As a Duke fan all my life, I was pretty familiar with Durham before attending Fuqua. I’ve always known it to be a culturally rich and diverse place, but I was surprised to see how fast it has grown. Since I arrived about a year and a half ago, I’ve seen new construction, businesses and restaurants pop up around the city. As a Duke student, there are many opportunities to explore Durham, whether it is with classmates as part of school-sponsored events or enjoying an evening out with your partner.
Learning what Durham has to offer can be a bit overwhelming for incoming students. I put together this blog post of some of my favorite spots in Durham to serve as a starting point for anyone planning a weekend visit before moving in or beginning to explore the city as a new resident. These are all places I have personally experienced and can vouch for, I won’t attempt to advocate for anything I haven’t personally purchased (and likely consumed too much of).
Maybe you’ve just landed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport or just finished unpacking the U-Haul and settled into your new apartment on 9th Street. Whatever the scenario, you’re likely hungry and will be looking for a good place to eat.
My first recommendation is to visit Durham’s top Italian restaurant, Gocciolina. It is in a quiet part of town and tucked away from much of Durham’s nightlife. What sets Gocciolina apart from a few other good options for Italian food is its emphasis on local ingredients and its insistence on making nearly all its pasta and sauces in-house. While Gocciolina does have a small static menu, I tend to pay special attention to its large chalkboard which features a rotating menu that changes seasonally, (and often daily) based on what is available. Make sure to plan ahead by making reservations at least a week in advance.
What To Get: Try a bottle of wine or an amaro flight, follow your drink with an order of the Sicilian anchovies to start (understanding the menu changes frequently), followed by the hand-cut linguine with white winter truffles, and then homemade pistachio gelato for dessert.
One great way to start off the weekend is by taking a walk through Duke’s East campus on the way to the Central Park neighborhood. As a popular area for young families and growing faster than just about any neighborhood in town, Central Park offers an ever-expanding list of quaint restaurants, bars, breweries, and distilleries.
The Durham Farmers’ Market is a must-see, and I recommend grabbing a seasonal special coffee from the award-winning Cocoa Cinnamon. While the regular lattes and coffee options are plenty good, Cocoa Cinnamon’s seasonal menu features some truly inventive creations to sip.
What To Get: “The Land of Sad Oranges” is a twist on the traditional vanilla latte but one could also go completely off-script and order the Accessory of Teszcatlipoca, a drink featuring a taste of mushroom milk and cocoa.
Remaining in the general downtown area, there are many options for a fun afternoon. If baseball season is in full swing, make your way to the growing and historic American Tobacco campus for some shopping before catching a Durham Bulls game next door. If baseball isn’t being played, you can still visit the Durham Museum of Life and Science, a few miles north of downtown. It has exhibits for all seasons and types of weather (it also has a bit for all ages).
At this point, you’ve done quite a bit of walking so reward yourself with a good meal at Littler. With an emphasis on seasonality and locally sourced ingredients, Littler offers an intimate environment in which to try creative takes on classic dishes and the opportunity to put your faith in the bartender via the mystery cocktail of the evening.
What To Get: Start with a half dozen local NC oysters followed by the pumpkin shellfish bisque. If you’re not a seafood lover or perhaps are in the mood for vegetables, the carrot cavatelli is a great option. For the main course, the beef cheek and ribeye duo, flounder schnitzel, and crispy mushroom wild rice are some of my favorites. Dessert offerings are always changing, but I enjoyed the ube leche flan as a way to finish off the meal. Be warned, you’ll again want to plan well ahead with reservations and be prepared for smaller plate sizes.
By now you might be too full to move—check to see who is performing at the nearby Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) that night and strongly consider getting tickets if it’s someone you like. Recently, comedian Hassan Minhaj was at the DPAC and his show was a hit.
Afterwards, or perhaps directly following dinner, walk over to Bar Virgile or Annexe. Both spots are housed in the same building, with Bar Virgile placing more of an emphasis on conversation and Annexe being a more likely starting point for a lively night.
What To Get: At Annexe, there’s a heavy focus on rum and cocktails with a tropical slant. I like their tiki cocktails or mocktails. At Bar Virgile, the bar food is way better than it has any right to be. While the menu changes, the Elote Picante is a unique cocktail and the Duck Hunt is ideal for chillier winter nights.
Depending on what sort of Saturday night you had, you probably want a big meal, and the good news is you’re covered with Alimentari at Mothers & Sons. Alimentari offers fresh, homemade ingredients like bread, pasta, and meatballs, as well as a lunch and a brunch menu on Saturdays.
What To Get: Start with an espresso and follow that up with either a breakfast sandwich on their homemade focaccia bread or a muffuletta sandwich. I also love their pizza bianco, and a vegetarian choice is the caprese salad. You’re in the South, so don’t leave without trying their pecan sticky bun and then perhaps grab some fresh cold cuts and spreads from their grocery counter.
A basketball game at Cameron or other Duke sports game is the perfect way to end a busy weekend in Durham. From lacrosse to baseball, soccer, or softball, they’re all great options to exercise school spirit. If the weather is nice, the world-famous Duke Lemur Center is a great way to see amazing animals in an educational setting.
If neither of these paths are appealing, there’s probably an interesting speaker on campus or you could simply take in nature and art at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens followed by some time at the Nasher Museum.
For a nice meal that won’t hurt your wallet, I’d suggest Taqueria La Vaquita which is located near campus and has plenty of outdoor seating.
What To Get: There’s no wrong answer, but I particularly like the lengua tacos, the pupusas (with or without meat) and a large amount of horchata.
I came to Durham with the expectation of having all kinds of experiences, and still, Durham’s diversity in all forms has been a nice surprise for me and my partner. While it seems like I might have thrown a ton out to do and try, the truth is that many deserving restaurants and activities were left off the list. Places like Liberty & Plenty, Pizzeria Toro, M Sushi, Chosun OK, and Brightleaf Square are a few of my other favorite spots. The multitude of options means there’s something for all tastes—that’s what makes Durham so unique.