The list of free things to do in Durham is a long one, and it includes many of the most acclaimed and popular things to do in the area. Browse below to learn about the top free things to do in the Bull City, and experience these Durham must sees without worrying about cost.
Bennett Place is the site of the Civil War’s largest troop surrender and the place where the Civil War effectively ended when, in April 1865, the Confederacy’s General Joseph E. Johnston and the Union’s General William T. Sherman met there to negotiate. Today, there are restored historic structures, living history events, and tours.
This national historic site is where Washington Duke began a tobacco empire. The homestead includes the restored Duke family home, tobacco barns, original factory, and farm. It also has a museum that showcases the beginnings of the modern day tobacco industry. Tours are offered daily; please call two weeks ahead to schedule a large group tour.
Stagville was once one of the largest plantations in the South, with 900 slaves and almost 30,000 acres of land. Now, the site has two preserved houses, slave quarters, and a unique barn. Stagville has free daily tours and educational events that focus on both the enslaved population and the plantation owners.
The former home of the Lucky Strike cigarette factory has been transformed into a one-million-sq.-ft. entertainment district, with restaurants, a documentary theater, barber shop, basketball court, open green space, and more. American Tobacco also puts on many events, including art shows, pop-up shops, and free concerts in the summer.
Duke University is one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Its campus centers on the Duke University Chapel. With richly detailed stonework, the neo-Gothic chapel tower soars 210 feet tall and houses the Flentrop Organ (5,200 pipes) and 50-bell carillon, and is adorned with stained-glass windows. (The Duke University Chapel is slated to close to the public for renovations in spring 2015 and will reopen in spring 2016.)
The neo-Gothic grandeur is also contained throughout Duke's West Campus. A walk through the university's stately buildings is a great way to spend an afternoon, especially because it can lead you to other attractions like the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the Duke Basketball Museum & Sports Hall of Fame, both of which are mentioned below.
The Durham History Hub (operated by the Museum of Durham History), is a museum that uses stories about people, places, and things to foster curiosity, encourage further inquiry, and promote an understanding of diverse perspectives about the Durham community and its history. The History Hub is located in Downtown Durham and features rotating exhibits.
Patterson’s Mill is an authentic country store that features memorabilia and artifacts from as far back as the 1870s displayed in the aisles and on the walls. With a permanent collection of historic pharmaceutical goods and tobacco advertisements, in addition to local crafts, antiques, and collectibles available for purchase, this country store is a blast from the past.
St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation is dedicated to preserving Durham's African-American heritage and black history at the Hayti Heritage Center, a cultural and educational institution that houses community and artist space, and the Lyda Moore Merrick Gallery, the Rhythm & Blues Gallery, and the 450-seat St. Joseph's Performance Hall.
Housed in a boutique hotel, the 21c's art museum includes both permanent and rotating collections. The works consist of modern and contemporary art from emerging and established artists. The museum is free to the public 24 hours a day. There are tours offered most Wednesdays and Fridays at 5 p.m., as well as additional cultural programming throughout the year.
Although shopping is rarely free, Durham's unique districts offer plenty of sights and sounds, even for those who aren't interested in emptying their wallets. And who knows, maybe you will come across a deal that you can't refuse!
The Brightleaf Square District is anchored by two tobacco warehouses renovated with shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Browse the open outdoor space or enjoy free summer concerts in the cobbled street that connects the square, and soak in the historic Durham architecture that makes the Bull City so visually distinctive.
The Ninth Street Shopping District is a slice of Durham with a college feel. It features unique and independent stores selling books, clothes, memorabilia, records, and other items that are fun to peruse. If you do feel like spending a little pocket change, there’s also plenty to eat and drink, with options ranging from college bars and coffee shops to nationally recognized restaurants.
Once a textile mill, Golden Belt has been transformed into a LEED-certified complex of apartments, galleries, studios, and event spaces. Tour the galleries and artist studios, interact with local artists, and explore this creative hub, which also houses a tattoo shop, salon, and yoga studio.
On Thursday nights from 5 to 9 p.m., Duke University’s art museum, the Nasher, is free to visit. Housing an impressive collection of contemporary art, as well as European paintings, classical antiquities, and African and pre-Columbian art, the Nasher is chance to glimpse the finest of fine art. The leading-edge exhibits it hosts on a revolving basis only make it more compelling, although admission charges may apply for these special exhibitions (see website or admissions desk for details).
Children under 15 years of age; Duke students, faculty, and staff; Duke Alumni Association members, and members of the Nasher always receive free admission to the permanent collection.
NCCU was the first publically funded African-American liberal arts college in the country, and the school continues that legacy today with one of the state’s leading collections of African-American art. Five special exhibits come through each year, and the museum also hosts other notable and historic artwork.
While on campus, stop to admire the statue of NCCU founder, Dr. James E. Shepard, and enjoy inviting lawns and outdoor areas for lounging and people-watching.
See the trophies, memorabilia, videos, and more capturing the history of the Duke basketball program. Learn more about the Blue Devils’ four NCAA championship titles, 24 conference titles, and the dozens of All Americans and nine national players of the year, along with hall-of-fame coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The Eno River State Park is only 10 miles from Downtown Durham and offers terrific access to nature. The river winds through hills and bluffs and is ready to be hiked and enjoyed from one of five access points. Take a photo from the suspension bridge and pack a lunch to enjoy at one of many picnic areas, or enjoy the water by canoeing or fishing. For a modest fee, you can extend your stay by taking advantage of the campgrounds.
With 391 acres of park and natural area developed from tobacco farmland, the park and natural area has seven miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, and a birding trail. There is also a group campground, as well as picnic shelters, an open-play meadow, and a playground.
The Sarah P. Duke Gardens is a stunning 55-acre public garden on the campus of Duke University and one of the premier university gardens in the country, with flowers, Asian bridges, greenery, ponds, and more. There is also a café, a gift shop, and a visitor center.
Combining natural beauty and history, West Point on the Eno spans 404 acres with three historic buildings – including an operating grist mill, a house dating to the 1840s, and a tobacco packhouse that has been turned into a photography museum – that visitors can tour. There are also five miles of scenic trails and the surrounding bluffs for hiking and fishing, picnic facilities, an amphitheater used for festivals and concerts, and, of course, the river itself.