14 Hours in Chapel Hill
(By Julia Masters)
The quaint downtown surrounding UNC’s historic campus has much more to offer than curb appeal. To catch it all, I roll out of bed at an alarmingly early 8:30 a.m.—hey, I’m a college student—and soon find myself driving tree-lined streets on a breakfast-seeking mission.
As anyone who’s been here a minute will tell you, a good day on The Hill begins at the iconic Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, which has served malt waffles and jam-packed omelets for almost fifty years. After ordering a stack of M&M’s pancakes and failing to clean my plate, I stroll toward the grassy lawns of the oldest public university in the nation. The loose brick paths lead me to the school’s storied landmark—not the Confederate monument we tore down last year, the other one—the Old Well.
I take a sip from the well for good luck—which is a thing—and then, weaving through the stressed-out co-eds, I’m immersed in the tranquility of Coker Arboretum, five acres of colorful plants and flowers, some native to the Southeast, others from East Asia.
Basketball is (practically) a religion in Chapel Hill, so I make a pit stop at the UNC Basketball Museum to avoid being a heretic. Here you pay homage to the great saints—Michael, James, Dean, and the rest—among vintage memorabilia, artifacts, and front row seats to the spots where legendary Tar Heels made history.
By now, all of this walking and sports nostalgia has made me hungry again, so I head over to Merritt’s Grill, famous for its loaded BLTs on thick slices of sourdough. The welcoming atmosphere and shaded outdoor seating make it the perfect lunch spot.
Downtown Chapel Hill isn’t all argyle sweaters and sky-blue blouses. After lunch, I set out to discover the Southern Part of Heaven’s more alternative side. I start at Rumors, an eclectic vintage clothing store with starving-artist prices. If you’re with friends who don’t like spending hours watching you peruse the racks, ditch them and get new friends. Or, if that doesn’t work, send them next door to Beer Study while you figure out which shirt you’re going to buy and only wear once.
Heading further into Chapel Hill’s artsy underworld, I cross the street to Schoolkids Records to sift through the crates of old soul and rock vinyl.
Definitely hitting that late afternoon slump, I step off Franklin Street into Perennial, my favorite plant-adorned haven. Upon ordering a perfectly poured latte, I rest against the exposed brick wall and stretch my feet out on the daintily tiled floors.
Feeling rejuvenated, or at least caffeinated, I head to The Ackland Art Museum, which features rotating and permanent exhibits across all mediums, from modern installations to ancient artifacts, and I let myself get lost in awe of it all until dinnertime.
With a critically acclaimed stop on the culinary map in our midst, selecting a restaurant is a no-brainer. I drive west until I see the faded pink pig poking out of the trees and the white wall covered in polished hubcaps: Crook’s Corner.
As I meet friends in the parking lot, I can already taste the savory shrimp and grits I’m about to devour. Gathered in a comfortable yet classy dining area, we swap stories and fight for the last jalapeño-cheddar hush puppy.
For the rest of the night, we have two equally enticing options. The first is bar-crawl our way through Linda’s, He’s Not Here, Pantana Bob’s, and as many other college haunts as our livers can handle. The second is to catch a movie at the charming Varsity Theater, built in 1927, veg out in a comfortable armchair, and mindlessly down bags of over-buttered popcorn.
We choose option B.
Landmark: The Davie Poplar
Where to Get a Cup of Coffee: Caffé Driade
Where to Visit with Friends: Perennial
Where to Walk Your Dog: Johnson Mill Nature Preserve
Where to Spend the Night: The Franklin Hotel
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center
250 East Franklin Street, 919-962-1236, moreheadplanetarium.org
Opened in 1949 and best known as the place where NASA astronauts trained for missions to the moon, UNC’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is one of America’s oldest and largest planetariums. Hosting summer camps, viewings of astronomical events, public lectures, shows in the GSK Fulldome Theater, and exhibits, as well as the annual North Carolina Science Festival, it’s a prime destination for the celestially curious.
Note: We’ve highlighted our pick for the best of each category below.
