This past weekend I spent a few busy days in Raleigh, North Carolina. Having grown up in Georgia, I’m not a stranger to the Southern state, but I’d yet to really explore it as a parent and I was very impressed with what I found. Firstly, Raleigh is a very short flight from New York City. It took less than 90 minutes in the air. One minute, I was in a windy, rainy, cold NYC, the next in a green, flowery Southern city. The airport is relatively small and easy to get through, and it offers over 400 flights daily so you can get to Raleigh from virtually anywhere in the U.S. From its selection of things to do to a burgeoning foodie scene to a vibrant culture to the people who live there, I found myself intrigued by the city of Raleigh and simply wanted more by the time we had to leave a few short days later. It’s a quiet city, but if you look carefully, it’s buzzing, particularly when it comes to kids. In addition, it’s also considerably cheaper than most destinations. Many museums are free (state funded you have to love that!), eating out won’t break the bank and hotel stays are affordable, making Raleigh a very desirable place for families.
I took my son along for this adventure in Raleigh, the historic capital of North Carolina. Neither of us knew what to expect but if you asked him how it went after the fact, he’d probably use the word “epic”.
Here’s a a glimpse of what we did, what we saw, where we stayed and ate – through both sets of eyes, mine and his.
Where We Stayed in Raleigh
Sheraton Raleigh is a cozy hotel centrally located downtown. The hotel has 355 rooms, but it was full the weekend of our visit due to a wedding, a conference for heads of choirs and more. Nonetheless, it never seemed over-crowded and all our needs were met if we need something sent to the room. The service is attentive and pleasant and the hotel is clean. Our room, which had a king-sized bed, was spacious and comfortable. Our room’s decor was modern with a warm color palette, an LCD TV, accessible Wifi and a sofa to sit on during the day. There were a few complimentary bottles of water and the best part for both of us, lush bedding we could sink into at the end of a busy day.
The hotel offers several onsite dining options. We had dinner at Jimmy V’s Osteria, an Italian-American Raleigh Restaurant that features traditional comfort foods made with locally grown ingredients. My son tried the wood-fired pizza, and I opted for soup and salad as our meal was quite late on our first night. It was fast and reasonable cuisine. The hotel also has a cafe on the main floor, as well as room service. In addition, the hotel has an indoor pool and fitness center. Best of all, it’s in walking distance to a lot of the city’s attractions.
What We Did in Raleigh
From the moment we arrived, I got the sense I was in a kid-friendly town. It felt a bit like Atlanta, where I grew up. You need a car to get around, but UBER is very easy to access all over town. The city is sprawling, though there is a lot in the city center.
From our hotel, we could walk to several museums including NC Museum of Natural Sciences and NC Museum of History. Both are a great way to spend an afternoon and are free with a requested donation. The NC Museum of Natural Sciences is the largest museum of its kind in the Southeast. Through exhibits, programs, and field experiences, they provide visitors with opportunities to get up close and personal with science and nature. We viewed the bones of a Right Whale and dinosaurs, came face to face with a Cretaceous carnivores, studied artifacts from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and learned about astronomy. My son really seemed to absorb what he learned. While there, we had a great lunch at the Daily Planet, located right inside. They offer good breakfast and lunch options including salads, fish tacos, wraps, pimento grilled cheeses, quesadillas and more.
Over at the NC Museum of History, we explored more than 14,000 years of N.C. history, from the state’s earliest inhabitants through the 20th century. It features artifacts, multimedia presentations and interactive exhibits that tell stories about the state’s military history, sports heroes, decorative arts and more.
Raleigh offers a great deal more activities for families. High on my son’s list was a trip of favorites was our visit to Rush Hour GoKarting, which was just a 20-minute Uber from downtown. It’s an indoor karting track that spans 1/3 mile with hairpin curves, high-speed straights, and winding turns. Needless to say, he was in his element. Also high on his list of favorite activities was our zip-lining excursion at Go Ape Tree Zip Line & Treetop Adventure, a 2-3 hour exhilarating outdoor activity through the forest canopy with suspended obstacles, Tarzan swings, and zip-lining. Even I found it thrilling, and it was a great activity we could do together.
