Marvelous City Guide: Durham, North Carolina

18 April 2017

Today I am very excited to present my Durham, North Carolina city guide! Durham has skyrocketed to culinary fame over the last few years (Southern Living named it the South’s tastiest town in 2014!), but there is so much more to love about this post-industrial town than amazing restaurants. Let me take you on a tour of a few of my favorite places!

Pizzeria Toro


Matt Kelly, the chef and owner behind several of our downtown favorites, pretty much runs this town. Mothers and Sons Trattoria offers inventive and delicious pasta, and is perfect for a date night – the plates are small, so you can split several. We love to bring visiting family or meet up with larger groups at Mateo so we can try as many tapas as possible (my favorite is the chicken croquettes, a “special” that’s been on the board every time I’ve dined). If you’re looking for a quick lunch, you can round out your MK experience with a meatball sub or the sweet potato and leek soup at Lucky’s Delicatessen. Pro tip: these three are right in a row on W. Chapel Hill Street!

The wait at Pizzeria Toro can be long, but is always worth it. It has a fun, buzzy atmosphere, and is perfect in the winter when the huge wood-burning pizza oven makes for a cozy atmosphere in the open space. Try the kale salad, and leave room for zeppole for dessert. Or, walk down the street to Parlour for your sweet fix instead – their frozen sandwiches, like blackberry ice cream squeezed between two chocolate chip cookies, are my favorite!


If you find yourself out by Duke’s campus (and you should – see below!), there are several excellent options for dining. Foster’s Market will always take the blue ribbon in my book. Sara Foster is an acclaimed Southern chef who makes delicious, feel-good food. My go-to is a solid helping of the day’s casserole special (weighed by the pound) followed by a towering slice of coconut cake or chess pie if I’m feeling indulgent. For brunch, we move next door to Guglhupf, a German bakery and cafe with a pretty outdoor patio. The desserts are not to be missed here, either (can you sense a pattern?).

Around the corner are a matched pair of Scott Howell restaurants that couldn’t be more different: Nana’s is upscale and old school, the perfect place for a celebratory night out (we made reservations there the night we thought we were going to find out whether June was a boy or girl!). NanaTaco is a garage-turned-taco spot, except that it features fillings like braised local hog jowls and house smoked duck. (See also: NanaSteak, his fancy steakhouse near the American Tobacco Campus!)

It wouldn’t be an Em for Marvelous city guide without a few recommendations for my personal weakness. The original Rise location is in Durham, and while the Southpoint location is not the most scenic, the biscuits and donuts make up for it. My friend Sam practically lived on them during her first pregnancy. The line at Monuts is always long, and with good reason: their donuts are probably my favorite of all time. Try something fun – they feature creative flavors like Irish coffee, horchata, and brown butter hazelnut, and I’ve never been disappointed.

You might be surprised to see a seafood pick on my list, but Saltbox is that good – even I admit their beautifully seasoned shrimp roll, topped with tangy slaw, is delicious! Right now they’re in the cutest shack there ever was, but they’re opening a second, larger location in Rockwood (near Foster’s) this summer.


I pretty much only go to Vin Rouge (another Matt Kelly gem!) in the summer, because sitting on their garden patio under twinkle lights is the absolute best way to eat gratin de macaroni, tartiflette, and pommes frites. Actually, wait, I don’t think there’s a bad way to eat any of those things :) Fun for a date night!

For your winter list: Dashi, a downtown ramen spot with offerings as warm and comforting as a hug. They also offer exquisite small plates on their second level!


Work off all of your delicious meals with a hike at Eno River State Park. It’s an extensive and beautiful property, lovely in any season – our favorite trails are Bobbit Hole, Buckquarter Creek, Cox Mountain, Dunnagan, and Pea Creek. If it’s hot, take a dip near the waterfalls at the Fews Ford access, and don’t miss a trip across the suspension bridge! The best way to end an Eno hike is with a Locopop, just down the road from the park entrance.

Eno River

The Sarah P. Duke Gardens is one of the loveliest spots in the Triangle, hands-down. Bring a book and a blanket and stretch out on the South Lawn for a few hours, but not before roaming the pathways (my favorite sections are the camellias and the terrace garden!). We love to pick up Foster’s for a picnic on our way in.

The American Tobacco Campus, arguably the heart of Durham and one of the coolest examples of industrial repurposing anywhere, hosts several of our favorite summer events. The Durham Bulls, a AAA baseball team with absurdedly good concessions, play nearby, and our public radio station hosts an outdoor (free!) bluegrass concert series every summer that is wall-to-wall popular. Every ATC event allows you to appreciate the campus itself, which transformed from a decrepit factory with trees growing out of the roof and used for SWAT team drills to a pristine, ingenious community space complete with a meandering stream running down the center – right under the original Lucky Strike tower. Its reimagination is truly inspiring!

american tobacco campus

When faced with a hard-to-shop-for friend, my first stop is Parker & Otis, a modern general store with the coolest brands. (Tagline: “a lot of things you want.” Yes.) I’ve never spotted a dud on their shelves, but their baby section is particularly refined.

