Raleigh, where the cool sneaks up on you

|     Melanie DG Kaplan     |

“SNEAKY cool.”

That’s how goldsmith Lauren Ramirez, a transplant from San Francisco, described Raleigh to me when I popped into her jewellery studio in late November last year. It was the same morning that I saw a man break dancing in the middle of the street before 8am and one day after I’d made an impulse purchase that sparkled like a disco ball.

“It sneaks up on you,” Ramirez said about the city’s cool factor, as her dog Alfred sat at my feet. She moved to Raleigh on a whim five years ago and wasn’t sure if she’d make it. But then her business took off, and now she appreciates the city’s small-town feel and the extent to which locals support each other.

I hadn’t visited Raleigh for any length of time since I was a kid but had a sense that it was a staid state capital, the cultural underdog of the Research Triangle (Its other points being Chapel Hill and Durham). As I biked around, eating, shopping and talking to locals, I realised that if my assessment wasn’t already outdated, it would be, soon.

The City of Oaks is growing swiftly, with a population of nearly 500,000. As I explored, I found a progressive city in a state that often isn’t, a place full of public art and bike paths and a university-inspired hub of innovation and design. Locals are at once excited about growth and worried about how it will change their city.

At the North Carolina Museum of Art’s 164-acre Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, people walk through local artist Thomas Sayre’s ‘Gyre’, a set of gigantic earthcasting rings
Oak City Cycling Project’s mechanic Charles Thompson (C) helps regular customer Bryan Hoffman work on his bike at the underground garage space
Carroll’s Kitchen – a non-profit restaurant that employs women transitioning from homelessness, incarceration or abuse – serves kolaches including spinach and feta, mushroom and apple pie
Father and Sons Antiques in the Warehouse District has an eclectic mix of vintage clothing, Danish and midcentury modern furniture, record albums, jewellery and more
BookBot, a robotic delivery system at North Carolina State University’s James B Hunt Library, enables it to hold two million books in one-ninth the space of traditional stacks
Poole’s Diner, a former pie shop and luncheonette, is now run by James Beard award-winner Ashley Christensen
The Umstead Hotel and Spa offers package deals that include culinary artist getaways and spa getaways

After three days, I wanted more Raleigh. I stayed an extra night and then an extra hour the next morning, waiting for Boulted Bread to open. The windows of the bakery were steamy, and I was second in line. I left town with a bag of pastries on the passenger seat and my new, super cool purchase in the back. Glitter track pants from Edge of Urge had snuck into my life. I loved them already.

Where to go

Local favourites

Hey, other cities: Just try to out-fest Wide Open Bluegrass, a free, two-day street festival with more than 100 bands on seven stages. Last September, it attracted 223,000 fans, with jams taking over entire hotel floors and music spreading to all parts of the city.

The festival is part of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s convention (which moved here from Nashville seven years ago), a week of shows, instrument workshops and awards. During the rest of the year, you can join the well-attended music jams organised by PineCone, Wide Open Bluegrass’s local promoter. These knee-to-knee traditional music sessions are free for participants and spectators alike. For a calendar of live music every day of the year, check out TheMostNC.com.

Transfer Co Food Hall is a gorgeous new gathering spot and food space in the oft-overlooked east side of downtown. Built in a historic Carolina Coach bus garage, Transfer’s centrepiece is a huge, lug-nut-shaped cafe. Open now: Locals Oyster Diner and Che Empanadas. By the end of the month: Benchwarmers Bagels (from the Boulted team).

In the spring, Videri Chocolate Factory will move its production there, with space for classes and a test kitchen. Summer will bring Saxapahaw General Store, the first grocery in the neighbourhood, along with a calendar of music, gardening and nutrition events. Also check out Morgan Street Food Hall, which opened last summer.

Guidebook musts

The BookBot at North Carolina State’s Hunt Library is hands down the coolest thing I saw during my visit. From the lobby of this award-winning Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Library (STEM Library), you can watch the robot zip down giant aisles and fetch a bar coded book in minutes.

This Jetsons-like design enables the library to hold two million books in one-ninth the space of traditional stacks. And that has made room for large, museum-quality spaces for students to sit, read, write, study and collaborate; it’s open to the public, too.

Also, there’s a collection of more than 80 types of chairs (quirky, modern, comfy, posh, retro, designer) in 100 colours. In the “Seriously?” department: The chairs even have their own website and book. On the tour, I saw a game lab, visualisation lab, virtual reality space, maker space, gorgeous top-floor reading room and quiet room where you can still sniff books from a real shelf, if that’s your thing. Free tours every Friday and Saturday except around holidays and exam time.

On a mild Sunday, I biked with a new friend to the North Carolina Museum of Art’s 164-acre Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park on the city’s western edge. We pedalled around a three-mile path that connects to the Greenway, passing strolling families, happy dogs, a pond with a stunning viewing platform and a few dozen art installations.

