20+ Outdoorsy, Tasty & Free Things to do in Raleigh NC
Looking for the best free things to do in Raleigh NC? Or maybe the best outdoor activities in Raleigh, or a new place to eat (or drink)? We’ve got you covered with a huge list of free, outdoor, and foodie things to do in Raleigh. Local or visitor, we guarantee you’ll find something new here!
Fast-growing Raleigh, North Carolina, is one part welcoming, ultra-hospitable Southern city and another part innovative contemporary metropolis.
Numerous universities, including prestigious Duke and UNC, are nearby, lending the city a young, creative, and happening atmosphere. There’s certainly never a shortage of fun and FREE things to do in Raleigh!
We love the expansive green spaces interspersed throughout the city, from beautiful wooded trails to impeccably-manicured rose gardens.
The museum scene is world-class, with almost all offering free admission (yep, seriously!). And we can’t forget Raleigh’s killer brewery, foodie, and coffee shop scenes, arguably among the best in the country.
There are so many unique and even free things to do in Raleigh, the only difficulty you’ll have is deciding what to do first! Ready to fall in love with this vibrant city?
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Jump ahead to:
- Best Time to Visit Raleigh
- Unique & Fun Things to do in Raleigh
- Outdoor Activities in Raleigh NC
- Free Things to do in Raleigh NC
- 8. Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park
- 9. Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden
- 10. Pullen Park
- 11. NC State Capitol
- 12. Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve
- 13. Free Museums in Raleigh
- 14. Historic Yates Mill County Park
- Things to do in Raleigh for Foodies
- Getting There
- Where to Stay in Raleigh
Best Time to Visit Raleigh
Raleigh experiences all four seasons, so the best time to visit largely depends on what you plan to see and do. Spring and fall are the overall best times to visit Raleigh for pleasant temps, plus there are loads of activities across the city.
Winters in Raleigh can be very wet and cold, while the summers are dependably hot and muggy. Still, each of these seasons has its own distinct charms. After all, there’s nothing quite like ice skating or going on a bona fide camping trip in the middle of a major city!
Regardless of when you visit, there’s always some fun things to do in Raleigh!
- For a winter visit, bundle up and hop between Raleigh museums. All near one other, you can make a day of taking in art and learning about local history and natural science. Warm up with hot cocoa or craft beer in between, and finish the day bar-hopping on Glenwood Ave.
- In springtime, flowers (magnolias!) bloom and the city comes alive with festivals! Dreamville Fest brings live music to Dorothea Dix park, and there’s also Brewgaloo. There are other art, food, and cultural celebrations almost every other weekend in the spring.
- When the summer sun sizzles, rent a bike to make the most of Raleigh’s abundant outdoor spaces. Explore the Neuse River Greenway and finish with a cold beer. Are you catching on that many of the best things to do in Raleigh revolve around the outdoors and beer?!
- Fall brings cooler temps and vibrant foliage to Raleigh. Explore Umstead State Park for a bold dash of color and then head to the N.C. State Fair. And it should come as no surprise that Raleigh has a fantastic Oktoberfest!
Unique & Fun Things to do in Raleigh
From getting outside or on the water to indulging your inner foodie and taking advantage of the city’s freebies, there so many awesome things to do in Raleigh NC!
Outdoor Activities in Raleigh NC
While several hours from both the North Carolina coast and the Appalachian Mountains, Raleigh has no shortage of outdoor activities. An abundance of expansive green spaces, extensive greenway trails, and several picturesque lakes make this a great city for enjoying the outdoors.
1. William B. Umstead State Park
There are incredible outdoor activities in Raleigh NC even within city boundaries. Heck, some of the best outdoor things to do in Raleigh are right downtown!
Umstead State Park has more than 20 miles of trails that weave through trickling streams, dense forests, and small lakes. Of all Raleigh’s parks, this one is best for disconnecting from urban life (and yet, it’s one of the most accessible!).
Make sure to set aside enough time to find the park’s “chainsaw art,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Local artists carved intricate details into a downed 25-foot tree back in 2017 and miraculously, it’s been incredibly well-preserved.
Insider tip: the easiest route to the chainsaw art in Umstead State Park is from the Sycamore Parking lot near the Crabtree Creek entrance.
2. Dorothea Dix Park
For a more urban park with city skyline views, check out expansive Dorothea Dix! Home to many events and free things to do in Raleigh throughout the year including various races, concerts, hot air balloons, and food festivals, it’s the ideal setting to dive into the city’s culture.
