By Laura Simon (with input from guest blogger and Raleigh resident, Kristen Bagwell)

Recently, my kids and I found ourselves heading to Raleigh with some time to kill. While I knew about Marbles Kids’ Museum, I’d also heard there were two free downtown museums worth seeing. Free is one of my favorite words.

The Museum of Natural Sciences and the North Carolina Museum of History are located right next to each other, with a pay parking lot in the next block, on the corner of Jones and Wilmington. The lot charges $2/hour, which isn’t bad when you consider that both museums are free. Street parking is also available, but I’ll do almost anything to avoid parallel parking a minivan with three kids screaming and hollering in the back.

Both museums are, in fact, free. They operate on a donation basis and there are boxes for donations if you decide to contribute. I let my kids decide which museum to visit first, and they chose Museum of Natural Sciences because of the giant globe built into the front of the building.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences actually spans two city blocks, with a pedestrian bridge connecting the two. You can enter the museum through either building, depending on where you park. The docent that greeted us said the building on the left is perhaps more appropriate for younger children, with a plethora of hands-on activities, a dinosaur exhibit, live animals, and a butterfly house (with a live sloth). I would have to agree with her. My kids (ages 8, 7, and 4) honestly could have spent an entire day in just this space.

We did venture over into the other side, which features a planetarium, an extensive exhibit on DNA, several live labs where kids can watch scientists at work, and a 3D printer exhibit. My 8-year-old found this side of the museum very engaging (especially the printers), but there wasn’t quite as much for my 4-year-old to understand. Both sides are beautifully designed with lots of natural light, buttons for kids to push, and interactive exhibits that are specifically focused on North Carolina. This particular museum is actually a Smithsonian, and the quality is every bit what you’d expect to find in Washington D.C. We were blown away.

The museum website also provides pre-visit materials, as well as scavenger hunt activities. We didn’t find that a scavenger hunt was necessary to stay engaged, but it would definitely be helpful for larger groups.

We wanted to make time for the North Carolina Museum of History as well, and boy, we were glad we did. This museum is also a Smithsonian affiliate, and it boasts an extensive exhibit devoted to North Carolina history. I learned why we’re called the Tar Heels, and pretty much everything else there is to know about our state from ancient history to the present. While there are plenty of videos and hands-on exhibits for smaller children, be prepared to do a lot of explaining. There’s a lot of written text to read out loud and the content is designed for a broader range of ages.

We started to run low on time at this point, and the museum offers many other exhibits to choose from. My kids chose the sports Hall of Fame. It was worth our time, featuring a wide variety of sports, ranging from golf to Nascar. Basketball enthusiasts, in particular, will appreciate the college basketball history. Again, the exhibits were interactive and thoughtfully-designed, and the website provides pre-visit activities and scavenger hunts for kids.


Where to Eat: The museums aren’t in an area with a ton of close lunch options, but there are two cafes within the Natural Sciences museum that serve reasonable, tasty meals and coffee. You could also easily pack a lunch and eat on benches in the park-like area between the two museums. Keep in mind that both museums do not allow food or drink…not even your cup of Starbucks. (I downed mine in the lobby.)

Also in the area: If you have more time, the North Carolina Executive Mansion is a few blocks away, and the North Carolina State Capital building is right across the street. You can request a free tour of both sites, but keep in mind that you have to do so at least two weeks in advance and your tour group needs to contain at least ten people. The Capital also offers a self-guided tour option. Marbles Kid’s Museum is also located in the same downtown vicinity; they do charge an admission fee. (Click here to read a TMoM archived post about Marbles Kid’s Museum)

Also in the Raleigh Durham metro area: The North Carolina Museum of Art is located a few minutes outside downtown Raleigh, and we drove right past it on our way to and from the other museums. Admission is free for this museum as well, and it features a wide variety of highly-regarded artists as well as beautiful grounds. We also stopped to visit a friend in Chapel Hill, and she took us to the Carolina Basketball Museum. This little gem features everything you ever wanted to know about Tarheel basketball, and features quite a bit of Michael Jordan memorabilia, including the letter from Duke acknowledging that he turned them down. This free museum, located next to the Dean Dome, is certainly worth the stop if you have time. The Museum of Life and Science in Durham is another nearby gem; you can read more about it here.

Other Ideas While In Town:

~ The State Farmers Market. Located downtown near South Saunders Street, the Farmers Market opens at 5am on weekdays and Saturday, and at 8am on Sundays. No matter when you go, there is a ton to do, see, and eat! Check out the Market Grill (open at 7:3 0am) or the State Farmers Market Restaurant (open at 6am daily, 8am on Sundays) for breakfast, and then browse the Farmers building and Market Shoppes for fresh fruits, veggies, indoor and outdoor plants, and local delicacies to take home. Check out the selections at Bone Suckin’ Sauce, and then head over to the Market Imports area which opens at 9 am. You have never seen such a selection of planters, statues, furniture, and a million other things! You literally cannot go wrong, no matter what your family’s interests may be.

~  Historic Oak View County Park. From downtown Raleigh, head east toward Wendell and take the Poole Rd. exit. (Find detailed directions here.) Historic Oak View County Park is a 19th-century farmstead, and is dedicated to show how farms were run in NC back in the day. The park is open daily at 8:30am except Sundays, when it opens at 1pm. Enjoy the five “official” historic buildings, or prowl around through the gardens. There is also a picnic area and fishing for those who are in the mood, and you can’t leave without visiting the two goats that live on site! (Keep your fingers to yourself, though.)

~ You can also check out Pullen Park with ducks, playgrounds, boats, a train, a carousel, and endless fun. Pullen Park is a bit closer to the State Farmer’s Market in downtown Raleigh and while it’s an entirely different experience, it’s definitely a good time!

~ For shopping, consider Triangle Town Center. Let the kids run wild on the indoor play area and other indoor events. If you want to stay closer to downtown, there is an indoor mall at Crabtree Valley. It boasts outstanding shopping and super restaurants, as well as a number of kid-friendly stores and activities including a Lego store.

Truthfully, a trip to Raleigh could keep you busy for a lot more than a day, but the drive is a quick and easy one, making this a perfect destination when you only have a day to get away.

* Intro photo and textile mill photo credit to North Carolina Museum of History

Click HERE to see more day trip ideas!

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