When you first step off the train in Raleigh Union Station, you might find it hard to go anywhere else. Union Station, which opened to the public in 2018, is
When you first step off the train in Raleigh Union Station, you might find it hard to go anywhere else. Union Station, which opened to the public in 2018, is its own destination. With sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows, mid-century-modern seating, and unbeatable views of the downtown Capitol, the station’s welcoming embrace is as thrilling as it is comforting.
It’s obvious that Clearscapes, the architectural firm charged with renovating Union Station, imagined a structure that would be memorable and authentic — unique to Raleigh. A mid-century-style framework layered on the former industrial bay nods to the capital’s post-World War II growth. And the new façade of clear and translucent glass captures the essence of trains and movement.
Before you embark on your Raleigh adventure, take a minute to climb the steps to Raleigh Union Station’s observation deck, where you can count boxcars snaking away in the distance or watch passenger trains hush and squeal as they come home. Get a good look at the city that spreads around you, the massive old-growth trees reaching as high as some of the buildings. Take it in and get ready to roll.
Whether it’s lunch time, snack time, or “5 o’clock somewhere,” the Morgan Street Food Hall has exactly what you’re craving — and you don’t even have to put in effort after your train ride: The renovated, industrial building is just three blocks north of the train station and filled with local eateries. You can get Indian, Japanese, Mexican, Mediterranean, or good old Southern eats. Have mimosas at the outdoor bar; a lobster roll from Cousins Maine Lobster, or truffle fries and one of the best burgers in town at CowBar. CowBar owner and chef Dan Yeager enjoys mingling with the locals and first-timers at the food hall. “Just seeing the regulars and new customers daily and hearing about their experience is the most rewarding part of having a restaurant,” he says.
Don’t forget to take your ice cream-eating experience to the next level at Raleigh Rolls, where friendly folks smash your favorite treats, like Oreos, into ice cream and roll it into frosty pirouettes before your eyes.
You’re in the state capital, so seeing the Capitol building is a must: Constructed in 1840, the State Capitol building is an architecture and history junkie’s dream come true. Stroll half a mile down West Morgan Street from Morgan Street Food Hall to get there: With sides that face north, south, east, and west, and a rotunda to wander, the Greek-Revival structure will make your jaw drop when you step inside. Once in, you’re free to wander the old General Assembly chambers and offices. If you don’t mind the narrow stairs, take yourself to the library at the top, where the walls are lined with ancient books and you can peer out the windows into the tops of old oaks.
Across the street from the Capitol, twin downtown Raleigh museum stars sit facing each other: The North Carolina Museum of History and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Start with a little history, and explore more than six centuries of North Carolina, from American Indian artifacts to sports culture. The museum is an immersive experience worth the detour when you’re passing through Raleigh Union Station and always has special exhibits rotating through.
Jump into Nature
Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2021. Dr. Denise Young is the current director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
After a taste of history, head next door to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which celebrates our wonderful world, from dinosaurs to insects to coyotes, mountain streams to deep ocean dives. “Guests will engage with the state’s immense biodiversity from the mountains to the sea and have a rare opportunity to witness research laboratories in action, as scientists deepen our understanding of the natural world,” says Dr. Eric Dorfman, former director and CEO of the museum. Bonus: The museum shows short, 3D nature movies in its theater throughout the day. Double bonus: In addition to great snacks, the Daily Planet Café has a bar offering top-quality local brews when you need a quick break from exploring.
Just a quick walk through Nash Square from Raleigh Union Station is a wonderland for young children at Marbles Kids Museum. (Children of all ages can find something to do here, but parents say kids 10 and under enjoy the museum best.) Release them into the wild world of fun and education, with nonstop, hands-on activities. Buy tickets in advance to make sure you have a spot.
After the kids run wild, head back down East Martin Street toward the train station. Across the street from Raleigh Union Station, you’ll see the Contemporary Art Museum’s modern, angular awning inviting you to come explore the galleries inside what used to be a produce warehouse. Inside, you’ll find an immersive art experience, with rotating exhibits and often some hands-on activities for the kids. Though many art museums offer a walk down art’s memory lane, CAM showcases only art from living artists. Open around noon most days, CAM is a great way to put the cap on your capital day.
Some of us need a little pick-me-up in the afternoon. If you have plenty of time before your train leaves the station, head over to the Raleigh Times, about a half mile east from CAM. Grab an outdoor table — perfect for people-watching — and order a plate of perfect fries and your favorite adult beverage. Just down the street on Martin Street, grab a jolt of specially crafted java at 42 & Lawrence (we’re fans of their nitro cold brews) before walking west toward Union Station.
If time is of the essence after your visit to CAM, stay close to Union Station and choose from a soothing cup of carefully-brewed teas that pair well with the delicate snacks offered at the serene Heirloom, just a block from the train station.
Back at Raleigh Union Station, settle into one of the comfortable seats and enjoy the last few minutes of daylight streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Whether you’re alone or with a friend or two, watch the people with places to go and those, like you, who are about to board a lumbering train. There, you can climb the stairs to the viewing platform to see the city and the trees reaching miles beyond you, and spot your train as it rolls in to take you home.