Free (or nearly free) experiences and attractions can anchor any trip to Raleigh, N.C. Explore Raleigh’s historic neighborhoods, world-class museums, Southern diners, outdoor green spaces, performing arts venues, local shops, breweries and underground cocktail without spending a fortune.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Delight, entertain and educate with fascinating exhibits, both featured and permanent, about the natural world. The museum’s four floors are divided into two parts—the Nature Exploration Center (where you’ll find the Terror of the South) and the Nature Research Center, an unmistakable architectural icon that opened to much fanfare a decade ago. Exhibits range from detailed dioramas to actual ecosystems with living animals—all of which can be explored through various self-guided tours.
Hunt for murals and public art
The expansive public art scene in Raleigh is quickly proving that beautiful and awe-inspiring art can easily be found both inside and outside of the area’s awesome museums and galleries. Slip on your walking shoes and hit the streets to find more than 140 pieces of public art (just downtown) that make for perfect photo opsabout Hunting for murals! Note: Some murals are located downtown, and others are around the county in nearby towns.
North Carolina Museum of History
Founded in 1902, this museum allows visitors to access more than 14,000 years and 150,000 artifacts of N.C. history in a dynamic and immersive setting. Artifacts range from a full-size replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer to the lunch counter from a 1960 sit-in in Salisbury, N.C. (plus much, much more including the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame!)
City of Raleigh Museum (COR Museum)
The COR Museum examines and interprets the city’s history with the goal of “preserving Raleigh’s past for its future.” Past and present exhibits include an exploration of Raleigh’s journey toward Civil Rights, an examination of local democracy as well as a survey of Raleigh’s music scene from 1976 to 1985.
Tour Historic Oakwood for a wonderful array of late 19th- and early 20th-century Victorian-inspired homes featuring a diversity of architectural styles. The homes, some with the most beautiful gardens, have been lovingly restored to exude old-world charm and splendor. You can explore this 30-block neighborhood by car or on foot. For a self-guided tour brochure, visit the Raleigh, N.C., Visitor Information Center.
Art lovers rejoice! First Friday draws thousands downtown for a free, self-guided tour of cutting-edge cultural hot spots—local art galleries, art studios, alternative art venues and museums. Tour stops can feature music, a variety of creative works, wine samples, hors d’oeuvres and more. Local tip: Look for the First Friday flags to easily locate participating venues or pick up a detailed map/guide.
Artspace gives 100,000 visitors per year the chance to witness creativity in action. Visitors can peruse 30,000 square feet of galleries, get an up close and personal look at artists as they work, create and display masterpieces of your very own and even purchase that piece you can’t live without.
Videri Chocolate Factory
A chocolate lover’s paradise! Visit the cozy, fully-operational, bean-to-bar chocolate factory and retail space located in the Warehouse District of downtown (a must-stop on any visit for chocolate and coffee lovers). Don’t forget to take the free, self-guided tour of the chocolate-making process and get a sample of some of Videri’s classic bars.
Smart, modern and a little unexpected, the Contemporary Art Museum is a favorite among locals, and for good reason. This striking, non-collecting contemporary art museum, located in downtown Raleigh’s rapidly-growing Warehouse District, displays new and emerging work by local and national living artists. Every exhibition is unique, bold, highly memorable and designed to be thought-provoking and transformative. Opened in 2011, this expansive, light-filled gallery space is now free admission.
North Carolina State Capitol (July 2023 update: currently closed for renovations)
This National Historic Landmark stands as one of the best-preserved examples of a civic building in Greek Revival-style architecture. Originally, the Capitol building housed the governor’s office, cabinet offices, legislative chambers, state library and state geologist’s office. You can tour all three floors of the building (guided tours are available at no cost each Sat. at 11 am and 2 pm) as well as explore the numerous statues and monuments on Union Square.