Sunsets and sunrises from the park are spectacular, and several well-preserved historic buildings add a distinct charm. During the summer, there’s even a sunflower field! Here are a few of our favorite spots in Dix Park:
- Harvey Hill – 4-acre space with enormous mature oaks and perfectly framed peek-a-boo views of downtown Raleigh
- The Grove – Near Harvey Hill, this hilly area has one of the park’s three hammock groves. Yep — a hammock grove! The Grove also has great sledding hills in the winter.
- The Flower Field – From spring daffodils to sunflowers in the summer, spending time here is one of the best free things to do in Raleigh NC
3. Neuse River Greenway Trail
There are truly so many opportunities for outdoor activities in Raleigh NC. The Neuse River Greenway is perhaps the city’s most popular escape. 27.5 miles in total, the paved trail passes through woods and wetlands and offers postcard-worthy river views.
The greenway also comprises a portion of the Mountains-to-Sea route, which stretches 1,200 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to the North Carolina coastline.
Looking a more local destination? Use the greenway for accessing the Art to Heart route, which connects the North Carolina Museum of Art with downtown Raleigh.
4. Lake Raleigh
On the North Carolina State University campus, Lake Raleigh is a peaceful lake perfect for getting some exercise outdoors, boating, or fishing.
Surrounded by lush greenery, there are walking and mountain bike trails, disc golf, plenty of benches for relaxing, and much more. We love taking the Walnut Creek Trail and stopping for some quiet reflection.
The lake is also a wonderful setting for paddleboarding or kayaking (rent one onsite or bring your own inflatable kayak!), two other favorite outdoor activities in Raleigh NC.
5. Raleigh City Farm
Outdoor activities in Raleigh NC aren’t limited just to recreation, but incorporate community as well! This incredible nonprofit city farm not only grows delicious produce, but also spreads education about sustainable practices through fun social activities.
The farm’s most famous and beloved weekly event, WINE + WEEDS, is an excellent opportunity to connect with locals while helping out on the grounds.
It’s wonderful to learn about gardening and composting while simultaneously drinking wine from a compostable cup, chatting with your neighbor, and enjoying the beautiful space, all in the heart of Raleigh.
We also love shopping at the weekly farmstand for the best local produce! It’s a pay-what-you-can model, which we absolutely adore!
6. Treerunner Raleigh Adventure Park
Visiting this awesome adventure park is one of the best things to do in Raleigh for families! An elaborate jungle gym suspended high in the trees, there are challenging courses for adults and easier ones geared toward young children.
Being suspended 15-30 feet in the air certainly adds an adrenaline kick, but no need to worry; the safety system is well thought-out and the staff is very attentive.
A great place for a party or simply a fun weekend family activity outdoors, this is a wonderful way for anyone to burn off some energy and get fresh air.
7. Fantasy Lake Adventure Park
Ahh, the North Carolina outdoors: woods, lakes, camping, and…scuba diving?! Yep! At this quarry lake with surprisingly clear water, divers are welcome to explore underwater, complete with wrecks and fish.
A popular place for SCUBA training, Fantasy Lake Adventure Park coordinates with local instructors to provide certifications and a calm environment to practice the many ins and outs of diving. Note that swimming isn’t allowed without gear on.
Want to make a whole weekend of it (or at least an overnight)? Pitch a tent at one of the primitive lakeside campsites! All around, this adventure park is one of the most unique outdoor activities in Raleigh NC.
Free Things to do in Raleigh NC
Traveling to Raleigh doesn’t need to break the bank. In fact, most of the city’s notable museums don’t charge a penny, and there are parks, historical spots, and several other free things to do in Raleigh to keep you occupied.
8. Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park
Part of the NC Museum of Art, this beautiful outdoor sculpture park combines nature with creativity. Home to various large-scale sculptures — some massive, others quirky, all interesting — the park is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable free things to do in Raleigh NC.
All the sculptures are designed specifically for the park, and it’s fascinating to consider their interaction with and impact on the environment. In addition to the sculptures themselves, the park has nearly five miles of recreational trails and several picnic spots.
9. Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden
We love a good photography session with a colorful flower backdrop! This magical, super photogenic garden in the city center is the perfect setting, with over 1,200 roses from dozens of varieties.
The roses bloom through the entire summer, usually finishing in early autumn. There are so many colors and shapes, simply studying them is one of the most interesting free things to do in Raleigh NC.
Even outside of bloom season, the rose garden offers plenty to do. Catch a free show in the amphitheater, stroll the paths, or enjoy a picnic.
10. Pullen Park
America’s fifth oldest amusement park is full of charm and delightful family-friendly activities.
