Look no further if you’re seeking everything you need to know to plan the best day trip to Chapel Hill, North Carolina— from someone who spent 4 years living in the “Southern part of Heaven!”
Visiting the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the flagship of the UNC system and the oldest public university in the United States (founded in 1789!) is a must for fans of Neoclassical academic architecture, verdant quads, and vibrant student life.
You’ll love wandering around the tree-lined campus, exploring the historic libraries, hearing the tolling of the Bell Tower, and taking a sip from the Old Well— the good luck charm of countless Tar Heels past and present.
While certainly a must-see, visiting UNC isn’t the only thing to do in Chapel Hill– far from it!
It is certainly true that much of town life revolves around the university– the sports games, the college culture, and the students milling all about– but there is a world-class culinary scene, museums, art galleries, and more to explore just within Chapel Hill, to say nothing of neighboring Raleigh, Durham, Hillsborough, and beyond.
Read on for everything you need to know to plan the ultimate day trip to Chapel Hill– we’ve written a step-by-step walking guide full of locals’ only tips, plus the best places to eat (meals, snacks, drinks, or all-of-the-above!)
Chapel Hill is conveniently located right off Interstate 40, a mere 40 minutes from Raleigh, and 20 from Durham. It’s ideal for a day trip, as you can explore everything the town has to offer and head back to wherever you’re staying in the late afternoon/evening. The coastal towns of Wilmington or Southport are only about 2 hours away, as are the mountain towns of Boone or Blowing Rock (in the opposite direction, of course!)
A note about planning your day trip to Chapel Hill– parking is tough. Most of it is zoned for student/staff/faculty permits, and street parking and deck parking are hard to find and can be very pricey. Pro tip: if you visit on a weekend, you can park on campus for free! You can also park for $1 (flat rate) on campus after 5 PM daily, which is good for those just popping into Chapel Hill for dinner or date night. For a map of parking locations in Chapel Hill, see here, and for a map of campus parking specifically, see here.
Once in Chapel Hill, the buses are free! There are a variety of excellent bus routes that take you around campus and Franklin Street, including the NS, NU, and U routes. They stop regularly, are really spacious and comfortable, but get super packed with students at peak class times! You can see all the bus routes and schedules here.
If you’re coming from Raleigh, consider taking the CRX bus– the Chapel Hill/Raleigh Express– in lieu of driving. It picks up by NC State University in Raleigh (at the intersection of Hillsborough St and Gardner St) and drops you off right on Franklin Street. It has over a dozen departures per day– perfect for your day trip to Chapel Hill, without the hassle of parking, rush hour, etc. Each one-way ride is only $2.25! By the way… If you’re visiting Durham on a day trip from Raleigh (recommended!) there’s also a DRX– Durham Raleigh Express.
One option if you can’t find parking is to “park and ride”– there are 4 lots near campus with unbeatable parking rates ($2 per day!) that you can easily catch a bus from to visit downtown without worrying about re-upping your meter, getting a ticket, or (yikes!) getting towed. The lots are located at Eubanks Road, Jones Ferry, Carrboro Plaza, and Southern Village: for more info, see here.
Top 10 Chapel Hill
- Visit the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill and its historic quads, buildings, and iconic sports arenas. Don’t miss photo ops at the Old Well, Davie Poplar, or the Bell Tower, and check out the Dean Dome (basketball stadium) and the Kenan Memorial Stadium (football stadium.)
- Explore Franklin Street for its small-town, “Main Street” charm, quality window-shopping, and insight to extracurricular student life.
- Sample Chapel Hill’s out-of-this-world eateries and restaurants, from Mediterranean delights at Med Deli to soul food at Mama Dip’s and mouthwatering brunch at Crook’s Corner. Snacks and treats abound, too– especially at campus favorite YoPo (or the Yogurt Pump.)
- See a show at the esteemed Morehead Planetarium & Science Center. One of the oldest planetariums in the U.S., the Morehead is absolutely stellar– pun intended! First opened in 1949, Morehead served as a training site for 62 U.S. astronauts, on missions such as Mercury and Apollo, including training 11 of the 12 men who would later walk on the moon. The Starry Night show is wonderful, as are their Astronaut and Cosmic Colors shows, all under their amazing full dome– the only one in the southeast. If you have to choose one, definitely go for Carolina Skies! Fun for all ages, the Planetarium also has lots of programming specifically tailored toward kids.
- Visit the Ackland Art Museum, home to 18,000 works of art from all over the world, including the premier Asian art gallery in North Carolina.
