A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

The black and white mural contrasts boldly with the deep blue sky as you head north on Southeast Main Street. Once in sight, it’s hard to look away from the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

The black and white mural contrasts boldly with the deep blue sky as you head north on Southeast Main Street. Once in sight, it’s hard to look away from the

Day Tripping to Downtown Rocky Mount

The black and white mural contrasts boldly with the deep blue sky as you head north on Southeast Main Street. Once in sight, it’s hard to look away from the larger-than-life scene of Thelonious Monk playing a grand piano. He’s surrounded by lights that look a bit like puffy clouds, giving the portrait a magical quality — fitting for the Rocky Mount native and jazz legend whose music revolutionized the genre.

Although the mural stands out, it belongs here in Rocky Mount, where the arts are as intertwined in the city as the railroad tracks that run down Main Street. Community support for the arts is evident through the Downtown Live! summer concert series and the Tar River Orchestra & Chorus. Not to mention the Bel Air Art Center and the Maria V. Howard Art Center.

Take some time to explore the vibrant arts scene and rich history in downtown Rocky Mount. Just about an hour east of Raleigh and even less from Greenville, it’s close enough for a date night or a day trip. Use our guide to find your favorite spots while you’re in town.


Rocky Mount Must-Visits

Jessica Hicks, owner of Bel Air Art Center and Willow Tree Yoga, located inside the center, sees art breathing new life into downtown Rocky Mount. “You have artists who make downtown beautiful with murals and character and personality and color and brightness and expression,” she says.

Two of her favorites are just outside the Bel Air. One, a playful collage with a Storm Trooper carrying a boom box, Yoda, a Smurf, and more, and the other of ground-breaking African American dancers Lil Buck and Camille A. Brown.

Inside, step into Spaceway Taproom, a recent addition to the arts center. Grab a Don Dada Cardamom Stout and enjoy its subtle smoky bourbon notes as you peruse the gallery and chat with artists in the center’s studios. You’ll find watercolors, photography, sculpture, jewelry, and custom furniture.

The Imperial Centre for the Arts & Sciences housed inside the refurbished Imperial Tobacco factory and the old Braswell Memorial Library, holds a children’s museum, an art center, clay studio for artists, and an active community theater, all surrounded by sculpture gardens.

Wander the building’s weathered wooden floors into the Maria V. Howard Art Center to an interactive exhibit for children and galleries featuring area artists with works in a variety of media.

While you’re there, take time to sit under the starry dome of Cummins Planetarium to view seasonal skies.

Just down Church Street from the Imperial Centre, look for the bold blue and yellow Rocky Mount Event Center. The center hosts a range of events and performances, from stand-up comedy and the Harlem Globetrotters to monster trucks and Reggae Fest to musical performances. Keep an eye out for upcoming events like a jazz festival and a music series featuring North Carolina musicians, both in the works.

The state-of-the-art concert, sports, and events venue — which is sensory-inclusive and has in-house catering, meeting rooms, eight basketball courts, and 16 volleyball courts — is the perfect place for a date night, a birthday party, or a meeting or team building event.

And, ahem, parents — the center also has a great place for the young and energetic to burn off some steam: Game Day Adventure & Arcade. Mom and Dad can play the Space Invaders game while little ones climb through the soft-play maze. Or challenge yourself to the ropes course and scale the walls, beanstalk, and “buildings” in the climbing area.

Rocky Mount Event Center’s Game Day Adventure & Arcade is the perfect place for parents and kids to play. photograph by Rocky Mount Event Center

While you’re downtown, you don’t want to miss the Helen P. Gay Rocky Mount Historic Train Station. The imposing red-brick exterior doesn’t reflect the bright, open space that lies within. The first room you enter almost feels like a courtyard, with its large skylight, high ceilings, and wooden benches, all surrounded by window-filled walls. Up the steps, the tile floor flows into a more intimate area with columns and ceilings adorned with dark wood, characteristic of the Romanesque style of this 1893 building. As you’re leaving, look to your right to see the colorful CSX Train mural across the parking lot at Station Square.


Pick up a Souvenir

After admiring the train mural, head to the opposite side of Station Square to shop for wine at Bin & Barrel Wine Bar and Bottles, then enjoy a glass in their courtyard. Add a tasty snack like popcorn seasoned with lemon oil, rosemary salt, and parmesan, or brick-oven flatbread with rotating seasonal ingredients. While you’re there, you just might hear a train go by.

At Bin & Barrel Wine Bar and Bottles, you can enjoy a glass of wine and a tasty snack. photograph by Rocky Mount Event Center

Then head to Bulluck Furniture Company, whose three floors feature a large collection of specialty and high-quality furnishings and home accessories. This local institution, which first opened in 1900, also sells jewelry, VIETRI pottery, and elegant flatware.

The Bath Place is filled with handmade soaps and sweet scents like Good Morning Sunshine. Not only do they smell heavenly, but they also have therapeutic benefits — the chalkboard in the store lists soaps recommended for different skin conditions.

Other sumptuous products include the bold Caribbean Queen bath bomb; Juices & Berries Bath, Body & Massage Oil; and traditionally masculine scents like Shave & A Haircut.


Grab a Bite

When you’ve worked up an appetite, choose from plenty of nearby options: At NABS Deli and Coffee Shop, the piled-high sandwiches live up to the shop’s name — which stands for Never a Better Sandwich. Try the meatball sub, turkey club, or their broccoli cheese soup. Or sip a cup of their single-origin Ethiopian Coffee, roasted on-site, and savor a fresh-baked cinnamon roll.

For a meal with international flair, take a short walk down Thomas Street to D Chill Spot Restaurant and Lounge for spicy jerk chicken, oxtail stew, curry goat, and other authentic Jamaican dishes. Get your fill of Caribbean food, good vibes, and music at the restaurant’s weekly Reggae Satdayz.

Larema Coffee House has kept pieces of its bank beginnings, like the imposing bank vault door and worn wood floor with tile perimeter, and created a cozy, inviting spot to sip coffee and enjoy a bite to eat. Take a cue from the succulents that line the tall windows and bask in the sunshine while eating hearty, thick-sliced multigrain toast topped with avocado or pimento cheese — topped with a poached egg, if you’d like.

Swing by Moe and D’s Restaurant, Grill and Bar for mambo wings or a Moe burger, and don’t forget the fried okra. This local, family-owned establishment also serves hot dogs, onion rings, and fried trout plates. Want to watch the game while you eat? Pull up a barstool and stay awhile.

This story was published on Oct 26, 2021

Lara Ivanitch

Lara Ivanitch is a freelance writer who resides in Raleigh.