Top Things to Do in Downtown Raleigh, NC

20 Amazing Things to Do in Downtown Raleigh, NC

Julia North Carolina 15 Comments

Downtown Raleigh, NC is bursting at the seams with amazing history, museums, restaurants, bars, and government buildings. Having lived in Raleigh, including downtown Raleigh, on and off over the past 10+ years, you could say I’ve thoroughly explored this small piece of Southern heaven. Make your time in downtown Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, shine by checking out these 20 top attractions to visit in Raleigh.

Disclosure: Some of the links below may be affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase.

City Sights around Downtown Raleigh

Being the capital of North Carolina, Raleigh offers rich history as well as stunning architecture. Take a stroll around the city to take in the sights dedicated to the government and to get a grasp on Raleigh’s history and identity.

1. North Carolina State Capitol Building

Located in the heart of downtown, the North Carolina State Capitol Building is a must visit, if only to walk around the outside. You’ll find a number of statues, memorials, and canons surround this stately building.

If you get a chance, stop inside when it’s open to the public for self-guided tours or guided tours. It’s worth a brief tour if only to see the George Washington statue in Roman garb prominently on display in the center.

  • Open: 9am – 5pm Monday to Saturday
  • Address: 1 E Edenton St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free
George Washington Statue wearing Roman garb

2. North Carolina Executive Mansion & Gardens

Located a couple of blocks from the state capitol, the North Carolina Executive Mansion is the official residence of the Governor of North Carolina and their family. It is open at different times throughout the year for tours as well as always hosting a festive holiday tour season. If you are interested in touring it, you must book your tours at least 2 weeks in advance.

Governor's Mansion in Raleigh, NC

3. North Carolina Legislative Building & Halifax Mall

While government buildings may not make most “must see” lists, I recommend you explore the North Carolina General Assembly building and the area behind it on the Halifax Mall for a few reasons. For one, in front of the General Assembly building you’ll find a GIANT marble NC state seal embedded in the ground.

You can also go into the General Assembly to sit in on legislative sessions or to simply admire the architecture. The best part is that you can go up to the rooftop to get a straight view down to the state capitol. Fun fact: It was designed by the same architect who designed the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in DC!

Directly behind the Legislative Building is the Halifax Mall, a large grassy field with a number of other items to admire. For example, one of the buildings (the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction) has quotes and children’s art all etched into the side of the building.

The executive buildings in Raleigh

4. Moore Square

The central park of downtown Raleigh, Moore Square just recently reopened after a huge renovation. It now not only hosts a lot of events within Raleigh, but it also has an interactive water feature (splash pad) for kids, outdoor pianos and games sometimes available, public restrooms, and Square Burger, a local burger joint.

If you’re looking for things to do in Raleigh with kids – check out the stair structure to the left of the burger joint. It has a slide going down one side of it! It’s just a fun hidden gem.

5. Historic City Market

City Market is located in the heart of downtown Raleigh. Tourists and locals alike visit City Market for the open-air shopping and dining options as well as the numerous events that take place on its beautiful cobblestone streets throughout the year. At night it also features lights strung across the picturesque roads.

  • Open: The City Market area is open 24 hours per day, although shops and restaurants each offer their own hours.
  • Address: 215 Wolfe St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free
  • Website: Find out all about it online at the Raleigh City Market website.

6. The Acorn

This 1,250 pound sculpture is a symbol of Raleigh, the City of Oaks. It previously was housed in Moore Square but during Moore Square’s renovation it was moved to right outside of the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium where it can be found today. It’s worth a stop on your journey as it really is a city icon.

In fact, Raleigh does an “Acorn drop” in downtown for New Years Eve. That’s right, they lower this giant Acorn from a crane at midnight, similarly to the iconic Times Square celebration in New York.

