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The ​Our State​ Guide to NC By Train Black-and-white photos from the 1930s reveal just how swanky train travel could be — passengers dressed to the nines, dining on fine

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

The ​Our State​ Guide to NC By Train Black-and-white photos from the 1930s reveal just how swanky train travel could be — passengers dressed to the nines, dining on fine

NC By Train: First Stop, Durham Station

The ​Our State​ Guide to NC By Train

Black-and-white photos from the 1930s reveal just how swanky train travel could be — passengers dressed to the nines, dining on fine china, and playing cards while the countryside whizzed by. Almost a century later, we still think it’s a pretty romantic way to travel. These days, comfort and ease is the name of the game, as passengers zip past new scenery in plush, spacious seating. Whether they’re using the train’s Wi-Fi to catch up on work, reading a book, or reconnecting with friends and family, a sense of adventure abounds. Best of all, there’s no traffic to contend with — and you can even bring your bike on board.

In this series, we’ll share ideas to get you excited about jumping on a train to explore the state! Find out where to go, what to do, and what to eat in downtowns across North Carolina — all within walking distance of the train station. This month, we’re heading to downtown Durham.

With 16 stations across North Carolina, it’s easier than ever to explore North Carolina by train. In fact, between Raleigh and Charlotte alone there are nine stops. First up? We’re heading to downtown Durham. The former tobacco town’s history and heart are on full display as your train zips into Main Street’s train station. Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), with its gleaming glass and sloped-roof glory, shines as an example of the area’s revitalization. And downtown streets buzzing with pedestrians reveal the city’s support of a growing community of artists and makers.

Durham’s train station was originally built in 1897 by the American Tobacco Company, and its arched entryways, intricate brickwork, and decorative “chimneys” that march down the building’s roofline harken back to days when craftsmanship was put into buildings even as utilitarian as warehouses.

From Durham’s train station, which was originally built in 1897 by the American Tobacco Company, you’re only steps away from the local arts and culture scene. photograph by NC By Train

From here, you’re steps away from experiencing Durham’s local arts and culture scene — integral to downtown’s revitalization. “Almost all of downtown’s street-level business growth has been created by local startups,” says Nicole J. Thompson, president and CEO of Downtown Durham, Inc. “Less than one percent of downtown retail and restaurant businesses are national chains.”

Ready to leave the station and hit the streets? Read on for your hand-crafted itinerary to exploring downtown Durham in a day.

To Market

Nowhere is downtown’s vibrancy more apparent than the Durham Farmers Market on a Saturday morning. Just a few blocks north of the train station in the open-air Durham Central Park, the market offers locally grown produce, handmade cheeses, baked goods, and jellies. Load up a bag of goodies to take home with you on the train. Chocolatay’s sunflower crunch cups satisfy sweet tooths and Bill Pope’s frame-worthy photo cards of special Durham spots make great souvenirs. Before you leave, check out the playground — complete with fun kids’ equipment and a skate park — across the street from the pavilion.

The Durham Farmers Market offers locally grown produce, handmade cheeses, baked goods, and jellies. photograph by Discover Durham


Wander Downtown

Just across from the farmers market on Hunt Street, Cecy’s Gallery and Studio provides artists a place to sell their works. Browse this transmission repair shop turned art gallery’s eclectic collection — from stained glass and pottery to Durham-themed watercolors and handmade jewelry.

Then head south on Foster Street, past the fountains at the Durham Convention Center, until you reach the vibrantly painted crosswalk and a mural of a full moon. Take a right to find The ZEN Succulent. Tropical bromeliads, flower pots, baskets, and other cute containers line the shelves of this unexpected oasis amidst the bricks and asphalt of the city. Choose tiny plants from a wall displaying hundreds of succulents to create your own terrarium at the store’s do-it-yourself bar — the friendly staff will even pack it for easy train travel.

Owner Megan Cain felt Durham’s support for artists when she first began selling her terrariums at a craft market in 2012. “People came from all over to the center of downtown Durham to purchase from local people,” she says. “That’s when I knew how vibrant of a community Durham was.”

Where Market Street meets Main, a pink flower-shaped store sign welcomes you into Dolly’s Vintage. Beyond men’s and women’s vintage clothing, this kitschy shop features a wall of wigs in every color of the rainbow, whimsical socks, and quirky local art. Hard to find vintage candies, like Zots and Lemonheads, Golden Girls puzzles, and candles made from recycled White Claw cans are some of the unexpected finds at Dolly’s. Go ahead and load up on souvenirs — there’s plenty of room on the train to store packages on your return trip.

