Durham for the Busy Traveler

Quick Ways to Experience Durham's Culture

Once home to the Eno and Occaneechi Native American tribes, then later European settlers and tobacco farmers, today's Durham honors its past via flourishing historic districts, gardens, museums, hotels and restaurants that blend traditional with contemporary design. Here are five destinations to choose from if you only have an hour or two to experience all Durham has to offer.


American Tobacco Historic District

Revitalized tobacco warehouses now accommodate restaurants, shops and live entertainment in Durham's American Tobacco Historic District. Cuisine offerings range from Japanese (at Basan) to Cuban (at Cuban Revolution). Enjoy a sandwich or salad made with locally and organically grown ingredients at Saladelia, or watch the big game at Tobacco Road Sports Cafe.

Stroll through rushing channels of water surrounded by lush landscaping and glance up at the historic 133-year-old Lucky Strike tower. During summer, catch a free outdoor concert on the lawn or nearby Durham Performing Arts Center.

If you’re in town during baseball season, be sure to experience a game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where you can see a replica of the historic “snorting bull” from the 1988 movie “Bull Durham,” which snorts and lights up when the Bulls score a homerun. (The original park from the movie is just a few minutes away at 500 W. Corporation Street.)

Experience a straight razor shave or quick trip at the old-fashioned American Tobacco Men’s Barber Shop or watch a movie showcasing contemporary work from established and emerging filmmakers at the Full Frame Theater, located in the old power plant in the center of the campus. 

American Tobacco District, Raleigh NC
Revitalized tobacco warehouses now accommodate restaurants, shops and live entertainment in the American Tobacco Historic District. (©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)


21c Durham's Museum and Spa

Just enough time to squeeze a museum visit or spa experience into your schedule? Accomplish both at 21c Durham, one of two boutique hotels that recently opened in Durham.

Housed in Durham’s historic Hill Building at 111 North Corcoran Street in the heart of downtown, 21c Durham features contemporary design that harmonizes with original architecture throughout the building, where visitors can view an eclectic museum collection of contemporary art exhibits ranging from Claire Shegog’s “Busby’s Southern Belles, Busby’s Niqabs, Busby’s Pink Flamingos,” to Leslie Lyons and JB Wilson’s “BANK: Unswept Floor” exhibit, featuring 205 12-by-12-inch ceramic tiles consisting of $100 bills.

21c Spa's 60-minute massages start at $95 and are by appointment only. All spa treatments include full access to 21c’s fitness room, hot sauna and steam room.

21c Museum, Durham NC
21c Museum in Durham features an eclectic collection of contemporary art exhibits. (Courtesy 21c Museum Hotels)


Duke Chapel 

While you’re in Durham, head over to Duke University to explore Duke Chapel, an example of neo-Gothic, English-style architecture built by Julian Abele in 1932. 

Constructed of a volcanic stone from a quarry in nearby Hillsborough, which was purchased by the University for the construction of West Campus, Duke Chapel features a tower that stands 201 feet above a 38-foot-square base, all modeled on the Bell Harry Tower of Canterbury Cathedral in England.

Duke Chapel houses three pipe organs (including one with 5,033 pipes and another with 6,900), offers weekly worship services and hosts special services such as Monday Morning prayer, communion and healing.  

A short walk from Duke University’s East Campus, stop by Zola Craft Gallery to shop for a North Carolina hand-crafted souvenir, such as a piece of jewelry or pottery, garden art, a candle, a set of tea towels or a market bag.

Please note: On May 11, 2015, as part of a restoration project began that includes rehabilitating the ceiling and replacing the Chapel's original roof, which is covered with sheets of lead-coated copper. Work crews will also restore several stained-glass windows and woodwork, including the pews, and clean the Chapel's floor and walls. The Chapel will reopen in spring 2016.

Duke Chapel, Durham NC
Duke Chapel, built in 1932, is an example of neo-Gothic architecture in the English style. (©Steven Frame/Shutterstock)


Sarah P. Duke Gardens 

If you only have an hour or two but would like to use it to enjoy the beautiful North Carolina weather, head over to Sarah P. Duke Gardens, where you’ll find 55 acres of historic flora, fauna and natural beauty. This complex of public botanical gardens first opened in 1939 after Sarah P. Duke, widow of one of Duke University’s founders, Benjamin N. Duke, donated $20,000 to finance a garden that would bear her name. 

Take a walking tour, which lasts approximately 1.5 hours and is free—365 days a year. The early gardens are considered the greatest work of Ellen Biddle Shipman, a pioneer in American landscape design. The Italianate-style terraces of the "Historic Gardens" have since been joined by the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum and the Doris Duke Center Gardens. 

Duke Gardens, Duke University
Duke Gardens offers 55 acres of historic flora, fauna and natural beauty. (©Ying/Shutterstock)


Brightleaf Square

In addition to the American Tobacco Historic District, Durham's Brightleaf Square represents another example of the city's efforts to revitalize old tobacco warehouses into modern restaurants, shops and businesses.

Cuisine options include Clouds BrewingTriangle Seafood Market, The Little Dipper and Mount Fuji Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar, among other restaurants. Shops include Hamilton Hill, James Kennedy AntiquesVert & Vogue. Enjoy a good book at Wentworth & Leggett Rare Books and outdoor concerts during the summer.

Brightleaf Square occupies the former Watts and Yuille tobacco warehouses, built between 1900 and 1904 and named for George W. Watts and Thomas B. Yuille.

Brightleaf Square, Durham NC
Brightleaf Square occupies the former Watts and Yuille tobacco warehouses, named for George W. Watts and Thomas B. Yuille. (©Dan Hacker Photography/DCVB)