If you don’t know what to do in Raleigh with only 24 hours to spare, our one day itinerary down below is what we suggest for first time visitors to get a reel feel for downtown Raleigh – the culture, the history, the food and drink scene, and the Southern community feel.
We put this itinerary together from personal experience after having lived here for over 10 years now and spending a lot of time in the downtown Raleigh area. These are the places we take visiting friends, and are some of the most “Raleigh things to do!”
This itinerary includes suggestions on where to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, activities for the morning and afternoon, pre-dinner and after-dinner drinks, and hotels to stay in. Let us take the guesswork out of your trip to Raleigh!
Getting around Raleigh downtown is easy by either walking, using the bicycle renting service Cardinal Bikeshare, riding an electric scooter, or using the free R-LINE circulator bus to navigate the 12 block downtown radius. You barely even have to move your car – see parking in Raleigh options here.
Of course, we suggest you stay longer than one day as there are plenty of cool things to do in Raleigh, so check out our 48 hours in Raleigh itinerary, plus we have other itinerary posts coming soon specific for couples, families, and the hip party people (join our free VIP email tribe so you don’t miss those). But for a general overall short visit, we’ve got you covered down below!
We love living in Raleigh, and we hope this guide helps your visit be stress free and full of fun memories and wanting more time in the city of oaks. Now, let us show you around…
Big Ed’s Restaurant City Market
You’ve arrived in The South and there’s no better introduction to Raleigh and its welcoming community than Big Ed’s Restaurant in historic City Market, the best Southern style breakfast in Raleigh.
This is the local experience you’re looking for. They’ve been serving up generous portions of Southern comfort food since 1958. Here you’ll enjoy a laid-back vibe with a collection of funky antiques hanging from the ceiling, warm Southern hospitality, and food like what grandma used to make.
Especially popular for their GIANT pancakes, local country ham, fried chicken, aged ribeye steak & eggs, sliced pork loin, fried catfish, fluffy biscuits, and double-brewed sweet tea.
Alternate breakfast options:
- The Morning Times – quality, local food. Sit on the sidewalk or in their upstairs art gallery. Great coffee (see coffee suggestions down below)
- A Place at the Table – Raleigh’s pay-what-you-can-afford cafe. Amazing concept and staff.
Coffee (and morning stroll)
Leave Big Ed’s restaurant via the cobblestone streets of City Market and head towards nearby Moore Square to stretch your legs, get some nature, and see the city skyline.
Moore Square is a four-acre urban green space that was originally conceived as one of five public green spaces in Raleigh and the square and surrounds is a charming mix of old and new in the heart of downtown Raleigh.
Here you’ll find a large open lawn area, magnificent oak trees, a shaded “tree house” area for kids, 30-foot-wide sidewalks on the edge of the park, and a small splash pad for kids during the warmer months.
Take a stroll around the perimeter, or sit on the grass and take in the views of the city skyline.
From Moore Square, head west up Hargett Street towards our suggested coffee stop at The Morning Times!
Coffee at The Morning Times
This is one of our favorite coffee shops in downtown Raleigh and popular with the locals. We love their lattes (our kids love their cookies and baked goods) and we like to either sit in the cozy upstairs that also functions as an art gallery, or on the sidewalk and watch the Raleigh street scene go by (perfect with your furry friends or on a sunny day).
Alternative coffee shops:
- Sir Walter Coffee – cool barista bar with a focus on unique coffee creations, tea lattes, tea cocktails, kombucha, and alcohol (you might feel like you’re in NYC).
- 42 & Lawrence – on the edge of Moore Square. Serves up really good organic coffee and nitro cold brews at their mod bar setup.
Fayetteville Street is the central thoroughfare of downtown Raleigh, or the city’s central business corridor, and is bookended by the State Capitol Building to the north, and the Performing Arts Center to the south.
After coffee at the Morning Times, turn left onto Fayetteville St from Hargett St and head south towards the Duke Energy Center for Performing Arts, then turn around and head north back up Fayetteville towards the NC State Capitol Building (distance: 0.7 miles, about 15 minutes).
As you stroll up and down Fayetteville St you’ll pass several restaurants and bars, hotels, the Court House, and through City Plaza.
The North Carolina State Capitol Building
Built in 1840, the NC State Capitol building is a National Historic Landmark and one of the best-preserved examples of Greek Revival-style architecture.
You can tour all three floors of the building, plus monuments and statues on display outside in the grounds among more magnificent oak trees – Raleigh is nicknamed “city of oaks” for a reason! Self-guided tours available.
Museum of Natural Sciences, OR, the Museum of History
Raleigh has a lot of excellent museums and because of the quality and the amount of free museums it has often been referred to as the “Smithsonian of the South”.
