With famous students like Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, and Lawerence Taylor passing through the University of North Carolina, you might think the only things to do in Chapel Hill revolve around those who attend school there.
And yes, the school and its colors are engrained in this college town. However, there’s a lot more going on here. From festivals lining Franklin Street to gardens, greenways, and finger-licking’ country cooking, visitors to Chapel Hill will find a spot that’s so much more than Tar Heel Blue.
Just don’t you dare drive into town wearing that other shade of blue.
Okay, maybe you can, but this next thing is non-negotiable. You must read the rest of this guide to see how we’ve enjoyed many weekends in Chapel Hill and how you can enjoy your next one, too!
This post is part of our series on our favorite places to visit in Central North Carolina. We originally created it on January 8, 2020.
Seasonal Events in Chapel Hill
Before we share what to do in Chapel Hill during any weekend, here are some specific events happening downtown and throughout the area that we keep tabs on!
Spring and Summer
- April: Celebrate NC Beer Month at Chapel Hill’s breweries! Also, lace up your running shoes for the Tar Heel 10 Miler and Fleet Feet 4 mile Run! This annual event gives runners a tour of Chapel Hill while benefiting the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA.
- Bring your neighbor for Chapel Hill’s funkiest street party! Near & Far Festival is a global cultural event to celebrate the vibrant community with music, dance, art, and international food!
- July: You’re missing out if you aren’t on the Village Green for Fourth of July Fireworks! Grab food, enjoy live music, face painting for the kids, and plenty of space to throw down a blanket. This event makes Chapel Hill one of the best places to celebrate Independence Day!
- August: Every summer, hundreds of those young at heart flock to the Forest Theatre on UNC’s Campus to see the life-sized puppets from the Paperhand Puppet Intervention. This must event is a mix of myth and folk stories from around the world!
Fall and Winter
- September: Ring in the new school year with a party! The Friday before the first home football game, downtown hosts a family-friendly event for new students and community members to get to know the downtown businesses for Tar Heel Downtown. Food, face painting, UNC band, and other live music bring the community together to cheer, “Go Heels!”
- October: Festifall Arts Festival brings artists and the community together for a free street fair with music, arts and crafts, and food in downtown Chapel Hill. And don’t forget about Film Fest 919, which showcases films that have appeared at Cannes, Sundance, and other prominent festivals.
- December: Join the creative staff of The Carolina Inn in winter for their magical Twelve Days of Christmas! The historic inn is expertly decorated and holiday activities including festive meals, breakfast with Santa, holiday teas, holiday markets and more!
- February: Chapel Hill’s Light up Festival celebrates the Chinese New Year with beautiful lanterns, interactive art, and dragon performances. Free to attend with games, prizes, a silent auction, and Asian food stands and trucks.
Things to Do in Chapel Hill EVERY Weekend
Stay at these Hotels in Chapel Hill
The Carolina Inn
What’s more Tar Heel than staying at UNC’s on-campus hotel!? The Carolina Inn has 185 luxurious rooms and exudes Southern hospitality in every corner. The antebellum vibe and architecture make for beautiful photos and memories of your stay.
From August to mid-October, The Carolina Inn hosts Fridays on the Front Porch (#FOFP). Live music and food trucks will be at the Inn for the entire community to enjoy.
The Siena Hotel
Built to replicate Italian luxury, The Siena Hotel is a beautiful place to stay while in Chapel Hill. With Juliet balconies and Italian mosaics, The Siena Hotel is stunning and centrally located, with awesome customer service top it off!
You’ll also want at least a meal or two at the on-site Il Palio after checking into one of their 79 rooms, so what are you waiting for?
We shared more about what you can experience at the Siena Hotel here.
Walk around UNC
At the heartbeat of Chapel Hill is the absolutely stunning campus of the University of North Carolina. It was chartered by the NC General Assembly in 1789, making UNC the first state-supported and oldest public university still accepting students today.
It’s wonderful for a walk on any day, as you’ll stroll through tree-covered walkways filled with beautiful azaleas and dogwoods.
Right off of campus is the Morehead Planetarium, the largest full-dome planetarium in the southeast.
It was once used as a training facility for the Gemini and Apollo program astronauts. Neil Armstong was the first astronaut to train at Morehead in 1964.
Open to the public since 2007, there are interactive exhibits, live presentations, as well as the 240 seat planetarium for any and all celestial lovers. And with more than 150,000 visitors a year, Morehead Planetarium is especially great for families visiting Chapel Hill.
The Old Well
We love stopping by The Old Well on McCorkle Place and drinking from the lucky water fountain. It is said to grant good grades to those who sip from it on the first day of classes.
Carolina Basketball Museum
Tar Heels live, breathe, and drink the spirit of the basketball court. And at the time of writing (January 2020), UNC has appeared in 20 Final Fours, won six titles, and taken home 18 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championships.
You can learn all about it and more at the Carolina Basketball Museum, one of our favorite free things to do in Chapel Hill. This museum is located next to the Smith Center and is open Monday to Saturday and until three hours before tipoff on ACC home game days.
Visitors can see more than 500 artifacts, videos, and photos highlighting the history of the UNC basketball program.
Carolina North Forest
On UNC’s North Campus, Carolina North Forest has some nice trails for biking and walking. Among the 750 acres of woodland, we typically enter near the former Horace Williams Airport.
On that side, Wormhole is a nice trail (3.88 miles) and the perfect way to spend a morning or afternoon during your weekend.
We included the trails of Carolina North Forest in our guide to hiking in North Carolina, too!