  • Open: Available 24 hours per day
  • Address: 2 E South St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free
The Raleigh Acorn standing for "The City of Oaks"

7. Historic Oakwood

Historic Oakwood is a beautiful residential neighborhood adjacent to downtown Raleigh. It is best known for its well-preserved Victorian and early-20th-century homes in a variety of styles from Queen Anne to neoclassical and Craftsman.

The neighborhood is designated on the National Register of Historic Places and is Raleigh’s first local Historic District.  You’ll also find some quaint cafes spread throughout the neighborhood.

Tour the neighborhood streets on your own or plan to hit one of the annual events for touring some of the houses and gardens. In December, they open about a dozen of the houses for the Historic Oakwood Candlelight Tour and in the spring the Oakwood Garden Club offers the Garden Tour & Tea which features some of the neighborhood’s best gardens and a traditional tea.

  • Open: 24 hours per day
  • Address: Adjacent to the Northeast side of downtown Raleigh
  • Cost: Free
  • Website: Learn about Historic Oakwood.
An old Victorian house in Historic Oakwood

8. Historic Oakwood Cemetery

While visiting a cemetery may not be your first choice of things to do in Raleigh, the Historic Oakwood Cemetery is not only beautiful but also features ornate, marble tombs. These include the graves of Confederate soldiers and local politicians. 

9. The Globe at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

What type of traveler would I be if I didn’t note that there is a massive globe on the outside of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences?

Definitely swing by and check it out. The giant globe in downtown Raleigh is 5 stories tall and 70 feet at its widest point making it quite a statement piece! It’s also useful to the museum as it houses the Daily Planet Theater.

  • Open: You can see the globe in downtown Raleigh from the sidewalk so it’s available 24 hours per day.
  • Address: 11 West Jones Street, Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free
  • Website: Check out the museum website to learn more about the giant globe and the theater inside.
A giant 5 story globe on the outside of the North Carolina Museum of Natural History

Museums in Downtown Raleigh

Raleigh may not be the largest city in the United States, but it does offer quite a few amazing museums – many of which also have free admission! That’s why these museums get a mention as to the best things to see in Raleigh.

10. North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

The largest museum of its kind in the Southeast, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is an awesome place to spend an afternoon. In fact, it’s probably the best free thing to do in downtown Raleigh as it’s an amazing museum.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is split into two sections, a Nature Exploration Center and a Nature Research Center offering dioramas, theaters, and interactive experiences. You’ll also find the SECU Daily Planet, located inside the giant globe, which offers a 3 story theater with a 42 foot tall screen.

The Nature Exploration Center features North Carolina’s inhabitants, past and present, from coastal North Carolina to the Appalachian Mountains. Meanwhile, the newer section of the Natural Science Museum of Raleigh is the Nature Research Center. Here you’ll be able to find out not just what we know about the earth, but how we know it. Learn about the tools and techniques that scientists take to study our planet.

11. Mordecai Historic Park

A small piece of history, the Mordecai House was once the site of the largest plantation in Wake County with over 5,000 acres of land. It was first built back in 1785 and is a registered historic landmark and museum in Raleigh, NC. The Mordecai House is also the birthplace and childhood home of President Andrew Jackson.

Today, the Mordecai House is the oldest house in Raleigh still in its original location. Stop by to take a tour of the now 3.9 acre Historic Park to learn about the Mordecai faith, family, and local community.

  • Open: 10am – 4pm Tuesday to Saturday, 1pm – 4pm on Sunday
  • Address: 1 Mimosa St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: $7 for adults, $4 for seniors, $4 for youths, and children under 6 are free
  • Website: Get to know the Mordecai House and grounds.

12. North Carolina Museum of History

The North Carolina Museum of History is a Smithsonian Affiliate and a popular destination in Raleigh. Seeing over 465,000 visitors per year, it’s no mystery why the Museum of History makes the list of best things to do in Raleigh. Here you’ll find all kinds of history spelled out in creative exhibits.

One of the best permanent exhibits in the History Museum in Raleigh traces life in North Carolina from the beginning all the way through the 20th century. You’ll learn the ins and outs of life in North Carolina over the years, including interactive experiences, hands-on exhibits, and video presentations. As part of this exhibit you’ll also see a full-size replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer from the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s pretty cool!

