As a photojournalist specializing in travel photography, Greta Rybus is passionate about capturing the local experience—and creating meaningful connections—in the places she visits. On this National Geographic assignment, she takes a cherished retreat from bustling urban life to explore the central region of North Carolina. Join Rybus as she discovers the natural beauty, history, and unique spirit of Raleigh and its neighboring towns with the help of folks who keep them thriving.
Fresh inspiration and grassroots in Durham
Rybus starts her adventure thirty minutes northwest of Raleigh in Durham. Celebrated for its world-class food, universities, and startup culture, Durham is a vibrant community built on inclusivity.
Rybus grabs a German treat from Guglhupf Bakery and heads to Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke University’s campus. There she meets Annabel Renwick, Ph.D., curator of the native plants garden, to learn about the more than 1,000 species that grow there. Renwick tells Rybus about the resilience of the native plants and the way they transform throughout the year. She says, “The seasonality of the garden is what gives you hope.” The fifty-five-acre expanse is admission-free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to dusk, 365 days a year. Guided trolley and walking tours are available. Across campus, at Duke’s Art Annex, art lovers explore a sea of defunct satellite dishes painted by local artists.
In Hurdle Mills, Rybus visits 110-year-old Pine Knot Farms outside Durham city limits. The owners, Stanley Hughes and Linda Leach-Hughes, teach Rybus about the history of the 125-acre organic farmland purchased by Stanley’s grandfather in 1912. In addition to growing tobacco, they have diversified their crops to include fresh greens, including brussels sprouts and collards, which they supply to local grocers, wholesalers, and churches working to create food justice in the area. They also have a stand at the Black Farmers’ Market, held every Sunday at Hillside High School in Durham and every fourth Sunday in Raleigh.
Back in Durham, on the east side of town, Rybus explores an old textile mill reimagined as a buzzing hub of art, industry, and community. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Golden Belt is a home for artists and galleries, a live music venue, and a modern workspace with must-try food and drink destinations, including Hi-Wire Brewing.
Rybus ends her day at an old-school billiard hall, The Green Room—outfitted with a green checkerboard linoleum floor, billiard tables from the 1930s and 40s, and a twenty-two-foot handmade shuffleboard. Rybus chats with Michael Dearing, the third owner of the Green Room since it opened in the 1950s, about what makes his place so unique. He says, “What is this space about? It’s about community. We are just looking for dignified earthlings to share this space with. We have to make it a place that can be welcoming and friendly.”
Small towns, open spaces, and local flavors in Granville County
An hour outside Raleigh and thirty minutes from Durham, Rybus visits the historic town of Oxford. Incorporated in 1816 and shaped by the tobacco industry, the small town is steeped in tradition. Rybus meanders the delightful downtown streets discovering local staples and historic treasures, including The Orpheum—an art deco-style theater with a vibrant red neon sign out front. It was restored for the second time in 2018 and serves as a prominent landmark and special events venue, hosting everything from weddings to R&B jam nights. Down the street, the Granville History Museum—located in an old jail circa 1860—and the George C Shaw Museum preserve the town’s rich history through artifacts, murals, and other exhibits.
Around the corner on Main Street, Strong Arm Baking Co. churns out fresh-baked sourdough with local grits, bourbon bread pudding, oatmeal cream pies, and other delicious treats. Akin to the name, the bakery started with an enthusiastic team of two and has expanded to include pizza nights, an impressive rotating seasonal menu, and a stand at the Durham Farmers’ Market.
Rybus also pops into local antique shop This n’ That run by Betty Friday. The store opened in 1985 in the old town drugstore and now serves as a treasure trove and unofficial meeting place. Every day, folks stop in to grab a cold can of soda from the mini fridge, sit in an old office chair in the middle of the shop, and chat.
A trip to the area would only be complete with a drop-in at Oxford Oaks Distillery or Tobacco Wood Brewing, the first female and veteran-owned brewery in North Carolina. Tobacco Wood Brewing is the perfect spot to relax after a long day, featuring live music and trivia nights.
