Loading your recommendations…

Reasons to Love Durham

Estimated Read Time:
8 min

We love to love Durham, and we’re counting the ways. Here are 37 of the quirkiest, most quintessential Durham stories and attractions that make us well up with pride for our destination. 

Posted By Kristin Bedinger on Feb 12, 2024

When you visit Durham, the hometown pride is palpable. Our residents are ambassadors for the city, welcoming visitors with enthusiasm and eagerness to share what makes this place so special. Mostly, it’s the people themselves – the openness and warmth that make newcomers and visitors feel our strong community ties as soon as they arrive. It’s also the intangible. Beyond the attractions that make headlines – the famous food scene, the family-friendly attractions, world-class sports teams and inspiring art, it's the confidence behind our city’s unapologetic individuality that makes those features shine. The quirk. The flaunting of our distinctive groove. It’s hard to bottle up a character like Durham’s and fully explain to those curious why they should visit. Still, we’ve collected 37 reasons to love Durham from Discover Durham staff, longtime residents and yes, the occasional Reddit thread. If you’d like to contribute your favorite story or place that captures Durham’s essence for those who may have never been here before, please send it to blog@discoverdurham.com.

So, why do we love Durham so much?

1. Because Durham is a t-shirt-wearing city –

as in, we proudly rep the brand. You’ll see symbols of our proud history wherever you look: in bull symbols and puns on storefronts and public squares, in repurposed tobacco buildings with nods to the past, in honoring our historic Black Wall Street, preserving our natural environment and elevating our innovation. And we have the streetwear duds to prove it. Brands like Bull City Apparel and Hometown Apparel have brick-and-mortar shops selling custom Bull City Gear you can shop to fit in while you’re here and inspire FOMO when you return home. The Durham brand Runaway popularized the nickname DURM for our city, which you’re sure to notice on shirts and street art when you’re here. Keep your eyes peeled for occasional drops from the brand and don’t hesitate to jump on them before they sell out.

2. Because Bronto the Dinosaur has a rich history.

A 77-foot brontosaurus replica stands alone on the side of the Ellerbee Creek Trail that winds through the woods north of downtown. It's the last dino standing in the original Dinosaur Trail built by the Museum of Life and Science in the 1960s. When his head was damaged decades ago, Durhamites raised thousands to repair it, including printing and selling “Save Bronto” t-shirts. Now, the museum has built a new Dinosaur Trail on its grounds with more than twelve replicas as well as an interactive fossil dig site.

3. Because DIY art spaces are still thriving.

Durham’s creative history runs deep, with the Liberty Arts Foundry next to Durham Central Park as one of the original anchors of the DIY arts scene in downtown. The original Liberty Warehouse, now home to an apartment building, Durham Food Hall, Foster Street Coffee and Dame’s Chicken and Waffles, was inhabited by artists’ studios and the original location of The Scrap Exchange, Durham’s creative reuse arts center that now resides in the Lakewood Shopping Center. Now, artists are building on that scrappy history by taking over storage units and using them as studios for community collage nights, film screenings, workshops, studio rentals and more. It all started with Shadowbox Studio at Ample Storage off East Club Boulevard in northern Durham. Observable Universe moved in a few years later and these days, you can check the studios’ calendars to join a creative community event.

4. Because we play with fire.

Each fall, artists from the Liberty Arts Studios & Foundry pour molten iron into molds in Durham Central Park at the public Iron Pour. At this popular gathering, vendors sell art, Batalá Durham performs Brazilian drumming, kids play and food trucks serve attendees.

Iron workers in protective suits and helmets gather around a fire.

Liberty Arts Iron Pour. Photo: Bill Russ

5. Because the fight for civil rights happened here, too.

The Secret Game. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s five visits to Durham. Ann Atwater and the story of school desegregation depicted in the film The Best of Enemies. The Royal Seven and the Royal Ice Cream sit-in. The fight for integration immortalized by the Confronting Change exhibit at The Carolina Theatre. These and many other stories illustrate Durham’s role in the fight for equal rights, and you can see the Durham figures depicted and learn their stories by visiting the Civil Rights Mural downtown.

6. Because our local elected officials are true representatives of the community.

More than 40 years ago, former Durham mayor Steve Schewel founded local newspaper The North Carolina Independent, now called Indy Week, and personally wrote the state’s first same-sex marriage announcement in the paper. In 1963, Mayor Wense Grabareck responded to public demonstrations calling for an end to segregation by speaking at an integration rally and setting up a committee for racial reconciliation and agreement that led to the end of segregation in many of Durham’s public spaces and businesses. Current mayor Leonardo Williams is a local small business owner, along with his wife Zweli, and opened one of the first Zimbabwean restaurants in the country here. In 2020, Durham County made history by swearing in its first all-female Board of Commissioners and, in 2023, women held 75% of local elected offices in the county and Black women held more leadership roles than ever before.