  • Open: 9am – 5pm Monday to Saturday, noon – 5pm on Sunday
  • Address: 5 E Edenton St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free
  • Website: Dive into the Museum of History website to get all of the details you need to plan your visit, including the full current exhibit line-up to help map out your visit!
North Carolina Museum of History

13. CAM Raleigh (Contemporary Art Museum)

The Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh is located in a beautiful building in the Warehouse District of downtown Raleigh. It is a non-collecting art museum which features mostly rotating exhibits. This helps provide an environment for transformation including many non-traditional exhibits.

Due to its relatively small size, the CAM can be an easy stop on your tour of downtown Raleigh. Just pop in and see what they have going on!

The CAM Museum in Raleigh

14. Marbles Kids Museum

The premier kids museum in Raleigh, Marbles offers an interactive museum to help children learn through play. From toddler play areas to Tree Tunes in the percussive musical playground and musical stairs, kids will love downtown Raleigh just as much as the adults!

Also attached to Marbles Kids Museum is the IMAX Theater which shows a mixture of educational and new release movies. Marbles is definitely the most fun thing to do in Raleigh with kids!

  • Open: 10am – 6pm Wednesday to Sunday
  • Address: 201 E Hargett St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: $9; Children under one are free; $8 for members of the military; Arrive between 3pm – 6pm Wednesday to Friday and you can take advantage of the Terminix “Play Late for Less” which provides a 50% discount – Tickets must be pre-booked during COVID.
  • Website: Get excited about visiting Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh with full information on their website.

15. City of Raleigh Museum (COR)

Located on the main street that runs through downtown Raleigh, the City of Raleigh Museum is on a mission to “Preserve Raleigh’s Past for the Future”. It does this by collecting artifacts, curating exhibits, and creating educational programs focused on Raleigh’s history and heritage.

The exhibits do rotate, so stop in and see what’s currently on exhibit to get to know more about the grand city of Raleigh.

  • Open: 9am – 4pm Tuesday to Saturday, 1 – 4pm Sunday; 6 – 9pm First Fridays
  • Address: 220 Fayetteville St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free; Recommended donation is $5
  • Website: Find all the details needed to visit the City of Raleigh Museum.
COR Museum in Raleigh

16. Joel Lane Museum House and Gardens

The Joel Lane House is considered the birthplace of North Carolina’s Capital. First established in 1769, it’s the best place in Raleigh to explore the early beginnings of Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina, and the United States.

When you visit, you’ll learn all about Joel Lane, “The Father of Raleigh”. He was a local statesman, politician, landowner, Patriot, and slaveholder who sold 1,000 acres of his land to the sate in 1792 to enable the building of the new capital. You’ll find this museum provides a different experience than other museums in Raleigh by offering guided tours led by costumed docents.

  • Open: 10am – 2pm Wednesday to Friday with guided tours on the hour
  • Address: 160 South Saint Mary’s St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $4 for students, and free for children 6 and under
  • Website: Learn more about Joel Lane and the Museum on the website.

17. Pope House Museum

Visit the only African-American house museum in the state of North Carolina at the Pope House. Here you’ll learn about Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope, the only African-American man to run for mayor of a Southern capital in the midst of the Jim Crow Era.

In this museum, you’ll view over 3,000 artifacts that will give you a glimpse into the life of a leading African-American family in the early 1900s. This includes Pope’s father’s freedman papers and his voter registration card.

  • Open: 9am – 2pm Saturday, 1pm – 4pm Sunday
  • Address: 511 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free
  • Website: Call to schedule your tour ahead of time using details on the Pope House web page.

18. Videri Chocolate Factory

If you’re a chocolate lover, you have to visit Videri Chocolate Factory in downtown Raleigh. While not technically a museum, you can learn all about the chocolate making process and watch it in action. Let’s call it educational in nature, and of course, you can buy chocolate – win-win!