Hang Out on Franklin Street
Franklin Street is the main drag of downtown Chapel Hill, home to nearly 100 restaurants, and tons of bars and retail stores. If you’ve ever visited Top of the Hill (more later), you’ll see picture proof that National Championship wins have transformed this main street into a bumping party.
Find one of the over 20 hand-painted murals by local artists Michael Brown and Scott Nurkin for a truly unique Chapel Hill experience!
Ackland Art Museum
With more than 18,000 works of art, The Ackland Art Museum is a cultural experience that anyone in Chapel Hill should experience. With premier collections of Asian art and works of art on paper, the Ackland is free for anyone to visit.
In addition to the incredible permanent collection, more than a dozen special exhibitions are held each year.
North Carolina Botanical Garden
Chapel Hill is also home to one of the Southeast’s largest greenspaces at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Its 1,100 acres are filled with beautiful wildflowers, unique plant species, and winding trails.
More than just a garden, this thriving ecosystem is planted to provide year-round landscaping for visitors. In addition, a series of educational and fun events are held here throughout the year.
Kidzu Children’s Museum
With a mission to inspire purposeful play, children can explore the indoor space for hours.
If you’re looking for a great way to walk off all that delicious food you’ve eaten in Chapel Hill, check out Bolin Creek Trail. Located next to the Chapel Hill Community Center Park, this is a three-mile wooded out and back multipurpose trail.
For after-walk bonuses, we enjoy letting the kid play on the Community Center’s playground.
And if you fancy a coffee along the way, Caffé Driade has a back entrance along the trail that is easily marked.
I love their drinks and especially enjoy them with a muffin or some other yummy baked goods while sitting in their cozy outdoor space. It’s one of the most peaceful spots in the Triangle and if you don’t believe, go check it out and report back to me!
Lavender Oaks Farm
60 acres of beautiful forest and different varieties of lavender is exactly what you’ll find at Lavender Oaks Farm. The historic barn is a well-known wedding location.
However, during the summer months when the lavender is blooming, the fields are opened to the public to cut their own fresh lavender to take home. With 4,000 lavender plants and 9 varieties to choose from, Lavender Oaks is one of our favorite family-friendly activities.
Bring quarters and grab a pint of beer or a cocktail before doing battle against the computer or your friend at the Baxter on Graham St.
My hubby’s personal favorites include NBA Jam and Turtles in Time, but there are 50 games to choose from. The Baxter’s pinball game selection is nice, too.
Carolina Brewery is right on Franklin St and home to an awesome atmosphere, great food, and of course, amazing beers.
If you know anything about us, you’ll know we love their American IPA, but their signature Sky Blue Kolsch is worthy of at least one of your pints.
Eat at These Chapel Hill Restaurants
We’ve held out long enough but now, it’s time to talk food in Chapel Hill. Our upcoming post on restaurants here will go into more detail, but here’s a short synopsis.
Start with a massive biscuit from Time Out and lunch with a made-in-house brew at Top of the Hill. The latter’s distillery is also one our favorites! The famous shrimp and grits of Crook’s Corner and exotic flavors at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café deserve your attention, too.
Of course, you must dig into the menu of James Beard award winner Chef Andrea Reusing’s Lantern.
Country cooking at its absolute finest can be found at Mama Dip’s, where they’ve been serving cornbread and family recipes since 1976. Before she passed away, the original owner and culinary icon Mildred Council released Mama Dip’s Cookbook, sharing more than 300 of her family’s recipes.
We featured her work in our list of essential cookbooks that should grace your shelf.
And finally, grab a bite at the place where you’ll find the best burger on the planet—Al’s Burger Shack. Using local ingredients and all-natural North Carolina beef, you can taste the difference in quality in each bite.
Be bold and make it “Big Al” size with a double patty or be extra and go for a grilled hot dog, too!
These are some of the many ways to satisfy your cravings in Chapel Hill. Stay tuned for our guide covering places to eat. It’s coming soon!
Explore These Nearby Towns
It’s hard to write about Chapel Hill and not talk about Carrboro because blink and Franklin Street becomes the latter’s Main Street. Even though the two towns are attached, Carrboro gives off a completely different vibe.
It’s home to vegan restaurants, locally roasted coffee and Weaver Street Market, a truly local-first grocery store. In addition to Weaver Street, there’s the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. It’s considered one of the best in the nation, with all of the vendors coming within a 50-mile radius.
And last but not least, there’s Hillsborough. It’s one of my favorite small towns in the whole state, sitting along the Eno River. The Riverwalk is something our family does quite often and starts from the Weaver Street Market on Churton Street.
It’s nice to grab a coffee from Weaver Street and set out along the path that winds beside the river.
Afterward, grab a pint and some wings at The Wooden Nickel and stop by Matthew’s Chocolates for a decadent end of the day. Another way to enjoy Hillsborough is past the other end of the River Walk on Nash Street. Hillsborough BBQ Company is there and home to some delicious, pit-cooked food.
We’ve also enjoyed walks around the Historic Occoneeche Speedway Trail. Ayr Mount off St Mary’s Road is another special place that we can’t wait to share more about with you in the future.
Other than Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough, do you have any favorite places to go in Orange County? We’d love to know about them in the comments section!
Our Thoughts and Yours, Too!
It’s easy to only think of the Tar Heels and UNC when mentioning this part of our state. However, we hope you now see there really is so much more to Chapel Hill and its surroundings.
From incredible restaurants to family-friendly events, Chapel Hill is truly a North Carolina city worth visiting throughout the year!
If you’ve spent time in the area, we’d love to know your favorite things to do, too! Share them with us here and if there’s something that we left out, we’d love to know that as well!