Raleigh & Durham, North Carolina

Sosta café in downtown Raleigh

We had a family party a few weekends ago. It was pretty typical gathering, a twice-yearly, all-in-one occasion where we get all the cousins and aunts and uncles together, eat a lot of food, and celebrate all the birthdays/graduations/momentous life events that occurred since the last fiesta six months ago. It’s a great system, really, for an extended family that has spread out across most of New England: festive, and efficient.

My cousin Alex flew all the way from her job training in Raleigh back to Connecticut just to be home for this party, and we were talking outside on the porch when she mentioned that her training was over in two weeks and she would be making the long trek from Raleigh back home to Connecticut. I nodded sympathetically—a solo ten-hour drive didn’t sound much fun to me either—when she paused and said “Hey, why don’t you fly down and hang for a few days before driving back with me?”

Now I had never been to North Carolina before. And a ten hour drive didn’t sound so terrible once you had two drivers to make it. Prior commitments? None. Work? Flexible. More than anything, I couldn’t ignore an opportunity to travel, especially when it was to a place I’d never been before. I was in.

We booked my flight the next afternoon, and a week later I was hanging out at a terminal in LaGuardia waiting for my plane to arrive. Which it did… but three hours late. Alex had warned me that her LaGuardia-Raleigh trip the week prior had been anything but smooth, and friends from work had shared similarly delayed and exasperating experiences. My (very flawed) logic when choosing my flight had been that if so many NYC-Raleigh flights had been delayed or cancelled for inane reasons, then the chances that mine would be fine were high. All the bad luck had already been used up. Right?

Ahhh, well… ‘fraid not. My plane was suffering from a broken air conditioner that day and, alas, was not feeling up to the journey. We had to wait for our replacement, some of us more patiently than others (I’m looking at you, cranky airport lady. You seemed to take it as a personal affront that our plane literally had no chill and couldn’t fly us that day. Funny, it seems you two had a lot in common). When the substitute aircraft finally arrived, they had us in the air and back down again in under two hours—all in all, a bit tedious and boring, but not the worst flight experience I’ve ever had.

Originally, I was supposed to arrive in North Carolina at around two pm, Uber on over to my cousin’s apartment, and hang out until she got home from work around five. After a long day of sitting in a grimy airport terminal and sweating my way across NYC via public transportation, there was nothing I wanted more than a shower and a quick rest. Unfortunately, with the delay, Alex ended up beating me home, and instead of a nap and shower I just threw on some nicer clothes and we headed out to downtown Raleigh for dinner.

Besides a nap and a shower, finding some real food was an interest vying for my immediate attention. My motives were one-part hunger and one-part a burning need to obliterate the memory of the soggy eggplant sandwich I bought for eleven dollars and a resigned sigh during the delay at the airport.

We decided to go to a Greek restaurant, Taverna Agora, a cute and very European-looking place with a rooftop seating area and little twinkling lights strung around the trees and walls. It was a beautiful night, a cool breeze erasing the heat from the day, and the cicadas droning not too loudly in the distance. We sat upstairs on the deck, and had some seriously amazing food and drinks while catching up on everything new and exciting. Even though it was a Thursday night in the city, our restaurant and many of the other downtown venues were surprisingly uncrowded. It was nice, really nice– good food, good company, and a perfectly new and welcoming city to explore.

I’ve always believed that the spontaneous trips are often the best ones. With no concrete plans you can’t help but keep an open mind, and you’ll often end up trying things you wouldn’t have considered with a strict itinerary. My five days in North Carolina were absolutely one of those trips; here are some of my favorite places I visited during my random little jaunt down south.

In Raleigh:

  1. Taverna Agora, obviously. Great Greek food, awesome drinks (try the spiked basil lemonade and the Greek mule), and a great environment to hang out and chat for an hour or four.
  2. Parks. Tons of parks. I have no idea what these parks are called but they are lovely and they are everywhere. Bring a book and find a shady spot to hang out for a while, North Carolina weather is perfect for that sort of thing.
  3. Café Sosta, this cool little European-themed café near downtown. I brought my laptop here one afternoon to get all my neglected work done. A really friendly French dude runs the place, and they have excellent coffee.
  4. Raleigh Beer Garden, current Guinness World Record holder for the most draft beers under one roof. It’s some crazy number like 365 beers on tap, and the menu is constantly changing. Three stories, each with its own bar, and a rooftop patio with some nice views of the city. Just a really cool place over all, definitely worth checking out.
  5. Treat Ice Cream, a really great local ice cream shop I sat in for a whole hour one afternoon to cool down in the air conditioning and mooch off their Wifi. Bonus points for being the place where I, in a crazy coincidental turn of fate, ran into some friends from back home in Massachusetts. Clearly, the universe smiles upon this ice cream place and you should all go. (Ice cream is wicked good too, try the honey almond flavor).
  6. Tasca Brava, aka THE PLACE THAT SERVES LITERALLY BEST SPANISH FOOD I’VE EVER HAD IN MY LIFE. EVER. And I lived in Spain for a year! I could write a whole separate blog just about this place alone: the incredible food, the very authentic Spanish atmosphere, the charming guy with a booming laugh and a little bit of sadness behind his eyes who runs it. Do yourself a favor, and if you’re ever in Raleigh, go here. If you’re ever within 100 miles of Raleigh, go here. It’s worth it.

In Durham:

  1. Duke Botanical Gardens, go here. It’s a huge park to explore, it’s free (minus parking), and it is very beautiful. Acres upon acres of different gardens to explore, some spots shadier than others. I spent almost three hours wandering here and barely made it to half of the gardens.
  2. Beyu Caffe, I grabbed lunch here on my single afternoon in Durham. Really good food, really good coffee, with a funky jazz/boho vibe to top it all off.

I swear I did more on this trip than just eat food, though I really did love some of the dining options nearby. If you’re ever near Raleigh, I hope you have the chance to check out some of my favorite stops. If you’re a local, and there’s somewhere great I missed, leave a comment so I’ll know where to check out next time.

Cheers!