Less than a two-hour flight away from Toronto, lies a sports mecca, foodie’s paradise, and one of America’s best cities to live all in one region.
Raleigh, North Carolina, and its surrounding area may not be hidden, but as a destination, I certainly didn’t give it the recognition it deserves.
In this year’s edition of the US News & World Report’s list of Best Cities to Live in the US, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area ranked 6th overall, earning praise for its ‘Research Triangle’ of major universities, its diverse and educated population, and the high quality of life experienced in the area.
Still, many Canadians have no clue just how amazing (and convenient) a trip down to North Carolina can be. I got the chance to check it out myself, and it sure did not disappoint.
Staying at The Casso in downtown Raleigh, I was dropped right into the centre of the city’s most vibrant streets. With a large number of students in and around town, the hospitality sector is packed full of microbreweries, cocktail bars, unassuming eateries, and fine-dining spots with an unpretentious air.
The downtown is walkable and clean, with a mix of southern heritage and modern conveniences. You can smile and wave at passersby, and if you sit down at a bartop just about anywhere in town, you’re likely to start a conversation with a local.
You’re in the South, and the hospitality is right there with you.
One thing to know about North Carolina’s cuisine is that they take their barbecue seriously. While that may seem obvious, the less obvious caveat to the idea of ‘their barbecue’ is that North Carolina has two distinct types of barbecue, and you best believe confusing one with another will earn the ire of locals.
The eastern NC barbecue is known as ‘whole-hog barbecue’. Why? The term is relatively self-explanatory, as these North Carolinians smoke the entire pig. In most cases, eastern barbecue also uses lemon juice, vinegar, or pepper-based sauces.
In the West, the barbecue is referred to as Piedmont or Lexington style, and will often smoke pulled pork shoulders and dress them in a ketchup, vinegar, and pepper sauce.
I had the chance to explore a couple of mouthwatering establishments throughout the Raleigh area, including Sam Jones BBQ, a family-run institution, Picnic, a relative newcomer that has become a well-known favourite, and Longleaf Swine, a spot with so many delicious sides you won’t know what to eat first.
There’s more to Raleigh and North Carolina than barbecue, and in recent years the city has seen dozens of trendy breweries, pizza spots, modern bistros, and more open up and become neighbourhood staples.
The essence of North Carolina’s food scene is community and once you take your first bite, you’re welcomed with open arms.
Athletics, at both the pro and amateur level, are a huge part of North Carolina’s identity. With three famous basketball schools, Duke University, University of North Carolina (UNC), and North Carolina State University (NC State), all within the Raleigh-Durham-Cary area, rivalries loom large.
Any basketball fan would be over the moon to spend a weekend here. It’s a mecca of NCAA sports, and home to the collegiate careers of legends like Michael Jordan (UNC), Vince Carter (UNC), Grant Hill (Duke), and Spud Webb (NC State), among countless others.
As I toured the campuses and basketball centres of both Duke and UNC, I couldn’t help but wish my post-secondary experience had more school spirit. Between the history of the schools, their proximity to one another, and seeing hundreds (if not thousands) of people around Raleigh sporting school colours, it felt as if the city was constantly on.
The only pro sports team (of the four major sports) in the area is the Carolina Hurricanes, one of the NHL’s best teams this season.
The ‘Canes have become legendary in the region, winning over a whole generation of fans after capturing the Stanley Cup in 2006, after moving to the city from Hartford in 1997.
Watching a game at PNC Arena on the outskirts of Raleigh is electric. The cheap seats typically run for only around $30 USD ($40 CAD) which is unheard of if you’re flying in from hockey hotbeds like Montreal or Toronto. The first game I attended was against the Montreal Canadiens, and the ‘Canes handled them with ease much to the delight of the 18,000+ sellout crowd.
Next, I had the privilege of attending the 2023 Stadium Series game between the Hurricanes and the visiting Washington Capitals at Carter Finley Stadium. Nearly 57,000 Caniacs (a fun moniker for Hurricanes fans) piled in to watch their hometown team win 4-1, and the entertainment throughout the day was next level.
From the giant pre-game zone and tailgate outside the arena to the fly-by of jets during the national anthem, all the way to country star Jake Owen performing during the intermission, it was obvious that Raleigh takes its status as a hockey town seriously.
And for those who love movies as much as they do sports, the legendary baseball film Bull Durham features the Durham Bulls, a Triple-A ball club playing out of Durham.
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Last but certainly not least, is golf. While North Carolina may not boast the quantity of championship-level courses that its southerly state does, it is home to one of the world’s most celebrated golf villages, Pinehurst.
With nine courses on location and hosting rights to the 2024 US Open, it’s yet another reason why any sports fanatic could make a dream getaway out of a visit to North Carolina.
North Carolina is a gem that has to be seen and experienced to truly be appreciated. The Raleigh-Durham region has become a hotbed of exciting and diverse young professionals, vibrant cuisine, and of course, sports of all kinds.
Winter or summer, there is fun to be had. So next time you’re looking at taking a trip down to our southern neighbours, put the lovely state of North Carolina at the top of your list.
I know it will be at the top of mine for a long while.