Durham, North Carolina, is an up-and-coming destination, with just enough Southern flair to ensure hospitality and great dining, combined with world-class research and business opportunities. It’s quickly become a go-to spot for travelers-in-the-know on the East Coast.
2019 marks Durham, North Carolina’s 150th anniversary. The small Southern city has been called one of the “hippest” as well as one of the “tastiest” in the state, but it’s been a long time coming.
Durham got its start in the 1800s, when the railroad boom crossed the country. When the North Carolina Railroad required a depot between two stops, Durham was just the location. The city took its name from the owner of the land donated to the railway — Bartlett S. Durham.
Following the Civil War, the area grew rapidly, thanks, in part, to the tobacco industry. Bull Durham Tobacco Factory and W. Duke & Sons Tobacco Company pushed Durham’s growth, with other forms of industry following. Though these brands have been left in the past, you can still spot their influence all over the city.
Now, Durham’s culture is booming with progress, and all the perks that progressive minds desire during their time off. When the change-makers and innovators hang up their hats for the day at one of the city’s fine universities or Research Triangle Park, they head to the newly overhauled downtown, where new hotels, eateries and shops cater to an unpretentious yet expectant crowd.
Some of the must-see spots include the American Tobacco Campus. The former Lucky Strike cigarette factory is now a 1 million-square-foot entertainment, living and working district. You’ll find startup offices, apartments, a documentary theater, dining, brews and more, and it’s all interwoven within a wealth of beautiful green space.
Similarly, Durham’s Brightleaf Square District sits between two tobacco warehouses and offers shopping, dining and drinks. The area’s plentiful historic architecture makes for a reclaimed, yet chic feel.
If you happen to visit in 2019, expect plenty of fanfare for its 150th anniversary. Events of all kinds are planned, focusing on everything from Durham’s impressive startup scene to the arts to various forms of entertainment. The community-wide kick-off event takes place in April, and the planners and committees involved hope to have 150 high-quality events occurring between then and the November closing ceremony.
If you miss the anniversary festivities, you can still find plenty of fun events happening in Durham on a regular basis. Some of the annual favorites include the Hayti Heritage Film Festival, Bull City Food & Beer Experience, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Moogfest (an electronic music and tech fest), American Dance Festival, North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (the second-largest in the Southeast) and the Art of Cool Festival.
Downtown Durham is home to several brand-new properties that have popped up over the last few years to cater to the growing tourist population.
One of the most unique places to rest your head is the first-ever property by Dream Hotels’ Unscripted brand, the Unscripted Durham Hotel (202 Corcoran Street). The property was converted from a former motor lodge that fell into decline, and the results are spectacular. With a vintage, mod style, the 74-guest-room boutique hotel stands apart. With its convenient location, you can arrive quickly from the airport, and then easily see the rest of the city on foot. For travelers seeking an extra bit of privacy, the second-floor studio king rooms offer space and seclusion. For those wanting to take advantage of the hotel’s summer pool parties, stay right off the pool deck on floors three and four.
Nearby, the 21c Museum Hotel Durham (111 North Corcoran Street) blends art and hospitality for a fun and funky experience. Even if you don’t book a room at this up-and-coming design hotel brand, stop in regardless to see the free art exhibits, open 24/7. Head downstairs from the entrance to check out the building’s historic bank vault, which is outfitted with a couch, in case you want to kick back with a drink from the bar.
In the vicinity, The Durham Hotel (315 East Chapel Hill Street), with its unique yellow striped exterior, can’t be missed. Like the 21c Museum Hotel, The Durham was converted from a historic bank into a trendy, boutique hotel. It also has public spaces open to non-guests, including The Roof at The Durham, where you can enjoy handcrafted cocktails and small bites whilst admiring an expansive view of the city.
Restaurants & Bars
Just a few steps from the Unscripted Durham Hotel awaits a crave-worthy breakfast spot — Jack Tar and The Colonel’s Daughter (3210 Corcoran Street), named after the building’s previous business, Jack Tar Motor Lodge. Now, this upscale diner serves up seriously good, all-day breakfast options. Menu items include recognizable favorites like double cheeseburgers and hot chicken, but also crazy-good takes on past experiences. For example, the Ham + Eggs is hardly just a few runny yolks and some lukewarm slices of ham. Instead, feast on a thick slab of melt-in-your-mouth tender ham the size of your face, served atop creamy grits and tucked in with perfectly cooked sunny-side-up eggs.
For breakfast or lunch, try out Monuts (1002 9th Street). Though this tasty destination is a bit further out, you can easily walk here from the main downtown area. This casual dining spot asks you to make your order at the counter before choosing a seat in the cozy, laid-back space, which also boasts a bar. The menu includes light options — salads, sandwiches, granola bowls — but also devourable donuts that come in unique varieties, like blueberry and earl grey.
For Southern-style dining and craft cocktails, check out Geer Street Garden (644 Foster Street). Set inside a former gas station, this eatery has been lauded by publications such as Southern Living (and you know that staff knows their Southern delights). The house cocktails include simple yet delicious options like Whiskey Business (habanero bourbon, lemon juice, ginger) and Rosemary’s Baby (gin, grapefruit and rosemary). As for the food, it’s difficult to pick just one entree. The fried chicken plate is a little taste of any Southern home, piled high and served with just-right mashed potatoes and collard greens that would make any Southern grandma proud.
A cozy and cute boutique eatery, Rue Cler (401 East Chapel Hill Street) is a Parisian-style cafe, restaurant and bakery with a truly local feel. You can just stop in for dessert, such as beignets, and a selection from the extensive wine list, or linger longer for the lovely brunch options, like the crepe du jour, served alongside a well-dressed salad.
Nearby, you are in for a delicious surprise — a ramen bar in the middle of North Carolina, christened Dashi (415 East Chapel Hill Street), the soup stock star of Japanese cuisine. This ramen shop and bar stays busy. If you can, consider grabbing a seat at the ramen bar so you can watch the masters at work. The ramen options are warm, filling and served in deceptively large portions.
Downtown Durham offers some unique shopping opportunities, with local boutiques providing souvenirs you won’t be able to pass up.
At Dolly’s Vintage (213 West Main Street) browse through a plethora of one-of-a-kind items you won’t find anywhere else. Of course, you have your vintage clothing and jewelry, but there’s also brand-new gifts and cards, as well as kitschy, cute and slightly odd items.
Nearby, Vert & Vogue (353 West Main Street) was founded by two fashion and retail fans who met in Paris at what other than a boutique? They decided to build their green, eco-friendly, fashion business in Durham and have been at it for 11 years. You can find high-end and fashionable pieces from sustainable, women-owned and otherwise responsible brands. From women’s clothing to jewelry, home items to fragrances, there’s a little bit of everything luxury.