Got some free time this summer? Explore this nearby college town that offers culture, great cuisine and lovely walkable architecture, too.
by Emily Gajda
Chapel Hill is home to the University of North Carolina’s Tar Heels — but it is much more than just a college town. Only a short drive from Raleigh, Durham and Carrboro, Chapel Hill has the cozy, close-knit feel of a small town and the vibrant cultural scene of a big city. A stroll through its walkable boulevards with a drink from a local cafe winds past architectural marvels from stately Georgian buildings to ornamented Beaux Arts libraries, under shady trees planted in public plazas and around telephone poles plastered with posters for art shows, musical performances and book readings. Next time you’re looking for a getaway close to home, consider spending 48 hours in a town with equal opportunities for energetic fun and peaceful relaxation.
Check in to one of two great hotels right off Franklin Street: the luxurious AC Hotel by Marriott or the classically lavish Carolina Inn. Both hotels are only a short walk from town center and UNC’s campus.
Grab a house-made pita sandwich, gyro platter or fatayer (a Levantine pocket pie stuffed with your choice of savory filling) for dinner at Mediterranean Deli, a Franklin Street staple locals call “Med Deli.” Then, head to The Crunkleton, a wood-paneled bar with pool tables and the best cocktails in town. The Crunkleton’s French 75 is the perfect drink for a summer night, combining champagne and gin for a refreshing sip.
Or, if you want to embrace the college town energy of Chapel Hill, head to Linda’s Bar & Grill for a late-night plate of loaded fries from their “drunchies” menu. For drinks, choose from a great selection of local and far-out brews, or try the L.I.T., Linda’s take on a Long Island Iced Tea.
Start out with a grab-and-go breakfast option. On Franklin Street, The Purple Bowl offers fresh and vibrant meal options like acai bowls, avocado toast and smoothies. On nearby Rosemary Street, Brandwein’s Bagels offers scratch-made cream cheese and sandwiches on New York bagels made right here in the South.
After fueling up, explore Chapel Hill’s outdoor opportunities before it gets too hot. Carolina North Forest, maintained by UNC, is an intricate system of trails only a few minutes’ drive from the center of town. With an abundance of short hikes, including the gravel Pumpkin Loop and the woodsier Neverland’s Inner and Outer Loops, Carolina North Forest is blooming with opportunities to immerse yourself in Piedmont wildlife.
If you’re more the indoorsy type, take a walk down Franklin Street and Carrboro’s Main Street to stop into stores like Peel Gallery + Photo Lab, This & That Gift Gallery, and Uniquities. A 20-minute walk from Franklin Street, Flyleaf Books is a reader’s paradise with a huge selection of both new and used books, shelves of giftable trinkets and a short story dispenser that prints work by UNC community members and writers from all over the world.
Lunch at Tru Deli complements any morning activity. This local restaurant on the corner of Rosemary and Henderson Streets specializes in fully-customized sandwiches accompanied by drinks from the bar. With a shaded rooftop patio, Tru offers a great place to take in Chapel Hill. If you’re looking for a pick-me-up instead of a glass of wine, head over to Lanza’s Cafe in Carrboro around 2:30 to grab a coffee, a bite to eat or some local mead. With chilled-out live music every Saturday afternoon, Lanza’s is a great place to ride out the heat of the day over board games.
Any Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill is incomplete without a stop at He’s Not Here, home of the infamous “blue cup,” which contains a modest 32-ounces of beer. Legend has it, the name of the bar comes from how the original owners used to deal with phone calls from fans inquiring after a rather famous UNC athlete (or, depending on who you ask, from divorce lawyers inquiring after the bar owners) — by answering and simply saying, “He’s not here.”
Eat dinner at Top of the Hill, a restaurant and brewery dishing up house-made drafts and American fare with a contemporary twist.The rooftop patio overlooks the corners of Franklin and Columbia Streets, where UNC students gather after wins against arch-rival Duke University’s basketball team.
Afterwards, catch a movie at the vintage-style Varsity Theatre or some live music at Cat’s Cradle. Showing new films and sometimes older ones, the Varsity is a blast from the past and a relaxed way to spend an evening at the center of Chapel Hill. Cat’s Cradle, in Carrboro, is a live music venue that hosts hoppin’ shows of all different genres. Before planning your weekend, make sure to check their event schedule to see who will be in town.
Consider brunch at Carolina Coffee Shop, located on the North end of UNC’s campus. Pairing long brunch, lunch and dinner menus with great coffee, the oldest restaurant in Chapel Hill has been fueling students, locals and visitors alike for 100 years. For caffeine on the move, swing by 1922, Carolina Coffee Shop’s new grab-and-go outpost in the neighboring storefront.
No weekend in Chapel Hill could be complete without a walk through the town’s historic anchor — the University of North Carolina. Weekend afternoons are a beautiful time to explore the University’s campus with all of its shady trees and historic architecture, and a nice walk will give you a chance to stretch your legs before you travel home.
The iconic Old Well sits at the center of campus. UNC students line up to sip from the well every year for good luck — if you visit, maybe some of its magic will rub off on you? Nearby McCorkle Place and Polk Place, the two main campus quads, offer views of beautiful brick buildings, including the original campus library and archives at Wilson Library. If it’s open, pop in and head upstairs to see the awe-inspiring Fearrington Reading Room (but make sure to be quiet, it is still a study space for students!). Once you’ve seen campus, take one last walk down Franklin Street to get back to your hotel.
Bask in the vibrant energy of Chapel Hill, and take a little bit of it home with you to savor. It’ll do you good, even if you’re going back to Duke.