experience the City of Oaks and its unique identity, in a nutshell, set off for Downtown Raleigh today.