There’s a 46-foot, stainless-steel tree, a massive human form and a sculpture made entirely of crowd-control barricades. Rebelliously, we biked off-path to cruise through local artist Thomas Sayre’s three gigantic earthcast rings.

` We couldn’t help it – just being in the park makes you feel like a kid. Check the schedule for park tours and a summer outdoor concert series (Past performers have included Earl Scruggs, Rosanne Cash, Wilco and local fave Tift Merritt).

Where to eat

Local favourites

Always a good sign: a meat-eater fancying a vegetarian restaurant. At the Fiction Kitchen, a colourful downtown spot, I ran into Mitch, who owns legendary Mitch’s Tavern across from North Carolina State. Although he’s not a vegetarian, he’s a regular there on Tuesdays. The small restaurant (which doesn’t take reservations and fills up quickly for dinner and brunch) has bright walls and a bar decorated with collages of old magazine pictures.

For more excellent vegan fare, try Garland, owned by local darling and indie rock star Cheetie Kumar; and Irregardless, where writer David Sedaris worked for nine months in 1980.

Walking around a new city, getting lost, chatting up strangers and scribbling in my notebook is exhausting. I’m usually ready for lunch by 10.30, so the midmorning kolaches at Carroll’s Kitchen really hit the spot. The hockey-puck-size sweet rolls (one spinach and feta, the other apple butter and brie) were warm and satisfying, and the mission behind the food made me feel even better.

The non-profit restaurant employs women transitioning from homelessness, incarceration or abuse. It also provides job training, helps in securing housing and teaches life skills. The grab-and-go restaurant, which has a line out the door at lunch, also serves sandwiches, wraps, salads and soups.

A second location recently opened at Morgan Street Food Hall. Also in the eat-well-feel-good department: A Place at the Table, a volunteer-staffed, pay-what-you-can cafe where you have the option of paying it forward for another patron.

Guidebook musts

One night, I gathered five local friends at the buzzy Brewery Bhavana, a striking, high-ceilinged space that houses a little flower shop (you can build your own bouquet) and a small book shop. There’s a vast lending library to enjoy while dining, including Tennyson’s poems, Ai Weiwei’s art and the 1,364-page compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, should you find yourself debating a definition over dim sum.

The brother and sister owners, who grew up in Laos, also own Bida Manda next door.

Almost without fail, locals suggested I eat at one of James Beard award-winner Ashley Christensen’s restaurants. In 2007, the chef opened her first restaurant, Poole’s Diner, which remains a favourite. One night, I grabbed a red bar stool and swivelled around to the green, horseshoe-shaped Formica cafe, a relic from its midcentury days as a pie shop and luncheonette.

On the chalkboard menu, which changes often, was pickled pumpkin with burrata, pimento cheese with fried saltines and a 10-ounce Royale with aged provolone. My late-season heirloom tomato pie was scrumptious; portions are generous.

The vibe is relaxed and welcoming. On one end of the diner sat a man in flannel and a baseball cap; on the other, three well-dressed Danish men, in town for work and eager to compare travel notes. Poole’s is open every day until midnight and doesn’t take reservations.

Looking for kid-friendly? Try Christensen’s Beasley’s Chicken + Honey or Chuck’s, her burger joint.

Where to shop

Local favourites

For the record, I loved Edge of Urge even before I bought myself that pair of glitter pants. I mean, what a coup when you discover both Llamanoes (dominoes with llamas) and hats that read, “Failure is an option”. Up the street from Krispy Kreme in the hip Person Street neighbourhood, Edge of Urge carries apparel, artsy accessories and playful gifts – like the wedge-shaped notepad with a cover that reads, “Gouda ideas”.

You can find quirky, pea-sized earrings with celebs’ likenesses (Jason Alexander, Dolly Parton, the Obamas); women’s coveralls; men’s Red Wing boots; and super-fly toddler threads like Beastie Boys and Bowie baseball t-shirts and Vans the size of Roma tomatoes.

And if you’re flying into town, stop in Root & Branch, Edge of Urge’s new airport shop, a collaboration with hip downtown shop Deco.

At Oak City Cycling Project, you can buy a new or refurbished bike, accessorise your ride or simply hang in the groovy, underground garage space and gab. You can also tinker with your own bike, using their workspace and tools, for USD5 an hour.

Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP) is a short spin from the Greenway and the beautiful Oakwood (don’t miss the cemetery) and Mordechai neighbourhoods. The shop rents hybrid and mountain bikes, hosts a free bike maintenance class and a Third Thursday Cruiser Ride – affectionately known as the slowest ride in town, because all cyclists and speeds are welcome.