There’s an old-school carousel (and we mean old-school literally — it was built in the early 1900s and has been in near-continuous use ever since!), a kiddie train, playgrounds, paddle boats, gazebos, a cafe, and a theater!
Coming to Pullen Park feels like stepping back in time. It’s all about cute, wholesome fun and encourages visitors to put their phones away and immerse themselves in the present.
In addition to the rides and water activities, Pullen Park has beautiful walking paths and frequently hosts events.
Check the calendar at the art center for activities such as pottery, bookmaking, or glass arts. Note that while visiting Pullen Park in general is one of the best free things to do in Raleigh, the rides and most special events cost a small fee.
11. NC State Capitol
Opened in 1833 (a replacement of the previous Capitol, destroyed in a fire in 1831), the North Carolina State Capitol building is a shining example of Greek Revival architecture. “Shining” is meant literally — the building is topped with a shiny copper dome!
Taking a self-guided tour of the Capitol is one of the best free things to do in Raleigh NC. As you walk around, you’ll find numerous exhibits sprinkled throughout and excited, friendly staff happy to share historical anecdotes. We were surprised by how much of the building is open to the public!
There’s an assembly hall, rotunda, and our favorite, the library! It feels like the room hasn’t changed a bit in 100 years, from the dust on the books to the oak tables.
12. Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve
Set in a dense and verdant hemlock forest, this Raleigh nature preserve offers several trails and an education center.
Sustainability is at the forefront of the park, from its mulch and boardwalk trails to environmentally-friendly activities and informative signposts. Particularly scenic in the springtime, it’s one of the best outdoor (and free!) things to do in Raleigh with friends or family.
13. Free Museums in Raleigh
Especially when temperatures creep into the 90s or it’s very cold out, museums are our go-to for free things to do in Raleigh NC. From history to art and science, there’s a museum for every interest, and we love how they’re all so accessible!
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS)
Who doesn’t like dinosaurs and geology?! The NCMNS has a seriously impressive collection of fossils, including a life-size T-Rex.
The rest of the exhibits are fantastic, too, outlining the state’s natural history from prehistoric times until now. Great for kids and kids at heart, everything from snakes to rocks occupy the four floors, making the NCMNS one of the best free museums in Raleigh.
Pope House Museum
A historical relic among modernization, the small but fascinating Pope House Museum chronicles the life of Manassa Thomas Pope, North Carolina’s first African-American doctor, businessman, politician, and philanthropist.
Through guided tours and thoughtful, well-written exhibits, the free Raleigh museum showcases the man’s extraordinary life and perseverance through the Jim Crow era.
Contemporary Art Museum (CAM)
This non-collecting museum (meaning that it does not own or maintain its own permanent collections) is one of our favorites in the city!
The Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh features an interesting range of work, from local community-based art to internationally recognized masters.
The CAM building itself is worth a visit and we adore the approachable, non-stuffy atmosphere. It’s definitely one of the best free things to do in Raleigh!
North Carolina Museum of History
Next door to the science museum is this awesome historical counterpart. We all know some history exhibits can be a bit stale, but that’s absolutely not the case here!
There are so many cool artifacts at the NC Museum of History, including a rebuilt soda fountain, two entire houses, one of the first airplanes, cars, military equipment, and so much more!
Even if you aren’t a history buff, make sure to stop by — it’s one of the best free things to do in Raleigh!
14. Historic Yates Mill County Park
A park where nature blends seamlessly with history, the star attraction of this preserve is a 1750 water gristmill that’s still operational!
Surrounded by scenic, lush forest, a nice pond, and several hiking trails (yet only five miles from downtown!), Historic Yates Mill County Park is one of the most pleasant free things to do in Raleigh NC. During the summer, you can also take a tour for just $5 to learn about the gristmill process!
Things to do in Raleigh for Foodies
Raleigh has long been on the map as a BBQ-lovers’ haven. Due to the diversity of the city’s population, it also boasts fantastic brewery and foodie scenes, with influences from around the globe.
You’ll find all the quintessential Southern classics here, as well as everything from delicious Mexican food to Jamaican, Lebanese, Thai, and more. Indecisive? You can try it all at Raleigh’s food halls!
15. Breweries in Raleigh
Don’t get us wrong, we LOVE parks, museums, and other cultural attractions, but one of our favorite things to do in Raleigh is to enjoy local brews.
This city is truly a mecca for beer lovers, as proven by Raleigh Beer Garden — home to the largest selection of taps in the entire world! Aside from the legendary taproom, there are also a ton of micro- and craft breweries in Raleigh.
