Free Things To Do In Raleigh, NC (or on the cheap)

Looking for tips on free things to do in Raleigh? Or things to do on the cheap?

Compared to other cities, Raleigh is generally an affordable place to visit or even if plan on living in Raleigh, with lots of activities to keep you occupied without damaging your bank account too much!

List of the best free things to do in Raleigh
Overlooking downtown from top of Dillon building

Down below we share activities you can do and attractions you can visit for free (or for a small cost) broken into topics such as:

  • Museums for history and art lovers
  • Lakes and parks
  • Neighborhoods to explore
  • Historic attractions
  • Greenways for hiking or biking
  • Gardens and markets.

Whilst downtown Raleigh continues to grow and evolve, what we love about living in Raleigh is its outdoor recreation activities, and the fact that it’s literally a city in a forest, and the many lakes and trails to explore. 

Raleigh is great for locals who want to live within their means, and for those visiting on a budget. 

Museums (History & Art)

Because of the quality and the amount of free museums in Raleigh, it has often been referred to as the “Smithsonian of the South”.

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

North Carolina Museum Of Natural Sciences
Image: Karen Swain/visitRaleigh.com

Located in downtown Raleigh, the Museum of Natural Sciences is the Southeast’s largest natural history museum and North Carolina’s most visited museum.

There’s over 4 floors of exhibits featuring live animals, education and research centers, and so much more. If you love natural history and sciences.

It’s one of the best things to do in downtown Raleigh, so don’t miss this museum!

North Carolina Museum of History

Located across from the museum of natural sciences, the Museum of History was founded in 1902 and welcomes more than 400,000+ visitors a year, including 80,000+ school groups.

On display is more than 14,000 years and 150,000 artifacts of North Carolina history, from a full-size replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer to the lunch counter from a 1960 sit-in in Salisbury, and much more. N.C., 

Free admission. Charge for some special exhibits. 

North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame

Located inside the Museum of History on the 3rd floor, the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame exhibit spans more than 3,000 square feet and showcases artifacts of many of the members, along with a recognition of notable accomplishment across all sports. 

  • Address: 5 E. Edenton St, Raleigh
  • Website: ncshof.org

North Carolina Museum of Art

North Carolina Museum Of Art
Image: ncartmuseum.org

The North Carolina Museum of Art is one of the most popular Raleigh NC attractions and admission to the Museum’s permanent collection and Museum Park is free.

This Raleigh art museum has more than a dozen beautiful gallery spaces showcasing art from around the world. You can self-explore, take an engaging tour, see performing arts, and participate in family workshops.

Whilst here, take a stroll through the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, 164-acre park and trail system through natural areas featuring more than a dozen commissioned works of art. 

City of Raleigh Museum (COR Museum)

The COR Museum is housed in a historic former hardware store dating back to1874 on Fayetteville Street in the center of downtown.

It features permanent and temporary exhibits that focus on the history of the city, its people, places, and resources, and maintains a collection of approximately 5,000 artifacts.

  • Address: 220 Fayetteville St, Raleigh
  • Website

Contemporary Art Museum (CAM)

Contemporary Art Museum (CAM)
Image: Keenan Hairston/visitRaleigh.com

CAM Raleigh displays new and emerging work by local and national living artists, and is popular among local residents. 

Every exhibition is unique and designed to be thought-provoking and transformative and offers free admission. 

  • Address: 409 W Martin Street, Raleigh
  • Phone: 919-261-5920
  • Website: camraleigh.org

Artspace 

Downtown Raleigh’s Artspace exists to inspire creative energy through exposing, engaging, and educating all in the community about the creative process. 

Artspace is one of the largest open studio environments in the country (30,000 square foot) and is home to over 30 artists working in a variety of media, along with three exhibition spaces, a gift shop, and administrative offices. 

Lakes and Parks

Besides Raleigh being surrounded by forest, another thing we love about living here are all the small lakes and parks.

Getting out on a lake in a canoe or kayak, walking around them, or hiking in one of the parks is one of the top free things to do in Raleigh.

Lake Johnson Park 

Lake Johnson Park, Raleigh

Located near NC State University, Lake Johnson is a popular lake for students and all locals who like to get active. There’s a fantastic paved three-mile loop around the lake, plus two miles of unpaved trail.

At the boathouse you can rent canoes, kayaks, sunfish sailboats, stand-up paddleboards and jon boats. Or you can fish from the 700-foot-long boardwalk across the center of the lake.