Al’s Burger Shack
Multiple locations, Chapel Hill, alsburgershack.com
Al’s makes America’s best burger. That’s not just our opinion. It’s also the opinion of TripAdvisor, which recently bestowed this honor upon the West Franklin Street staple. (Al’s also has locations in Southern Village and Governor’s Village.) With lines that often stretch out the door (don’t worry, it moves fast), Al’s is a must-have in Chapel Hill.
Bartaco Chapel Hill
201 South Estes Drive, 919-807-8226, bartaco.com
As the name implies, Bartaco focuses on tacos and drinks. Sure, there are “not taco” options on the menu, but why bother?
122 East Franklin Street, 919-240-5286, bennysva.com
Open late into the night, serving giant slices. Benny’s sticks to the basics.
324 West Rosemary Street, 919-967-7110, breadmens.com
The perfect place for a lazy Saturday morning brunch, Breadmen’s has been a Chapel Hill staple since 1974. Nestle into a booth, enjoy a generous helping of home-style favorites, and swap stories with friends and family.
Buns Burgers & Fries
107 North Columbia Street, 919-240-4746, bunsofchapelhill.com
Tucked away on North Columbia Street, Buns is a create-your-own burger joint that offers hand-cut fries and hand-spun milkshakes. Play around with gourmet toppings like brie cheese and wasabi mayo or keep it classic with bacon and tomato. Not a carnivore? Get a veggie patty.
Carolina Coffee Shop
138 East Franklin Street, 919-942-6875, carolinacoffeeshop.com
North Carolina’s oldest continually running restaurant, Carolina Coffee Shop provides a laid-back atmosphere in which to catch up with old friends or connect with new ones. Expect Southern cuisine with a modern twist.
318 West Franklin Street, 984-999-4580, chahouseusa.com
Cha House brews loose-leaf tea and offers classic Taiwan-inspired street food like green onion pancakes and shaved snow ice.
128 East Franklin Street, 919-960-3955, facebook.com/cosmiccantinach
As any half-cocked college student will tell you, it’s the best food on earth at three in the morning.
610 West Franklin Street, 919-929-7643, crookscorner.com
In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it building at the border of Chapel Hill and Carrboro is one of the South’s most renowned restaurants. Often credited with putting Southern cooking on the gastronomic map, Crook’s Corner blends home-style with haute.
Flair Restaurant & Wine Bar
50100 Governors Drive, 919-967-9990, flairforfoodrestaurant.com
With expertly designed interiors and a menu that’s both highbrow (Duck A L’orange) and low (Hangover Burger), Flair is one of Chapel Hill’s can’t-miss spots for a night out.
Guru India Restaurant & Mint Indian Cuisine
508 West Franklin Street and 504 West Franklin Street, 919-942-8201 and 919-929-6188, guruindianc.com and mintunc.com
Two doors down from IP3 are two restaurants much the same in presentation, menu, and ethos. While Guru is more traditional and Mint more contemporary, both serve classic Indian fare in laid-back environs. Either is a fine choice for a dinner out, and both are known for inviting and inexpensive daily lunch specials.
1505 East Franklin Street, 919-918-2545, ilpalio.com
Il Palio offers a buttoned-up take on classic Italian plates like Bucatini All’Amatriciana and Pappardelle Bolognese, with an attendant wine list as long as Franklin Street.
Italian Pizzeria III
508 West Franklin Street, 919-968-4671, italianpizzeria3.com
One of the few real pizza parlors around—that is, a place where you can walk in, grab a slice and a Coke, hoover it down, and continue on your way—IP3 is a bedrock of the Chapel Hill experience.
1201 Raleigh Road, 919-960-0555, jujuberestaurant.com
Offering a contemporary take on a variety of Eastern cuisines (from Chinese and Vietnamese to Hawaiian), Jujube has one of Chapel Hill’s most exciting and daring menus.
Kipos Greek Taverna
431 West Franklin Street, 919-425-0760, kiposchapelhill.com
With an ebullient atmosphere that often includes live Greek music and a raucous open kitchen, a dinner at Kipos can stretch into an evening-long undertaking. Order any of the myriad appetizers to share, settle in with an entree (try the Fisherman Stew), and enjoy the slate of fantastic wines.
