Pack the car and cue up the driving playlist because summer is the season for road tripping! June is right around the corner, so now is the time to start planning. We think the ideal road trip is just about four hours away—not so far that you’ll hate everyone in the car by the end of the trip, but not so close that you feel like you’ve barely left your neighborhood. Of course, a road trip destination also has to have interesting places to explore, great food and drink and a stellar hotel that feels like home away from home.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina is an adorable town that checks all those boxes. Barely over the Virginia state line, this quaint southern escape is a little over four hours from the D.C. area. As one of the three points in the region’s Research Triangle, the community is a vibrant center for culture and development, while maintaining that classic small-town feel.
There’s history everywhere you turn, plenty of beer and barbecue and a bustling college campus. It’s also home to The Carolina Inn, a stunning Destination Hotel that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Here’s why Chapel Hill should be your next summer road trip:
Where to stay
This one’s kind of a no-brainer. The Carolina Inn is located right in the heart of the town, and it’s about as charming as you can get. The historic hotel was built in 1924, and while it has gone through several renovations, it still has the nostalgic, old-fashioned feel of a simpler time. It might even look familiar to folks from northern Virginia, since it was originally modeled after George Washington’s Mount Vernon home.
The Inn has 185 gorgeous guest rooms (starting at $169/night), each brought to life with antique furniture, pieces of the state’s history and signature elements of the colonial revival style. It’s the perfect balance of vintage elegance and modern comfort. Striking colors and patterns are splashed throughout the guest rooms and the various ballrooms, parlors and meeting rooms, creating authentic character throughout.
The property is affectionately called "the university’s living room," which turns out to be a highly accurate description. As the only hotel on UNC’s campus, students treat The Carolina Inn as a second home where they can study, relax on the patio with friends, or host formal functions. The community also gathers here, especially during Friday's on the Front Porch, an annual event series featuring live music, picnic spreads, and food trucks.
Where to eat
Crossroads Chapel Hill: Dining at The Carolina Inn’s signature restaurant is an experience in itself, drawing diners from around the region. The menu, of course, prominently features expertly executed southern staples like fried chicken, cornbread, and grits, but many dishes benefit from unexpected twists of flavor and technique thanks to Chef Brandon Sharp. The UNC alum recently returned to Chapel Hill after working in top notch kitchens across the country and leading the Michelin-starred Solbar in California. The restaurant is also known for its elaborate afternoon tea service, which is the picture of southern charm.
Pittsboro Street Provisions: The grab-and-go market at The Carolina Inn is a great place to snag a quick breakfast, coffee, sandwich, sweet treat, or snack before heading into town.
Merritt’s Store & Grill: A staple in town, this little country store is packed at lunchtime when locals and tourists jostle in the sandwich queue to order stacked BLTs.
Lantern: This innovative kitchen is helmed by James Beard winner Andrea Reusing. Here you’ll find exciting Asian flavors and local North Carolina ingredients.
Pizzeria Mercato: The tagline, “where Italy meets the South” pretty much sums up this seasonal pizza joint that crafts handmade pastas and pizzas using ingredients from the local farmers market. It’s run by a James Beard nominee, who is also the son of two James Beard-winning chefs. That’s one talented family.
Sutton’s Drugstore: This old-school drugstore and grill has been around for over 90 years. It’s right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Franklin Street, which is the retail and dining hub of the town. Stop in for a burger and a vintage soda.
The Pig: You can’t go to North Carolina without digging into some pig. This spot is a local favorite for BBQ made from local, pasture-raised hogs. They’re all about using the whole pig, which means in addition to pulled pork and ribs, you’ll find house made hot dogs, bologna, and more.
Where to drink
Top of the Hill: TOPO, as the locals call it, is the state’s 8th oldest surviving brewery, and their brewpub is still going strong. It’s a place where Tar Heels celebrate wins and get together for a few pints. The beer is brewed on premises, and it’s not widely distributed, so this is one of the few spots where you can actually drink it. The team also owns TOPO Distillery, the first and only fully local and USDA-certified organic distillery in the deep South. Visit their facility for a tour and a taste of their quality organic gin, vodka, and Carolina whiskey.
Carolina Brewery: Owned by a third generation UNC alum, this brewery sits right in the heart of downtown. Their selection of beers brewed year-round stays true to the classics, with golden ales, IPAs, and porters.
Steel String Brewery: Just outside of town in Carrboro, Steel String is all about making beer that reflects the agricultural bounty and distinct culture of North Carolina. They have the standard brews, but they also go outside the box a little with a few sours, including a gose with coriander and sea salt and an unoaked sour with local white miso, yuzu, and ginger.
Where to play
Franklin Street: Most of the action in town happens on this main drag, which is named for Benjamin Franklin. This is where Tar Heels flood the street after a big win or during a party holiday like Halloween. You’ll find plenty of unique boutiques where you can shop for preppy clothing, old books, UNC gear, vintage finds, and more.
Southern Season: This is a one-stop-shop for the culinarily inclined. The sprawling store offers more than 70,000 gourmet foods and gifts. Wandering through the isles, you’ll find specialty foods, chocolate, candy, wine, beer, coffee, tea, kitchen gadgets, home décor, and more. There’s also a whole section devoted to products made in North Carolina, from barbecue sauces to popcorn.
UNC Campus: Even if you’re not a prospective college student, a tour of the nation’s first public university is definitely worth your time. The school was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors to students in 1795. It was the only public university to award degrees in the 18th century. You can take a tour with the Visitor’s Center or simply stroll through the lush groves and admire the stately architecture. Notable points to hit include the Morehead Planetarium, the Davie Poplar Tree (supposedly the site where the search party rested while they were looking for the best location for the university), Old East (the first public university building), the Old Well (the primary water source for the first 100 years of the university’s history and the fount from which students drink on the first day of classes to bring good luck), and the Bell Tower. There’s also a 700-acre botanical garden and a comprehensive Carolina Basketball Museum.
Cane Creek Reservoir: This public recreation space is an ideal spot for kayaking, canoeing, boating, fishing, picnicking, and sunbathing. Note: Boats are available for rent, and a state license is required for fishing except on July 4th.
Explore the Triangle: If you want to take in Chapel Hill’s surrounds, simply hop in the car and head to the other two points of the triangle: Durham, home to Duke University, and Raleigh, home to NC State University.