Hideaway Woods

Finally, find yourself a kid if you don’t already have one just so you can take a trip to the Museum of Life & Science. Every section is spectacular, but Hideaway Woods is literal kid perfection. It features eight treehouses (some up to 20 feet high!) connected by rope bridges and cargo nets, a free-flowing stream, giant logs, life-size twig sculptures, and so much more. All of my kid + nature cravings find their zenith here.


You’re in luck! After decades with nothing but a lone Marriott on the scene, Durham now has not one but two fabulous boutique hotels: The Durham and 21c Museum Hotel. We recently stayed overnight at The Durham for a mini belated birthday getaway, and their dedication to sourcing locally (everything from Big Spoon Roasters in the amenities tray to Raleigh Denim blankets on the bed) was impressive. Locals, don’t miss the Saturday morning yoga class on the rooftop – complimentary for guests and $15 to drop-in. One of the best classes I’ve ever taken! Of course, drinks on the roof by night is also fun!

The Durham

I know this guide only scratches the surface of all that this vibrant, ever-changing city has to offer, so please, if you’re a Durham fan, leave your favorites in the comments! I’m going to add a few honorable mentions to kick us off. I’d love for the comment section to be a resource for readers just as much as my post! xo!

Pizzeria Toro photo by In Honor of Design, Nanataco photo by Map & Menu, Saltbox and Duke Gardens photos by Bit & Grain, Hideaway Woods photo from The Triangle Review. Remaining photos either personal or from their respective sources.

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April 18, 2017 9:34 am

Great post! I used to live in Durham and really loved it. Such an underrated city, in my opinion! I have a few other honorable mentions for your list:

For dinner:

Dos Perros – upscale Mexican restaurant with the best guacamole and margaritas.

The Federal – for all intents and purposes, “The Fed” is a hole in the wall bar, but man their fries…so good. Check out the specials, there’s always something surprising and delicious (like boar meat tacos).

Bull City Burger and Brewery – I don’t normally eat beef, but for Bull City Burger, I make an exception.

For lunch:

The Original Q Shack – The best Southern food with no frills. Think: picnic tables and paper towels for your sticky fingers.

Nosh – While good for lunch, this is also a great place for breakfast. Try their pasta salad!

For coffee:

Cocoa Cinnamon – The best hot chocolate I’ve ever had can be found here. They have an interesting selection, so take a look at the menu closely before ordering.

For booze:

Fullsteam Brewery – Dog friendly, food trucks, arcade games, and trivia every Thursday night (the most challenging game of trivia you will ever play, I guarantee it). I don’t like dark beers, but The Working Man’s Lunch is pretty delicious.

Bull McCabes – an Irish pub located in the heart of downtown. Their food (a new addition in the past couple years) is really delicious, too.

April 21, 2017 10:26 am
Reply to  Bethany

Important to note: Bull McCabes has a dog-friendly lawn and it’s fenced in. That makes it perfect for bringing toddlers: they can run around and pet dogs; you can drink beer and not worry over them. We go there often for this reason.

April 18, 2017 10:21 am

Oh my goodness! I’ve always wanted to visit NC, but my travel fever has increased after this post! That place with all of the treehouses would have been my sister and my’s dream come true as a child!

April 18, 2017 12:36 pm

You know I love this! Great roundup—things I love and things I need to try on my next visit(s)!!!

April 18, 2017 7:28 pm

Okay.. WOW. Must visit ASAP!

April 18, 2017 7:37 pm

I LOVE living in Durham! Such a good list, Em! A couple additions, Nana Taco has $1 tacos on Friday and Saturday night from 9-10pm. We are frequent patrons! :) 2nd, Vin Rouge. It is so cozy and the chocolate mousse and poulet roti are my favorites! Ponysaurus brewing is a fun bar for a group! They have several outdoor bonfire pits that they will light for you to sit outside. And they have fun snacks like swedish fish and cheetos. haha

April 18, 2017 11:18 pm

My mom and I still talk about the delicious breakfast we shared at Monuts! Thank you for your recommendation during our trip :)

April 19, 2017 10:01 am

This is a FABULOUS guide, and well worth the wait! ;) I will heartily ditto Foster’s, Guglhuph, Vin Rouge, and all things American Tobacco Campus, and I see Cocoa Cinnamon and Fullsteam in above comments, which I also love! Dave teases me for saying “We need to come to Durham more often” evvvvery time we go to Durham, and well, this post does not change that :) A staycation at The Durham is high on my list–glad to hear you loved it!

