Take an Urban Excursion in Raleigh
Having lived in North Carolina more than half my life, I’ve visited most of the major cities and thought I knew what they had to offer. That is, until a recent trip to the state’s capital opened my eyes to the many affordable, fun, (and in some cases, completely free!) activities for families. Depending on where in the Charlotte area you live, Raleigh is a mere two and a half to three hours away. If you prefer not to drive, consider taking advantage of the Amtrak deal this summer, where children can ride for $5 Tuesdays through Saturdays with a paying adult.
Rich in History
Founded in 1792 as North Carolina’s capital city, Raleigh was named for Sir Walter Raleigh, who worked to establish the first English colony in the new world in the late 16th century. It is the only state capital planned and established by a state as a seat of state government. There are many places in the city where you can learn more about the history of the area, as well as the entire state.
Mordecai Historic Park is located right in the heart of the city, and you’ll find The Mordecai House, which is the oldest house in Raleigh in its original location. The acreage of the park was also once the largest plantation in the area, and one of the historic outbuildings has the distinction of being the birthplace of Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States. You can also take a one-hour trolley tour departing from the park on Saturdays March through December (additional cost for trolley tickets).
My family loves ghost tours, so my 11-year-old son and I opted to take an evening Haunted Footsteps Ghost Tour (presented by Tobacco Road Tours). The 1.5-mile walking tour took us to the State Capitol Building, where we heard about paranormal activity that has been reported on the grounds since the mid-1800s, a possible peg-legged ghost at the restored White-Holman house, stories of what happened to criminals in Moore’s Square, and other tales.
We also made a stop in Raleigh’s oldest cemetery, the Raleigh City Cemetery, and tried to glean clues of what life was like in the past by examining dates on tombstones. The website recommends this tour for children 8 years and older, but I would personally say 10 and up might be better, as there are some spooky and gruesome stories told along the way that might make younger children a little uneasy.
Unique Visitor Experiences at Museums
Probably the most economical way to experience Raleigh is by visiting some of the museums, the majority of which have free admission. The city is often called “The Smithsonian of the South,” likening it to the array of museums offered in Washington, D.C. On our trip, we visited the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is expansive, with four floors of exhibits, live animals, gift shops and two cafes. We explored the current and thought-provoking traveling exhibit “Race,” (at the museum through Oct. 22, 2017), saw a rousing live animal show, and visited the living conservatory full of butterflies and a two-toed sloth.
There are also opportunities to go on specific self-guided tours of hidden gems, the extinct tour, the alive tour or take advantage of a first-time visitors tour. You could easily spend most of one day at this museum.
The North Carolina Museum of Art is another museum that combines the best of both worlds, indoor exhibits and The Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park that encourages families to go on a scavenger hunt of sorts. It is located about 15 minutes from downtown Raleigh and consists of two buildings and a 164-acre park.
The indoor museum features works of art by artists such as Claude Monet, Sandro Botticelli, Georgia O’Keefe, plus galleries dedicated to African, ancient American and Jewish ceremonial art. Families can request a backpack of educational materials upon exploring the outdoor park, which includes activities, a map of the park, and facts about the permanent and temporary art installations found on the grounds. Grab a boxed lunch from the museum cafe and spend some quality time outdoors on your visit. The museum also runs a Summer Concert and Movie Series throughout the summer for $6 per person.
History buffs young and old will love the North Carolina Museum of History, another free museum located right in downtown. The museum’s signature exhibit is “The Story of North Carolina,” which is a great primer for those wishing to learn more about the history of the state.
Sports fans can immerse themselves in the artifacts found in The North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. There is also a temporary exhibit highlighting the story of the Wright Brothers and the story of their first flight. The museum also recently opened a comprehensive exhibit called “North Carolina and World War I,” which tells the story of the 85,000+ North Carolina soldiers sent into battle, what the political climate was like during that time period, a reproduction of the trench environment soldiers fought in, artifacts and recollections of North Carolina soldiers, and much more. The exhibit is slated to run through January of 2019.
