Looking for fun and free things to do in Durham while living here or visiting for the weekend? We’ve found quite a few and want to share some of our favorites. They include dinosaur-lined paths, hiking trails, quirky museums, and more. So whether you’re spending the day inside or out, we hope this mix of “free every day” and “free some days” gets you started toward an awesome time in Bull City!
This guide is a part of our series on Durham. This is where we’ve highlighted the city’s food scene (casual, ethnic, and more), breweries, and more inspiration in this truly awesome place to visit in North Carolina.
Free Things to Do in Durham NC
We created this post on May 15, 2019, and have kept it maintained and updated as of July 23, 2019.
Eno River State Park
Eno River State Park is one of North Carolina’s best places to hike throughout the year, especially during fall! You can access the park throughout North Durham and go camping and swimming there, too. Some of our personal favorite hiking spots include Cox Mountain (really cool footbridge), Cole Mill (nice river views), and Pump Station (wildflowers).
Duke Forest is officially managed as a living laboratory and outdoor classroom for students. However, we couldn’t leave its paths out and will include it here among our favorite free things to do in Durham. There are six designated areas within this 7,000 acres of forest and we’re big fans of the Durham Division. You can access that section off Highway 751 near Constitution Drive.
Bonus: The nearby Al Buehler Trail (Erwin Rd) is also managed by Duke Forest and has a bit of incline, making it great for hikes and mountain bikes.
Penny’s Bend (Old Oxford Rd) is a nature preserve that’s managed by the NC Botanical Garden. It’s home to plants (blue wild indigo) and soils not typically found in the Central Piedmont. There’s also a loop trail (2.8 miles) which will take you along the Eno, which surrounds the preserve on three sides.
West Point on the Eno
I’m about to mention Durham’s city parks but want to especially highlight West Point on the Eno (5101 N Roxboro Rd). With 404 acres and an iconic grist mill, this is a popular spot to wade in the water in the summer. Shallow waters downstream from a beautiful dam along with five miles of scenic trails mean there’s a lot of reasons to spend the entire day here!
60 More Durham City Parks
With green spaces everywhere, one of the best free things to do in Durham is through one of the many parks. Whether you’re hitting the monkey bars at Solite Park (4704 Fayetteville Rd) or looking to take the stage at Burch Ave Park (816 Burch Ave), there’s always a place to play in Durham.
Black Wall Street
Durham’s Parrish Street is also known as “Black Wall Street,” which you can better understand its place in history when visiting. A national historic landmark that commemorates the area remembered as the city’s African-American commercial center.
Not Free Bonus Tip: You can learn even more about African-American history in Durham from a seat on the Bull City Laughs tour bus. While this is not free, learning about Durham from local comedians while riding a bus is totally worth admission.
Major the Bull
No matter how long you’re staying in Durham, you have to stand in front of Major the Bull (237 Corcoran St) for a selfie. This bronze statue was created and built locally, in true Durham spirit. He remains something of a mascot and offers good lucks to those who rub his sides. Just no riding, as Major has retired.
Museum of Durham History
The Museum of Durham History is truly one without walls, as advertised. However, you can stop by 500 W Main St for info about their “History Groves” scattered throughout the city.
American Tobacco Campus
American Tobacco Campus Historic District (300 Blackwell St) was one of the first places we visited before moving to Durham. And today, it’s one we suggest to first-time visitors because we fell in love with the place! Here, you can walk along stream-lined sidewalks and stare up at Durham’s Lucky Strike Tower. Oh, and when the hive is buzzing, check out the activity happening around the Burt’s Bees HQ.
You’ll find tons of history and a beautiful open green space at Bennett Place (4409 Bennett Memorial Rd)! With restored historic structures, living history events and tours, feel like you’re with General Joseph E. Johnston and General William T. Sherman during the largest surrender of the American Civil War.
Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Sarah P. Duke Gardens (420 Anderson St) is a 55-acre planned garden, filled with open space, ponds, and scenic beauty along every turn. It’s the perfect place to stroll and there is something blooming all year round. We suggest stopping by the Garden Center and buying some duck food and fish-counting in the Koi pond!
