We spent a weekend in the Raleigh-Durham area last October before heading to our fall vacation in Asheville. The weather was beautiful–not too hot nor cold, and we really enjoyed the North Carolina Museum of Art and our visit to Duke University, where we visited Duke Gardens and the Duke University Chapel on campus.
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh is a must-see if you like art museums. There is no admission to tour their permanent collection, though there is a fee for any special exhibits or programs. It is a typical, big-city art museum– large open areas with white walls, and lots of art to ponder. We enjoyed Auguste Rodin’s lifelike sculptures, and saw The Kiss and The Thinker, two of his most well-known works. Larger Rodin sculptures were also displayed in the Rodin Garden, an outdoor courtyard right outside of the museum.
Iris, the Museum’s on-site restaurant, is a wonderful choice for lunch. Since we hadn’t paid any admission, it was nice to know that proceeds from our meal at Iris would benefit future growth and development at the museum. This could be an average, convenient place to just grab a bite to eat since you’re there, but instead, Iris is a beautiful restaurant in an open, artsy area, and our meal was gourmet and delicious. We had the Oak City Benedict, which is a very creative combination that starts with a grilled sweet potato scallion biscuit, which is topped with rosemary cured ham, fried green tomatoes, two poached eggs, and grainy mustard hollandaise sauce. Quite an array of flavors! Rosemary roasted potatoes are included. I have to say this was the most unique and delicious brunch item I’ve ever had, and if I lived in the area, I would eat there quite often! Our dessert was also quite unique: orange cardamom ice cream with dried apples and strawberries over apple cobbler. Because it’s a small area, reservations are advised.
The Museum Park is the outdoor area right outside the museum. Walking any one of several trails, you will pass multiple works of outdoor art, which I always enjoy because of their immense size. We walked the Ambler, which is the loop trail closest to the museum. There are other trails that will take you further out that include some steep sections, but we did not do them. According to the park map, the longest trail will take about 1.5 hours. After our walk, we headed downtown.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh is a free, 4-story science museum that kids should love. Street parking is free on weekends. You’ll see the usual large vertebrate skeletons and life-like dioramas, and I was especially impressed with the insect exhibit on the 4th floor. High-resolution close-up photos of insects adorned the walls and were fascinating. Have you ever really seen a fly’s face up close? My son would’ve loved it when he was younger. There was even a live butterfly exhibit area, where you walk through a mini-jungle full of butterflies. In another area, I recall seeing these bright, fluorescent blue poisonous frogs. They did not look real, which is what made them all the more fascinating.
Duke Gardens, Durham
Sarah P. Duke Gardens, on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, is recognized as one of the premier public gardens in the U.S. While there is no admission fee, there is a charge for parking. We were there last October, on a beautiful sunny day when the weather was perfect, neither hot nor cold, and spent several hours just walking around, enjoying the gardens.
There are four different garden areas, each with its own ambience, and to truly enjoy the gardens, you will need a minimum of two hours because there are over 5 miles of pathways altogether. The Asian influence is obvious in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, which has a large pond and Asian architectural elements like bridges and stone lanterns. We found this area to be very peaceful and tranquil.
The Terrace Gardens seem very American, with a rose, azalea, and camellia garden. There’s also a large, open grassy area where people were throwing Frisbees, and families were tossing balls with their kids. This area had a nice, warm, family feeling to it. The stone terraces that this area is named for actually represent lines of latitude. The view from the top of the terrace looking down is quite different from the view at the bottom looking up, so make sure to check it out from both sides.
The H. L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants displays many native regional plants and you will find a fern grotto, sunny pond, endangered species garden and wildlife garden. Honestly, Duke Gardens is so big that we tuckered out and didn’t see this section. In hindsight, we should’ve carried water and some snacks so we could’ve stayed longer.
Finally, the Doris Duke Center Garden area houses the main building, along with some specialty gardens towards the back. You’ll find a pond with waterlilies and a stone bridge that crosses a ravine. It looked like they were setting up for a wedding on the grassy area near the building the day we visited. That lucky couple had absolutely perfect weather for an outdoor wedding.
I can’t say that I’ve visited many public gardens to compare this one to, but I was certainly impressed with Duke Gardens and would love to return for another visit one day. Because of the seasons, I’m sure the gardens look completely different from one month to the next. Park benches sprinkled throughout the gardens allow you to rest and enjoy the scenery whenever you need a break, something I appreciated!
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham
Nasher Museum of Art is located on the Duke University campus, and since it’s so close to Duke Gardens, we decided to check it out. It is very small, there is a charge for admission and parking, and we had lunch there after walking for hours around Duke Gardens. In hindsight, it was not worth the visit, especially after seeing the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
Duke University Chapel, Durham
Duke University Chapel is definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area. Both the interior and exterior are architecturally beautiful–an example of neo-Gothic architecture in the English style. The Chapel is striking from the outside with its stone exterior, and we took multiple pictures from different viewpoints. But when we finally stepped inside, we kind of gasped in hushed awe. The stained glass, combined with the ultra-high ceiling, just took our breath away. You’re allowed to walk to the front and take pictures, so we did, quietly, and also sat quietly in the pews for awhile, to enjoy the majesty of the Chapel. I really could’ve sat there for hours, and it was difficult to get up and leave. Our biggest problem here was finding parking, because Duke University Chapel is on many visitors’ itineraries, and the parking directly in front of the Chapel is extremely limited. According to the Duke website, there is parking at the Bryan Center parking garage, and overflow parking in the Biological Sciences parking lot, on the opposite side of Science Drive from the Bryan Center and Chapel. We did not have a Duke map on us at the time, so just sat and waited, double-parked, until somebody left *sigh*. Find a parking map before you go!