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A Retiree's Guide to Exploring Durham

Retirees don’t need to move to Durham to enjoy its many pleasures. Durham is also a great destination for retired travelers.

Posted By David Jarmul on Jun 24, 2024

I moved to Durham in 2001 for a job at Duke University. I retired early to travel and serve abroad in the Peace Corps with my wife, but we then returned and have happily remained here since. Durham is regularly listed among the best places to retire in the United States.

You don’t need to move here to enjoy its many attractions. Older visitors can spend several pleasant days or weeks exploring Durham’s historic sites, hiking trails, restaurants and fun opportunities to spoil grandchildren. For visitors of a certain age, Durham is certain to provide a great experience.

Elderly visitors stroll down Cherry Alleé at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham.

There are plenty of beautiful outdoor places for retirees to explore in Durham. Photo: Discover Durham

Explore Historic Sites

Durham has a fascinating history, spanning the rise and fall of the tobacco industry, civil rights struggles and the emergence of a vibrant modern city with a proud reputation for diversity and tolerance. Durham has produced great musicians, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and athletes. Especially if you’ve spent most of your life in another part of the country, as I did, a visit here may lead you to reconsider your regional assumptions and broaden your perspective.

You have lots of great history options:

  • The downtown Museum of Durham History is small but impressive, rotating exhibits that highlight everything from Durham’s changing restaurant scene to the story of the Duffer brothers, the Durham natives who created the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.”
  • One block away is the majestic Carolina Theatre, with historical exhibits in an elegant lobby. The exhibits sparked a great conversation with my grandsons while we waited for a movie to begin upstairs.
  • Across town is Bennett Place, where the Civil War’s largest troop surrender occurred. That’s right; this occurred in Durham, not at Appomattox, which is what I’d thought, too.
  • Numerous sites around town highlight African American history. Historic Stagville includes remnants of a large plantation, including slave quarters. The Hayti Heritage Center has exhibits, programs and concerts. Black Wall Street was a thriving African American business center during the Jim Crow era.
  • Duke Homestead tells the story of tobacco, with a museum, a curing shed and opportunities for grandparents and kids to ride tobacco wagons together.
Two visitors walk through a field in front of one of the buildings at Historic Stagville.

Learn about Durham's history at Historic Stagville. Photo: Discover Durham

Have Fun with Grandchildren

Speaking of grandchildren, if yours live in Durham, they may already know the popular Museum of Life + Science. While you’re in town, let them show you their favorite spots, from the Dinosaur Trail to the glass conservatory filled with butterflies. You’ll feel like a kid yourself.

A group of children and adults hang out on the boardwalk at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

Enjoy a stroll on the boardwalk with the grandkids at The Museum of Life + Science. Photo: Museum of Life + Science / Discover Durham

Another favorite for grandparents is the Duke Lemur Center, a research facility with the largest population of lemurs outside their native Madagascar. You’ll need a reservation to stroll its 100 acres and see more than 200 lemurs. If you have a large family group, you can book a private group tour. Youngsters will be thrilled to watch these distinctive creatures leap through the trees. You will be, too.

An adult lemur sits in their habitat with two baby lemurs on their back at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, NC

The Duke Lemur Center is an exciting attraction for adults and children alike. Photo: Discover Durham

Also on the Duke campus are the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, among the most beautiful in the South. There’s nothing better than strolling with grandkids along its gentle trails, with stops at the koi pond and Japanese bridge. Nearby is Duke’s main campus and must-see Duke Chapel.

Durham offers many ways to enjoy time with youngsters, from a downtown skate park to ice cream shops. Check out the Family Fun page for suggestions.

Explore the Cultural Scene

Durham’s lively cultural scene is much less expensive and easier to navigate than many others on your retirement bucket list. The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) hosts Broadway shows and other world-class performances. The Carolina Theatre also has live shows, along with movies and events. My wife and I also enjoy local theater groups, such as the Bulldog Ensemble Theater, which stage shows next to the Hi-Wire Brewery. When we go there, we park for free, enjoy a great show and have a beer outside for less than half of what we would have spent on a single Broadway ticket.

Visitors walk in front of the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham.