423 West Franklin Street, 919-969-8846, lanternrestaurant.com
If there’s one restaurant Chapel Hill is known for, it’s Andrea Reusing’s Lantern. The James Beard-winning chef’s haunt has garnered acclaim for its marriage of classic Asian flavor with local North Carolina ingredients. With a menu that changes too often for a sturdy recommendation, see if your server can hook you up with the flash-fried cilantro.
746 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, 919-904-7326, luchatigre.com
You won’t find many Mexican/Asian joints featuring tequila/sake bars. Lucky for us, we have Luca Tigre, which blends two of the most treaded-upon culinary forms to create something wholly unique.
408 West Rosemary Street, 919-942-5837, mamadips.com
Since 1976, Mama Dip’s has honed the “dump cooking” method—that is, purely cooking to taste, rather than off of a recipe—for everyone from locals to students to sitting presidents. Proprietor Mildred Council passed away in 2018, but her Rosemary Street establishment keeps her spirit alive.
Mediterranean Deli, Bakery & Catering
410 West Franklin Street, 919-967-2666, mediterraneandeli.com
Known as much for the free olive bar as for the hulking falafels, gyros, and shawarmas, Med Deli’s selection of house-made Mediterranean dishes, including appetizers, mains, and desserts, have made this Franklin Street spot a must. Also, check out the adjacent market.
1009 South Columbia Street, 919-942-4897, merritsstoreandgrill.com
You can order any of the delicious sandwiches or homemade desserts, but why would you, when there really is only one reason to go to Merritt’s? Well, three reasons: Bacon. Lettuce. Tomato. The Merritt’s BLT is the stuff of legend. Order it like a townie—on sourdough with mayo, salt, and pepper—and head out toward the back patio area for a languid lunch in the shade.
The Northside District
403 West Rosemary Street, 919-391-7044, thenorthsidedistrict.com
Come for the drinks, stay for Northside’s amazing take on bar food, which marries barroom with gourmet. With a kitchen that stays open late, it’s the perfect spot to pile some food on a stomach full of weekend beer. Try the absolutely ridiculous rosemary cheddar mac ’n’ cheese.
Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen
1305 East Franklin Street, 919-933-1324, sunrisebiscuits.com
With lines of cars that stretch out the parking lot, often rendering one lane of Franklin Street moot, this drive-up/walk-up joint sells hulking, flaky biscuits that can serve many purposes, from keeping the kids happy to calming a stomach full of last night’s liquor.
107 East Franklin Street, 919-903-9566, supdogs.com
Often jammed with students, their visiting parents, and townies alike, Sup Dogs is East Franklin’s paean to that most American of delicacies: the hot dog. Boasting a menu with a dozen specialty dogs (try the Chicago-style), classic tater tots, boneless wings, a host of appetizers, and a full bar, Sup Dogs is classic comfort food at its most basic.
Sutton’s Drug Store
159 East Franklin Street, 919-942-5161, suttonsdrugstore.com
The proprietors of Chapel Hill’s other best cheeseburger, Sutton’s Drug Store is worth the visit for the candy and soda selection alone. Featuring barrels of old-fashioned candies and row upon row of small-batch soda bottles, this Franklin Street mainstay—now nearing the century mark—will sate both your sweetest of teeth and your hankering for sugar-induced nostalgia.
Tacos El Niño
102 South Merritt Mill Road, 919-932-0230
With tacos that rival the best Austin or Los Angeles has to offer, Tacos El Niño is a white box truck that sits in a dusty parking lot at the end of West Franklin, offering everything from burritos and quesadillas to sopes and empanadas. But here, the taco is king.
201 East Franklin Street, 919-929-2425, timeout247.com
Open 24/7, Time-Out is UNC’s spot for fried chicken, okra, and greens. Make it a last stop before home after the Franklin Street bars kick you out.
Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe
431 West Franklin Street, #415, 919-929-3833, curryblossom.com
Vimala’s ranks among Chapel Hill’s best-known and most beloved restaurants. Leaning into the ethos of locally sourced, sustainable practices, Vimala’s blends Indian roots with Piedmont sensibilities.
Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe
173 East Franklin Street, 919-929-9192, yeoldwaffleshoppe.com
Bringing brunch classics to East Franklin for nearly a half-century, Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe is just what the name implies: a comfortable breakfast joint dedicated to exceptional hospitality.
The Yogurt Pump
106 West Franklin Street, 919-942-7867, yogurtpump.com
Chapel Hill’s favorite dessert/study break/indulgence spot, YoPo doles out some of the freshest and most delicious frozen yogurt around. The pumps are constantly changing, making every trip a mini-adventure.
The Back Bar at Lantern
423 West Franklin Street, 919-969-8846, lanternrestaurant.com
Writers have spilled more than enough ink about this Beard Award-winning Franklin Street staple without mentioning the hushed, urbane sensibility of Lantern’s back bar. In what could easily be confused for a Shanghai speakeasy or a New Yorker’s only-in-the-know spot, Lantern’s back bar is Chapel Hill’s best-kept secret, hiding in plain sight.
106 North Graham Street, 919-240-5423, beerstudy.com
With a wall-length, floor-to-ceiling rack of craft beer, a short bar with a few local brews on tap, and a small scattering of chairs, tables, and board games, Beer Study is Chapel Hill’s unassuming cathedral to beer.
Blue Horn Lounge
125 East Franklin Street, 919-929-1511, facebook.com/bluehornlounge
Surrounded by university t-shirt shops and bookended by cheap and fast eateries is a tiny room with a long slender bar and not much else. Known for its congenial staff and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance, the Blue Horn Lounge is the East Franklin rarity that draws more locals than students.
1215 East Franklin Street, 919-942-2333, caffedriade.com
Tucked away in a thicket of woods off of Franklin Street, Caffé Driade offers coffee, tea, beer, and wine in a bucolic environment that’ll often make you forget the larger environs of bustling university town.
452 West Franklin Street, 984-234-0293, caverntavern.com
For a hot second in 2018, we thought the longest-running bar in Chapel Hill was dead. But then, like a phoenix from the ashes—and after a fittingly raucous weeklong funeral celebration—some industrious locals bought the bar, spruced it up, and reopened for (what we hope are) another forty years of cheap, cold beers, loud punk rock, and friendly faces.
320 West Franklin Street, 919-969-1125, thecrunkleton.com
If Beer Study is The Hill’s salute to suds, The Crunkleton is its ode to the cocktail. The dark, wood-filled bar gives a sense of drinking in a well-appointed hunting cabin.
He’s Not Here
112 1/2 West Franklin Street, 919-942-7939, hesnotherenc.com
“He’s Not”—as locals know it—features a sprawling, picnic-table-filled yard that leads up to the second-floor, frill-free joint whose sole purpose is to get excited college kids drunk.
Linda’s Bar & Grill
203 East Franklin Street, 919-933-6663, lindas-bar.com
Linda’s combines comfort pub fare with a vast array of beer and funky cocktails. Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Linda’s becomes a hot spot for trivia junkies.
305 West Rosemary Street, 919-942-7575, facebook.com/pantanabobsch
P-Bob’s is the rare college-town watering hole that keeps both students and locals happy. Inside, the lights never dim, giving it a sense of being your best friend’s well-appointed living room. Outside, Bob’s’ patio offers one of the best places in the Triangle to stretch out with a tall, cold beer, catch up with friends, and watch a game. Think PBR, not IPA.
401 West Franklin Street, 919-537-8784, perennial.cafe
Step off Franklin Street into a brick sanctuary popping with the crisp-green contrast of hanging plants and filled with the inviting scent of fresh coffee. After pairing a perfect latte with a warm pastry, Perennial’s upstairs space offers a relaxed atmosphere in which to get work done or enjoy a friend’s company.