  • Address: 4601 Avent Ferry Rd., Raleigh
  • Website

Shelley Lake Park

An easy 2-mile paved scenic greenway trail loops around Shelley Lake and is popular with locals in North Raleigh, so it’s better for walkers and runners than cyclists at peak times.

Also on offer are basketball courts, a playground for younger kids, and a fishing pier. 

  • Address: 1400 West Millbrook Road, Raleigh, NC
  • Website

Lake Crabtree County Park

Lake Crabtree County Park
Image: Chris Richman/visitRaleigh.com

Located on a 215-acre site adjacent to a 520-acre lake, the park has more than 16 miles of trails.This area is great for hikers, kayakers and mountain bikers.  the Lake Trail is a six-mile loop that meanders it’s way around the lake.

Other activities include picnicking, playgrounds, catch-and-release fishing, and seasonal boating.

  • Address: 1400 Aviation Parkway, Morrisville, NC 
  • Website

Lake Lynn

Lake Lynn Trail is a 2.6 mile heavily trafficked paved loop trail with scenic views and a couple of hills but nothing too challenging,

There’s a nice boardwalk over parts of the lake. Keep in mind this trail is better for walkers and runners rather than bikers as it can get very busy with people walking with dogs and small kids. 

  • Address: 7921 Ray Road, Raleigh
  • Website

William B. Umstead State Park

William B. Umstead State Park, Raleigh, NC
Biking with our kids in Umstead State Park

When you visit Raleigh, if you love nature trails through the forest, biking, trail running, picnicking, camping, canoeing, and horseback riding, don’t miss Umstead with its more than 5,000 acres of forest.

This is North Carolina’s most visited state park and a natural oasis surrounding three man made lakes and located just 15 minutes from downtown Raleigh with access from I-40 and I-70. 

  • Address: 2100 N. Harrison Ave., Cary and 8801 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh
  • Website

Dorothea Dix Park 

Dorothea Dix Park, Raleigh
Image: Brian Magee/visitRaleigh.com

Located just 5 minutes from downtown on a whopping 300+ acres, Dorothea Dix is the largest park in Raleigh and offers impressive skyline views of the city. 

It’s a lovely space with wide-open fields, rolling meadows, tree-lined streets, and in the warmer months plays host to numerous events and festivals, including the field of sunflowers each year. And stay tuned, the City of Raleigh has big plans for a transformative public space!

Pullen Park

Pullen Park, Raleigh

Looking for things to do with kids in Raleigh NC? Come here.

Located next to NC State University on 66 acres of land, Pullen Park is the first public park in North Carolina, the 5th oldest operating amusement park in the U.S. and 16th oldest in the world. 

Here you can rent a pedal boat, ride a carousel and miniature train, let the kids run free on the playgrounds, have a picnic or grill out, sign up for an art class, see a play, or play your favorite sport and much more.

  • Address: 520 Ashe Ave., Raleigh
  • Website

Historic Yates Mill County Park

Hiking trails, a 24-acre pond, and the Historic Yates Mill make up this 174-acre wildlife refuge and environmental resource center. 

Admission is free, but to tour the mill to learn about the “farm-to-fork” process, witness the corn grinding process and purchase bags of ground yellow and white cornmeal will cost $3-$5 (March through Nov.). 

  • Address: 4620 Lake Wheeler Road, Raleigh
  • Website

Robertson Millpond Preserve

Robertson Millpond Preserve, Raleigh
Image: Micahel Robson/vistRaleigh.com

Looking for a hidden gem? Drive out near the town of Wendell and discover Robertson Millpond Preserve, the area’s only bald cypress habitat. 

Recognized as a wetland treasure, canoeists, kayakers and paddle boarders can float peacefully through a serene, forest-like setting.

  • Address: 6333 Robertson Pond Rd., Wendell
  • Website

Fred G. Bond Metro Park and Boathouse

Bond Metro Park is one of the largest municipal parks in Wake County and like an oasis in the town of Cary. 

It offers opportunities for many types of recreation with hiking trails ( (a two-mile loop around the lake), picnic shelters, sports fields, a playground, and a boathouse that rents out pedal boats, kayaks and canoes.

  • Address: 801 High House Road, Cary
  • Website

Mordecai Historic Park

Situated in the heart of downtown, Mordecai Historic Park was once the site of the largest plantation in Wake County.