Below are two excellent museums in Raleigh just across the street from the Capitol Building. Because this is a short 24 hour trip to visit Raleigh, we suggest you pick one or the other. Yes, they both deserve more time but they are FREE and you can always come back on another trip!
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
The excellent Museum of Natural Sciences is North Carolina’s most visited museum with over 4 floors of exhibits, live animals, and 3D movies. We love their permanent collection of dinosaur skeletons and whale skeletons. And don’t forget your photo with the giant globe out front. It’s one of the best things to do in Raleigh.
North Carolina Museum of History
The Museum of History was founded in 1902 and welcomes more than 400,000+ visitors a year. On display are more than 14,000 years and 150,000 artifacts of history.
The downtown Raleigh food scene has thrived in recent years (minus Covid setbacks) and is one of our favorite areas to eat and drink in the city area.
Below we have listed some local Raleigh restaurants all centrally located downtown, and based on a few select categories to help you get a taste of Raleigh and what it is popular with the locals.
- The Pit Authentic BBQ – one of the most popular, and upscale, BBQ spots in Raleigh.
- Clyde Cooper’s BBQ – a downtown institution since 1938 and one of the classic and oldest Raleigh restaurants.
VIDEO: Check out Clyde Cooper’s BBQ
Southern comfort food:
- The Raleigh Times – a timeless watering hole in a 100 year old building serving up quality American pub grub. Nice inside seating, or on the sidewalk or cool rooftop!
- Parkside Restaurant – a retro-industrial restaurant serving traditional Southern comfort food the locals love!
- Beasley’s Chicken + Honey – popular Raleigh restaurant by famed chef Ashley Christensen. Specializing in Fried chicken and sandwiches. Brunch on the weekend.
- Morgan Street Food Hall – 20 different food concepts showcasing local eateries. Perfect for families or groups of friends with different food tastes.
- Transfer Co. Food Hall – 12+ vendors in the historic Carolina Coach Garage. Again, something for everyone here!
- Cafe Luna – Tuscan-accented Italian fare in an airy, art-filled space since 1996. Very reasonable prices.
- Taverna Agora – authentic Greek food with an amazing rooftop dining experience we keep going back for, and is fantastic for brunch on the weekends!
- Centro – modern Mexican food in the heart of downtown Raleigh.
Explore the Warehouse District
The six-block Warehouse District is one of our favorite neigborhoods in Raleigh to explore, an area that was transformed from its former red-brick industrial buildings into a vibrant mix of restaurants, cafes, bars, a brewery, a food hall, boutique shopping, art museums, studios and technology firms.
Located an easy 10-minute walk west of downtown. En route, be sure to walk through Nash Square – a public parkland with lush lawn, a variety of perennials, a short loop walk around the square, and many native shade trees, including beautiful oaks and magnolias.
What to do in the Warehouse District:
- Need another coffee? Go to Heirloom Brewshop, a specialty coffee shop, premium tea house, and sake bar.
- Videri Chocolate Factory – sample yummy chocolates, and get soft serve ice cream!
- Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) – displays new and emerging work by local and national living artists. Free admission.
- The Flourish Market – a unique women’s gift and boutique clothing store.
- 311 Gallery – home to 12 artist studios, an exhibition gallery and a gift shop.
- Father & Son Antiques – modern furnishings, vintage clothing and accessories, records and books.
- Raleigh Denim Workshop – exclusive well-crafted jeans!
- Morgan Street Food Hall – Raleigh Rolls offers unique rolled ice cream with delicious toppings!
Alternate afternoon activities:
- Got young kids? Pullen Park (5 minute drive from downtown Raleigh) is one of the most fun things to do in Raleigh with kids and is the fifth oldest operating amusement park in the USA. Ride the historic carousel and iconic miniature train, take paddle boats out on the lake, or play in the playgrounds.
- Dorothea Dix Park – set on a whopping 300+ acres and just a 5 minute drive from downtown, Dix Park is the largest park in Raleigh with impressive views of the downtown Raleigh skyline. It’s a lovely space with wide-open fields, rolling meadows, and tree-lined streets. The “Flowers Field” section is a top spot for a picnic with city views!
- Lake Johnson Loop – walk, jog, or bike the paved three-mile loop around the lake. We used to live on Lake Johnson and it’s our favorite lake trail in Raleigh!
- Explore historic neighborhoods. Historic Oakwood dates back to the 1800’s and rose after the Civil War. It’s home to magnificent oak trees, Grand Victorians and modest bungalows. And don’t miss the magnificent Oakwood Cemetery! And Boylan Heights was one of Raleigh’s first planned suburbs with development beginning in 1907 and has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
- Marbles Kids Museum – two levels of kid-focused museum activities with dozens of hands-on exhibits. Perfect for toddlers and up to 10 years.
