Things to do in North Carolina’s Bull City
by Vanessa Infanzon
If your only interaction with Durham was virtual and in 1988 when Kevin Costner played a veteran baseball player in the movie Bull Durham, then it’s time to rediscover the city, in real life.
Over the last 20 years, Durham’s reinvestment in its downtown, including the creation of the American Tobacco Campus, has made it a destination city for tourists. Once the hub for manufacturing tobacco products, the factories and adjoining land have been reinvented as meeting space, restaurants, shops and performance venues. Visitors interested in the history of the campus can explore the winding walkways, take photos of the landmark Lucky Strike water tower and smokestack, and view tobacco-company memorabilia at Reed Art Gallery. For baseball and Costner fans, Historic Durham Athletic Park, the filming location for Bull Durham, is also in downtown.
Duke University’s 8,600-acre campus is perennially named among the country’s most beautiful, with a mix of contemporary buildings and Gothic and Georgian architecture. Durham is also home to North Carolina Central University. Founded as a religious training school in 1910 by Dr. James E. Shepard, N.C. Central became the country’s first state-supported liberal arts college for Black students.
Sip cocktails in a former bank vault at 21c Museum Hotel. Photographs by Egon Dejori
Larger-than-life fuchsia penguins pop up throughout Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel, adding the whimsy the Hill Building needs to break from its banking reputation and setting the stage for its art concept. The 17-story art deco building was designed in the 1930s by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon just five years after the firm finished the Empire State Building and housed Central Carolina Bank and its predecessors until the 1990s.
In 2015, after an extensive renovation, the 125-room 21c boutique hotel opened. Remnants of the bank — including the original terrazzo flooring from 95 years ago and the bank vault — honor its history and offer unexpected experiences for guests. Sip cocktails from chef-driven restaurant Counting House in the original vault, where even the drinks follow the banking theme: Paradiso Fiscale (Tax Haven), Take the Money and Run, and Trophy Wife. Unwind among safety deposit boxes and imagine what was stored there 75 years ago. Even the $100 bills strewn across the vault floor are art: BANK (Unswept Floor series), comprises 305 ceramic tiles designed by Leslie Lyons and JB Wilson.
It’s an art museum first, then a hotel, says 21c Museum Manager Nell Fortune-Greeley. Contemporary art for all nine 21c properties across the United States is curated by Alice Gray Stites, museum director and chief curator. Multimedia, film, paintings and sculptures are on view in more than 10,000 square feet of event and hotel space at the Durham location. Most pieces are from 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson’s personal collection. Each guest-room floor features regional art, and local artists give lectures regularly.
On Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m., a docent-led art tour is available for free (sign up online). The current exhibit, This We Believe, runs through May 2023. It explores the power and evolution of belief systems and includes works by Sebastian ErraZuriz, Kota Ezawa, Clarence Heyward and Titus Kaphar.
Old Bull Building at American Tobacco Campus; 21c Museum Hotel; “21 Grams” by Gehard Demetz, 2018 Lindenwood, photograph by GlintStudios
The city’s urban landscape is abuzz with weekend markets. The Central Park District features a craft market on Saturdays. Booths with art, jewelry, pottery, plants and spices line Foster Street and spread into the 5-acre park. Local creatives set up shop, like award-winning artist and entrepreneur William Davis Jr. who sits behind an old school typewriter and writes poems for customers using a topic of their choosing.
In November and December, shop holiday markets for gifts and home goods. Durham Craft Market, with 16-20 vendors, is open April through Thanksgiving on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. American Tobacco Campus’ Durham Night Market is 5 to 9 p.m. on Dec. 8 with live music and entertainment, local artisans, food and drinks.
Fountains, bridges and stepping stones through Sarah P. Duke Gardens accentuate the beauty of the 55-acre public garden. Terraced gardens overlooking ponds of koi and lilies highlight the Historic Gardens, one of four distinct areas within the property. Pack a picnic from downtown bakery Monuts: sandwiches on fresh bagels or biscuits, pasta salad, homemade hummus and, of course, doughnuts.
Counting House in the 21c Museum Hotel; Durham Food Hall; True Flavors Diner
eat + drink
Set an alarm to beat the rush at True Flavors Diner. As incongruent as it may seem, Beyoncé playing in the background at this 1950s-themed diner fits the upscale vibe. Start with the homemade biscuits and strawberry jam — you’ll forgive yourself for waking early. Take your time choosing from the weekend brunch menu: pancakes overflowing with blueberries, chicken and waffles, peach French toast — or will it be the egg white, spinach and mushroom omelet?
Durham Food Hall downtown offers multiple choices under one roof, from pizza and sandwiches to bagels and oysters. At an indoor or outdoor table, consider sharing small bites from several vendors. Liturgy Beverage Company carries espresso, tea and chocolate. Order an eggplant caponata on an urfa and garlic bagel from Everything Bagels. Old North Meats + Provisions’ menu includes pastrami and fried mushroom sandwiches, smashburgers, and brassica caesar and miso honey salads. Your sweet tooth will be satisfied at Little Barb’s Bakery with its homemade pop-tarts and brandy apple cake. SP
Photographs Courtesy Discover Durham
Market-hop for holiday gifts at one of several Durham-based shows.
Nov. 19-20 2022 Durham Art Walk Holiday Market, downtown
Nov. 26 Durham Holiday Market, The Honeysuckle at Lakewood
Dec. 3 Art-n-Soul Holiday Market, Mystic Farm & Distillery
Dec. 10 and 11 Patchwork Market, The Durham Armory
Dec. 11 The Durham Craft Market Holiday Show, Durham Central Park