Though Raleigh's downtown is compact and walkable, the city as a whole has a touch of the dreaded urban sprawl. The city core is ringed by Interstate 440, also known as the "Beltline." When locals describe something as being "inside the Beltline," they're referring to Raleigh's older, more central—and often ritzier—neighborhoods. If something's "outside the Beltline," it's in the 'burbs. As part of the Triangle region, Raleigh is very integrated with its neighbors. Many Raleigh citizens work in nearby Durham, Chapel Hill or Cary (and vice-versa). Most travelers will want to consider the Triangle area as a whole, and not limit their explorations to the Raleigh city limits.
Fifteen miles down the road, the city of Durham made its fortune on the mighty tobacco leaf. In its early glory days, the city was constantly perfumed with the sweet smell of tobacco drying in the downtown warehouses. These days, those red brick warehouses have been converted into upscale condos, restaurants and stores, making downtown Durham one of the Triangle's shopping, dining and nightlife hotspots. Visitors to the Raleigh area are well-served to spend a day in Durham, wandering Duke's Gothic-style campus, smelling the roses at the massive Sarah P. Duke Gardens and catching a game at the Durham Athletic Park, home of the Durham Bulls of Kevin Costner fame.
Raleigh's most party-happy neighborhood is the place to go for upscale nightlife and dining. By day, browse the area's numerous trendy boutiques and cafes, stopping perhaps for a fancy cupcake or a chai latte. At night, nibble on tempura shrimp rolls at a slick sushi bar, then grab a cocktail at a martini lounge before dancing into the wee hours at one of the neighborhood's many throbbing nightclubs. Word to the wise: the locals here dress to impress, especially after dark.
North Raleigh gets a bad rap. It's often used as shorthand for "yuppie" or "suburban." And sure, its wide streets are new, manicured and nearly identical looking. But it's also got some of the best shopping in the city, with a wealth of fancy-pants malls and high-end boutiques, and some darn good restaurants to boot. So as long as you're not expecting an "authentic" Southern neighborhood, you'll have a good time tooling around here. Be aware: This is a part of town where you definitely need a car.
The third point in the Triangle, Chapel Hill is a college town with a wild heart. By day, it radiates All-American charm, with a downtown lined with T-shirt shops, pizza parlors and preppy boutiques. By night, it's party central, with beer-happy undergrads wandering from bar to bar. For more adult fun, head west on Franklin Street toward the adjoining town of Carrboro. It's a hipster mecca full of restaurants, bars and live-music joints appealing to the post-college crowd. On Saturdays, it has one of the best farmer's markets in the state. Be sure to take a long walk around UNC campus.
The center of North Carolina's state government, downtown was once the kind of place that fell asleep at 5PM. No longer. These days, downtown Raleigh is one of the Triangle's top spots for eating, drinking and dancing. Former warehouses and 19th century storefronts have been renovated into everything from tapas lounges to sushi bars. Downtown also has most of the sights of interest for Raleigh visitors, including museums, galleries, and the state capitol building. Best of all, many of them are free!