It’s now the home to some of N.C.’s most extraordinary treasures, including the Mordecai House (1785) the oldest house in Raleigh on its original location, and the birthplace of 17th President Andrew Johnson.

  • Address: 1 Mimosa St., Raleigh
  • Website

Explore the neighborhoods

Raleigh neighborhoods are very walkable and bikeable. And whether we are at home in Raleigh or visiting another city, a great way to explore any destination is on foot, or bike. 

So one of our favorite free things to do in Raleigh (or on the cheap) is grab a coffee and just wander around and take in the vibe of the city neighborhoods.

Downtown Raleigh

Fayetteville Street and surrounds

The Morning Times, Raleigh
The Morning Times, E. Hargett St

For exploring the downtown area around Fayetteville street, we like to grab a coffee at the Morning Times or Sir Walter Coffee and explore Fayetteville and the surrounding streets. 

At one end of Fayetteville you have the Capitol Building, and just behind that is the Museum of Natural Sciences and the Museum of History.

We also like to walk along E. Hargett St towards Moore Square and City Market, and, along E. Davie street and S. Wilmington st. Check out stores such as House of Swank Clothing, Zen Succulent, Deco Raleigh and Apex Outfitters.

The Warehouse District

The Warehouse District, Raleigh

The Warehouse District is probably our favorite area of downtown, and so easy to walk around.

Our go to coffee spot is Heirloom Brewshop, then we like to check out the boutiques stores such as The Flourish Market and Raleigh Denim Workshop, take the kids to Videri Chocolate Factory, and grab some cheap eats at the Morgan Street Food Hall – the burgers at Cow Bar are amazing! 

Historic Oakwood

Historic Oakwood, Raleigh

Check out the lovely neighborhood of Historic Oakwood. We like to wander the streets and dream of owning one of the Victorian and 20th-century homes. 

Start with a coffee from nearby Yellow Dog Bread Co or The Pharmacy Cafe on N. Person Street and then explore on foot, or drive slowly.

Downtown Cary

You can spend at least a few hours in downtown Cary. It’s like small town America, cute and charming, with just a few streets to navigate.

Start with coffee at BREW Coffee Bar (122 E. Chatham st), or at Big Dom’s Bagel Shop, or La Farm Bakery (220 W. Chatham st), then walk up and down S. Academy Street up to the Cary Arts Center and back. Pop in for a beer at Bond Brothers Brewery or Cotton House Brewery

Historic Attractions

North Carolina State Capitol

North Carolina State Capitol building, Raleigh

The State Capitol building, built in 1840, is a National Historic Landmark and one of the best-preserved examples of Greek Revival-style architecture.

Start by walking around the exterior of the building among the impressive oak trees and explore the monuments and statues on display. 

You can tour all three floors of the building. Self-guided tours are Monday – Friday. Guided tours are available at no cost each Sat. at 11am and 2pm.

  • Address: 1 East Edenton St, Raleigh
  • Website

Governor’s Mansion (North Carolina Executive Mansion)

North Carolina Executive mansion, Raleigh, NC

The North Carolina Executive Mansion has been the official residence of the Governor’s of North Carolina since 1891, and is a beautiful Victorian-style mansion built from native materials.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (F.D.R) once described the mansion as having “the most beautiful governor’s residence interior in America.” 

Tours are ONLY offered on Wednesdays and Thursdays (must be booked 2 weeks in advance). Holiday Open House is in December. 

  • Address: 200 N. Blount St., Raleigh
  • Website

Andrew Johnson’s Birthplace

Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the United States, serving from 1865 to 1869. He assumed the presidency as he was vice president at the time of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Johnson was born here in Raleigh in 1808, and you can visit a historical marker located at 123 Fayetteville Street. The building in which Andrew Johnson was born was moved to Mordecai Historic Park at 1 Mimosa Street in Raleigh.

Greenways and Nature

It’s hard to beat the greenways for free things to do in Raleigh NC. You can walk, hike, or bike ride. And besides being easy on your wallet, it’s good for your health.

The Capital Area Greenway System consists of 180 miles of greenways made up of 28 individual trails. Below are some of the best. 

Art to Heart Trail

Art to Heart trail at the North Carolina Museum of Art
Image: ncartmuseum.org

This is a corridor connecting the North Carolina Museum of Art to the Heart of downtown Raleigh. 

Beginning at the museum, this 5.9-mile trail winds through the museum’s 164-acre park, passes behind Meredith College, cuts through the main campus at NC State, passes by Pullen Park and finishes in downtown just outside of the Duke Energy Performing Arts Center. 