For families with younger kids, there is also a nice share of parks to visit. Pullen Park, one of the nation’s first parks, features picnic areas, a concessions stand along with several small rides including the Pullen Park Carousel, train, and kiddie boats. It’s a really lovely way to spend a morning or afternoon. More adventurous families can head to Jordon Lake State Park for a boating excursion where they’ll potentially catch sight of herons, eagles and other forms of wildlife. My son loved getting into the driver’s seat on the boat. It was a real rush for him and a highlight of his trip to Raleigh.
Other family-friendly activities in Raleigh include the Haunted Footsteps Ghost Tour, a 1.5-mile walking tour that combines ghost tales with local history, Boxcar Barcade, an arcade for all ages, and Videri Chocolate Factory where kids can watch chocolate go from beans to bar. There is really no shortage of things to do in this family-friendly town.
Another place not to be missed is the NC Museum of Art. Opened in 1956 as the first major museum collection in the country to be formed by State legislation and funding, and recognized today as one of the premier visual arts museums in the Southeast, this free museum (special exhibits have a fee) makes an excellent educational activity for kids and adults alike. I loved roaming both inside and outside this magnificent museum.
The museum’s Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park connects art, nature, and people to encourage creative experiences and human interactions. It features temporary and permanent public art installations by international artists, environmentally sustainable landscapes, colorful and contemporary gardens, miles of recreational trails, and a terraced pond. While we were there, there was a pop-up art exhibit going on along the museum trail which featured so many interesting pieces of art including this lovely art installation pictured above with an African American mother and her child.
Where We Ate in Raleigh
As mentioned above, our first food entry to Raleigh was at Jimmy V’s. It was a good late-night stop on our first night in the hotel. Also mentioned above was Daily Planet at NC Museum of Natural Sciences. It was great to have a nice selection of vegetarian food and healthy options for kids while exploring the museum.
But our favorite foodie stop on this trip was definitely The Pit Authentic Barbecue. If you love barbecue, this is the place for you. Located in the city’s trendier warehouse district, the restaurant offers an extensive menu with options for everyone (even a vegetarian like me). Their appetizers were mouth-watering and it would be hard to choose just one. We were lucky to try a few like the Seasonal Skillet Cornbread, Pimento Cheese Balls, Fried Green Tomatoes and Barbecue Fries (hand cut french fries with melted pimento cheese). But my favorite starter was the Southern-Style Deviled Eggs.
The Pit is well-known for their Pulled Pork, Brisket, Chopped Turkey, BBQ Chicken and other carnivorous options, but I happily settled on a Black Bean Burger. But the meal didn’t end there. We sampled their divine, Banana Pudding, Carrot Cake and Peanut Butter Pie. Needless to say, we were full and extremely happy when we left The Pit.
Another must-mention is Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant, where we had a Southern breakfast, complete with servings of grits and home to the biggest hotcakes I have ever seen. It also has eclectic decor, with antiques and road signs hanging from the ceiling every which way you look. The eggs are fresh; the biscuits are delectable; and meat eaters will love munching on some of North Carolinian’s favorite foods such as smoked sausage, corned beef and pickled beets. Big Ed’s, open since 1958, is in an interesting part of town called City Market, an area worth exploring.
All in all, we loved our visit to Raleigh, and I can honestly say that it was an unexpected delight for both of us. While he was invigorated by the zip lining excursion and go-karting experience, I was particularly interested in the science and art museum. It was so great to see state-funded experiences made for families. I enjoyed all our meals, and as a New Yorker, I took great interest in the affordability factor. I’m only disappointed that I missed the food trucks outside our hotel the day we left! Raleigh has a burgeoning foodie scene that is worth exploring.
So if you’re looking for an interesting weekend getaway, do consider Raleigh. I want to end on one final note about the city: THE PEOPLE. I spoke to locals during our visit to Raleigh. I spoke to an Uber driver from Kenya who recently relocated to the city from Virginia. I spoke to another driver who was a SAHM. I spoke to waiters and owners of restaurants and other people who live in Raleigh. I met up with a friend of mine who moved to the city a year ago from Singapore (there’s a big technology contingency in Raleigh). They are all honest, hard-working people who love their city. They are part of what gives the city a laid-back vibe, which will make you want to stay longer.
Disclosure: I was invited on this trip to explore Raleigh as a guest of Visit Raleigh, and most of our expenses were paid. However, as usual, all opinions are my own.