Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Durham, NC

  • Published 2022/12/10

Durham is a vibrant city in North Carolina that uses its rich history as a significant factor in its current development.

Located in Durham County, in the east-central part of the Piedmont region, Durham is one of the best places in North Carolina.

Also called the Bull City, Durham takes pride in its meaningful past, deeply rooted in various industries.

The tobacco industry has a rich history in this area when the American Tobacco Company was established in 1890.

Durham is also where the textile, electric power, and educational and medical industries have thrived through the years.

The development of different industries led to the growth of the city’s population.

As of 2021, Durham has a population of 285 527 residents, making it the 4th most populated city in North Carolina.

A relatively flat city with rolling hills across this town, Durham boasts many historic sites, scenic watersheds, nature parks, and artistic destinations that any visitor would love to discover.

Many of these destinations are free to the public, making them a great option if you travel on a budget.

Here are the free things to do in Durham, North Carolina.

Explore Eno River State Park

Waterfall at Eno River State Park

CeGe /

Eno River State Park will satisfy you with its breathtaking scenery whenever you visit North Carolina.

It is a state park that encompasses Durham and Orange counties.

As a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts since 1975, the state park accommodates hikers all-year round without charging any fee.

Suspension bridge at Eno River State Park

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Go to North Durham at Cole Mill Road to reach the Eno River State Park.

Once you get there, the 4,319-acre state park will welcome you with several hiking trails, such as the Cox Mountain trail featuring a famous swaying footbridge.

You can also go to Cole Mill to witness stunning river views.

Lastly, the Pump Station Trail allows you to visit an old pump station’s ruins while enjoying a scenic view of a canopy of wildflowers and shrubs.

Trail with foliage at Eno River State Park

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Follow the American Tobacco Trail

Pathway of American Tobacco Trail

Ildar Sagdejev (Specious), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Communing with nature and getting fit does not have to cost a thing.

You can achieve a relaxing retreat along the Durham section of the American Tobacco Trail, a 22.6-mile-long project in North Carolina.

This easy and multi-use trail built in the 1970s begins at the corner of Morehead and Black Streets and ends at Jordan Lake.

Running along an abandoned railroad is a ten-foot-wide paved and off-road path.

Many choose this trail for physical activities such as walking, jogging, mountain biking, cycling, and rollerblading.

Signage of American Tobacco Trail

Ildar Sagdejev (Specious), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You can also meet families with their kids in baby carriages, so keep your speed below ten mph for everyone’s safety.

This quiet and peaceful recreational place is covered with towering trees shading the path and plenty of shrubs and flowers.

Enjoy a stroll down the American Tobacco Trail.

Learn about the Tuba at V & E Simonetti’s Historic Tuba Museum

Music lovers will enjoy a free visit to V & E Simonetti’s Historic Tuba Museum.

As the largest tuba museum in the world, this gallery at Chapel Hill Road offers a comprehensive musical instrument collection.

The collection was started in 1984 by tuba enthusiast Vincent Simonetti who aims to introduce the tuba family to the public by showcasing antique and modern instruments.

Currently, it houses over 300 massive bellowing brass instruments, with some dating back to 1830.

It also features new acquisitions from current models, giving every visitor a perspective of the instrument’s past and present.

The free museum visit is a by-appointment-only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Learn about the Civil War at Bennett Place

Cabins at Bennett Place

Jeffrey M. Frank /

One of the accessible destinations you can check out in the city is Bennett Place, located at Hillsborough Road in west Durham.

This vital historic point built in 1789 witnessed various negotiations during the Civil War, leading to the largest Civil War Confederate troop surrender.

Owned by a couple named James and Nancy Bennett, this farmhouse witnessed Confederate General Johnston discussing surrendering his army to Union General William T. Sherman.

This surrender marked the end of the American Civil War in April 1865.

You’ll know more about this historical surrender when you join the free walking tour around the area, with significant discussion on 19th-century farm life and the military of the Civil War.

History marker of Bennett Place

Ildar Sagdejev (Specious), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bennett Farm has a visitor center, theater, and museum that showcases various artifacts.

The theater, meanwhile, features living history reenactments, which lets you visualize the historic surrender.

After the tour, you can enjoy nature trails or eat in their picnic area while you rest.

Unity monument at Bennett Place

Yeibisawes, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Discover Business History at Black Wall Street

History marker of Black Wall Street

zimmytws /

In Durham’s history, the Black community dominated the business scene.

