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The Ultimate 2023 Durham Bucket List

Estimated Read Time:
3 min

We’ve got a blueprint for a year of exploration and discovery in Durham. Can you top it?

Posted By Kristin Bedinger on Jan 03, 2023

Foodies. History buffs. Outdoor adventurers. Music lovers. Broadway fans. Nightlife enthusiasts. Sports fanatics. Intellectuals. Artists. Durham welcomes travelers of all types with diverse experiences to pique interest and stoke curiosity. Imagine what would happen if you got out of your comfort zone and took it all in. We’re resolving to have an unforgettable year in Durham by exploring must-sees and hidden gems, and visiting everything from historic sites to brand-new attractions.

Whether you’ve lived here your whole life, you’re embarking on your first year in a new home or you’re planning your first (or fifth) visit, you’ll find new reasons to love Durham by the time you make your way through our Ultimate 2023 Durham Bucket List. And if you consider yourself an expert on all things Durham, we’ve got the tools for you to create your own list. In exchange, we hope you’ll promise to show us your adventure by tagging us along the way.

Check out The Bullpen

Durham’s Social District invites us to take our socializing outside and get creative as we mix and mingle with other visitors and Durhamites. Go ahead, plan a picnic in Central Park with sanctioned to-go beers from The Glass Jug. Take a walking cocktail from West Main St. to East Main St. Make a custom terrarium at Zen Succulent’s DIY Terrarium Bar with a glass of wine from Brunello Wine Bar next door. Lounge on the lawn at American Tobacco Campus with burgers, fries, and cocktails from Queenburger. Take a to-go beverage on a walking mural tour. Experience more of downtown however it appeals to you. Before you go, check out our guide to making the most of The Bullpen.

Three friends walking under twinkle lights and laughing with to-go drinks.

The Bullpen Photo: Eric Waters / Discover Durham

Brush up on Durham History

This is your year to visit all three of Durham’s state historic sites – see firsthand the site of the negotiations that marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War at Bennett Place, learn how the South’s Industrial Revolution began in tobacco and textiles at Duke Homestead and find out how Historic Stagville centers the experiences of enslaved people at the site of one of the largest plantations in the South. And that’s just scratching the surface of the many ways you can learn about Durham’s rich history. Durham is also where the civil rights movement gained significant traction, and is where one of the nation's premier Black universities made its home. Learn the full story. Pop into the Museum of Durham History. Walk Black Wall Street. Explore the Hayti Heritage Center. Gain context around all those old tobacco warehouses.

Stay at a Four Diamond Hotel

With all there is to explore in Durham, you’re going to want to stay a while. If style and comfort are at the top of your list, a stay at one of Durham’s AAA Four Diamond-rated hotels is guaranteed to impress. For the urbanite looking to stay amid the energy of downtown and wander downstairs to check out some art in a 3 a.m. fit of insomnia, 21C Museum Hotel will fit the bill. If a vacation is not a vacation without a golf outing followed by an afternoon cocktail on the patio, the sprawling property at the Washington Duke Inn is the right choice. Arrowhead Inn offers luxurious amenities and modern comforts along with the intimacy of a historic bed and breakfast. Comfort and convenience in the heart of Duke’s West Campus, spa-like guest rooms and an onsite barista bar are some of what the JB Duke Hotel delivers. Durham’s lodging properties don’t stop here. Looking for a rooftop pool? Sweeping views? Pet-friendly rooms? Meeting spaces? Find your perfect fit.

See a show at DPAC or Carolina Theatre

Whether you just have to see the year’s hottest Broadway tour, national headlining musicians, and top comedy shows, or if local events, up-and-coming acts or the latest indie film are more your speed, there are plenty of reasons to check out Durham’s top venues. Consistently ranked among the top theaters in America, DPAC, Durham Performing Arts Center, offers the chance to see iconic shows in a mid-size theater conveniently located downtown. Less than a mile away, the historic Carolina Theatre hosts more than 200 live events per year in Fletcher Hall and indie and retro films in the upstairs movie theatre. A low-key matinee and a walk to dinner might just be an ideal Sunday, while you can plan a trip around tickets to SIX, dinner at NanaSteak, and a stay at Aloft without taking your car out of the parking deck.

