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The Triangle is not a traditional tourist destination, but Raleigh and its surrounding towns have plenty of interesting museums, historic buildings, parks and charming shopping districts to explore. Raleigh itself is not a huge city, but the greater Triangle area has nearly two million people. As you might expect, the best attractions are a little spread out. The best way to view Raleigh is as part of the larger ecosystem of the Triangle. So there's no need to stick within the city limits—plan on spending plenty of time in nearby Durham and Chapel Hill. Downtown Raleigh has the majority of the museums, though the incredible North Carolina Museum of Art is several miles to the west.
Neighborhood: West Raleigh
While steamy North Carolina may not seem like a natural choice for a National Hockey League team, the Carolina Hurricanes have been doing just fine, thankyouverymuch. The Canes even took the 2005-2006 Stanley Cup, beating out the cold climate-dwelling Edmonton Oilers. See the Canes play at the RBC Center, a 20,000-seat indoor arena about 15 minutes west of downtown. The hockey season begins in September and runs through early April. The rest of the year, catch concerts, North Carolina State University basketball games, and WWE wrestling.
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Neighborhood: Southwest Raleigh
There's nothing crunchy or New Age about this 30,000-square-foot daily market, where working farmers from around the Piedmont region come to sell their produce to both wholesalers and the public. Wandering around the open pavilion, marveling at the mountains of watermelons, sweet corn, strawberries and more, is tremendous fun. Artisan food-makers hawk cheese, jams, homemade cakes and more in an adjacent climate-controlled building. An on-site cafe serves breakfast and lunch; if you're feeling brave, try the scrambled eggs and pork brains, a classic Southern eye-opener.
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Built in 1914 as the city's farmers market, the towering red brick City Market has evolved while remaining close to its roots. It still hosts a weekend farmers market (though of a distinctly more upscale variety than the original), as well as several dozen shops and restaurants. Of these, Big Ed's is perhaps the most popular, with locals lining up to sample "Big Ed" Watkins' grits, biscuits and country ham. After breakfast, shop for anything from Tibetan prayer flags to organic cotton T-shirts at the block-long market's various boutiques and gift shops.
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Wanna learn more about the history of NASCAR racing? Then the North Carolina Museum of History is your place, with exhibits on Tarheel culture from the mainstream to the quirky. Look at Civil War photos, walk through a mockup of a 1920s drugstore, learn more about the history of piracy on the North Carolina coast. Exhibits are artifact-filled and kid-friendly. The city's tourism information center, Capital Area Visitor Services, is located in the lobby. Admission is free.
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Built in 1840, the North Carolina State Capitol building is one of the nation's finest examples of Greek Revival architecture. At nearly $533,000, the building's construction cost more than three times the state's general income at the time. While the Capitol originally housed the entire state government, today it serves as the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor. Visitors can take a free self-guided tour through the rotunda, the old legislative chambers and—the highlight, in my opinion—the antique library.
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Neighborhood: East Raleigh
Learn about the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of 19th century North Carolina farm life at Oak View Country Park, a historic farmstead 7 miles east of downtown. The Greek Revival-style farm house was built in 1855 by the Williams family, who grew cotton on the surrounding acreage using the labor of their 10 slaves. Today, five of the original farm buildings remain. One of the highlights is the freestanding kitchen, built separately from the house to avoid overheating the living space with oven heat during sticky North Carolina summers. The on-site visitors center hosts a variety of interesting temporary exhibits, from collections of Depression-era photos to artifacts from North Carolina textile mills.
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Dino-lovers will adore this four-story museum, with a towering acrocanthosaurus skeleton in the main lobby and a family of life-size pterodactyl models hanging from the vaulted ceiling. The rest of the museum—the largest of its kind in the Southeast—is just as cool. The Mountains to the Sea display showcases North Carolina's natural landscape using live plants and animals—don't miss the two-story waterfall, complete with snapping turtles. Temporary exhibits cover anything from bioluminescent squid to the history of chocolate. There's a cafe and a special kids' area on the fourth floor. In September, the museum hosts the annual, massively popular Bugfest, where you can play with beetles the size of baseballs or taste fried mealworms at Cafe Insecta.
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Neighborhood: West Raleigh
Camp, hike, fish, boat or ride horses beneath a dense canopy of oak, beech and fir trees at this 5,579-acre park. Trails, though well-cleared, can be poorly marked—pick up a trail map to make sure you don't wander off your easy 1-mile trail onto a strenuous 13-mile one (not that we've done that!). Rent canoes or rowboats at Big Lake, where the water can be so still it looks like the surface of a mirror. You can fish for bluegill, bass and crappie here, as well as in the park's two other lakes. Just bring your own worms.
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Neighborhood: West Raleigh
The brand-new main gallery building of this world-class museum is a work of art in and of itself. With a sinuous aluminum exterior and flowing, light-filled exhibit spaces, it's been lauded by architecture critics across the country. Inside are more than 5,000 works of art, from ancient Egyptian statuary to paintings by European masters from Raphael to Monet, to contemporary stainless-steel sculptures. One of the highlights is the new Rodin sculpture garden, with 29 of the great French sculptor's works, including the iconic "The Thinker." In warm weather, be sure to explore the 164-acre museum park, with walking trails, interactive sculpture exhibits, and an amphitheater hosting summer concerts and movie nights.
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See local sculptors, painters, weavers, cartoonists, metal workers, photographers and others in action at this former downtown warehouse, now a warren of artists' studios. Visitors are free to wander the two-story building, poking their heads into various studios to chat with the artists. Larger, museum-style exhibitions are sometimes held in Artspace's gallery areas. There are also a variety of art classes and workshops. On the first Friday evening of every month, Artspace becomes the center of the city's First Friday art walk. Come early for wine, cheese and people-watching.
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