8 Fantastic Museums in Raleigh (most of them FREE)

Raleigh is not well known as a popular tourist destination and for its big ticket attractions, and to be honest we kind of like it that way, but that doesn’t mean there are not a ton of cool things to do and if museums are your thing there are several excellent museums in Raleigh to explore.

Aerial photo of the outside of a museum
Museum of Natural Sciences, downtown Raleigh

In fact, Raleigh is well known for its quality and quantity of museums, and has often been referred to as the “Smithsonian of the South”, and many of them are free and within downtown Raleigh and walkable from each other. 

Whether you are here to visit Raleigh over a weekend and are searching on your phone for “Raleigh museums near me”, or you live here like us and are yet to experience all the fantastic museums, the below list is for you! 

Museums in Raleigh

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Mother and daughter looking ata display of a dinosor skeleton in a museum
Our kids enjoy the dinosaur exhibits

When I think of the top Raleigh attractions, at top of mind is the excellent and free North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences located in the heart of downtown, just behind the state capitol building.

In fact, it is the Southeast’s largest natural history museum and North Carolina’s most visited museum, and one of the USA’s most respected museums that explores the natural world. 

Girl reading a sign inside a museum about a disply
So much learning to do here!

With two buildings spanning two city blocks joined by a pedestrian bridge, there’s over 4 floors of exhibits in this Raleigh science museum featuring live animals, dinosaur and whale skeletons, research centers, walk-through dioramas, microbes and meteorites, human anatomy, planets, 3D movies and much more.

Without doubt, as one of the top museums in North Carolina this is one of the best things to do in downtown Raleigh for those that love natural history and sciences. Read our full review here.

Watch our video from this museum:

North Carolina Museum of Art

Girl walking towards a giant ring of art work
Ann & Jim Goodnight Museum Park

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

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

Art display hanging on a wall

Don’t miss taking a stroll through the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, the 164-acre park and trail system through natural areas features more than a dozen commissioned works of art. And we love biking the Art to Heart trail.

Note: check the museum website for current exhibits and dates, and sometimes parts of the museum and certain galleries are closed for work and changing out exhibits.

North Carolina Museum of History

Two military displays inside a museum

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

On display are over 14,000 years and 150,000 artifacts of North Carolina history, including “The Story of North Carolina” exhibit which includes a lunch counter from a 1960 Salisbury sit-in during the American civil rights movement and a restored one-room slave cabin from Martin County where seven enslaved African-Americans lived in 1860.

Artifacts on display inside a museum
Cool North Carolina display

This history museum in Raleigh also has exhibits which share the African-American story and their contributions to the history of North Carolina.

Video presentations dive deeper into subjects such as secession, Reconstruction, and the Wilmington Race Riot. The museum also offers a separate gallery for temporary exhibits. Free admission. See current exhibits here. 

Sports Hall of Fame

cropped-north-carolina-sports-hall-of-fame-6-2.jpg

If you’re a big sports fan, located inside the museum of history on the third floor is The NC Sports Hall of Fame, which currently has 375 members, and the first class was inducted in 1963.

The Hall of Fame celebrates excellence and extraordinary achievement in athletics, and commemorates and memorializes exceptional accomplishments in sports for the inspiration and enjoyment of all North Carolinians.

statue of athletes in a museum

On display are sports such as football, basketball, baseball, athletics, golf, motor racing, Olympics sports and more. Admission is free, and you can take a self guided tour. It’s not a huge space and you can easily get through it in about one hour. 

Marbles Kids Museum

Mom and two daughters posing for a photo in front of a colorful mural on a building
Color pop mural on corner of Marbles

If you’re looking for a fun children’s museum in Raleigh, look no further. For families with young kids (up until the age of about 12), consider Marbles Kids Museum as one of the best things to do with kids in Raleigh. 

There’s two levels of kid-focused museum activities with dozens of hands-on exhibits and the state’s only 3D-capable IMAX theater.

a little girl playing with toys
We spent many hours at Marbles when our kids were young!

Here children can imagine, discover and learn in dozens of interactive exhibits, daily educational programs

Located in the Moore Square District of downtown Raleigh, Marbles serves a diverse population of families, school groups and community organizations.

A wall that wraps around the museum is filled with more than one million marbles that light up at night. 