7. Because a mystery parody mascot account suffers no fools.

8. Because in 2011, more than 2,000 people married Durham ...

and took a vow to protect the city and its reputation and to honor its diversity in a fundraiser for local organizations.

9. Because Aya Shabu carries forward the legacy of Baba Chuck Davis.

Aya Shabu's Whistle Stop Tours incorporate performance into their storytelling of North Carolina’s slave past and African American achievement. As Aya leads groups through Durham's historic Hayti community, Black Wall Street and West End, she embodies the characters – Durham's forefathers and foremothers – whose stories she tells. She incorporates the movement and dance she learned under Baba Chuck Davis, America's foremost master of African dance and a Durham resident until his death in 2017, into the engrossing and inspiring tours that take audiences back to Durham's early days.

A woman wearing a head scarf and earrings in the shape of Africa performs and holds a brochure that says Baba Chuck Davis.

Aya Shabu performing a historic tour of Durham. Photo: Keenan Hairston

10. Because The Dog House is an eye-catching roadside attraction ...

and has been family-owned and operated for nearly half a century at four locations in Durham.

11. Because King’s Red and White has been owned by the King family since 1956 ...

and stocks locally made products, cuts meat to order and greets regular customers by name.

12. Because the Tapp family has been serving customers at The Chicken Hut since 1957 ...

and the line forms at the door before opening each day.

13. Because our small business owners stepped up to feed the community during pandemic shut-downs.

14. Because, in a city full of bull references, “The Cow Store” remains a landmark.

Now the site of Taqueria La Vaquita, the cow statue on the building’s roof has been preserved since 1963.

A cow statue on top of a building with a sign that says La Vaquita.

Taqueria La Vaquita. Photo: Discover Durham

15. Because we not only have a holiday tree lighting ...

but we also have a Lucky Strike Tower Lighting every winter. 

16. Because a 1976 painting worth over $15 million was inspired by the Durham artist’s childhood story of sneaking into a party at the Durham Armory.

The artist Ernie Barnes grew up in Durham and painted his famous work The Sugar Shack after that pivotal night. Its depiction of Black joy and jubilation during a time of segregation in North Carolina was, and remains, a radical act.

17. Because the Lakewood Shopping Center was once an amusement park known as the Coney Island of the South.

Lakewood Park opened in 1902 and was a spectacle lit by electric lights. It was developed to increase ridership of the city’s streetcar line. Crowds enjoyed a casino, merry-go-round, carnival games, concessions, events and even a pool until the park closed in 1932. 

18. Because Gene Dillard turned his house into a work of art.

Fantasyland is a 1940s bungalow covered by a mosaic that glistens in the sun. Dillard is a self-taught artist and has spent thousands of hours working on his house, garage and sculptures in his yard.

19. Because we’re all entertained by The Can Opener.

Durham’s collective inside joke, a street that crosses through a low underpass – which has been lifted! – routinely stops over-height trucks in their tracks despite flashing lights and warnings. Literally. The bridge is now 12’4” tall, was once 11’8”, and has its own website and soon, a namesake food truck park next door.

20. Because Durham is home to the largest privately held Tuba Museum in the world.

You would never know from the outside of the modest building in the Lakewood neighborhood that it holds the 300-piece Vincent and Ethel Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection.

21. Because the Bull City Subreddit is very active.

Though some threads can be critical, our community is engaged, curious and always willing to share tips, promote favorite businesses and, from time to time, engage in a little light gossiping.

22. Because The Upside Down is here in Durham.

Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers grew up here and based many of the events from the show on real-life stories from their childhood, even referring to a local true crime story. Do your research and take a tour of the real Mirkwood, the neighborhood with the good Halloween candy, Forest Hills Park, Enzo’s and more.

23. Because lemurs love it here, too.

Did you know that Durham is home to the largest population of lemurs outside their native Madagascar? The Duke Lemur Center is a world-class research and conservation facility that also offers guided and private behind-the-scenes tours of the Lemurs and their habitats in the warmer months. Schedule a tour to join the lemurs in their forest habitat and watch as they forage for snacks.  

24. Because you can get inspired by a minimalist conservationist right in downtown.

The cedar shake cabin where Burt’s Bees founder Burt Shavitz lived at one with nature in the Maine wilderness was relocated to the brand’s world headquarters in American Tobacco Campus.  