There are plenty of great Raleigh bars and Raleigh breweries downtown that are perfect for all occasions. Below are a select few of our favorites that are also popular with other locals.
- Crank Arm Brewing – the guys at Cram Arm are passionate about beer and bikes. My pick: Road Hazard Hazy IPA.
- The Raleigh Times Bar – a timeless watering hole and probably the most famous bar in Raleigh – even Obama had a campaign beer here. Extensive Belgian beer selection, multiple levels and an awesome open rooftop
- Vita Vite Art Gallery + Wine Bar – a premier wine bar that doubles as an art gallery. They offer a great selection of wine and a classy and relaxed atmosphere.
Whiskey & Cocktail bars:
- Whiskey Kitchen – a beautiful open space and hip venue with a repurposed industrial feel. Over 300 whiskies plus craft cocktails, beer and wine options you can’t go wrong. Not sure which whiskey to drink, try a flight.
- Dram & Draught – excellent range of whiskeys from around the world, plus seasonal cocktails, wines, and draught beer from Raleigh and beyond.
- Killjoy – cool and colorful decor plus signature cocktails. One of our favorite Raleigh bars!
Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing
If there’s one place in Raleigh we take first time visitors for that wow moment, it’s Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing. The best view of the Raleigh skyline from their outstanding outdoor patio is paired with excellent food, craft beer and unique cocktails.
There’s a fun casual atmosphere that’s perfect for a group of friends, a date, or a family like ours (they have a kids menu).
Whilst Wye Hill Kitchen has the name “brewery” attached, don’t come here expecting your typical pub grub or brewery food – this is more innovative, up-scale food with an emphasis placed on North Carolina ingredients and unique twists on familiar dishes.
Other dinner suggestions:
- Garland – one of the best Raleigh restaurants period. Indian & Asian dishes served with a Southern twist, plus craft cocktails in a chic, playful setting.
- Oak Steakhouse – contemporary establishment offering quality steaks cooked right plus seafood, pasta, and desserts. Relaxed atmosphere, excellent service.
- Vic’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria – casual, affordable and family-friendly. Really good pizza and pasta.
- Mulino Italian Kitchen & Bar – elevated Italian plates & wines served in a stylish reclaimed mill and patio with a nice water feature.
Vegetarian & vegan:
- Fiction Kitchen – if you’re looking for vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Raleigh, go here!
- Irregardless Cafe – classic Raleigh staple since 1975 offering a global menu of locally sourced fare, plus live music.
- Second Empire Restaurant & Tavern – an exquisite fine dining experience inside a Second Empire Victorian that incorporates beauty, history, Southern charm, gourmet meals and excellent service.
- Crawford & Son – the perfect date night experience for those who want an intimate setting with a little buzzy vibe. Casual yet elegant with innovative dishes beautifully presented by award winning chef, Scott Crawford.
After-dinner drinks or activities
- Watts & Ward – probably our favorite bar in Raleigh (underground bar at least). A craft cocktail bar founded upon the underground spirit of the 1920s. Leather seating, rustic tables, dim lighting and bookshelves full of history. An inventive cocktail menu and low-key jazz events.
- Bittersweet – locals favorite dessert bar where you can get bourbon with your pie, or champagne with your cake, and specialty cocktails.
- The Merchant – beautiful decor, pleasant atmosphere, unique cocktails.
- Any of the bars we mentioned for a pre-dinner drink!
- See a show at the Performing Arts Center (home to the Carolina Ballet and the NC Symphony), a concert at Red Hat Amphitheater, or live music at The Lincoln Theater.
Where to Stay
The choice of hotels in Raleigh keeps getting better. Below are our handpicked selection for a short stay:
- Residence Inn Downtown Raleigh – cozy apartment style (all-suite) accommodation, walk to everything in downtown. Cool rooftop bar!
- Marriott Raleigh City Center – in the middle of it all in downtown Raleigh on Fayetteville St. Good for leisure or business travel.
- Origin Hotel – one of the newest and boutique Raleigh hotels in downtown on the edge of the Warehouse District.
- The Longleaf Hotel – former motor lodge turned stylish retro hotel and modernized mid-century gem on the edge of downtown (8 min walk to Capitol Building).
- NOTE: if you are looking for hotels near Raleigh Airport, stay here.
Use the map below to find your Raleigh hotel and book!
There you have it. I hope this guide on what to do in Raleigh NC helps you have a memorable time in the city of oaks. If you have any questions, or suggestions of your own, please leave a comment down below!