My dad, brother, Dan and I recently got back from visiting my dad’s side of the family just west of Raleigh, N.C., in a town called Holly Springs. I’ve been there many times growing up, but this was Dan’s first, so we wanted to show him a good time. The crisp fall weather was a nice break from our warm Florida “fall” and we got to take in the beautiful foliage that we miss out on year after year.
My cousin Emma recently inherited my grandmother’s 21-year-old Volvo since she can no longer drive, so we were chauffeured around in that beast by my cousin Chris. I have so many good memories of my grandparents taking my brother and I on road trips and driving around (slowly) in that car. It was fun to get out and make some new ones in it with a new driver at the wheel.
While much of North Carolina is still pretty rural, Raleigh is a modern city with lots to do and great food! It’s also the capital. The Raleigh area is know for its renowned universities and research institutes, which give it its nickname, the “Research Triangle”. With so many brilliant minds in the area for school and work, the city is a great place to live and play. Less than an hour outside the city in all directions, there are many up and coming, or easygoing, small towns to explore, depending on your style. That’s where we ended up this trip.
My uncle John was our tour guide and I gotta say, he really came through! He’s a cool hippie guy with a love for antiques and the Grateful Dead, so we enjoy a lot of the same things! Pretty much everything on this list was his doing. Five stars, Uncle Johnny!
In my travel posts, you might notice me consuming a little more (or sometimes a lot more!) sugar than usual. Trying the local cuisine is one of the best ways to take in a new culture or place, and it’s definitely my favorite part. It’s not every day you get to have a croissant in Paris or in this case, a homemade biscuit in the southern U.S. So I say go for it when you can! Cutting out sugar is something I choose to do because it makes me feel better, but it’s not like a food allergy where it’s dangerous to have a little. I might feel it the next day, but for me, sometimes it’s just worth it to have a little sugar.
Because of that, when I travel, I typically don’t stick to my no sugar plan like I do at home. I try to not to go crazy with the sweets, but I don’t over analyze everything I’m putting in my mouth, and I savor that home-cooked meal or dinner at the local spot. It is vacation after all! I know I’ll get back to my usual eating habits when I return home.
Which leads me to my first recommendation on any trip to North Carolina…
BBQ! It’s generally the first thing that comes to mind when you think of food in N.C. North Carolina BBQ is different depending on where you are in the state, but it’s always delicious and is generally vinegar-based, which is what differentiates it from other states. Even the more vinegary BBQ sauces generally have a little bit of sugar in them, but they definitely have less than the typical sweet BBQ sauce, and could even be made without sugar if you’re making your own.
Poor Dan really didn’t get the full N.C. experience this time because we totally jipped him in the BBQ department. I know! I know! He might as well have just hopped on a plane and went back home. My dad, brother, and I flew up the day before him and stopped in at our favorite BBQ spot on our way to my uncle’s. When Dan arrived the next day it was too early to stop, so he unfortunately he had to miss out. I’m not sure he’ll ever forgive me… I certainly wouldn’t! But there’s always next time!
If you’re going to eat one thing in N.C., make it a good Carolina BBQ place. You won’t regret it.
My top pick, as well as the top pick for many ‘best of’ lists in the area, is:
1. Backyard BBQ Pit – Durham, N.C
They cook their meat the old school (and best) way, in an outdoor wood fire pit. You can see it right out back! The first thing we always do when my uncle picks us up at the airport is stop in for some grub at Backyard BBQ.
You order at the counter cafeteria-style, then grab a seat where you can. It gets pretty crowded at lunch time. My go-to is the pulled pork sandwich with some vinegar sauce on top and a side of green beans and mac n’ cheese. Make sure you get the slaw AND the vinegar sauce on your sandwich! Both are a must for an authentic experience. Their mac n’ cheese is well worth the carboload, too. TRUST! Oh, and did I mention this place is insanely affordable? Cause it is! I’m talking a full meal for like $6. You really can’t go wrong.
Along with food, the local beers are always a must-try for me. This brewery is located near where my family lives, and came highly recommended by them. After visiting, I definitely see why. I tried the Crackpot Pilsner. I like a good IPA from time to time, but sometimes I just want a really good beer that tastes like… beer! This hit the mark. Not too hoppy or too much wheat. It was perfect. I would definitely buy it again if I found it here locally. They also had a jalapeno version that intrigued me.
In regards to the food, I honestly wasn’t expecting much from a brewery in terms of BBQ, but damn, they surprised me! I ordered a turkey club and it blew me away! Turkey is so easy to get wrong. It always seems to be too dry or too bland, but this turkey was flavorful and moist and all kinds of delicious. I would go as far as to say it’s the best turkey I’ve had. EVER!
They also have a Taphouse with a menu that sounds really good, so I’ll have to add that and a few more beers to my list for next time.