Many Black-owned businesses occupied four blocks along Parrish Street from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

The district was dubbed “Black Wall Street” for being an economic powerhouse.

It was filled with booming enterprises and commercial areas such as drugstores, barbers, tailors, and financial institutions sprawled in its vicinity.

It was eventually named Black Wall Street as a nod to the thriving business sector and a complementary district to Hayti, Durham, where most Black Americans reside.

Rub the Sides of Major the Bull

Visiting Durham will only be complete if you take a photo beside the famous statue of Major the Bull.

This ten-foot bronze statue at Corcoran Street might help bring you prosperity.

Many visitors take a picture with the 2,000-pound mascot to rub his sides and attract good luck.

Sculpted by artist Michael Waller and his wife Leah Waller in 2001, Major the Bull was a gift to the Central Carolina Bank (CCB).

The work funded the artists’ sculpture studio Liberty Arts.

It was named after George “Major” Watts Hill, a former CCB president, banker, and philanthropist.

Admire the Duke University Chapel

Exterior of the Duke University Chapel

Kelly vanDellen /

If you want things to do in Durham, you must set aside time to visit the Duke University Chapel.

Located inside the 8,600-acre Duke University, this Collegiate-Gothic chapel soars at 210 feet and is the highest building inside the research institution.

People visit this architectural wonder for its stunning exteriors of large stones, high-rise arches, and stained glass windows.

The structure was erected in 1930.

Interior of the Duke University Chapel

EQRoy /

When you go inside, you’ll be amazed by its high walls and vaults, a memorial chapel, and a crypt.

The towering chapel also houses a 50-bell carillon and a Flentop Organ containing 5,200 pipes.

Going inside the chapel will not cost you a thing.

You can solemnly pray inside the sacred place or admire its stunning beauty without spending a cent.

Aerial view of the Duke University Chapel

Kirk Wester /

Stroll around American Tobacco Campus Historic District

Welcome sign of the American Tobacco Campus Historic District

PT Hamilton /

One of the things you need to check out in Durham is the American Tobacco Campus Historic District at Blackwell Street.

This tobacco district is a historic site built by the American Tobacco Company from 1874 to the 1950s.

It has over 14 buildings and three structures that serve as manufacturing plants, factories, and warehouses for some of the most famous tobacco products in the United States.

In 2000, the place was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making it an essential district in Bull City.

Although the district is now brimming with business offices, restaurants, and entertainment hubs across its 14.6-acre vicinity, the place offers a unique and free experience for any Durham visitor.

Buildings at the American Tobacco Campus Historic District

Jay Yuan /

You can tour the district and admire the historic structure’s beauty, preserved until today.

Most structures showcase different architectural styles, such as the Romanesque Revival style of the Hill Waterhouse and the Fowler, Strickland, and Crowe buildings’ Art Moderne.

You can also walk along its stream-lined pavements or glance at Durham’s Lucky Strike Tower, adorned with lights during Christmas.

Burt cabin at the American Tobacco Campus Historic District

Jay Yuan /

Try Water Activities at West Point on the Eno City Park

The waters of West Point on the Eno

Wileydoc /

Enjoy a free day of fun water activities at West Point on the Eno City Park at Roxboro Street, a popular park that opened in 1778 beside the two-mile stretch of Eno River.

This 404-acre historic park in downtown Durham boasts summer activities such as canoeing, rafting, and boating as you admire the beauty of the scenic Eno River.

A mill at West Point on the Eno

Wileydoc /

After wading in the water, you can relax by the riverbank for a picnic and other on-ground activities, such as biking and hiking through the woods.

While admission is free, you can donate a small amount in exchange for a corn meal, fresh ground grits, and whole wheat flour offered in the park.

Nature trail at West Point on the Eno

Wileydoc /

Explore Durham’s Public Art Collection

You need not look further to find free things to do in Durham.

As you walk in the city’s main streets, you’ll find impressive walls painted with exciting subjects and art installations, mirroring the town’s culture.

Under the Durham Public Art Program, the city launched Durham’s Public Art Collection, showcasing various permanent and temporary artworks dating as early as 1975.

The main streets of Durham are adorned with works from local artists who collaborate with business owners, organizations, and neighborhoods to feature their stunning creativity.