- For lovers of natural spaces, explore the on-campus Coker Arboretum, 5 acres of beautiful grassy spaces, flowers, and meandering paths. Off-campus, but nearby, is the 1,100-acre North Carolina Botanical Garden, with trails and conservation areas to enjoy.
- Get tickets to a sporting event. UNC is world-renowned for sports, and while basketball is king here, UNC athletes from soccer to field hockey to swimming are always ranked at the top of their respective games. The women’s soccer team in particular is really fun to watch. We’re not sure we’d recommend getting your hopes up for those Carolina-Duke basketball tickets, though… with recent attendees including President Obama, UNC alum Michael Jordan, and famed director Spike Lee, they’re quite a catch, to say the least.
- Explore the architecture of the historic homes located around campus. Gimghoul Castle is quite an intriguing place (more on that later), but there’s also wonderful Southern-style homes to enjoy all along the streets surrounding campus, like Cameron Street and Columbia Street. All Southern Living-worthy!
- Enjoy a sweet tea on the patio of the Carolina Inn, a gorgeous hotel located right on campus. If you’re staying overnight and want to splurge… stay here!
- Cross the town border into funky and cool Carrboro (located right near campus!) for neat art galleries, bars, shopping, and parks. While not in Chapel Hill proper, it’s so close that you should definitely stop by if you can.
Your Day Trip to Chapel Hill: Step-by-Step
Are you ready for the ultimate day trip to Chapel Hill, mapped out step-by-step?
- After you park or hop off the bus, start your tour of campus! If you’re interested in attending Carolina as a student, you can book a special prospective students tour through the UNC Visitors’ Center. There are also walking tours available that talk about the history of the university and campus and walk you around. However, this is super easy to DIY! Grab a copy of The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s campus newspaper (which dates back to 1893) and let’s get started!
- Start your visit on the quad closest to Franklin Street, McCorkle Place. As you walk around, admire the oldest buildings on campus– Old West, Old East, and the South Building all date back to the 1700s. Peek inside Graham Memorial if you can for old-school study vibes– plush armchairs and classy books and art on the walls abound– this was the site of the original Student Union, back in 1931. The Morehead Planetarium is located on McCorkle Place– but you may have to come back later depending on which show you’d like to see there. Be sure to check out the Unsung Founders Memorial (a bronze and stone table) in front of the Alumni Building, which honors the people of color, many of whom were enslaved, who helped build many of the buildings on McCorkle Place. Nearby is the Davie Poplar (a beautiful tree with a bench under it, in the middle of the quad)— as the story goes, if you sit on the bench with your sweetheart, you’ll get married someday… so be careful who you sit with! The Campus Y (YMCA), located at the edge of McCorkle, dates back to 1860 and is a totally different architectural style to the rest of campus– and painted light purple!
- At the edge of McCorkle, walk over to the Old Well, the symbol of campus, and take a sip (and a photo!) Legend has it that if you drink from the Old Well on your first day of school each semester, you’ll get a 4.0! Not exactly true from personal experience… but it’s a nice story. The Old Well was the university’s very first water source, and served as the primary water source on campus for over 100 years.
- Crossing the street and continuing past Carolina’s performing arts center, Memorial Hall and the South Building, you’ll emerge onto Polk Place, the university’s main academic quad. Named for native North Carolinian and UNC alum U.S. President James K. Polk, this is truly the hub of campus. Most of the academic buildings are grouped here, and the magnificent Beaux-Arts Wilson Library, with its huge dome, forms its other extreme. If you walk to the left of the Wilson Library, you will see more academic buildings, the Undergraduate Library (or UL), and the Pit.
- The Pit, a sunken brick courtyard in the shade of 2 looming trees, is the beating heart of campus. It is said that every one of Carolina’s 30,000 students goes through the Pit at least once each day, and there’s always something going on– from student government campaigns to social justice initiatives and more. Behind the Pit is the Student Union, the Davis Library, and the student store, in case you’d like a t-shirt or souvenir of campus.
- If you go down the stairs (behind the Pit and student store) you’ll see the magnificent Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, which measures up at 200 feet in height and chimes every 15 minutes, sometimes playing “Hark the Sound,” Carolina’s anthem, or other lovely melodies like “Amazing Grace” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
- You can visit more dorms and buildings on the center of campus, but be sure not to miss the Coker Arboretum— a lovely place for a stroll or a rest on one of its quiet benches.
