Though North Carolina has been making headlines for the wrong reasons recently—reasons that might make travelers consider skipping the destination altogether—there are parts of the state that are ready to welcome all visitors equally. Case in point: Durham, a fast-growing city that’s notably diverse; at 48.3 percent White, 40 percent African-American, and 11.6 percent Asian, Native American, Other, or Multirace, there’s no true racial majority here. It’s also open to newcomers—which may account for the over 300 startups now based in its downtown, and the slew of upscale residences, including those in a 22-story mixed-use tower, coming online over the next year.
Vibrant and walkable, downtown is also the epicenter for all the action, with blocks of architecturally preserved, adaptive re-use buildings—many erstwhile tobacco warehouses and offices—now holding independent shops, cafes, and restaurants. (The city center proudly has only three chain establishments.) One such revitalized historic building, a former bank designed by the same architects as the Empire State Building, is now home to the buzzed-about 21c Museum Hotel (from $180; 111 Corcoran St.; 919-956-6700; 21cmuseumhotel.com), with 125 airy rooms, an onsite museum dedicated to 21st-century art with rotating exhibits and site-specific works, and the seafood-centric Counting House restaurant. Nearby, another former bank has become the 53-room the Durham ($190; 315 E. Chapel Hill St.; 919-768-8830; thedurham.com), with colorful midcentury modern interiors, a destination rooftop lounge with raw bar, and a restaurant and dining program overseen by James Beard Award–winner Andrea Reusing. (Aside from these two boutique options, downtown is mainly seeing growth in mid-range hotels: An outpost of Starwood’s Aloft recently opened, a Graduate Hotel will arrive this year, and one of the first locations of Unscripted—the new brand from the Dream Hotel Group—will launch in Spring 2017).
Throughout downtown, dining and drinking emphasizes local flavors. A partnership between a chef, a pitmaster, and a farmer, Picnic (1647 Cole Mill Rd.; 919-908-9128; picnicdurham.com) has been garnering national attention for its outstanding BBQ, made with secret sauces and locally raised pigs. Noted chef-restaurateur Matt Kelly has expanded his local empire to include chef Josh “Skinny” DeCarolis’ Mothers and Sons (107 W. Chapel Hill St.; 919-294-8247; mothersandsonsnc.com), a seasonally inspired homage to the classic Italian trattoria. Visit the taprooms of Fullsteam brewery (726 Rigsbee Ave.; 919-682-2337; fullsteam.ag), which sources ingredients from local farms and foragers (and even crowd-sources produce for its seasonal brews), and Ponysaurus Brewing Co. (219 Hood St.; 844-369-7669; ponysaurusbrewing.com), which creates complex, artisanal beers for a roster of local restaurants. Opened in fall 2016, Bull City Ciderworks (305 S. Roxboro St.; bullcityciderworks.com) bucks tradition with infusions of everything from black tea to bacon and candy corn, and Honey Girl Meadery (105 Hood St., No. 6; 919-399-3056; honeygirlmeadery.com) has won awards for its handcrafted meads made with botanicals, herbs, and flowers. And there’s more handcrafted beverages to come, including Two Doors distillery, whose name is a reference to the moonshine sellers of days past.