Videri is focused on sourcing high quality, responsible chocolate to make wonderful, and creative, bean to bar chocolate. When you visit Videri you’re no only learning about chocolate making, but you’re also supporting a local Raleigh business!

  • Open: Open for shopping and to watch chocolate being made, or you can schedule a tour.
  • Address: 327 W Davie St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free to visit; $20 for a tour
  • Website: Dive into some chocolatey goodness on the Videri website.
Videri Chocolate Factory

19. Artspace

Visit local artists and admire their work at Artspace. This arts building in downtown Raleigh is home to 20 art studios each hosting its own artist or two. You’ll find a wide variety of art available and depending when you go, you may see artists hard at work!

The goal of Artspace is to positively impact the community through art and also offers art education, kids summer camps, and community outreach. It’s a perfect way to really dive into the local culture of Raleigh.

  • Open: 11am – 7pm Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 4pm Sundays
  • Address: 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, NC
  • Cost: Free; Donations are appreciated with a suggested donation of $5
  • Website: Learn all about Artspace here.

20. Outdoor Murals

A slightly different type of “Museum” as Raleigh itself is a bit of an open air art museum with dozens of murals spread throughout downtown Raleigh. As you walk around the city, you’ll start noticing the colorful art that is splashed on the sidewalks and the sides of buildings.

From commemorative art marking Black Main Street (E Hargett St) to the famous All Are Welcome artwork (corner of W Lenoir and S McDowell), you’ll not only get to admire art throughout the city, but you may also learn a thing or two!

  • Open: 24 hours per day, 365 days per year
  • Address: Many
  • Cost: Free
  • Website: Check out the Raleigh Murals Project to learn more about the art around downtown.
Mural in downtown Raleigh stating All are Welcome

Where to Stay in Downtown Raleigh

There are a number of great areas to stay in Raleigh, but of course, downtown is one of the best! When you stay in downtown, you have easy access to a number of the best restaurants and bars in Raleigh, as well as being within walking distance of all of the top sights in Raleigh.

The top downtown Raleigh hotels are:

  1. The Raleigh Marriott City Center Hotel
  2. Residence Inn by Marriott Raleigh Downtown
  3. Hampton Inn & Suites Raleigh Downtown

Read more about the top places to stay in Raleigh, including the mentioned downtown hotels.

How to Get around Downtown Raleigh

There are many ways to get around downtown Raleigh to check out the sights. For one, the Raleigh downtown is very walkable with the main area covering under 2 square miles. This means you can walk from one end to the other in less than an hour. Of course, sometimes you want to get places faster, and for that, there are lots of options for transportation in Raleigh!

Driving & Parking

You can certainly choose to drive as there are plenty of parking garages in downtown Raleigh that have fair daily and evening rates. Most parking sits right around $5 although there are also metered spots or more expensive parking in Raleigh, especially for special events and festivals.

Citrix Cycle & Biking

Raleigh has been slowly growing the number of bike lanes available in downtown. Whether you have your own bike or are looking to rent a bike, it’s now a viable option for getting around downtown Raleigh.

The Citrix Cycle program is a local bikeshare initiative in downtown that is spread throughout the city with about 30 stations. 70% of the bikes even have an electric-assist motor in case you find the hills in downtown daunting! Learn how to use Citrix Cycles here.

Electronic Scooters

Like many downtowns, Raleigh has embraced electronic scooters. You’ll find them littered around town allowing you to scoot from one top thing to do in Raleigh to another. Just remember to drive safely as they can definitely be a bit dangerous!


Typically, downtown Raleigh, NC has its very own free bus service called the RLine. It circulates around downtown about every 15 minutes. The full route is about a 30 minutes ride. Unfortunately, during COVID, it has been suspended.

You can still get around Raleigh by bus however by taking the public GoRaleigh bus services. It services a much larger part of Raleigh and beyond.

