Raleigh, North Carolina, is a thriving city—just what you'd expect from a state capital and an internationally ranked research center in an area defined by three major universities. Visitors to Raleigh usually fall for the same seductions that prompt people to live there permanently. The climate is mild. People are friendly. There's a mix of cultures.
Downtown Raleigh, which offers a mix of business and government buildings surrounded by charming older neighborhoods, parks and greenways, includes the 500,000-sq-ft/46,452-sq-m Raleigh Convention Center, which capped off an effort in recent decades to bring to downtown more residential condos and hotels, public art, a redesigned Fayetteville Street, and a large selection of restaurants and shops. Downtown is the place to be during the day and at night.
Research Triangle Park, located between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is among the largest research parks in the U.S. Some 300 companies and organizations call the Research Triangle Park home. With that in mind, the area often boasts that it has the largest concentration of Ph.D.s of any place in the world.
Education is in the forefront in the Triangle, with three major universities: North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham. The draw of possible jobs, education and an affordable lifestyle has attracted thousands of international visitors, many of whom are charmed enough to stay.
But its popularity has brought Raleigh growing pains, too. To keep up with the influx of new residents and visitors, road construction is widespread and constant. Traffic tie-ups are common, especially along Interstate 40, Highway 70 and Highway 54, the three main corridors through Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and on the I-440 beltline around the city.
New road construction is alleviating some of the congestion, and the I-540 and Highway 264 bypasses are helping with backups north and east of the city, but in the meantime, construction projects, from new roads to high-rise buildings continue, which means that patience is an asset when navigating the area.
Raleigh is located on the eastern edge of the Piedmont, or central section, of North Carolina, which falls between the Atlantic Coast and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's traversed by Interstate 40 and sits west of I-95, the primary north-south corridor of the eastern U.S. The city center is circled by I-440, called the beltline.
In downtown Raleigh you'll find most of the city's museums, historic sights, state government buildings and several colleges. Many of the best Raleigh attractions are located inside the I-440 beltline. Near the center of the city are some notable entertainment and historical districts, including Historic Oakwood, Mordecai, the Warehouse District, Glenwood South and Hillsborough Street—the main artery between downtown and North Carolina State University, offering a wide variety of college-type and upscale bars, restaurants and coffee shops.
To the north, halfway between downtown and the beltline, is Cameron Village, a popular shopping area with boutiques and restaurants. North Hills is a rapidly developing area with condos, retail and office space that attract the Triangle's burgeoning workforce. Raleigh has also spread to encompass neighboring towns, such as Cary and Apex.
In 1788, North Carolina became the 12th state of the Union. But it was without a permanent capital, so legislators selected a site in townless Wake County, in the middle of the state. They bought 1,000 acres/405 hectares of uninhabited woods and fields from Joel Lane and began building the city—naming it after Sir Walter Raleigh, the 16th-century English statesman who sent the first English colonists to Roanoke Island.
The Statehouse was built on Union Square, and Fayetteville Street was developed as the primary business area, with wooden stores at street level and residences above. Elected state officials built elegant homes. But in the 1830s, several fires destroyed many of the wooden buildings in Raleigh, including the Statehouse. The rebuilding that followed brought an influx of jobs and residents.
Also around this time came the railroad, opening markets to the north and eventually the east and southeast. The Civil War years (1861-65) were hard on the city. For two weeks in 1865, more than 100,000 Union troops occupied Raleigh and Wake County. But after the war, Raleigh grew and prospered.
From the city's earliest days, farming (especially tobacco) has been a big industry in the countryside surrounding the capital. Raleigh also has been a cultural and educational center. In 1959, leaders from business, government and academia created Research Triangle Park to attract companies doing world-class research and development in medicine, science and technology.
The 21st century has ushered in rapid development and an influx of people. Gone are the days when state workers streamed out of high-rise office buildings making downtown mostly a ghost town after 5 pm. The capital city is bustling with commerce, restaurants, condos and nightlife.
