The Best Ways to Explore Downtown Durham’s Social District
Bring friends and family to responsibly enjoy more of downtown Durham's bars, restaurants and things to do with cocktails, beer and wine served to-go.
Posted By Kristin Bedinger on Nov 08, 2023
Downtown Durham’s biggest (literally) attraction is, well, all of it. Durham’s social district, “The Bullpen,” invites Durhamites and visitors to enjoy alcoholic beverages served to-go at participating businesses while walking outside, enjoying a picnic, an outdoor concert or performance or doing a little shopping at retail businesses allowing open containers.
Imagine taking a Pepino for a walk as you wait for a table at Mateo Bar de Tapas, watching the kids play on the lawn at American Tobacco Campus with a to-go mimosa from Press Coffee, Crepes, & Cocktails, or shopping at Vert & Vogue with wine from Brunello Wine Bar in-hand. All this is possible in The Bullpen. Say goodbye to festival beer corrals and beverages abandoned at the table and hello to meeting friends at CCB plaza with a drink from The Slush and stopping by Fullsteam for a to-go beer mid-dog walk.
Before you head downtown, we’ve got the details on how to make the most of The Bullpen. For more specific information and a comprehensive list of participating businesses, visit the official Social District Guide from Downtown Durham, Inc. (DDI).
And, after a year spent investigating (professionally, of course) the social district, we've developed a few insider tips and tricks to help you on your way. Read to the end to find what we've learned.
What is The Bullpen?
The Bullpen is located in the heart of downtown: a district where a walk in the sun with a drink, stopping into a shop along the way, is encouraged. Those 21+ who choose to purchase a beverage from an ABC-permitted establishment are allowed to take and carry it with them, so long as it’s within certain hours and in specially marked cups. The Bullpen is not an excuse for public intoxication, but a more flexible way for you to enjoy local businesses and spend more time downtown.
When am I allowed to have an open container from a participating business?
The social district is active seven days a week from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Time your brunch accordingly and order your bloody mary to-go starting at 11 a.m. After 10 p.m., sip your beverage in the same establishment you ordered from.
How can I tell which businesses are participating?
Look for the window clings. There are three types indicating whether you can order to-to drinks (“Order Here”), bring outside beverages inside (“Drinks Welcome”), or if you should not bring to-go beverages from other businesses inside (“Outside Drinks Not Permitted”). It’s as simple as that to spot while strolling, but you can plan ahead by checking this updated list of businesses from DDI.
Remember, if a business isn’t participating, there’s a good reason! Tattoos and drinking don’t mix, for example, and some retail businesses may want to avoid allowing open containers around fragile wares.
Don’t miss Durham’s Visitor Information Center where you’re welcome to enjoy your drink while you check out maps and information to ensure you don’t miss a thing during your visit.
How will to-go drinks be served?
It’s true, your Yeti could keep a Mezcalito Mangonada Margarita cold for hours, but drinks will need to be ordered to-go and kept in designated Bullpen-branded cups. The server or bartender will mark the cup with the date, time, and location where the drink was sold, so no drinks from convenience stores, bottle shops, or home may be poured into plastic cups. Kindly toss the disposable cup into a trash receptacle before you leave the district!
Drinks aren’t allowed in government buildings, churches and city-owned property unless they have been designated as eligible (look for the window cling!). So don’t take your drink to the library, parking decks, parking lots or schools. Drinks are allowed at Durham Central Park unless it’s booked for an event, at which point the decision is at the discretion of the event host.
Frontline folks working at participating businesses — as well as those that aren’t — are trained in the art of hospitality, not babysitting. Patience and moderation are in, while disgruntlement and frustration are out. Other ABC laws remain in effect, obviously, so keep alcohol consumption to those over 21 and throw your disposable cup away before you enter a vehicle.
What are the boundaries of The Bullpen?
Find a detailed map of the boundaries on DDI’s site. To give you a general idea, in the summertime, you can order a world-class G&T from Corpse Reviver before a nostalgia tour through downtown from the Historic Durham Athletic Park to catch a minor league baseball game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Have a burger at The Federal in the Brightleaf District and take a beer to-go, stop for ice cream at The Parlour in CCB Plaza, and make your way to Golden Belt for a Fruit Tart Paloma from Hi-Wire (hello, next date night!).
Social District Pro-Tips
- Alley Twenty Six serves some of the most coveted cocktails in downtown Durham, and, yes, they participate in the social district. Because of their popularity, and the time it takes to craft their cocktails, they only serve drinks to-go to patrons who have dined with them.
- American Tobacco Campus's options for dining and drinking are growing by the minute, and its lawn is perfection for enjoying a beverage outdoors, especially when there's a live performance happening under the Lucky Strike water tower. Try The Waiting Room, Ekhaya or Press Coffee, Crepes & Cocktails.
- The Glass Jug and Durham Food Hall have both leaned in to the social district concept, taking advantage of their locations next to Durham Central Park. They make it easy to grab a beer or drink to go for a picnic or to enjoy a free PLAYlist concert. On nice weekends, the food hall even sets up an outdoor bar for a grab-and-go drink.
- Downtown Durham is very walkable, and walking is even more fun with a drink in-hand, right? Since the social district covers so much territory, it's that much easier to walk from the Center City area or the Geer Street/Rigsbee avenue neighborhood to another dense cluster of participating businesses, like Ponysaurus, Mezcalito and Lonerider Distillery and Taproom.
- Third Friday Art Walks are fun ways to explore the social district – have a drink or two and socialize as you enjoy local art at galleries and participating businesses in downtown's Center City area and Golden Belt.
Want to see how fun the bullpen can be? Bull City Stir has committed to trying every participating bar and business in Durham's social district.
Get to know all the neighborhoods in The Bullpen and find our favorite attractions and hidden gems in our downtown district guide.