Guidebook musts

At some point while browsing the velour V-neck sweaters and button-up polyester shirts at Father and Son Antiques, I wondered if anyone in town was hosting a “Saturday Night Fever” party that night. This vintage furniture and clothing shop, in a beautiful new space in the Warehouse District, has treasures from our most fab decades.

I found a Royal typewriter in pristine condition; midcentury modern lounge chairs; a Kelly green Izod dress; Western shirts; Sears overalls; a pair of white, beaded, fringed moccasins that I’m sure came out of my middle school locker; and a Dukes of Hazzard tee that my tween self might have coveted. If you’re looking for less curation and more bargains, try the Raleigh Flea Market, open every weekend.

“People walk into Stitch and say, ‘Oh, I love that smell’,” a sales associate told me. “They don’t realise it’s the new car smell, but that’s what it is!” Holly Aiken graduated from North Carolina State’s College of Design and set up shop making vinyl bags and wallets in fun, retro colours with simple geometric shapes. In addition to being cow-friendly and durable, the bags can be cleaned with pretty much whatever household cleaners you have on hand (think 409, Magic Eraser). Yay, vinyl!

The bags are hand-cut in the store, and custom orders with mix-and-match styles and colours are the same price as the in-store bags (Custom’s a cinch with the online Design A Bag feature). Spend any time in Raleigh and you’ll start seeing Aiken’s bags around town. Don’t miss the bluegrass-themed totes during Wide Open Bluegrass.

Where to stay

Local favourites

If you were in Raleigh two Februarys ago, you might have seen an 1880s house rolling across town. Its owners – a young urban planner-architect husband-wife team – relocated and expanded the historic house, and with the support of local artisans and friends, created Guest House Raleigh, a stunning lodging option sorely needed downtown.

The eight-guestroom house has a vibe that’s more boutique hotel than bed-and-breakfast (although European continental breakfast is included), with Scandinavian furnishings, gorgeous original floors and beams, skylights, vaulted ceilings and French doors to private balconies.

Off-street parking is complimentary, and some rooms are wheelchair accessible. For a more traditional hotel, try Marriott’s trendy Aloft, which offers 15 per cent discounts for friends and families of North Carolina (NC) State students or prospective students.

Guidebook must

Nestled up against Umstead State Park in Cary, North Carolina, the Umstead Hotel and Spa is luxurious and serene, and the staff is impeccably hospitable, even if

you’re just strolling around in cycling clothes.

The 150-room hotel is owned by local billionaire businessman and philanthropist Jim Goodnight and his wife, Ann, who is responsible for curating the property’s 95-piece art collection.

The Umstead, which sits on a three-acre lake, hosts afternoon tea with a harpist and offers complimentary yoga and bike tours. If the opulence stresses you out, take a deep breath and listen to the waterfall in the meditation garden, just outside the spa.

Where to explore

Local favourites

Raleigh’s bike share just launched in December last year (70 per cent of the fleet is electric), making it even easier now to bike the Capital Area Greenway, more than 100 miles of paved paths throughout the city.

One place to start is downtown at Little Rock Trail, accessible from John Winters Park or Chavis Park. From there, you can take the Greenway to the North Carolina Farmers Market, open daily. Or you can bike by Dorthea Dix Park, Pullen Park (kids love the USD1.50 train ride) and NC State. If you’re down for a longer ride, head across the nifty Wade Avenue pedestrian bridge over the Beltline/Interstate 440 – at which point you’ll be “OTB”, outside the Beltline – to the North Carolina Museum of Art and Umstead State Park.

You can even bike to Durham, almost entirely on bike paths. Locals also love the Neuse River Trail, a scenic 27.5-mile uninterrupted stretch on the east side of town. Hop on from Falls Lake in North Raleigh (where you can rent wheels from the Bike Guy), Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve or Anderson Point Park east of downtown; all have plenty of parking and bathrooms.

Guidebook must

If you visit Raleigh by train, you’ll roll into the USD88 million Raleigh Union Station located in the Warehouse District. Arguably the liveliest part of town, this neighbourhood of former industrial buildings on the west side includes the new Morgan Street Food Hall, barbecue at the Pit, chocolate at Videri and contemporary art at CAM Raleigh (hours are limited). Shop at Raleigh Denim Workshop if you want very soft, high rise skinny jeans for USD245 and Sorry State Records if you’re adding to your DIY punk and hardcore vinyl collection.

An Urban Outfitters recently opened in the Dillon, a new office and residential tower, and Weaver Street Market, a regional co-op, will open there in February. For great views of the city, head up to the Dillon’s ninth floor lobby and step out onto the terrace, or walk across Boylan Bridge at sunset and ask a local to point out the Shimmer Wall on the convention centre. – Text and Photos by The Washington Post