Consider visiting these fine museums and parks, all located in North Carolina’s capital city
By Kimberly Button
With the rising prices of fuel, food, and RV site rentals, it’s easy to find yourself arriving at a vacation destination and realizing you may not be able to do as much as you’d planned. Well, there’s good news. A visit to Raleigh, North Carolina, is a guaranteed wallet-friendly destination, and with more than 20 free attractions in the city, a budget-minded vacation doesn’t have to be boring.
Raleigh is only 140 miles northeast of Charlotte, and is North Carolina’s state capital. It is one of only three U.S. state capitals that were planned on paper before being built. Founded in 1792, the city was named after Sir Walter Raleigh, who attempted to establish the first English colony on the Carolina Outer Banks in 1587.
As the state’s capital city, Raleigh has a variety of museums and government sites that are open for free to the public, and there are plenty of other fun activities to enjoy, too. With so much to see and do, you won’t need to reach for your wallet or pocketbook very often to have fun in Raleigh.
Before you head into town to visit specific attractions, check to be sure your motorhome can be accommodated. In-town locations generally call for a towed car, while other spots on the outskirts of town don’t pose problems.
The following are just a few of the attractions available at no cost to visitors. Yes, all of them!
The North Carolina Museum of History, founded in 1902, has more than 250,000 artifacts that represent six centuries of historical achievements in the state. The museum has a few long-term exhibits, such as one focusing on health and healing, but a majority of the exhibits rotate throughout the year. This summer, changing exhibits include “Weapons of World War II,” “Art Pottery Traditions in North Carolina,” and “From Horses to Horsepower.”
The North Carolina Museum of History is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m. Free guided tours are offered on Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Visit www.ncmuseumofhistory.org or call (919) 807-7900 for more information.
Also located in the North Carolina Museum of History is the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. This facility features artifacts and memorabilia from notable sports personalities who are in some way tied to North Carolina, such as Donald Ross, the popular golf course architect; Richard Petty, often called the King of stock car racing; and Arnold Palmer, one of history’s greatest golfers. Hours for the hall of fame are the same as for the history museum. Visit www.ncshof.com or phone (919) 852-4396 for more information.
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is ensconced near the history museum in a huge building that opened in April 2000. In spite of its newer home, the institution has been around for more than 125 years.
North Carolina is well known for its varying landscapes, from the mountains to the sea, and visitors to the museum can explore the plants and animals that call these areas home. It is the largest natural history museum in the Southeast, with the massive “Mountains to the Sea” exhibit as its central focus. It depicts five North Carolina habitats with live animals, a 20-foot-tall indoor waterfall, and giant whale skeletons representing the coastal portions of the state. North Carolina used to have a different landscape in prehistoric times, too, so be sure to check out the popular dinosaur exhibits in the museum, including prehistoric creatures that seem ready for battle against each other, as well as the world’s only dinosaur with a fossilized heart. Special programs held throughout the day, including movies and animal encounters, create a fun way to learn about science.
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is located downtown between the state capitol and the legislative building. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. Visit www.naturalsciences.org or call (877) 462-8724 or (919) 733-7450 for more information.
Since North Carolina was the first state in the nation to use public funds to purchase art (in 1947), you shouldn’t be surprised to find a stellar art museum located in the state’s capital. The North Carolina Museum of Art displays more than 5,000 pieces of artwork, some of which is shown in a variety of galleries, including work from ancient Americans, 18th- and 19th-century America, Africa, Europe, the Oceanic islands, and Egypt, as well as modern and contemporary art. The museum also has one of only two galleries in thenation devoted to Jewish ceremonial art.
The North Carolina Museum of Art is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday; on Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; and on Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Free guided tours are offered Tuesday through Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Visit www.ncartmuseum.org or call (919) 839-6262 for more information.
Parks abound in Raleigh “” to the tune of more than 150 spaces and 4,300 acres, if you count parks, gardens, lakes, and golf courses. The founding fathers nicknamed their town the “City of Oaks” and set a preservation precedent that has been honored to this day. The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau (contact information appears elsewhere in this article) has an entire list of parks from which to choose. Two of Raleigh’s parks, Shelley Lake and Lake Johnson, even allow visitors to borrow a fishing rod and reel for free through the Fishing Tackle Loaner Program. Shelley Lake is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from mid-March to mid-October; call (919) 420-2331 for more information. Lake Johnson is open year-round from sunrise to sunset; call (919) 233-2121 for more information. Overnight camping is not available at either location.
Plants from more than 50 countries are brought to the 8-acre JC Raulston Arboretum to determine how well they can adapt to the Southern environment. Visitors can stroll among more than 5,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers, including more than 100 different kinds of magnolia trees, a peaceful Japanese garden, and the world’s only collection of dwarf loblolly pines. The arboretum is open to exploration daily, with guided tours available on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. from April to October. Visit www.ncsu.edu/jcraulstonarboretum or call (919) 515-3132 for more information.
Historic Oak View County Park is a farm with an 1855 Greek Revival farmhouse and a Farm History Center that examines the state’s agriculture industry from Colonial times to the present. Inspect a cotton museum, an herb garden, and the oldest pecan groves in the state. You’ll also want to set aside time to enjoy a picnic on the beautiful grounds.
The park is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but the main farmhouse is closed on Mondays. Visit www.wakegov.com/locations/oakview.htm or call (919) 250-1013 for more information.
Visitors are welcome to tour the North Carolina State Capitol, which has been restored to its original 1840s appearance. Free guided tours are offered Saturdays at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Otherwise, take a self-guided tour, Monday through Friday. The state legislature building also is open daily, if you’d like to take a look-see. The Capital Area Visitor Information folks can provide plenty of facts about these and other nearby attractions; their contact information appears below.
Get wild, get away, and have fun after all the history and natural science lessons you’ve experienced thus far. Visit the Ray Price Legends of Harley Drag Racing Museum. This museum is located at one of the largest Harley-Davidson dealerships in the United States, so be sure to allow some extra time for window-shopping. Named after drag-racing champion Ray Price, it’s the only Harley-Davidson drag-racing museum in the world. The showroom, filled with exhibits from legends in the drag-racing field, will definitely pique your interest in hopping on a bike and heading for the nearest open road. The museum is open daily; visit www.rayprice.com/racing-mus.htm or phone (919) 832-2261 for more information.
The next time you’re looking for an affordable and fun vacation destination, plan a visit to Raleigh. It’s a charming, down-home Southern city that offers a welcome respite from the tourist destinations we all know “” and pay for.
Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau
One Hannover Square
421 Fayetteville Street Mall
Raleigh, NC 27601-2946
The Greater Raleigh CVB provides a free visitors information packet and is open Monday through Friday.
Capital Area Visitor Information Center
5 E. Edenton St.
Raleigh, NC 27601-1011
This is a rest and information center for visitors, located inside the North Carolina Museum of History. It offers maps, brochures, and a slide presentation about Raleigh. Staff can schedule tours for groups of 10 or more with advance notice. The center is open daily.
The following may not be a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, published in the June and January issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
William B. Umstead State Park
8801 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC 27612
Falls Lake State Recreation Area
13304 Creedmoor Road
Wake Forest, NC 27587
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area
280 State Park Road
Apex, NC 27523
70 East Mobile Acres & RV Park
100 Walnut Drive
U.S. 70 E.
Garner, NC 27529