Over 2,700 world-class seats promise an evening of amazing entertainment for Durham Performing Arts Center guest.

DPAC Photo: Ken Huth

Check out a Bulls Game

You don’t have to be a sports fan to have a great time at a Bulls Game, but if you are, here’s your chance to see the most famous team in the Minor League. With local restauranteurs running concessions, an onsite brewery, plenty of peanuts and crackerjack, the best bat dog in the biz, Friday night fireworks, and the chance to be called to the field for a game of Simon Says during the seventh-inning stretch, there’s a reason the whole city shows up for games. Opening Night starts the season in late March, and, with 75 dates slated for home games, 2023 will be their longest season ever. We’re not sure yet what they have planned to commemorate the kickstart to Susan Sarandon, Kevin Costner, and Tim Robbins’ careers, but here’s a fun fact that might win you some points at bar trivia: the cult favorite film turns 35 this summer. Plan a trip around a game while stopping by spots like the Green Room and the Historic Durham Athletic Park to take in the sites from the movie.

Wool E. Bull engages with fans as Durhamites enjoy an evening of food and fun at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park

Wool E. Bull at a Durham Bulls Game Photo: Bill Russ / Discover Durham

Get Outdoors

Lace-up for a trail run, give your bike a tune-up or pack a picnic. Opt for a quick spin around the Al Buehler trail, a dip in a secluded swimming hole, or an escape into the woods in Eno River State Park or one of Durham’s 67 other parks. Take advantage of 22 miles of well-kept, paved trail through urban and wildlife areas on the American Tobacco Trail, you can find new ways to explore the outdoors all year long. And since 2023 has been dubbed The Year of the Trail in NC in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the NC Trails System Act, there’s no better time to take advantage of Durham’s proximity to nature.

Try a New Sport

Inspired by seemingly obscure Olympic events and gravity-defying challenges on “Floor is Lava?” State-of-the-art facilities dedicated to indoor recreation are popping up all over the county, so developing a new hobby or satisfying your inner adrenaline junkie has never been easier. Triangle Curling Club has been expanding the sport’s reach outside its traditional home in frigid settings for more than 25 years and offers leagues, learn-to-curl sessions, and pickup curling at their 15,000 sq. ft. southeast Durham home. Triangle Rock Club boasts the largest indoor climbing facility in a five-state radius with spaces for rope climbing and bouldering as well as cardio and yoga, a gear shop, and private areas for events and conferences. Channel your inner ninja warrior at OC Aerial’s indoor adventure park, which includes a ropes course, a zip line, 18- and 21-foot slides and the terrifyingly-named Leap of Faith, among many other attractions.

For the gamers among us, eSports has arrived in Durham. Bad Machines is the first eSports bar in the state and offers space to watch gamers compete and mingle with like-minded folks over game-inspired cocktails in the Gamers’ Lounge. We’re also watching the progress of Durham’s first Top Golf location and look forward to the opening sometime this year, along with NC’s first location of Andretti Indoor Karting, which promise entertainment for all ages.

Experience campus as a tourist

College campuses are notoriously inspiring and abundant with the majesty of architecture, the beauty of manicured public spaces, the excitement of student activities and athletics, and the inspiration of campus museums. Durham’s two historic campuses – North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and Duke University – capture the imagination of students and tourists alike. Take in the energy of the nation’s first public liberal arts institution for African American students by visiting the Eagles’ campus, starting with one of North Carolina’s leading collections of work by Black artists at the NCCU Art Museum. Learn about the history of the university and its founder at the James E. Shepard Memorial Library. Get caught up in the energy of student life by cheering on the Eagles at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium and getting in on the tradition of a post-game social at the Greek Bowl.

At Duke, appreciate the wonder of collegiate gothic architecture in the midst Duke Forest starting with Duke Chapel in the center of West Campus. Make your way to Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a beautifully maintained public botanical garden in the heart of campus for a stroll along native and Asiatic landscapes and historic gardens. No campus visit is complete without a visit to a museum. Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art houses some of today’s best contemporary art, with a focus on work by artists of African descent, along with influential temporary exhibits. The Basketball Museum and Athletics Hall of Fame offers a chance to relive the history of Duke Sports adjacent to the must-see Cameron Indoor Stadium.