- On the South part of campus, there are also a lot of dorms, mainly newer constructions. UNC’s student population has boomed in the last few decades, calling for more and more on-campus housing. In fact, there are over 250,000 living alumni of UNC, located all over the world, today. If you keep walking, you can visit the Dean Smith Center, or the Dean Dome, where the champion UNC basketball teams play, as well as see a dorm named for UNC’s very first student– Hinton James. Hinton James walked from Wilmington (on the coast, an almost 2-hour drive away!) to enroll. UNC was the only public university to grant degrees in the 18th century in the U.S., and opened its doors to women (for teaching programs) and its medical school within the next century, with its first woman graduating in 1898.
- Elsewhere on campus, check out the Playmakers’ Theatre, a Greek Revival-style theatre dating back to 1851, now a National Historic Landmark. It housed Union soldiers at one point during the Civil War, and today hosts excellent performances from students and visiting talents alike. Across the street, check out the amphitheatre-shaped Forest Theatre, located at the entrance to 93-acre Battle Park.
- The Carolina Inn, a beautiful hotel, sits on the original founding site of New Hope Chapel, where Chapel Hill gets its name. The Inn is on the National Register of Historic Places, and proceeds from guests benefit the North Carolina Collection at the Wilson Library. There’s a lovely porch to sit on, and you can order tea or a bite to eat even if you aren’t a guest.
- Once you’re done exploring campus, meander around Franklin Street for window-shopping (or actual shopping!)
- Next, it’s brunch or lunch time! Scroll down a bit for all the best recommendations, depending what kind of cuisine you’re in the mood for.
- In the afternoon, check out the Morehead Planetarium if you didn’t this morning, as well as the Ackland Art Museum. Spend some time exploring town’s historic architecture– it’s wonderful to drive behind the Forest Theatre to check out beautiful homes and the slightly-bizarre Gimghoul Castle, said to be the headquarters of a secret society founded in 1889. If you have some spare time, cross over into Carrboro, Chapel Hill’s hip neighbor.
- In the evening, pick another place for dinner (there’s so many to choose from! Some tips, again, are below), and linger for a nightcap.
Chapel Hill Restaurants
You could live in Chapel Hill for years and not take full advantage of the fantastic restaurant scene here. Long praised as a haven for Southern foodies– and indeed, named “America’s Foodiest Small Town” by Bon Appetit— there are all sorts of cuisines to try!
From Beard Award-winning fine dining, quick bites, bar food, and boozy brunch, you can travel the world without leaving town limits– from Mexico to Turkey to Italy and back– or just settle in for some home-cooked Southern soul food, drive-through biscuits, or the brunch of your dreams. There are options for every budget and every craving… and you can’t go wrong wherever you end up!
Read on for a quick recap of our top breakfast/brunch, lunch/dinner, and nightcap/bar options. If you want a more exhaustive list, check out the article we wrote for Foodie Flashpacker, which gives much more in-depth recommendations!
- Crook’s Corner: if you have to choose only one place to eat while you’re in Chapel Hill, this would be it. Food and Wine calls Crook’s “one of the most iconic restaurants in the American South,” and further accolades include “sacred ground for Southern foodies,” per the New York Times. Crook’s is the perfect mix of fine dining and comfort food– their banana pudding and shrimp ‘n’ grits are flawless, and their frozen mint juleps are a boozy brunch staple.
- Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen: perfect for a quick drive-by (it is, after all, drive-through only!) if you’re just passing through town, Sunrise is a Chapel Hill institution! Winner of the “Best Biscuit in the U.S.” award from Food and Wine, their biscuits are flaky, buttery, and absolutely delicious.
- Breadmen’s: for cheap, large portions, and lots of college students, check out Breadmen’s. While not as delicious as Crook’s or Sunrise, this spot does just fine in a pinch and have tons of options– great for groups. Another place good for groups is Weaver Street Market, a local food co-op just over the line into Carrboro.
- Merritt’s Grill: Chapel Hill town legend has it that many years ago, People Magazine traveled all over the country seeking “the perfect sandwich.” That search is said to have ended with the BLT at Merritt’s, with the add-on of house-made pimento cheese to the triple-decker heavyweight. If pimento cheese and/or BLTs aren’t for you, there are loads of other options– like their egg salad!
- Med Deli: Oh, Med Deli… where to begin. This place is so special! The gleaming glass displays are filled with all sorts of goodies, which you point to and add to your tray, building a platter as you proceed down the line. Once you’re done, you pay and are given fresh-baked, warm pita and full access to the pickle and tzatziki bar– be sure to try the pickled radishes and beets! Their baklava is spectacular, and the decidedly no-frills ambiance makes it a lovely place to relax and enjoy your meal. For to-go options, there’s an attached market with all sorts of pre-packaged goodies (their pitas, fresh produce, sauces and dips, etc.)