The trail can be done in reverse, of course, and bike racks are available at the museum. See a PDF map of the trail here

American Tobacco Trail

This 23-mile trail runs along an abandoned railroad bed originally built for the American Tobacco Company in the 70s. The trail crosses through Wake County, Chatham and Durham County.

Part of the East Coast Greenway, it’s open to pedestrians, cyclists, equestrians and other non-motorized users.

Nice and wide trail and usually well populated.

  • Address: 3 parking areas provide easy access to the Wake County portion of the trail: 1309 New Hill Olive Chapel Rd, Apex | 966 Wimberly Road, Apex | 1305 White Oak Church Rd, Apex.
  • Website

Black Creek Greenway

At 7 miles long, the Black Creek Greenway is one of the Town of Cary’s longest and most popular greenways. 

It connects to other recreational and open spaces, and begins from Lake Crabtree in the north, to the greenway hub at Bond Metro Park.

Open to walkers, hikers, cyclists, leashed pets, children and other users from dawn to dusk.

  • Address: 2139 Old Reedy Creek Rd.,Trailhead, Cary, NC
  • Website

Neuse River Greenway Trail

Neuse River Greenway Trail
Image: visitRaleigh.com

Considered the gem of the 100-mile Capital Area Greenway system, this is a 27-mile paved trail stretching from Falls Lake in North Raleigh to the Wake County border line in southeast Raleigh.

Lots of starting and stopping points, and along the way are winding boardwalk areas, views of historical sites, and suspension bridges. Trail is open to joggers, walkers, runners, cyclists, roller-bladers and others. 

  • Address: a good place to start is Anderson Point Park, which has plenty of parking: 20 Anderson Point Dr., Raleigh
  • Website

Carl Alwin Schenck Memorial Forest

This is a 245 acre forest about 10 minutes from the NC State campus, and managed by them as a teaching and research forest.

The Frances L. Liles Trail is most frequently used by the public. Overall, the trails are short and make for a nice 30-75 minute hike and quick nature get-away and walk in the woods.

Trails are not very well marked so make sure you have your GPS/Phone with you. 

  • Address: 5101 Reedy Creek Rod, Raleigh
  • Website: Alltrails 

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve

This 140-acre park in Cary offers three miles of mulch-covered walking and hiking trails that lead to a series of small overlooks.

Nice spot for leisurely walks, summer shade, fall foliage, families, dogs on short leashes, small crowds – there’s a great little nature center museum, too.

  • Address: 2616 Kildaire Farm Rd., Cary
  • Website

Gardens

Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden

Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden, Raleigh
Image: Chris Richman/visitRaleigh.com

One of three accredited rose gardens in North Carolina, the grounds include sixty rose beds surrounded by an arboretum of evergreen and deciduous trees.

In the summer months, a free outdoor movie series is a local-favorite. And every year they host Art in the Garden, the annual arts festival benefiting Raleigh Little Theatre. The Raleigh Rose Garden is open to the public 7 days a week.

  • Address: 301 Pogue St., Raleigh
  • Website

JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University

JC Raulston Arboretum At NC State University
Image: Christopher Glenn/visitRaleigh.com

A nationally acclaimed garden with one of the largest and most diverse collections of landscape plants in the Southeast. 

Here you can stroll through 10 acres of gardens with 5,000 plants collected from all over the world on display.

Markets

The Raleigh Market

Since 1971, the flea market at the State Fairgrounds has offered one of the most unique and entertaining shopping experiences in the state.  

Each weekend, over 600 indoor and outdoor vendors showcase an incredible range of items, from high-end antiques to power tools and everything in between.

City Market

City Market is a tourist attraction in the heart of downtown. Tourists and locals enjoy wandering the cobblestone streets to enjoy open-air shopping and dining options.

Grab a coffee from nearby 42 & Lawrence and then explore City Market and check out the specialty shops, and you’re right across from Moore Square.  

City Market, Raleigh, NC
City Market

State Farmers Market

The Raleigh Farmers Market is one of four regional Farmers Markets across the state and this market is considered one of the nation’s best and most modern markets.

Boasting 75 acres of indoor and outdoor vendor space, here you can sample and shop fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and gift products from farmers across the state. There’s also a popular restaurant (locals love the biscuits!).

  • Address: 1201 Agriculture St., Raleigh
  • Website

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