Discover unexpected finds at Dolly’s Vintage, a kitschy shop downtown. photograph by Discover Durham


Stop for a Bite

When it’s time to take a break and refuel with lunch, stop by Toast, an Italian-style sandwich shop. The restaurant offers takeout paninis stuffed with tasty combinations like rapini, Italian sausage, and roasted garlic; cold tramezzini sandwiches such as shrimp and sunchoke salad; and their daily soup and sandwich specials. Although indoor seating is closed for now, diners can sit at one of the tables across the street at Five Points Plaza.

Grab an Italian-style sandwich from Toast when you’re ready for some lunch. photograph by Discover Durham

If you have a taste for hearty pub fare, Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub is just across Chapel Hill Street from Toast. While the interior of the pub, with its dark-stained booths, scuffed floors, and book-lined shelves, is closed to seating at this time, the pub’s patio and large enclosed lawn are open for dining.


Grab a Brew

Several craft breweries make downtown Durham their home, many within walking distance of the train station. Ponysaurus has a large outdoor seating area where visitors can relax and enjoy a pint year-round. A walkway lined with patio heaters leads patrons between picnic tables to food truck fare at the back gate of the spacious fenced lawn. Offering a variety of American-, Belgian-, and European-style beers, there’s one for every taste.

Ponysaurus offers a variety of American-, Belgian-, and European-style beers. photograph by Discover Durham

Or try something new at Honeygirl Meadery, where owner Diane Currier sells honey wine. One reason she decided to open her permanent location on Hood Street? “Durham embraces its makers,” she says.  “I knew this city would welcome something different.” Take home a bottle of a perennial favorite like Honey Chai, or a seasonal mead like Hibiscus Lemonthyme. Although seating is currently closed, “We are working on improvements right now so we can open our bee garden in mid-March,” Currier says.

If you’re a cider lover, head to Bull City Ciderworks on Roxboro Road, where you can stay cozy while sipping your cider near the fire pit. Although Cherry Tart is their most popular cider, Bull City rolls out seasonals like Cranpappy and Pom Pomme Chérie throughout the year.

When you find something you love, buy more of it to take home with you on the train.


American Tobacco Campus

After a relaxing lunch — and a drink or two — make your next stop the American Tobacco Campus, home of DPAC and the Durham Bulls baseball stadium. Although precautions have limited these large venues, the campus is alive with restaurants, shops, and a hotel. The tiny Parker Paper Company, filled with a selection of cards, journals, planners, pencils, and pens, is a haven for people who love to write things down. And for one-of-a-kind gifts, wine, and everything in between, stop into Parker and Otis.

At the American Tobacco Campus, you will find DPAC, the Durham Bulls baseball stadium, restaurants, shops, and a hotel. photograph by Discover Durham

At the American Tobacco Campus, a combination of industrial and natural elements creates a parklike setting like no other. Broad awnings and other remnants of the factory — like the towering chimney — lend an air of days gone by. To bring your day trip full-circle, head to the far end of the courtyard, where water splashes down step-like falls below a segment of train track where an old rail car perches. This creates Ol’ Bull River, which meanders through terraced seating areas, around the Lucky Strike water tower and past a grassy field where live musicians perform during warmer weather.


Brightleaf Square

Back where Main Street crosses Gregson, the arching Brightleaf Square sign serves as an entryway between twin tobacco warehouses, where store window displays face the courtyard and beckon train passengers to step inside.

The arching Brightleaf Square sign serves as an entryway between twin tobacco warehouses. photograph by Discover Durham

One such store, Indio, sells gifts and indulgences like colorful scarves, elegant vases, and jewelry ranging from bold to understated, all created by independent designers. The scent of small-batch body care products and incense permeates the store. 

Inside the warehouse, paintings and photography by local artists line the walls of Bull City Art and Frame Company, and three-dimensional pieces hang, stand, and perch around the store. This kid-friendly art gallery will ship art for out-of-town travelers, or you can easily take your art finds on the train, where there’s plenty of room to store your purchases.

At the end of your adventure, a short walk down Main Street will take you back to your final stop and your ticket home — the Durham station, seated at the junction of history, art, and innovation. One of the very best parts of taking the train? After a long day of exploring, you can relax and leave the travel to someone else. Kick back, plug in your phone, and unwrap that Loaf Pain au Chocolat you tucked into your bag from the farmers market. Filled with sweet treats and memories of savory experiences, close your eyes and enjoy the movement of the train traveling down the tracks. You’ll be home before you know it.

This story was published on Feb 19, 2021

Lara Ivanitch

Lara Ivanitch is a freelance writer who resides in Raleigh.