- Vimala’s Curryblossom Café: If you like your meals with a side of social justice, this is the place for you. Chef Vimala got her start cooking for those less fortunate, but her food was so popular that she eventually opened the café. Serving both traditional and modern “farm to fork” Indian cuisine, this is the best place in town for Indian, hands down, and doubles as a community gathering place. If you can, chip in at the counter for the “Food for All” fund kept for those who can’t afford the cost of their meal.
- Talulla’s: Yummy Turkish food in a funky atmosphere, consider trying anything on the menu that has eggplant in it– you won’t regret it.
- Mama Dip’s: If soul food is what you’re after, Mama Dip’s does it best. The sides alone are to die for, from her baked apples to her mac ‘n’ cheese, and the variety of stews, soups, and other entrees are “finger-lickin’ good.”
Happy Hours, Nightcaps, and Fun Spots:
Just like any college town worth its salt, Chapel Hill has loads of places where you can let loose and enjoy a drink or two. Some places are institutions, like He’s Not Here for its “blue cups” (huge beer cups emblazoned with the bar’s logo– take one home as a souvenir) and some are Chapel Hill tradition, like Linda’s (read more in the snacks and quick bites section), but there’s no shortage of places to get the party started.
If it’s your first time in town, consider splurging on a beer or cocktail at brewery/distillery/restaurant Top of the Hill, or Topo (pronounced “top oh”,) purely for its fantastic rooftop views of Franklin Street. Spoiler: the food isn’t that great here, but the ambiance and views are. In the summer, Topo brews a wonderful blueberry beer, complete with a handful of blueberries tossed on top!
For a real college vibe, check out Goodfellows and, as mentioned above, He’s Not Here (more commonly called “He’s Not.”) Goodfellows is a fantastic all-around college bar, complete with karaoke nights, cheap drink specials (like $1 Long Island Iced Teas), and a signature shot called the “pickleback”– Jack Daniels chased with pickle juice. Sound revolting? It surprisingly… isn’t. You’ll have to try it yourself! He’s Not is very popular with the Greek life (fraternities and sororities) crowd, but has a lovely outdoor patio to relax and sip your beer, and is a must-visit when the weather is nice.
Chapel Hill Snacks, Quick Bites, + Sweet Treats
No visit is complete without indulging at least a few vices– whether sweet or salty.
For quick bites that are a bit faster and more casual than the above lunch/dinner recommendations, check out:
- Italian Pizzeria 3 (IP3): This place is so, so fun and brings back wonderful memories. Owned by a gregarious and wonderful pair of brothers, Angelo and Vincenzo, IP3 is “the place to be” (as they say) for delicious, cheesy Napoli-style pizza, ice-cold pitchers of beer, and whatever sporting event is on TV– the brothers are sports fanatics, from their beloved soccer to their adopted passion for Carolina basketball.
- Linda’s Bar + Grill: Another place that brings back so many memories… Linda’s is the quintessential dive bar, with a college twist. They have great bar staples (especially their cheese fries!) and lots of beer on tap, as well as reasonably-priced cocktails. Linda’s is at its best for late-night, though– the best place in town to end a night out.
- Al’s Burger Shack: Al’s chili burger was named the “Best Burger in the U.S.” by TripAdvisor, but everything here is absolutely delicious– from their huge burgers to their yummy, crinkly fries, locally-sourced produce, and local beers on tap.
For sweet treats, drop into:
- The Yogurt Pump, or YoPo: A Chapel Hill tradition and one of the longest-running frozen yogurt establishments on the East Coast, located right on Franklin Street.
- Sutton’s: Also on Franklin Street, step back in time into Sutton’s Drug Store for hand-spun milkshakes and ice cream floats, served right at the counter. Still a fully-operating pharmacy (one of the last of its kind!), Sutton’s also has great grilled cheese, and is the place to see UNC athletes and other local celebrities.
- Bonus, Maple View Farms: If you’re okay with driving a little outside of town limits for your sugar fix, check out nearby Hillsborough’s Maple View Farms for farm-fresh ice cream that is absolutely to die for!
We hope this day trip guide was helpful in planning your Chapel Hill trip! If you have further questions, feel free to ask us in the comments!
As always, you can pin this guide for later on Pinterest here, or click either of the photos below. Check out our other day trip guides to the Outer Banks, with guides to Raleigh, Hillsborough, Pittsboro, Beaufort, and beyond launching soon!