Top of the Hill
100 East Franklin Street, 919-929-8676, thetopofthehill.com
Sitting atop the corner of Franklin and Columbia, Topo caters to the locals during the day and students into the night. Grab a table on the outdoor patio and try some house-brewed beer.
West End Wine Bar
450 West Franklin Street, 919-967-7599, westendwinebar.com
Front windows wide open, a jazz trio playing, and a cool fall breeze filling the room is the best way to stretch out and enjoy a post-dinner glass of red.
Zog’s Art Bar & Pool Hall
108 Henderson Street, 919-240-5598, zogsbar.wordpress.com
Part pool hall, part art gallery, part seafood joint, Zog’s is a bizarre, totally unique dive just a few doors from UNC’s campus that draws more locals than students. Replete with pool tables, Skee-Ball, and dozens of board games, it’s easy to lose a day in this dark second-floor haunt.
752 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, 919-942-7373, flyleafbooks.com
Like any great independent shop, Flyleaf is more cultural hub than mere bookshop. Sure, there are stacks of great literature and tables overflowing with the newest books, but where Flyleaf shines is in its packed schedule of readings and appearances by authors both local and world-renowned.
135 East Franklin Street, 919-942-4563, julianstyle.com
Born and raised in Chapel Hill, Alexander Julian is a renowned fashion designer who has made his mark on both the fashion and sports worlds. Whether or not you fancy pocket squares, corduroy jackets, and tailored pants, a stop here is a must, if only to visit the home base of the man who made the argyle pattern synonymous with Tar Heel basketball.
106 North Graham Street, 919-942-2335, shopatrumors.com
With an ever-rotating selection, Rumors requires regular visits, as the racks boast entirely new wares every time. Sandwiched between The Baxter and Beer Study, the location offers the opportunity for a solid afternoon of day drinking followed by a stumble over to Rumors to grab that ridiculous/amazing Fleetwood Mac all-over-print tank-top.
405 West Franklin Street, Suite C, 919-960-9272, schoolkidsrecords.com
Always in the conversation for the Triangle’s best record store, Schoolkids is a haven for vinyl geeks and music lovers of all sorts. Whether you’re into the popular or the esoteric, whether you want to pick up a slightly scratchy classic or you just want to find out what’s playing at the Cradle tonight, this is your spot.
6120 Farrington Road, 919-806-8282, ultimatecomics.com
Whether you’re in search of the new issue of Spiderman, a boutique-print graphic novel, the latest action figures, or a meetup for weekly RPG games, Ultimate Comics is a haven for nerds.
UNC Student Stores
207 South Road, CB 1530, 919-962-5066
Every swim in a sea of Carolina blue?
Ackland Art Museum
101 South Columbia Street, 919-966-5736, ackland.org
A world-class art museum on UNC’s campus, the Ackland is small enough for a quick breeze through, yet dense enough to spend an entire day. With pieces ranging from contemporary to ancient, the Ackland covers a wide swath of art history while always feeling focused and engaging. Head across the street to the museum store for a selection of coffee table books, household trinkets and gadgets, and gifts.
108 North Graham Street, 919-869-7486, baxterarcade.com
Seeing as it serves beer, wine, and liquor, The Baxter could be listed under Drink. Thing is, you don’t need to drink. With classic arcade games lining the walls and display cases full of old-school toys, tchotchkes, and ephemera, The Baxter is what you always dreamed of having when you were a kid, sitting for hours in front of your Nintendo system. Bonus points for the owners’ move to allow children and under-twenty-ones on weekends from noon to five.
Carolina Performing Arts
114 East Cameron Avenue, 919-843-3333, carolinaperformingarts.org
Housed in stunning venues like Memorial Hall, Current Artspace + Studio, and Moser Auditorium, this university-based organization is still punching well above its weight as it enters its fifteenth season, which will showcase Emmylou Harris, Lang Lang, Sarah Cahill, and many others.