The Carolina Theatre always has something interesting to see beyond its doors. Photo: HuthPhoto / Carolina Theatre

Durham’s musical legacy spans every musical genre. There’s an especially active jazz scene, at venues such as Missy Lane’s Assembly Room and Sharp Nine Gallery. You’ll also find live performances of bluegrass, folk and other genres. During warmer months, there are free concerts in Central Park, Duke Gardens and other outdoor sites. Check out the Events Calendar for upcoming performances, which include diverse events for members of the LGTBQIA community.

Art lovers might start a Durham visit at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. It has an excellent permanent collection, leading-edge exhibitions and a lovely cafe, all within an architecturally acclaimed building. Elsewhere, visit the artist studios at Golden Belt’s converted textile factory, exhibits at the Durham Arts Council and other venues. This online arts guide has suggestions.

Head to the Nasher Museum of Art to see both permanent installations and temporary exhibitions. Photo: Discover Durham

If possible, time your visit to coincide with one of Durham’s big arts festivals, such as the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the American Dance Festival, the OutSouth Queer Film Festival or the Hayti Heritage Film Festival. You’ll meet plenty of fellow older enthusiasts.

Get Back to Nature

If you have a tote bag saying “hiking is my retirement plan,” bring it to Durham. You may need it while exploring Durham's many hiking and biking trails. Eno River State Park has several great trails and hosts an epic music festival every July. There are great hiking paths in the university’s Duke Forest and along the American Tobacco Trail, whose wide, paved paths are a great choice for anyone with mobility constraints.

Water cascades over the dam at West Point on the Eno during a warm summer day.

With both drive-up and hike-in views, Eno River State Park is enjoyable for everyone looking to experience the outdoors. Photo: Discover Durham

For water sports, take a short drive to Jordan Lake or Lake Michie to rent kayaks and canoes. Local companies offer paddle trips and other outings.

If golf is your retirement passion, check out Durham's ten courses. Other recreational options abound, even including fencing, curling and axe-throwing.

The Washington Duke Inn stands tall in the backdrop over the golf course in Durham, NC.

Enjoy quality accommodation and a relaxing game of golf at The Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club. Photo: Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club

Cheer for Our Teams

If you’re looking for something less taxing, Durham Bulls, the minor league baseball team made famous in the movie with Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon. I like going on nights when they have a fireworks show after the game.

A group of children sit together at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Take the grandkids out to the ball game at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo: Samantha Everette

College basketball is a local passion, with men’s and women’s teams at both Duke and North Carolina Central Universities. Duke’s Blue Devils often sell out but you may find tickets online and you can visit the Hall of Fame at Cameron Indoor Stadium for free. There is a full array of other college sports as well.

Eat, Drink and Be Durham

If all of this whets your appetite for a retirement visit to Durham, you can satisfy your hunger with almost any cuisine, from food trucks to fine dining. Whether you crave traditional North Carolina barbecue or farm-to-table gastronomy, you’ll find it in Durham, whose chefs have been honored with national awards. Some local restaurants offer senior specials.

My wife and I are especially partial to international cuisines. Some of our favorites include Korean food at Namu, Salvadorean at El Custcatleco, Japanese at any of Michael Lee’s “M” restaurants (M Sushi, M Tempura, M Pocha and M Kokko) and Ethiopian at Goorsha. But we like many other places, too, and our list is always changing.

A group of elderly men and women enjoy a meal at Juju Durham.

Enjoy delicious Japanese inspired small plates at Juju Durham. Photo: Jessie Gladdek

See this Food & Drink Guide to learn more and order a Craft Beverage Guide for ideas about where to find creative cocktails and breweries. Durham also has a lively farmers' market and international shops where you can buy products ranging from African spices to Indian samosas.

You May Decide to Stay

I’m warning you. If you come to Durham for a visit, you may like it so much that you decide to retire here. With its mild climate, strong economy, world-class medical institutions and great shopping, Durham attracts lots of retirees. They find a welcoming community with attractions ranging from pickleball to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke.

Come take a look.

About the Author

Blogger David Jarmul poses with his wife for a photo in front of cherry blossoms.

David Jarmul - Blogger

David Jarmul was the head of news and communications at Duke University for many years before retiring early and starting a popular blog, Not Exactly Retired. He and his wife, Champa, are active in the Durham community.