Durham, NC City Guide

by Sabrina Smelko


In the midst of a grand evolution, Durham, North Carolina flaunts a perfect balance between a small-town feel with big-city conveniences. “It is a place of purposeful repurposing,” Rachel Mills, today’s city guide writer explains, “where old tobacco warehouses have been converted into apartments, medical research labs, and thriving businesses.”

Thanks to its proud and diverse residents and their tendency for tapping into North Carolina’s heritage to inspire the Durham of today, the city has become a progressive hub for new and exciting traditions in food, art, and entertainment, all with the past in mind. A sum of its parts, Durham is “whatever you decide to make it,” Rachel lovingly asserts, and today, she’s thrilled to take us on a virtual tour of everything this great city has to offer. –Sabrina

Photography by Allie Mullin Photography


An entire book could be written about the delicious culinary options available in Durham. Whatever your tastes may be, we probably have something for you. Craving tacos? Stop by Nanataco any day of the week. Want fresh seafood? Saltbox Seafood Joint has you covered. Need a pasta fix? Make a reservation at Gocciolina. Do you have a sweet tooth? The Parlour will cool you down. Living in or visiting the Bull City definitely requires a healthy appetite.

Gas up and start the day with breakfast at Monuts on 9th Street, Scratch Bakery located downtown, or Rise Biscuits & Donuts if you’re in South Durham. If you prefer to run on caffeine, stop in at Cocoa Cinnamon or Joe Van Gogh, which serves their own roasted coffee. Sunny days require you to eat lunch on the sidewalk at Toast in 5-Points… unless it’s Sunday. Because on Sundays, you have to make the tough decision between brunch at Vin Rouge on 9th Street or at Old Havana Sandwich Shop downtown. At the end of the day, rub elbows and drink beers with locals at Surf Club, a bar in the popular Central Park District, listen to some jazz at Beyù Caffè on Main Street, or shoot some pool at the gritty Green Room.


Go-to spots for date night are just across 5-Points from each other: Mateo serves Spanish tapas with Southern flair, and Pizzeria Toro creates delicious wood-fired pizzas with local ingredients (get the pizza with summer squash if it’s in season!). After dinner, walk across the street for a beer at Bull McCabes, an Irish pub with an extensive rotating tap list and a huge lawn full of picnic tables. If your date-night style includes craft cocktails, have Shannon at Alley Twenty Six or Danny at Bar Virgile shake up something for you — then have late-night snacks at the izakaya at Dashi. All are within a few blocks, so park the car and go for a stroll.

Durham is home to Duke University, which is part of the Tobacco Road college sports rivalry. To cheer for your favorite team, find a spot in front of a TV at Dain’s Place on 9th Street and order one of the best burgers in town with a side of tots, or grab some take-out wings from Heavenly Buffaloes. If you need beers for tailgating or watching the game at home, Sam’s Quik Shop has a huge selection of craft beers to choose from, including beers brewed right down the street.

Local beers from breweries like Fullsteam, Ponysaurus, Triangle Brewing Co., and Bull City Burger and Brewery are easy to find around town (and in their own tap rooms!). Durham also boasts a cidery, Bull City Ciderworks, and even a few distilleries, including the aptly named Durham Distillery and the Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Company. Most have tasting rooms and regularly host fun events like tours, trivia nights and live music. You can often find food trucks like Pie Pushers, Chirba Chirba or American Meltdown parked in front of the breweries nights and weekends. Durham was one of the first towns in the region to embrace food trucks, and some, like Only Burger, The Parlour, and KoKyu have been so successful that they have grown into their own brick-and-mortar restaurants. The food trucks all get together a few times a year at Durham Central Park for Food Truck Rodeos, which is a popular event that requires a big group of friends to help divide and conquer.



When I’m searching for gifts or a little something for myself, I always start my shopping adventure at Parker & Otis and grab a grilled pimento cheese sandwich while I’m there! They have a great selection of small gifts including note cards, kitchen supplies, and books (its owner also recently opened another shop on West Parrish Street, Chet Miller). A number of other locally-owned shops are located in the nearby Brightleaf District and you can easily spend an afternoon browsing them all. Ninth Street is another great shopping district with local spots; it’s where you’ll find a local landmark, the Regulator Bookshop. Located a few blocks from 9th Street, Chaz’s Bull City Records is my favorite spot to buy records and discover new-to-me music. Grab a Locopop (gourmet frozen popsicles!) next door after flipping through the record bins.


Almost every Saturday morning Durham Central Park buzzes with vendors and shoppers at our Farmers’ Market (it’s open most Wednesday afternoons, too). In addition to fruits and veggies from local farmers, local artisans set up booths in the park and a number of food trucks serve breakfast and lunch. I try to get there as early as I can drag myself out of bed to snag a juicy heirloom tomato and one of Pie Pushers’ to-die-for biscuits before they sell out.