Note: Parking is not free ($2/Hour) but there is no charge to enter Sarah P. Duke Gardens!
As one of the South’s largest plantations and once spanning 30,000 acres with 900 slaves, Historic Stagville (5828 Old Oxford Hwy) is a preserved slice of history. The site is now used to teach about the lives and work of the enslaved population, with free tours available.
American Tobacco Trail
One of the most beautiful ways to get active is on the American Tobacco Trail. 22-plus miles snaking Downtown Durham and through Wake and Chatham Counties means there’s a lot of ground to cover! Hop on any of the trail’s entry points and walk, bike, or run through this beautiful greenway.
Mural Tour in Downtown Durham
The street art in Durham is not just beautiful, but also bountiful! And you can go on a self-guided mural tour. All you have to do is pick up a Mural Finder booklet. They are available in the Durham Visitor Info Center (212 W Main St #101). Or, you can hop on one of the monthly mural bicycle tours with Preservation Durham!
Duke University Chapel
A stroll through the neo-Gothic campus of Duke University is a must when in Durham. But your walk must include a stop at the 210-foot soaring beauty that is Duke University Chapel. With a Flentrop Organ (5,200 pipes) and 50-bell carillon, setting foot inside the chapel and looking around will leave you awestruck.
V & E Simonetti’s Historic Tuba Museum
Love tubas? Or maybe just interested in them? The Vincent and Ethel Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection houses over 300 of the large bellowing brass instruments from 1830 to current models. The museum is free to visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment.
21c Museum Hotel
I mean, why would you NOT want to take a photo with a giant pink penguin or hide in an old bank vault? There are eight 21c Museum Hotels in the US and they are known for mixing modern art collections with a cozy place to stay. And 21c’s Durham location (111 N Corcoran St) is one of the best. Browse the rotating and permanent collections for free every day any time!
Duke Basketball Museum and Hall of Fame
Check out trophies, memorabilia, and learn about the history of the Blue Devils at the Duke Basketball Museum and Hall of Fame (306 Towerview Drive). Over 20 ACC tournaments and one of the most famous basketball programs in the country means there’s a killer museum to celebrate the legacy.
Free Some Days
Counter Culture Coffee
Sustainable, delicious, and notable are words that come to mind when thinking of Counter Culture Coffee (812 Mallard Ave). You might have already seen their exceptional coffee served elsewhere in the US, so why not head to the source? Tour their roasting room and learn more about where the magic, every Friday at 10 am.
The Museum of Life of Science
We promised dinosaurs and we’ll raise you with some lemurs, a giant treehouse, and more at The Museum of Life of Science (433 W Murray Ave). You might see lots of kids running around, but this is THE place to play for all ages. The museum’s 84 acres include indoor interactive play, one of the largest butterfly conservatories on the East Coast, and endangered red wolves. Plus, it’s free for Durham residents two times a month.
Although this is specifically an April event and not completely free, MoogFest does offer some free concerts and activities each year! One of our favorites is the Modular Marketplace at Bay 7 in American Tobacco Campus.
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
With incredible visiting exhibits and an impressive permanent collection, a trip to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University is a must. There are admission fees most days but the museum is free to the public on Thursday nights from 5 to 9 pm.
Want to see where all the magic happens at DPAC? Well, you can, thanks to monthly behind-the-scenes tours every second Monday. You’ll have a chance to walk the stage like your favorite performers and see where the stars prepare for showtime.
What Are Your Favorite Free Things to Do in Durham?
We hope you’re able to enjoy these free things to do in Durham. If you’ve gotten the chance to hang out in Bull City, which of these fun activities have you gotten to experience? What’s the first thing that stood out to you as THE thing to do out of them all? If you also live here or have a lot of experience in Bull City, we’d love to know about your favorite free things to do in Durham, too! Just let us know in the comments section and tell us all about it!