3. Belgian Cafe – Apex, N.C.
My grandpa has seen and done it all. He’s been all over the world. So when he recommended this place, I figured it must be decent. You guys!!! This place was amazing. The drink and food selections were a little taste of Europe in unsuspecting Apex. Dan got the Belgian waffles. Dan is a serious waffle connoisseur and gave them his seal of approval. On our trip to Paris this summer, I had to miss out on the croque-madame (long story for another time), so when I saw it on the menu I was super excited. It was delicious! Now I need to go back to Paris to compare to the real thing! I also got a café au lait which was brewed to perfection, and some macarons to go. I’ve had macarons from local places and was never thrilled with them. They’re just never as good as the real thing. BUT THESE WERE! Seriously, they were on par with the macarons in Paris. This place is a hidden gem and I wish it were closer to me, because I’d probably be there every day.
Many of the buildings in downtown Durham are old tobacco factories that have been converted to shops, restaurants, and offices. My family loves history but we didn’t have a ton of time, so we stopped in at the Museum of Durham History. It’s a small museum, so it doesn’t take long, but it’s a great place to start and get a brief understanding of the area’s history. After that, we wandered over to Morgan Imports. This shop had a ton of stuff. Everything from clothes, to homewares, to funny gifts, and pet products. I picked up a few Christmas gifts while there. Then we browsed through the shops at Brightleaf Square. Check out James Kennedy Antiques. They have antiques from all over the world, including Asia and Africa, as well as really cool fossils and other interesting finds. It’s not your average antique shop. We also stopped in at Pine Cone Ice Cream. I just had a tea, but my family got ice cream and said it was great! There are tons of other cool shops and restaurants in the area and we definitely could’ve spent at least a day roaming around.
5. Pittsboro,NC – There are quite a few adorable little downtown areas throughout the state, but this one on Hillsboro St. in Pittsboro felt especially quaint. You know it’s something special when half the shops have either a sweet older man playing guitar, a shop dog, or both! It’s a great way to spend an afternoon and I would highly recommend it. From antiques, to toys, to books, or wine, there’s something for everyone in Pittsboro; all within a block or two on the main street. My personal favorite was the vintage shopping.
Here are some of my top picks from our visit:
Al’s Diner – My meal there was by no means the healthiest option, but it was well worth it! Along with BBQ, the next must-have food item in N.C. has got to be biscuits! There’s literally a fast food chain called Biscuitville! So of course when I saw it on the menu at Al’s, I had to get the biscuits and gravy. The biscuits were huge and so dang good, and the gravy was delish as well! I didn’t regret a single bite! It was also insanely affordable. The south truly does know how to give you a stellar meal on a budget!
Screaming For Vintage – Okay guys, I would honestly drive to Pittsboro only for this store. It was that good! The selection of men’s and women’s clothing was great and the prices were amazing. I came away with two 1970’s-era tops, but would’ve done even more damage if the six adorable dresses I tried on would’ve fit. They also had great mid-century modern housewares and furniture, and I’m sure I would’ve come away with some of that as well had I been able to fit it in my carry-on! Most vintage clothing stores either have a lackluster selection or the prices are astronomical, but this one managed to get it all right. I’d mark it as one of the best I’ve been in. Definitely stop in if you’re in the area!
S & T’s Soda Shoppe is a vintage soda shop that sells, of course , old-fashioned made-to-order sodas, ice cream, and baked goods. They also sell food, but we didn’t have any so I can’t vouch for that. But I can vouch for the milk shakes! I figured I probably shouldn’t order one myself or I’d go into a sugar coma, but I did steal a sip from my uncle’s strawberry milkshake and it was heaven. The decor in this place is spot on. Everything from the bar to the floors, to the medicine cabinets, and the old-fashioned milk shake machines, was exactly as I picture it would have been in it’s heyday. It’s an experience you won’t get many other places these days.
Liquidambar Gallery and Gifts was another really cool local spot. They sell beautiful, one-of-a-kind, local art pieces, including jewelry. My dad bought me a beautiful silver and turquoise ring, as well as some dainty, silver elephant studs as gifts. It’s a great place to browse and pick up a gift or two. Deep River Mercantile had beautiful homewares and gifts like soaps, shirts, and jewelry. I picked up yet another pair of earrings for myself and Dan bought himself a local cigar. They also had the cutest golden retriever puppy, but he wasn’t for sale. Circle City Books and Music is a great stop for bibliophiles. They had a massive selection of books and some really great records to choose from. You could spend days in there browsing.
There are about a dozen more awesome spots to check out in Pittsboro, but those were some of my favorites. It’s only about a 40 min. drive from the city of Raleigh, and it’s worth an afternoon visit for sure.
The Raleigh-area really has so much to offer in terms of history, food and drink culture. From city life to cozy, small town, there’s something for everyone. If you ever find yourself there, check out some of my recommendations above.
Let me know in the comments of any cool places you find as well. I’ll add them to my list for my next visit!