The Makery is just up the hill from the Farmers’ Market (near Fullsteam Brewery and Cocoa Cinnamon) and sells wares from local artists. If you’re looking to buy something that screams Durham (literally in some cases), you may also want to stop at Dolly’s Vintage on Main, which also has locally-made items in addition to vintage clothes and quirky gifts. The Scrap Exchange is another quintessentially Durham spot to shop. It’s a “creative reuse arts center” and the perfect place to get inspired and find all the ingredients to make your next Pinterest project come to life. The Scrap Exchange is also home to an art gallery and hosts art classes and workshops throughout the year.


Until recently, visitors to Durham had few options for places to stay outside of standard hotel chains. But just in the last couple of years, three new “boutique” hotels have opened downtown, with one more on the way. 21c is a name that may be familiar to some as Durham’s location was the fourth of the museum hotels to open. The Durham is also newly opened and just around the corner from 21c. Both hotels are in beautifully renovated historic buildings near Durham’s historic Black Wall Street District and have upscale restaurants, with James Beard award-winner Andrea Reusing at the helm of the restaurant in The Durham. You’re as likely to find locals as you are to see out-of-towners wandering the galleries of 21c or enjoying yoga and the view from the rooftop bar at The Durham. Aloft Durham Downtown also recently opened adjacent to the American Tobacco Campus. And the Washington Duke Inn is located near Duke University and is a great place for guests in town for events on campus.



North Carolina’s temperate climate makes Durham a great place for spending time outdoors. The Eno River State Park is located in the northern part of Durham County and has a number of trails perfect for hiking. The American Tobacco Trail also runs through Durham and is popular with bikers and runners. The Museum of Life and Science includes indoor and outdoor exhibits and is great for families or grown-ups who want to feel like a kid again.

STAY_the durham

I spend most of my summer days and evenings at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park sipping on cold beers and cheering for our local minor league baseball team. Before the game, you can wander around the rest of the American Tobacco Campus, which was a tobacco factory in a previous life. It’s also home to the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC to the locals), and the Full Frame Theater which has year-round programming and is utilized for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The Carolina Theatre also hosts screenings for Full Frame in addition to hosting the Nevermore Film Fest and the NC Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. I like to visit the Carolina Theatre on Friday nights for its weekly double-feature Retro Film Series.


In 2016, Moogfest — a music and technology festival — will move from Asheville to Durham and become the second large art and music festival in town. The Art of Cool Festival is entering its third year; it’s 100% locally grown and fills the city with jazz, soul, and hip-hop for a weekend in early May. Local music and art is a crucial part of Durham culture and most nights during the week you can catch shows at Motorco Music Hall or the Pinhook. The Pinhook is a Durham institution and is not only a great music venue, but a safe community space known for their trivia nights and wild dance parties. Duke Performances also hosts shows throughout the year, including summer concerts at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens (which is worth a visit and a long stroll through on its own!). On the 3rd Friday of every month, local galleries including Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, host free receptions to showcase their newest exhibitions.


More often than not, living in Durham makes me feel like a great adventurer. There is so much to explore and so many interesting people that call this place home. Even after being here for eight years, there are still plenty of new experiences to be had and new ways to grow with this community.

Suggested For You


    • Roof top bar at Durham Hotel is great place to meet people, converse, have a cocktail and enjoy the weather!

  • Unfortunately, there’s still not something for every food taste. There are hardly many options for vegetarians and vegans. There’s also a substantial lack of good Asian food, e.g. Thai and Indian. I acknowledge that there has been a lot of development over the last year, but a lot remains to be done. And I don’t think Durham needs yet another BBQ place or brewery. Durham is ready for a pure vegetarian restaurant and great vegetarian and vegan friendly spicy Asian eats.

    • I’d love a great Indian place! That would be the BEST addition. As for options, definitely try the veggie burger at Bull City Burger and head over to Toast if you haven’t yet — their menu is usually 50% vegetarian. As far as vegan goes, have you heard of Vegan Flava Cafe? I haven’t been but I’ve heard it’s really good. It’s totally vegan and in Durham — it’s for sure on my list.

  • Durham is such a great town! I visited it a lot when my husband was working on his PhD there. This seems like a pretty good list, but I just wanted to add that you can tour the Lemur Center at Duke. Also not Durham but close by, for those looking for some good Indian food, I highly recommend Cholanad in Chapel Hill. Plenty of vegetarian options. But you could probably do an entirely separate guide for Chapel Hill.

  • And there is an awesome new store, Vintage Vault,on Main and Magnum, selling a beautifully curated selection of vintage furnishings and art! Every year Durham has more to offer. Please be sure to check it out and add to your list of places to shop!