The Capitol Building in Raleigh, NC

Additional Raleigh Insights & Tips

Having looked at the 20 top activities in Raleigh, you’ll also notice that there’s a lot of free things to do in Raleigh. In fact, you can make your trip to Raleigh pretty affordable while staying incredibly busy. Let’s dive into a few more details to make your trip to downtown Raleigh, NC a success!

How many days do you need in Raleigh?

You can explore the highlights of downtown Raleigh in just 1 day if you are tight on time, but if you really want to explore all of the top things to do in Raleigh, you could easily spend a week. This would give you time to see all of the museums in Raleigh as well as branching out into the surrounding suburbs and cities, like Chapel Hill and Durham.

What is the main street in downtown Raleigh?

Fayetteville Street is the main street of Raleigh, North Carolina. It is home to many of the largest festivals in Raleigh as well as a hotspot for bars, restaurants, and businesses. It also offers a stunning view of the State Capitol which sits at the North end of the street.

Is Raleigh a walkable city?

Yes, downtown Raleigh is extremely walkable. With sidewalks, crosswalks, and a couple of pedestrian roads, you’ll find it’s easy and stress-free to walk to all of the top Raleigh attractions in this compact city.

Is downtown Raleigh safe?

Generally speaking, if you’re walking alone in downtown Raleigh you will be perfectly safe, particularly during the day. Raleigh is actually one of the safest downtowns in the United States.

That being said, it is a city so you will encounter some people who will ask you for money. But, after living in downtown Raleigh for a few years, I have never had a bad experience. Just use basic safety precautions, like avoiding empty dark alleys at 3am, and you should be fine!

Are there bad areas in Raleigh?

None of the listed things to do in Raleigh are in bad parts of town. However, there are a few more dangerous neighborhoods in Raleigh, NC. You’ll typically find them at least a few blocks to the south or east of downtown Raleigh. If you’re coming to visit Raleigh, you are unlikely to find yourself in these parts of town.

Downtown Raleigh from the 23rd floor

Other Things to Do in Raleigh & North Carolina

This list wraps up the top things to do in downtown Raleigh, but you might have noticed no restaurants, bars, or breweries are included in this list. That’s because Raleigh has a GREAT food scene along with a number of breweries and bars you should check out, so much so that they deserve their own articles! It’s just too hard to fit all the amazing Raleigh activities and attractions in one post!

Here are some additional articles to help you plan your time in Raleigh, North Carolina:

Explore More of North Carolina

Get more out of your time in North Carolina by exploring more of this beautiful state. From the mountains to the beaches, you’ll find endless opportunities for adventure.

What would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

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Top Things to Do in Raleigh, North Carolina
Explore Downtown Raleigh, NC
20 Amazing Things to do in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina

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Comments 15

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      The acorn drop is definitely a Raleigh classic! And it’s surrounded by a whole festival with live music, food trucks, art installations, ferris wheel, etc. And of course being in the center of downtown, there are tons of bars that do NYE events as well 🙂

  1. This is such a helpful post! I have always wanted to travel here but have never had the chance… post lockdown here I come!!

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      It’s a great city! And if you’re coming through NC you should check out some of the other hot spots like Asheville and the Outer Banks!

  2. I’ve never been to North Carolina but I like the fact that Raleigh is pretty much walkable city. Pinning this post. Thank you.

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  3. This is such a great list of things to do! I would love to explore the US once restrictions are lifted. I am saving your blog for the future.

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  4. Raleigh looks like sooo much fun to walk or cycle around! There is so much history to soak up, and I love that the city has so many trees. That giant acorn is soooo cool! I had no idea that they do a big acorn drop, but it makes me want to visit for the new year!

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      It’s definitely a fun way to celebrate the New Year! No where near as grand as New York, but a lot of “Southern Charm” going into it!

  5. This Downtown Raleigh, NC guide is incredibly helpful. You’ve really thought through everything you need to know before planning a trip. Thank you for this helpful resource. Saving this guide for later!

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