The city adds an extra element of fun to drinking with the Raleigh Beer Trail. Get a stamp from each local brewery you visit and once you collect a certain number of stamps, redeem them for prizes. It’s a unique, tasty way to explore the city and one of our favorite things to do in Raleigh.
Here are some of our favorite Raleigh breweries.
- Trophy Brewing: Each of the three locations offers a slightly different food accompaniment. One has pizza, another Southern fare, and the third, food trucks. Their beer is excellent, with a diverse range of styles and excellent cider.
- Crank Arm Brewing: A super-chill Raleigh brewery with a cycling theme, Crank Arm is ideal for a casual afternoon hangout. They have a dog-friendly patio and convenient location, and even encourage patrons to bring their own food.
- Funguys Brewing: We’re all aboard the smoothie-style beer trend, and these guys do a phenomenal job! Low alcohol content and bursting with fruity flavors, Funguys’ “Smoothsicles” are perfect for hot summer days.
- Brewery Bhavana: This chic, stylish spot complements its superb beer with tasty dim-sum. With highly Instagrammable decor and an often packed dining room, Bhavana is a buzzy spot featuring complex brews like wood-aged ales and fruit-infused dubbels.
Want to check out several Raleigh breweries without worrying about driving? A craft beer tasting tour is one of the best things to do in Raleigh for beer lovers!
Raleigh Beer Garden
Although it isn’t, by definition, a brewery, we can’t discuss breweries in Raleigh without mentioning this beloved local institution! Even if you aren’t into beer, just stopping into the Raleigh Beer Garden is one of the best things to do in Raleigh!
There are a staggering 366 taps (the world’s largest draft beer selection!) spread out over multiple floors, with over one-third from around North Carolina.
In fact, there’s one whole bar dedicated to NC brews, as well as one for international beers, plus the actual beer garden, a rooftop, and a spirits bar! Food offerings are tasty, too.
16. Raleigh Food Halls
The unique communal fun doesn’t end with breweries in Raleigh! The city’s lively, impressive food halls combine reasonably priced, tasty selections with large indoor-outdoor spaces and plenty of entertainment.
- Morgan Street Food Hall: The slightly bigger, perpetually bustling of Raleigh’s two food halls offers plenty of tasty quick bites and photo-worthy sweets. The owner of Raleigh Beer Garden also owns Morgan Street, which partially explains why it’s consistently packed.
- Transfer Co. Food Hall: Our personal favorite of the two, Transfer is a bit more stylish and offers more room, plus has a slightly higher-end food selection. Plus, Transfer Co. has coffee and beer (namely Burial Brewing!), so people can socialize without buying a full meal.
17. North Carolina State Farmer’s Market
This sprawling, open-year-round farmer’s market beautifully showcases Raleigh’s farm-to-table culture.
The colorful produce looks spectacular in every season, from the pumpkins in fall to the winter veggies and berries in the summer! Just strolling around taking it all in is one of our favorite things to do in Raleigh.
Stop by for fresh-baked treats, spices and other pantry staples, bouquets of freshly-picked flowers, locally-made crafts and art, and pet products. Plus, there are always plenty of free samples and usually events going on, such as live music or demos. There’s even a great seafood restaurant onsite!
18. Videri Chocolate Factory
Mmm, chocolate…Videri produces some seriously delicious versions of the good stuff, but we also love how visiting the shop itself is an experience.
Take a self-guided tour of the Bean Salon, which highlights the fascinating and complex chocolate-making process. Available Tuesdays through Saturdays, the tour is one of the best free things to do in Raleigh!
There’s also a cafe onsite, serving up a perfectly eclectic mix of soft-serve ice cream, mochas, and even a bit of bourbon. The staff is super friendly, there’s a spacious shaded patio out back, and Videri even runs an after-hours walk-up window to cure those sweet tooth cravings.
19. Gallo Pelon Mezcal Bar
Breweries in Raleigh are much more of a “thing,” but don’t sleep on this impressive mezcaleria.
Gallo Pelon Mezcal Bar has a fantastic mezcal selection, and the other craft cocktails, food, and overall vibe are top-notch, as well.
During our visit, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff helped us curate our own tasting flight of the complex Mexican spirit. Gallo Pelon’s cocktails are impeccably crafted and elaborate, making great use of their unique spirits.
A true Raleigh gem, anyone looking for a unique bar experience, or with even the faintest interest in agave spirits, should swing by this swanky-but-welcoming hotspot.