Contemporary Art Museum (CAM)

a building surrounded by bushes

Another of the excellent downtown Raleigh museums and located in Raleigh’s ever evolving Warehouse District, this museum is where contemporary art lives. 

CAM Raleigh is a non-collecting art museum that provides an environment for transformation through educational programs, cultural experiences, and bold, non-traditional exhibitions by living artists.

This is a multimedia contemporary art gallery that has no permanent collection but offers exhibitions of works by artists with regional, national, and international recognition

Portrait painting of a black woman in an art museum

You’ll find CAM Raleigh as smart, modern and a little unexpected, and popular among the Raleigh locals – we loved our recent visit during a First Friday in Raleigh – and every exhibition is unique and designed to be thought-provoking and transformative.

Portrait painting of a black women in an art museum

The expansive, light-filled gallery space that was once a produce warehouse from the early 1900s offers various levels and floors to enjoy the ever-changing art and fashion displays. 

City of Raleigh Museum

Outside of a historic building
The historic Briggs Building

The City of Raleigh Museum is an important place to learn about the history and culture of Black Americans in Raleigh. Located in the 1874 historic Briggs Building, a former hardware store, the museum is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of North Carolina’s capital city while envisioning its future. 

The museum features exhibits on a variety of topics, including African-American history, art, and culture.

Display inside a museum of people marching for civil rights

Let Us March On: Raleigh’s Journey Toward Civil Rights tells the story of Raleigh’s struggles to unite a divided society. The exhibit features a timeline of events and images through more than 5 decades of a movement for equal rights for all.

Pope House Museum

Outside of an old house turned museum

Built in 1901, The Pope House was home to Dr Manassa Thomas Pope and his family. It is the only African-American house museum in the state of North Carolina and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 22, 1999.

It offers a glimpse into the life of Dr Pope, a prominent physician and the only African-American man to run for mayor of a Southern capital in the midst of the Jim Crow Era. 

Pope was in the first graduating class of Shaw University’s Leonard School of Medicine in 1886 and among the first Black American physicians licensed to practice in North Carolina.

He founded the Old North State Medical Society in 1887 with three medical school classmates in response to being barred from joining the all-white North Carolina medical society. The society has played an important role in improving the health and health care for the Black Americans in North Carolina.

The house features original furnishings to the family and many historical artifacts giving insight into a remarkable man and family.

Guided tours are by appointment only, must be scheduled at least 30-minutes prior to the tour, and will be limited to a family group or 5 people.

Mordecai Historic Park

Lady sitting in front of a historic home
Mordecai House

The Mordecai Historic Park was once the site of the largest plantation in Wake County. and is home to Mordecai House, the oldest house in Raleigh in its original location ca. 1785 and the Birthplace of Andrew Johnson.

The park also shares the stories of the 200 African-American slaves who lived on Mordecai Plantation between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Old tiny house at a historic park
Birthplace of Andrew Johnson

Tours of the Mordecai House and outbuildings are offered at the top of the hour (10am – 3pm) for about 50 mins. You can walk around the grounds for free at any time. 

Old chapel at a historic park
Old chapel

They sometimes have a Free Black History Trolley Tour which takes you to historic homes, schools, churches, and businesses important to Raleigh’s African-American history. It feels kinda random when they put them on and they don’t operate in the winter. See trolley tours here.

Legends of Harley Drag Racing Museum

Hervey Davidson motor bike building

Raleigh is home to the only Harley-Davidson drag racing museum in the world, founded by world-famous drag racing champion Ray Price located on the second floor of one of the largest Harley dealerships in the U.S.

Open to the public during store hours, and located on the upper balcony above the main showroom.

Hervey-Davidson motorbikes showroom
Harley-Davidson showroom downstairs

Ray Price was an inducted member of four halls of fame including the AMA Hall of Fame, National Motorcycle Hall of Fame, Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame, North Carolina Drag Racing Hall of Fame, and the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame; and is noted as the Father of the Funnybike. 

Hervey-Davidson motorbike in a museum
Ray Price museum upstairs

He was instrumental in creating the current style racing transmission. Price also designed the first successful wheelie bar for bikes, allowing more power to the rear wheel without flipping the bike over.

There you have it. Which of these free museums in Raleigh NC would you most like to visit? And if you’ve already explored them all, what one is your favorite? 

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