Raleigh, North Carolina: The City You Already Know Is Cool

Raleigh, North Carolina: The City You Already Know Is Cool

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Raleigh is one of those cities you hear is cool without knowing why.

“Yeah, I heard they have… a cool craft beer scene or something…?” someone will say with a hint of uncertainty.

I wasn’t any different. I had an inclination that there was something special about Raleigh, but I didn’t know what. So, before leaving the country (again), I strung together an Amtrak route through Raleigh. My wife Melanie and I arrived on a scorching hot summer afternoon, the kind that reminds northerners just how blazing the south can be.

We had just the one night at the hotel, but I’ve always felt I could get a good grasp of a medium-sized city within a day’s walking. So to start, we had a short jaunt to the Raleigh Marriott from the Amtrak station. The station itself is deceiving with the white building resembling something of a modest country home or perhaps one of the smaller train stations in Europe. Nothing indicates that you’ve just arrived in a city of 400,000-plus. That is, until you turn around and see the skyscrapers of a modern American city.

Downtown Raleigh is by no means huge, but you’re in the city as soon as you march east away from the station. A number of the city’s more popular dining and drinking establishments start popping up around Cabarrus and Davie streets.

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It didn’t take long after checking in before we turned tail right back to this area for a patio dinner at The Pit. There’s a neighborhood feel surrounding The Pit with a number of other businesses right off the sidewalk. I could hear live music around the corner, but my attention was firmly latched onto the shredded pork, green beans, baked beans, and Angry Angel Kölsch in front of me.

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I’m by no means a southern barbecue connoisseur, but my stomach and taste buds were plenty happy.

We then made the long walk across the street for a couple of beers at Crank Arm Brewing with a busy front patio offset from the red brick building with lines of hops growing along the side.

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It’s not difficult to get me to check out a brewery for the sake of going to a brewery, but the task is exponentially easier when there’s a bike theme. Bikes adorn the walls at Crank Arm and then there’s the Rickshaw Rye IPA, Peddlin’ Round The Pond American India Pale Ale, Unicycle Single Hop Pale Ale, Holy Spokes Smoke Porter, Big Wheel Brown Ale, Bike Lane Belgian-Style South–and so it continues among the brewery’s seasonal offerings.

That was our first taste of Raleigh, but we were right back a week or so later after a little family vacation on Bald Head Island. We scheduled a late flight to give us the day to explore a bit more of Raleigh, starting with a recommended visit to Big Ed’s City Market where I enjoyed a slightly burnt mammoth of an omelet—the kind you can expect to find at any Americana diner.

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And Big Ed’s is most certainly an Americana diner with its red and white checkered tablecloths, simple wooden chair, and a yard sale decor theme. Almost anything you can think of being stored in an attic or shed was hanging down from the ceiling. Pots and pans were the least of it. I also doubly appreciated the sign at the entrance, warning guests that they take their time to cook their food, so folks in a hurry should come back another time.

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Big Ed’s is on Wolfe Street. It felt like we were in another time period with the cobblestone streets and red brick sidewalks surrounding densely packed lines of shops, businesses and restaurants. This felt like my idea of the south, which is admittedly inspired mostly by images of Charleston.

From there, despite the merciless summer heat, we attempted to walk off breakfast with a trek up to the statehouse. I will say this: Raleigh, in our short time there, appeared to do a great job in making walking appealing and comfortable even with the temperature hovering around 90 degrees thanks to nearly constant tree cover. It seems like a no brainer, but too many cities lay waste on their natural shade for one reason or another, usually in relation to making driving easier, so Raleigh deserves credit for making walking as comfortable as possible in the worst of summer.

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That said, we did enjoy the cool relief with a stop at the North Carolina Museum of History. Being a southern state, North Carolina has no shortage of particularly appalling history to work through with the sin of slavery and civil rights issues to march through.

The Civil War seemed to take a majority of the focus with surprisingly little on civil rights, though I did appreciate an image of a march blocking traffic as protestors made their way through the streets. This was at the same time suburban commuters around the country were complaining about Black Lives Matter protestors cutting off highway traffic to bring attention to their cause. The gist being, “Protest all you want about people getting killed, just don’t let it impact me!”

This, naturally, devolved for some into proclamations that, “Dr. King would never do that!” when of course Dr. King most certainly led marches that stopped vehicular traffic. So while it was disheartening to be reminded how little we remember from recent history, it was also a little comforting to see it hasn’t been completely forgotten.

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We ended our time in Raleigh on a lighter note, stopping for a beer Clouds Brewing. It’s a city I’d like to spend more time in. I felt like I’d fit in, particularly with what appeared to be a vibrant bike culture. That’s what I gathered by demands to “share the road” scrawled in colorful chalk on the city sidewalks alongside other pro-cycling messages.

At least I left with a better understanding of exactly why Raleigh is, indeed, cool.

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Disclaimer: Visit Raleigh supported this trip in part. As always, all opinions are my own.

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Joe Baur
Joe Baur
Joe is a travel author (Talking Tico) and podcaster who's constantly looking to get off the tourist trek in search of new stories. He enjoys few things more than a hoppy beer and chorizo in good company. Give him these things and he will be your friend for life.