James E. Shepard statue on NCCU's campus. Photo: Discover Durham

Try Foodie Stalwarts

Hitting the highlights of Durham’s dining scene is a year-long project in itself, but a few new and old classics are essential if you want a real taste of Durham. If you haven’t tried James Beard Award Winner Ricky Moore’s famously fresh NC seafood at Saltbox Seafood Joint, take our word for it and get in line now. Durham’s downtown neighborhood bar, James Beard Award Finalist Alley Twenty Six, just happens to be one of the state’s premier spots for expertly made classics and innovative seasonal cocktails. Salt Box, Alley Twenty Six and downtown favorite Mateo Bar de Tapas all recently celebrated their tenth anniversaries, so you’ve got yet another reason to add them to your list. Two words: Chicken Hut. Some might say you haven’t really experienced Durham if you haven’t tasted the shatteringly crisp fried chicken, among the best in the nation, and the home cooking that has made Chicken Hut’s Tapp family famous for more than 60 years.

In our humble opinion, Chef Michael Lee hasn’t received enough praise for the restaurants he’s brought to downtown Durham. Try his OG spot, M Sushi, and experience a fresh new take every time by splurging for the omakase. Chef Lee (as well as the husband-and-wife team at Yamazushi) was doing omakase right before the word was cool enough to be one of 370 new words added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2022.

La Monarca Michoacana is a tucked-away treasure in a North Durham shopping center, and with dozens of flavors of homemade ice cream and paletas, it’s a crowd-pleasing favorite that can’t be missed. Ice cream lovers will never stop frequenting The Parlour for perfectly creamy scoops made with hand-picked seasonal ingredients throughout the year.

Leave space in your stomach and on your agenda for the return of the historic Nana’s Restaurant, returning in 2023 under the ownership of Chef Matt Kelly, who plans to honor the legacy of Nana’s as a neighborhood gathering space.

Take a Distillery Tour

It’s time to get to know Durham’s spirits. A trip downtown will take you to Durham Distillery, where you can learn about how Melissa Katrincic uses modern techniques to expand on traditional pot still distillation to create her award-winning Conniption Gins with zero extracts or artificial ingredients. Stop by the downstairs sister bar Corpse Reviver (yes, named after the classic cocktail and the business that previously inhabited the spot – a coffin factory) after the tour to try a cocktail using spirits made upstairs. Outside of town, Mystic Farm & Distillery is a farm-to-flask distillery and the world’s largest solar-powered bourbon distillery. A visit to the farm gives you the chance to see the farm and fields, tour the distillery, and taste their award-winning handmade bourbon and other spirits. Liberty & Plenty, Durham’s second woman-owned distillery, opened its cocktail bar in late 2022 with plans to soon offer its initial lineup of spirits including Bronze Bull Spirits Bourbon and Slate Belt Vodka. Once you’ve got a few local tours under your belt, deepen your knowledge with an educational tasting with Durham’s Black Bourbon Guy. Join him at his Alley Twenty Six residency the first Wednesday of each month or schedule an in-person or virtual private class.

Make Your Own Bucket List

Ok, so we’ve told you how we want to spend our time this year, but what do YOU want to do? Our website has a wealth of resources to help you discover more of Durham and compile a handy dandy list you can refer back to along the way. You’ll find the businesses we’ve mentioned at the bottom of this page. Click the heart by the business listing to save the ones you want to try, and read through a few of the blog posts we’ve linked to help build out your list. The links on business names throughout our site will take you to individual page listings where you’ll find that same heart button. Once you’ve made a sufficiently ambitious agenda, you can click the heart at the top right of the screen to see your selections and email them to yourself, print, or share with a friend. Give us FOMO and inspiration by posting your list to social media and tagging us @durhamnc. Happy hunting and cheers to your best-ever year in Durham!

About the Author

Kristin Bedinger - Sr. Manager of Content
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Lover of plants, books, wine, cooking for my friends and hanging with my pup, Arlo. Find me trying every new bar and restaurant in Durham the moment it opens.