OUTSIDE OF DOWNTOWN
North Carolina Museum of Art
One of the most visited attractions in the entire state (and ranked by Insider as one of the top 25 museums in the country!), the North Carolina Museum of Art and its permanent galleries are open to the public free of charge. You would also be wise to stroll through the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, with its monumental public art installations and miles of multi-use trails weaving throughout.
William B. Umstead State Park
N.C.’s most visited state park maintains its status as a peaceful and affordable getaway thanks to its sheer size. With more than 5,000 acres of forest, trails and lakes, this natural oasis is a must-do destination for outdoor enthusiasts—hikers, cyclists, horseback riders and canoeists included! Local tip: Park at the Old Reedy Creek Rd. trailhead for one of the best ways to take advantage of the park’s multi-use trails. Take a look at the full map here.
State Farmers Market, Raleigh
One of the best and most modern markets in the U.S., boasting 75 acres of indoor and outdoor vendor space. Shop and sample some of the freshest fruits, vegetables, meats and gift products from across the state year-round. Also check out the specialty gifts shops, plus the ever-popular State Farmers Market Restaurant (don’t miss the biscuits!)
Entertaining families since 1887, Pullen Park—nestled between downtown Raleigh and the main campus of North Carolina State University—was established as N.C.’s first state park (and it’s the fifth oldest amusement park in the U.S.). Admission and access to the playgrounds, grassy and tree-shaded areas, picnic shelters, grills and tables are all free. Families can also enjoy amusement rides, including a historic carousel first built in 1911, for a small fee.
JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University
Stroll through 10 acres of floral beauty at this nationally acclaimed garden with one of the largest and most diverse collections of landscape plants. With more than 5,000 plants collected from all over the world on display, you catch blooms any time of the year. Nearly 20 different gardens can be explored, each with a unique theme and space—a Japanese garden, a butterfly garden, a rooftop terrace filled with heat-tolerant plants and more.
Dorothea Dix Park
At a whopping 308 acres near the heart of downtown Raleigh, Dorothea Dix Park offers beautiful rolling hills, huge shade trees and stunning views of the downtown skyline. Open to the public from dawn to dusk, the park plays host to a range of outdoor activities—sunset watching, bike riding, soccer matches, picnics, yoga and more.
James B. Hunt Jr. Library
Said by some to be one of the most advanced libraries in the world, the James B. Hunt Library (opened in 2013) was built to reflect North Carolina State University‘s status as a preeminent technological research university. Bold and iconic, the library’s architectural design strikes a unique presence with its intriguing design of glass and zigzagging, solar fins. Inside, be dazzled by technological wonders like curved digital display screens, touchscreen kiosks and bookBot—a subterranean robot programmed to fetch books from the 1.5 million housed in an underground storage facility.
Historic Yates Mill County Park
At 174 acres, this wildlife refuge and environmental research center has it all—hiking trails, a 24-acre pond and Historic Yates Mill, Wake County’s last remaining gristmill (fully restored and operable!). 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. Admission is free, but the mill tour (available to the public March through Nov.) costs $3-$5.
Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden
A landmark at the center of the Raleigh Little Theatre campus. Tucked away behind Hillsborough St., the garden sports thousands of flowers which boom each spring, including more than 60 varieties of roses. It’s a serene, relaxing atmosphere accessed freely from sunrise to sunset. In the summer months, a free outdoor movie series is a local-favorite activity.
Neuse River Greenway Trail
A 27.5-mile paved, uninterrupted greenway that stretches from Falls Lake in North Raleigh to the Wake County line in southeast Raleigh is a year-round haven for outdoor recreation. With views of historic sites as well as winding boardwalk areas and suspension bridges crossing over wetlands, the trail is open to joggers, walkers, runners, cyclists, roller-bladers and others. Many consider this trail to be the gem of the 100-plus-mile Capital Area Greenway System. Local tip: Read up on what you need to know about the trail with this handy guide.
Explore even more of Raleigh with the complete guide of Things to Do in Downtown Raleigh!
Source: Visit Raleigh