Kelly Strawberry
April 19, 2017 12:17 pm

Durham has come so far! I will say that everyone I know from Durham has so much pride in their roots. I know I do. :)

Gocciolina is a great little Italian spot. Need reservations but very good. Also Meelo’s is great – very friendly owner.

BP Grill is my family’s go-to and has been for most of my life. Probably nothing too special, but that’s where everyone goes. You walk in and you’re guaranteed to see at least 5 people you know.

Brightleaf Square honorable mention.

Grey Stone Church (gorgeous church beside Cocoa Cinnamon and LocoPops on Hillsborough Rd) is amazing. Anyone visiting should go on a Sunday – I just love it and it has so much history and has given so much to the Durham community. I’m biased :)

Bennett Place, Stagville, and Museum of Life & Science were all my regular field trips at least once/year. All great places to visit.

April 19, 2017 5:00 pm

Durham is my favorite! Have you visited Chet Miller yet? Jennings, the owner, also owns Parker & Otis. I agree with everyone about Cocoa Cinnamon. Also, one of my favorite things to do in downtown Durham in spring is the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. And then there’s the American Dance Festival. Sorry! I could go ON and ON. I love Durham so.

ps: This is completely random and unrelated but my mom (a mural artist) and was in Cary this weekend working on a commission (a chalk floral mini mural for Easter). She showed me the professional photos today and you and your cute fam were in the photos! Small world!

Molly Gaither
April 25, 2017 9:47 am
Reply to  Em

I haven’t but I read about it! Same owner so you know it will be good! I believe they just started an Instagram account for it this week too.

April 19, 2017 9:40 pm

This is great! We haven’t done a tremendous amount of exploring in Durham, aside from a few Bulls games and a trip to DPAC for our girls to see the Nutcracker. We will definitely start checking some items off this list. It was lovely meeting you on Sunday. I hope we will have a chance to chat again soon! Thanks, as always, for great blog content!— Sela

April 26, 2017 1:51 pm

Okay, a few additions to this fab post:
-If you’re staying downtown on a Saturday, grab a caffeinated beverage of your choice at Cocoa Cinnamon and then take a stroll through the Durham Farmer’s Market. It’s a fabulous place and there are yummy food options if you want to have breakfast there. Sit on one of the benches to enjoy it for some awesome people-watching.
-Ponysaurus Brewery is also a fantastic and super kid- and pet-friendly spot to meet up with friends. Hang out under the awning or on their shaded upper deck on hot days, or by one of the fire pits on a cooler one. They most always have a food truck there, so check their website to see what fare to expect!
-If you’re visiting Parker & Otis, swing around the other side of that block and stop by Morgan Street Imports. It’s another go-to spot for fun gifts. Then cross the street and walk through Brightleaf Square. My personal favorites there are Indio, a truly charming shop with the sweetest owner, and Hamilton Hill, which has truly swoon-worthy jewelry with a modern twist.
-The Zen Succulent and Everyday Magic are amazing shops in downtown Durham. The former will make all of your plant lady dreams come true and the latter will have you wanting to buy all of the crystals.
-Tiny is a sweet kids store by the same owner of Parker and Otis and Chet Miller (it’s next door to the latter) and a perfect spot to snag a gift for little ones.
-Weekend brunch at Rue Cler is a must-do when visiting or if hosting guests. Make a reservation, since it’s crowded, but their beignets, crepes, omelettes, and croque monsieurs are all fabulous.
-If you’re visiting Eno River State Park and need some sustenance beforehand, I can’t recommend Picnic highly enough. It’s great barbecue in a fun, low-key environment close to several of the park’s trail heads.
-When going to a Bulls’ game, try to get a seat in one of the sections under the roof. It provides wonderful shade or rain cover and they also have giant fans, which provide a much-needed breeze on even the hottest days.
-Visiting Duke Chapel is an awesome experience. It’s a Durham landmark and a truly beautiful space.
-Vintage Home South is another sweet shop, located on Ninth Street. You can walk there from Monuts or Elmo’s, two great breakfast/brunch spots, or from Cosmic Cantina or Chubby’s Tacos, which have good, inexpensive Mexican food. Juju is right across the street if you want a more upscale experience with great Asian cuisine.
-The Durham Hotel also has a fabulous rooftop bar. It has an awesome view of downtown and is the perfect spot for a fancy drink before heading to a show at DPAC or out to dinner.

[…] loved ones. Also, if you’re looking for an amazing Durham city guide, check out my friend Emily’s round-up (and the comment section, […]