The quintessential college town, Chapel Hill may be the home of the University of North Carolina, but it’s more than just a center for academia. From sipping award-winning craft beer
The quintessential college town, Chapel Hill may be the home of the University of North Carolina, but it’s more than just a center for academia. From sipping award-winning craft beer on a rooftop and digging into a legendary BLT to shopping at local boutiques and seeing world-class art to a stroll around campus and, yes, Tar Heel basketball, there are plenty of reasons to fall in love with the “southern part of heaven.”
Chartered in 1789, the University of North Carolina is the oldest public university in the nation, and its campus blends historic architecture with lush natural beauty. Iconic landmarks like the Old Well, Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, and Old East — the oldest building on campus, dating to 1793 — are must-sees, as are the Coker Arboretum and North Carolina Botanical Garden, both of which are open year-round and highlight the rich natural beauty of the region. And for UNC fans and basketball lovers, no visit to campus is complete without a tour of the Carolina Basketball Museum, located adjacent to the storied Dean E. Smith Center. The museum is currently closed because of COVID-19 but keep an eye out for reopening.
After you’ve worked up an appetite walking around campus, check out the perfect nearby lunch spot. The BLT is a classic for its simplicity, but at Merritt’s Grill, the classic has become legendary. Served on toasted sourdough bread, the sandwich is piled high with juicy tomatoes, crisp lettuce, a dollop of mayonnaise and, of course, thick-cut slices of bacon. This destination sandwich is so popular, it’s even been featured by People magazine and National Geographic Traveler, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait in line — but trust us, it’s worth it.
With a generous columned porch that exudes genteel Southern hospitality, The Carolina Inn has long been the place to stay in Chapel Hill. Located right on the corner of campus, the nearly century-old hotel has hosted everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt and Eudora Welty to Bob Hope and Jack Nicklaus, but it’s the sweeping porch that offers respite for visitors even if they’re not staying on the grounds. Guests are invited to linger in rocking chairs, enjoying a cocktail like the Tobacco Road — Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, Bacardi Limon, fresh-squeezed lemon, sweet tea, and basil. And from April through October, the inn hosts Fridays on the Porch, with live music, cocktails, and food truck fare in the evening.
Boasting the largest collection of Asian art in the Southeast, along with drawings by Rembrandt, the Ackland Art Museum, just down the street from the Carolina Inn, has established itself as one of the state’s cultural institutions. An arm of UNC-Chapel Hill, the museum may have been built to benefit university students, but its mission goes far beyond campus today. “We’re a very community-oriented museum,” says Ariel Fielding, the director of communications at the museum. “We’re small, but we have a really impressive collection for our size.” The museum is closed currently due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a renovation, but it’s slated to reopen between Thanksgiving and the new year. In the meantime, art lovers can enjoy ongoing virtual programming via the museum’s website.
Look up! The largest full-dome planetarium in the Southeast, Morehead Planetarium & Science Center invites guests young and old to explore the wonders of earth and beyond. Live star shows and multimedia presentations on everything from earthquakes to the electromagnetic spectrum come to eye-popping life via the center’s full-dome digital video projection system. And visitors of all ages can explore science through interactive hands-on Science LIVE! demonstrations. Plus, the center recently completed a $9.2 million-dollar renovation that includes a new Breakthrough Hub, where visitors can see UNC-Chapel Hill scientists working on projects in biology, biomedical engineering, and more.
You’ve likely seen students rushing this street after beating Duke, but this tree-lined artery also serves as the center of town, and is dotted with shops, restaurants, and bars that buzz with activity year-round. A few favorites: Be sure to stop by Julian’s, a Chapel Hill institution since 1942 specializing in preppy-chic attire — and the designer of UNC’s basketball uniforms; pick up classic vinyl at Schoolkids Records; and peruse the shelves at Epilogue Books, Chocolate, and Brews, where you can also sip hot chocolate and eat pastries and baked goods made with locally sourced chocolate. And for the ultimate UNC souvenirs, check out legendary memorabilia shops Johnny T-Shirt and Shrunken Head.
After exploring Franklin Street, wet your whistle: Perched atop the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets, Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery serves award-winning English-style beers with a beautiful bird’s-eye view of town. Founded by a UNC law student to preserve the local flavor of Franklin Street, the brewery has earned accolades for its Blueberry Wheat beer and English-style IPA. But while the beers and views overlooking town are unparalleled, it’s the vibe that makes Top of the Hill so special. “I believe what makes having a beer at Top of the Hill great is much more than the beer and the view — it’s the people,” says proprietor Scott Maitland. “The staff are mostly Carolina students and graduates who are full of that energy and ambition that is so wonderful to be around. And the other customers are sure to be an interesting mix of townies, campus folks, and visitors from all over the world. You just never know who you will bump into.”
Further down Franklin Street, Al’s Burger Shack may seem like a classic burger joint, but this beloved eatery has a greater mission than just tasty eats. The restaurant is dedicated to keeping everything local and sustainable, from the hormone- and antibiotic-free beef from North Carolina pasture-raised cattle to the reclaimed wood bar tops and picnic tables. And that dedication to supporting local farmers and producers translates to dishes like the Bobo Chili Cheeseburger, which was named best burger in America by TripAdvisor.
For more than 40 years, the Carrboro Farmers Market — located just down the street from Chapel Hill in quaint, neighboring Carrboro — has connected locals and visitors alike with local farmers and makers. Open on Saturday mornings year-round and Wednesday afternoons in April to October, the market boasts an array of locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, cheeses, baked goods and flowers. Wake up early and take a stroll through the tents to pick up some tasty treats.