You can visit the Durham Visitor Info Center, pick a free Mural Finder booklet, and go on a self-guided tour of the Durham Public Art Collection.

Uncover Stories about Slavery at Historic Stagville

Main house at the Historic Stagville

Dee Browning /

If you want to dive deeper into Durham’s rich history, you can join free tours at Historic Stagville.

Located at Old Oxford Highway, this 165-acre state site features the remnants of one of North Carolina’s most extensive plantations.

Built in the late 18th century, the plantation owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family was said to have enslaved 900 people.

Cabin at the Historic Stagville

Dee Browning /

The expansive plantation also houses slave quarters, a barn, a family house, and archaeological sites.

The tour allows you to understand better the historic site and the stories of slavery, violence, and hard labor that transpired within Historic Stagville.

Slave quarters at the Historic Stagville

Dee Browning /

Admire Colorful Blooms at Sarah P. Duke Garden

Water fountain at Sarah P. Duke Garden

Trevor Howard Jones /

Inside Duke University is another free must-see attraction you should take check out.

The Sarah P. Duke Garden at Anderson Street is a 55-acres landscape covered with bountiful flowers of different species.

Built in 1920, the garden was developed in memorial to Sarah Pearson Angier Duke, the wife of one of Duke University’s sponsors, Benjamin N. Duke.

The serene walk will take about 20 minutes but expect to extend it because of the attractive blooms, perfect for an excellent photo opportunity.

Trail lined with flora at Sarah P. Duke Garden

Whitney Hubbell /

You can find daffodils, irises, and minor bulbs blooming all-year round lined up through its five-mile pathways.

The bustling noise of cars surrounding the garden will likely get buried in the sounds of birds chirping from the treetops and the serene water flowing from fountains around the botanical garden.

While admission is free, you might be tempted to stop by the garden center and buy duck food to feed in the Koi Pond.

A pond at Sarah P. Duke Garden


See the Murals at Satellite Park

Another art hub you might want to visit is the Satellite Park at Gattis Street, inside the artist space Duke Arts Annex.

The small Satellite Park was built in 2018 as a home to eight decommissioned satellite dishes turned into great art forms by local artists.

The dishes were initially installed in 1991 for Duke Cable TV but lasted only a short time after the introduction of the Internet in the late 90s.

Instead of scrapping the satellites after 20 years, they turned the dishes into artworks during an art festival.

Mural artists painted the dishes with messages from diverse matters such as technology, life and death, and the environment.

Spot Birds at Penny’s Bend

Nature trail at Penny's Bend

Wileydoc /

Durham has plenty of green and open spaces perfect for nature activities.

If you want to experience nature’s wonders, you can try birdwatching at Penny’s Bend, located at Old Oxford Road.

This preserve’s natural features dated back two hundred million years ago.

Penny’s Bend is a 4.5-kilometer loop trail that fits adventure seekers for its moderately challenging route and offers many opportunities for birdwatching and nature-tripping.

The waters of Penny's Bend

Wileydoc /

Inside the sprawling property managed by the NC Botanical Garden are plants of different kinds and various habitats for diverse wildlife.

Bring your binoculars and cameras, for you might see different wintering bird species start to soar through the trees covering the trail.

Some birds you can spot include white-throated sparrows, Carolina wrens, and red-bellied woodpeckers.

Go Backstage at Durham Performing Arts Center

Exterior of Durham Performing Arts Center

zimmytws /

How would you like a backstage pass to one of Durham’s best live entertainment centers?

Joining a once-a-month backstage tour at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) is an exciting free activity you should sign up for, especially if you love performing arts.

With a DPAC staff as a guide, the 45-minute tour takes you around the theatre built in 2008.

A concert in Durham Performing Arts Center

Mel E Brown /

As one of the top five theatres in the country, DPAC features intimate viewing areas on different levels of the theatre.

The tour also shows you around the theater’s 2,700 seats.

It also allows you to walk across the Mildren & Dillard Teer Stage, an art center, and a magnificent skyline view from its 3rd level.

The Durham Performing Arts Center tour will end with a backstage trip where you can witness how performers prepare for a show.

Final Thoughts

Durham has many places to visit that won’t burn a hole in your pockets but will make your life richer through experience and beautiful memories.

As you walk around murals and museums or explore natural parks and historic destinations, you’ll learn a whole of things about the city.

Discover the free things to do in Durham, North Carolina, for a budget-friendly adventure!

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