Raleigh is the state capital, and many attractions are tied to government institutions. The Legislative Building, an imposing structure of white marble that covers an entire city block, was the first state building in the nation constructed exclusively for the legislative branch of government. The 40-room, Queen Anne-style Executive Mansion, also called the Governor's Mansion, was completed in 1891 and is one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the U.S.
The original state Capitol building is located in the heart of downtown. It's been restored to its 1840 appearance and is one of the best-preserved examples of a major civic building in the Greek Revival style.
The North Carolina Museum of History, which sits just a block from the state Capitol, encompasses a range of North Carolina's history from its prevalent agriculture, industry, textiles, folk life, decorative arts and military heritage. It is also home to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Check out one of Richard Petty's race cars and Meadow Lark Lemon's Harlem Globetrotters basketball uniform, plus 200 other unique items.
The acclaimed North Carolina Museum of Art is the first such facility funded with public money. It has an impressive collection of ancient artifacts and artwork from old masters to contemporary U.S. artists. It also has a terrific array of temporary exhibits that changes every few months. An outdoor amphitheater and large movie screen provide evening entertainment with live music and film. The outdoors Art Walk is the largest museum art park in North America.
Another fresh air activity is exploring the Historic Oakwood and Mordecai neighborhoods, the J.C. Raulston Arboretum, the city's rose garden or Pullen Park. The area's extensive network of greenways, lakes and parks provides ample opportunity for enjoying the outdoors.
The nearby cities of Chapel Hill and Durham also have lots to offer and are prime destinations for day trips.
Raleigh's lively nightlife scene is primarily concentrated downtown in the Warehouse District and along the Glenwood South corridor. Most bars close around 2 am, but some of the more upscale spots close earlier, especially those that are restaurants, too.
One area phenomenon is the long-popular beach music and its companion dance, the shag, a bop-style dance that originated in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in the 1950s. The shag is nearly second nature to locals who grew up in the 1960s and '70s. Beach-music festivals are popular.
Because of North Carolina liquor laws, many nightspots are considered private clubs, charging an instant membership fee of US$1-$10 and may only be open for those age 21 and older. Some venues allow membership sign-ups in advance online.
Raleigh's culinary style encompasses the best of traditional southern food, from barbecue, Brunswick stew and banana pudding to fried green tomatoes, updated with the stylish "nouvelle southern" staples such as shrimp and grits and pecan-crusted chicken in Jack Daniels sauce.
Research and technology jobs in the Research Triangle Park have attracted legions of northerners, and with them Chicago-style pizza and bistro dining, and a growing international community has added spicy variety to the dining scene.
Clusters of restaurants can be found downtown, on the Glenwood South corridor (running seven blocks from Peace Street to Hillsborough) and in northern Raleigh's North Hills area called Midtown.
Visitors would be remiss if they overlooked North Carolina barbecue while in Raleigh. Barbecue is serious business in the state. There are two kinds: Eastern style, which is whole hog, seasoned with a mild to fiery vinegar-based sauce, and Piedmont style (also known as Lexington style), which is pork shoulders only, served with a sweeter, milder sauce. Notice that both kinds are pork, not beef. And both styles of barbecue are usually served chopped—Eastern is finely chopped, Piedmont is chunkier (sometimes sliced). In both cases, the sauce is thinner than you might find in other southern states. Almost every barbecue place east of and throughout Raleigh serves Eastern-style barbecue.
On the days (or meals) when you don't eat barbecue, opt for seafood. It's one of the state's biggest industries. Shrimp, clams, mussels, oysters and crabs are particularly plentiful and often served fried, Calabash-style. Fresh seafood arrives in the Triangle daily, so almost any seafood restaurant will be good.
Expect to have hush puppies—deep-fried cornmeal balls flavored with onions—served with either seafood or barbecue.
In general, dining times are 7-9 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2 pm for lunch and 5-9 pm for dinner. Note that some southerners refer to the noon meal as "dinner." For those folks, the evening meal is called "supper."
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$16; $$$ = US$17-$25; and $$$$ = more than US$25.
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