Cat Tales Cat Café
431 West Franklin Street, 843-345-5289, cattalescatcafe.com
The glass-paneled cafe is home to twelve adoptable cats, coffee, adult beverages, and a comfortable lounge area. Make a reservation to interact with the kitties in their stress-free enclosure, and maybe start the process to take one home with you.
The Chelsea Theater
1129 Weaver Dairy Road, 919-968-3005, thechelseatheater.com
Where better to get your arthouse movie fix than at an actual arthouse? For nearly three decades, the Chelsea has brought challenging, evocative, and fiercely independent cinema to Chapel Hill. After almost closing in 2018, the Chelsea is now a member-run nonprofit.
Dean E. Smith Center
300 Skipper Bowles Drive
There are few greater cathedrals in America than the Dean Dome, the on-campus home of UNC hoops. With the doors often open on offseason weekdays, you can poke in, get as close to the hardwood as possible, and look up to see one of sports’ most decorated set of rafters.
201 South Estes Drive, 919-636-4135, frankisart.com
Tucked inside of University Place, FRANK Gallery offers current and contemporary arts. With a full slate of events, classes, and workshops, it’s not just for perusing.
The Green at Southern Village
400 Market Street, 919-933-4422, southernvillage.com
Playing host to local bands, outdoor movie nights, food truck rodeos, and annual cornhole tournaments, Southern Village’s centerpiece is its sprawling green, an ideal place to stretch out and spend a sun-filled afternoon.
2823 N.C. Highway 54 West, 919-943-0398, thekrakenbar.com
Near the westernmost edge of the Triangle, where the uber-liberal enclaves of Chapel Hill and Carrboro end and the rural South resumes, The Kraken’s rough-and-tumble exterior belies a sweet and welcoming bar staff ready to offer up their corner of the Triangle to you for a suds-soaked, rock-filled evening.
506 West Franklin Street, 919-942-5506, local506.com
A step above a local dive and a step below a major music venue, Local 506 is the ideal place to see a band on their way up. Featuring one of the best-sounding rooms in America, the 506 has long been a lynchpin in the touring itinerary of national acts, though it still hosts locals regularly.
Nightlight Bar & Club
405 1/2 West Rosemary Street, 919-960-6101, nightlightclub.com
If The Cave is your jovial friend who went to a liberal arts school, got a gig DJing at the local radio station, and started a band, Nightlight is her uber-hip cousin, the fine arts major who is really into Jandek, experimental poetry, and performance art. The Triangle’s premier outpost for art that challenges while entertaining, Nightlight trades in music that readily steps outside the bounds of popular form.
North Carolina Botanical Garden & Coker Arboretum
100 Old Mason Farm Road and 399 East Cameron Avenue, 919-962-0522, ncbg.unc.edu
For a healthy dose of serenity, Chapel Hill’s two arboretums shouldn’t be missed. Barely two miles apart, the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the on-campus Coker Arboretum—the former manages the latter—are suburban oases.
PlayMakers Repertory Company
120 Country Club Road, 919-962-7529, playmakersrep.org
UNC’s professional theater company in residence, PlayMakers celebrated its centennial during the 2018–19 season. Now 101, it’s still going strong, putting on ten shows on two stages every season.
201 South Estes Drive, #100, 919-357-9887, silverspot.net
With comfy, cushioned armchairs, a full bar, and restaurant-quality food delivered straight to your seat (which is reserved before the movie starts), Silverspot is a high-end theater in experience only, as ticket prices are commensurate with any other chain theater.
The UNC Basketball Museum
450 Skipper Bowles Drive, 919-962-6000
UNC’s men’s basketball program is one of the most successful in college hoops, so it would make sense to have a worthy memorial. Step inside to see ephemera and artifacts, from a variety of warmups, game-worn jerseys, and vintage programs going back nearly a century to a note from coach Dean Smith to a young Michael Jordan explaining what he needed to work on during the summer before his sophomore year.
123 East Franklin Street, 919-967-8665, varsityonfranklin.com
With only two screens and a $7 adult ticket, the Varsity has been a staple on Franklin Street for nearly half a century, blending new blockbusters with just-left-the-theater movies, indie films, and special events.
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