20. Raleigh Walking Food Tour
What better way to get to know a city than through its food? In Raleigh, known for its well-preserved historic architecture and scenic tree-lined streets alongside its vibrant food scene, a walking tour really immerses you into the heartbeat of the city.
Tours are themed, typically focusing on a specific neighborhood or type of cuisine, offering interesting local anecdotes in addition to the food and drinks.
Chefs and restaurant owners often make time to chat with tour participants, so you get a behind-the-scenes look into what Raleigh’s food scene is all about. This is one of our favorite things to do in Raleigh (and truthfully, in any city!), especially because the tours focus on local chefs.
Psst…want even more fun and cheap things to do in raleigh NC? Check these out!
Getting to Raleigh is relatively easy, with its central location and proximity to other major cities. While it’s not a massive hub, Raleigh-Durham International Airport offers plenty of daily flights in and out of the city.
Insider tip: RDU is notoriously expensive from certain origin cities, particularly in the West. If your travel plans are somewhat flexible, consider taking a mini road trip and flying into Charlotte, less than three hours away.
For those road-tripping altogether and not flying in, Raleigh makes a convenient stop en route to or from Washington, D.C., to Southern destinations including Atlanta, Nashville, or Charleston.
Getting Around Raleigh
Raleigh is smack in the middle of North Carolina. It’s just over three hours from Nags Head in the Outer Banks (beaches) and about 3.75 hours from Asheville to the west, home of great thrift shops and a ton of adorable wineries.
Like most cities in the South, a car is the most convenient way to get around Raleigh. If you prefer to travel without one, however (like for brewery-hopping), there are several options.
The R-Line bus, which is completely free, makes convenient stops throughout downtown and other popular destinations including the convention center, universities, and entertainment districts.
Raleigh also has an excellent bicycling program, Cardinal Bikeshare.
For as little as $2, you can pick up a bike from one of over 30 locations around the downtown area, then drop it back off at another location at your convenience. Cycling through the city’s expansive parks is one of the best outdoor activities in Raleigh NC!
Being a major city, rideshare like Uber and Lyft, as well as taxis, are readily available. And if you prefer to explore by foot, many of Raleigh’s neighborhoods are extremely walkable! Plan stops into breweries, cafes, or shops and make a whole day of it!
Where to Stay in Raleigh
Especially if you’re traveling without a car, downtown Raleigh is the best place to stay. Many of the city’s best restaurants and breweries, plus museums and other cultural attractions, are within walking distance of the downtown core.
Raleigh is pretty compact, so even if you opt to stay in another part of the city, it’s likely within a 15-minute drive of downtown!
Hotels in Raleigh
An uber-stylish take on a Mid-century motor lounge, the Longleaf offers airy rooms with chic touches.
The drinks are fantastic and they serve coffee and pastries from local shops in the morning. Plus, museums and some of the best eateries (including Sir Walter Coffee, Crank Arm Brewing, and Videri Chocolate!) are just blocks away.
Overlooking Lake Raleigh, this modern hotel has large, comfy rooms, a gym, swimming pool, restaurant, and bar. Nestled in the woods next to NC State, it’s only a few minutes from downtown but perfect for visiting campus or exploring the trails.
A slice of luxury in the ultra-picturesque neighboring community of Cary, every detail is taken care of at this boutique hotel. Popular for weddings and special occasions, the Mayton exudes Southern charm. The onsite restaurant is delicious, and communal areas highlight lovely historical touches.
Raleigh NC Vacation Rentals
If vacation rentals are more your style than traditional hotels, Raleigh has many excellent options. Going this route often means staying in a historic building in a charming, picturesque neighborhood with a local feel.
Here are some of the best vacation rentals in Raleigh.
- Downtown studio – private courtyard, kitchenette with Nespresso machine, and complimentary loaner bikes
- Historic downtown garden guest house – located in historic Oakwood with a private porch and within walking distance to fab restaurants
- Insta-worthy stay downtown – 3-bedroom home for sleeping up to 10 and with parking for 3 vehicles, within walking distance of several hotspots
- The Narrow House – A unique home that’s just 10 feet wide, this surprisingly spacious Raleigh vacation rental has made national headlines!
- 5-bedroom Georgian home downtown – A great pick for large groups, this home near NC State sleeps 12
- Tin Louie Airstream – for a unique glamping experience in northeast Raleigh, book this 25-foot Airstream with patio, grill, and smart TV
So, there you have it — a complete guide to all the best things to do in Raleigh, plus tips on where to eat and drink, where to stay, getting around, and so much more!
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What other hotspots or outdoor activities in Raleigh did we miss? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to save this post on Pinterest to help others discover it!