Part of the North Carolina Piedmont region known as “The Triangle,” the once-gritty tobacco town of Durham has blossomed into one great place to visit and to live. With the capital, Raleigh, and the liberal college town of Chapel Hill forming the other two points of the Triangle, the district borrows its name from Research Triangle Park. This 7,000-acre high-tech research and development district headquarters more than 170 international companies and employs some 39,000 people.
Money from the tobacco industry built much of the city as it stands today. During the American Civil War, Union soldiers became fond of the local Bright Leaf tobacco. When Orange County farmer and visionary Washington Duke came home from the war, he decided to market the “golden weed.” In 1890, Duke’s sons established the American Tobacco Company, spawning a manufacturing empire that rocketed North Carolina to the center of the world’s tobacco production. Today, the Duke Homestead State Historic Site and Tobacco Museum preserves the house where Duke lived with his second wife in 1852. This much-visited Durham attraction also comprises a reconstructed version of Duke’s first tobacco factory and his curing barn, among other historic structures.
Durham’s population of 262,700 ranks as one of the most highly educated in the U.S., largely owing to the concentration of stellar universities in the area. While Durham itself claims Duke University and North Carolina Central University (the nation’s first publicly supported African American liberal arts college), The Triangle is also home to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.
On the city’s west side, the three contiguous sections of Duke University’s campus merit a visit for their Georgian (East Campus) and Gothic (West Campus) architecture. One of the best examples of the latter is the stunning Duke Chapel, which anchors the campus’ center. Constructed of local bluestone, the chapel walls are pierced with 77 impressive stained-glass windows. The 210-foot-high bell tower contains a 50-bell carillon. On the Central Campus, find the beautifully sculpted and natural woodland settings of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, and the Nasher Art Museum, whose rotating exhibits run the gamut from classical antiquities to outsider art.
The heart of Durham beats in the vibrant downtown historic district, where turn-of-the-20th-century tobacco warehouses now teem with entertainment venues, shops and restaurants. Cruise Brightleaf Square for an assortment of shops and local food favorites such as Pop’s Restaurant, which serves Northern Italian fare. Walk over to the adjoining American Tobacco District to take in a Durham Bulls AAA baseball game in season, or attend a rock concert or a touring Broadway show at the new Durham Performing Arts Center.
In downtown and elsewhere around the city, the dining scene is infused with local, farm-fresh ingredients. Seek out restaurants like Revolution and Piedmont (both Downtown), Nana’s (University Drive), and Watts Grocery (Ninth Street District) for a sampling of some of Durham’s best homegrown eats. To see the local produce for yourself, head to the downtown Central Park neighborhood on Saturday mornings year round for the Durham Farmers’ Market.