Raleigh and the surrounding suburbs are also home to plenty of recreational activities. Pullen Park located near the N.C. State University campus, is free to visit, but there is a small fee to ride the beautifully restored carousel dating back to 1911 ($1 per tickets for children 13 months and older; free for children under 12 months of age). The park itself holds the record of being the oldest public park in North Carolina, and the fifth oldest operating amusement park in the United States. Along with the carousel, you can ride the train around the park, kiddie boats and rent a peddle boat for a trip around Lake Howell (requires six tickets and can seat four people to a boat).
If you want to see more of the area’s lakes, consider an eco-tour with Triangle Boat Tours. We learned the interesting history behind how Jordan Lake was formed, spotted a bald eagle with the help of binoculars on board the boat, and my son even got to take a turn driving the boat. All life jackets are provided and the tour guide, Captain Don, was knowledgeable, professional, friendly, and great with the kids. Get a group together and take advantage of a Saturday special for $220 (Up to 12 guests and a two-hour tour on the lake).
If you enjoy biking, The Neuse River Greenway Trail (a segment of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail) features a paved trail that winds through wetlands and agricultural fields. Rent bikes through The Bike Guy in Wake Forest and take ride through all or part of the 27.5-mile trail.
If you’re more adventurous, Go Ape in Blue Jay Point County Park provides treetop experiences that will have you flying through the air on Tarzan swings, zip-lining across the forest and crossing bridges between trees in the air. There are adventures designed for kids ages 10 and older and adults, and a junior course for the younger kids. Everyone is required to take a 30-minute safety course to ensure you know how your harness and other equipment work. Plan on spending two to three hours on this excursion, as well as challenging yourself.
Barbecue, Macarons, Chocolates, Biscuits and More
For traditional Southern food, you’ll want to check out Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant, originally founded in 1958 by Big Ed Watkins, a native of Wake County. Focusing on Southern foods cooked with locally sourced ingredients, the menu features egg dishes, meat biscuits, and sandwiches, burgers, melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, and probably the largest hotcakes you’ve ever seen. There’s a hotcake-challenge you can partake in at Big Ed’s, but once you see the size of the hotcakes you’ll want to reconsider.
Have a sports fan in your family? The Sheraton Raleigh Hotel on Salisbury Avenue is home to Jimmy V’s Osteria + Bar is full of memorabilia and photos of the late N.C. State University basketball coach and serves up Italian-American fare like wood-fired pizza and oysters, homemade pasta, crab dip, and more.
Barbecue lovers will want to check out the cuisine at The Pit, which focuses on barbecue made from pit-cooked whole hog, along with Texas-style brisket, baby back ribs, and rich sides like fried okra, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese. Though it may not seem possible after a meal at The Pit, save room for dessert. Need we say anything other than double chocolate chocolate cake (yes, there’s an extra “chocolate” in there for emphasis!) and banana pudding?
Also, directly across the street from The Pit is Videri Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate factory where you can watch the process in person and pick up souvenirs to take home and browse the truffles, dark chocolate bars with sea salt, baking chocolate, and T-shirts.
The colorful offerings at Lucette Grace beckon at you from the street. Choose from a rotating menu of macarons, salted caramel brownies, lemon meringue tart, coffee, sipping caramel, other pastry items and gourmet sandwiches.
Stay in the City
For a full experience of the city, I recommend staying somewhere in the downtown area. We were able to walk to so many of the shops, museums and restaurants from The Sheraton with only a short drive to some of the other excursions. There are many hotels to choose from in the area, depending on your budget and preference for amenities.
For more ideas, check out this list of 40 Free Things to Do in Raleigh.
Renee Roberson is a freelance writer and calendar editor for Charlotte Parent, who loves to travel to new places and cities with her family every chance she gets.