25. Because we have our own version of one of the world’s most iconic buildings.

The Hill Building, now the site of the 21c Museum Hotel, was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon who previously designed the Empire State Building. Construction began in 1936 and the building was completed in 1937. 

Two buildings in the Durham skyline. One is old and one is new.

The Hill Building. Photo: Discover Durham

26. Because it’s pronounced ba-HAY-ma.

If you know, you know. The small community of Bahama in northern Durham County is home to eight sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the birthplace of Washington Duke and former U.S. Senator and NC Governor William B. Umstead.  

27. Because Durham loves its mascots. And its puns.

Wayne Drop is a local celebrity who represents the Durham Department of Water Management. Parkson Rex is Wayne’s pal who represents … you guessed it … Durham Parks and Rec. But no-one is more famous than Wool E. Bull, the mascot for the Durham Bulls Baseball team. Get tickets to one of around 75 home games per season, spring to early fall, and see Wool E. Bull in action. Pro tip: there are fantastic fireworks shows after every Friday night game.

28. Because you can be a lollygagger through Durham sites featured in the movie Bull Durham:

sit in the stands at the Historic Durham Athletic Park before you shoot a round of pool at The Green Room.

29. Because Durham’s HBCU led the way in North Carolina.

North Carolina Central University (NCCU), founded in 1909, became the first state-supported liberal arts college for African American students in the state.

30. Because Durham’s hip hop scene may feel low key, but it’s very influential and the history runs deep.

In 1968, Durham-born Pigmeat Markham released what might be the first rap song. Grammy award-winning producer 9th Wonder teaches at Duke University and NCCU. Rap group Little Brother also got its start here.

31. Because Durham’s Pride led the way in North Carolina.

The first public demonstration for gay civil rights in North Carolina was made by a group of supporters outside the Durham Court House during a murder trial in 1982. In 1986, the second public demonstration for equal rights happened on Duke University campus and was the catalyst for an annual march that became the NC Pride March.

32. Because Durham’s community stands in solidarity with beavers.

For 20 years, Durham’s public figures, conservation activists and most colorful characters have gathered in Duke Park for the Beaver Queen Pageant, a fundraiser in support of the Ellerbee Creek Watershed Association. Contestants are encouraged to take on their most creative beaver personas, showcase their talents, participate in interviews, wear their finest evening wear and even bribe the judges – whatever it takes to take home the prize and raise the most money for a worthy cause: the beavers’ habitat.

A contestant in a white dress and pink wig stands on a stage with a crowd of people dressed in beaver costumes.

The Beaver Queen Pageant. Photo: SP Murray

33. Because we preserve our history.

Open Durham is a digital archive and non-profit, volunteer-run project documenting community history. It’s where you can reliably find stories and historic photos of streetscapes, buildings, businesses and more. It’s a fascinating treasure.

34. Because our downtown hotels are community spaces.

Not just comfortable spaces to lay your head, our three downtown boutique hotels each offer hospitality and entertainment for Durham residents, too. At The Durham Hotel, the lobby and restaurant is a coffee shop and coworking space by day and The Roof hosts regular musical acts, kids’ storytime, stargazing and more. At Unscripted, DJs bring crowds for dance parties in the lobby and by the rooftop pool. At 21c Museum Hotel, the modern art museum is open to the public 24/7.

35. Because our innovations are changing the world.

Research Triangle Park is a global innovation center and North America’s largest continuously running research park. Since 1959, the companies in the park have created Astroturn, the UPC, LED lighting, 3D Ultrasound, the technology that functionally cured the first patient of HIV, the original design for the Periodic Table and so much more.

36. Because we have a lot of love for our neighbors and proudly own what makes us different, especially when we remind folks that Raleigh-Durham isn’t a city.

It’s the airport! Raleigh and Durham are two separate cities situated 24.9 miles apart. While Raleigh is the state capitol with all the trappings that come along with that distinction, Durham is a city built on creativity, grit, entrepreneurship and ingenuity.

37. Because our city’s sign is a can’t-miss photo op.

In celebration of Durham’s 150th anniversary and in honor of our city’s resilience in the face of hardship, Discover Durham partnered with Liberty Arts and Cricket Forge to create a Durham sign, which now sits on American Tobacco Campus and is a perfect selfie stop for a Durham memory.

Selfie of moms and kids taken in front of the Durham sign on ATC's campus.

A family takes a selfie in front of the Durham sign at American Tobacco Campus. Photo: Samantha Everett

It’s easy to find new reasons to love Durham every day, so contribute, share, and check back for updates often.

About the Author

Kristin Bedinger - Sr. Manager of Content
Send An Email

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.