Rybus drives twenty-five minutes southwest of Oxford to the local adventurers’ paradise, Lake Holt. The tackle shop offers fishing passes and gear, and rents paddle boats and kayaks for a day on the water. The Lakeside Grill, run by Alicia Chamberlain, smells of bacon and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a side of Cowboy Westerns running on the TV. Chamberlain tells Rybus about daily life at the restaurant. She says, “I call all the men that come in the morning my ‘Coffee Club.’ They get to put on whatever they want on the TV [usually Gunsmoke] and tell all their fishing fibs.” After a day of fishing and a hearty meal, visitors wander the scenic walking paths around the lake.
Scenic views and fresh tastes in Chapel Hill
Thirty minutes from Durham and Raleigh, Chapel Hill offers a perfect getaway from busy city life. Rybus heads to the North Carolina Botanical Gardens, arriving just in time to see a controlled burn conducted on a garden bed, a traditional method of land management gardeners selectively use to manage the 1,100 acres of land. The conservation garden is home to many rare and endangered native plants, including some species that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
North of campus, in downtown Chapel Hill, Rybus hops on the Bolin Creek Trail and walks the 2.5-mile path along the creek. The paved trail meanders through forest and meadowlands, offering a natural escape in the middle of town. Just north of Chapel Hill, an urban section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs through the village of Hillsborough. The two-mile stretch of greenway along the Eno River offers a scenic path to bike, walk, or jog from one neighborhood to the next.
Chapel Hill may be considered a small town, but its food scene rivals that of a major metropolis. A visit would not be complete without stopping in a few of the town’s best restaurants, including the South Indian institution Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe and celebrated newcomer Bombolo. Locals “chill on the hill” on hot summer days at the Yogurt Pump. Established in 1982 as the state’s first frozen yogurt shop and still decorated in 1980s decor, this quaint store is endearingly called “YoPo.” On Friday evenings in the summer, The Carolina Inn hosts Fridays on the Front Porch, where live music, craft cocktails, and food trucks are available for the music-goers.
Off-the-beaten-path in Raleigh
After soaking in the adventure and beauty outside Raleigh city limits, Rybus is ready to discover unexpected sites and unique experiences in the heart of the capital—including the newly reinstalled and admission-free North Carolina Museum of Art. The reimagined galleries are organized by theme rather than art movement, with historic and modern pieces hung side-by-side. Outside, the museum park offers a massive greenspace to explore, with 4.7 miles of trails that run past beautiful gardens, art installations, and environmentally-sustainable landscapes.
While exploring the museum campus, Rybus is struck by how actively community members integrate these public spaces into their daily lives. “It may be because so many of these places are admission-free, ensuring people have easy access. "
Less than a mile from the park, the Raleigh Market is bustling with local vintage vendors, farm stands, and food trucks. Rybus roams the flea market grounds, fascinated by the unique selection of old coins, furniture, and leather goods and the vendors who’ve been selling them for decades. Across town, jeansmiths craft the ideal pair of pants at The Curatory - Raleigh Denim Workshop. The shop stocks Raleigh Denim alongside goods and products the owners find while traveling. A quick look at the ceiling reveals nearly 7,000 paper airplanes covering the shop ceiling.
Back outside, Rybus roams the blooming azalea gardens outside the WRAL-TV studios. The broadcasting company founder planted the azaleas in 1959 to bring unexpected beauty to the community. Nearby and equally surprising, the Lonnie Poole Golf Course is a hidden gem for birding. The Audubon Signature Sanctuary on the course is home to many beautiful species like the Eastern Bluebird and blue herons.
Just five miles south of downtown Raleigh, Historic Yates Mill County Park transports visitors back to the early days of Wake County settlement. Rybus tours the operable water-powered grain mill that dates back to 1756. Every third Saturday, the park hosts live demonstrations, allowing visitors to purchase a sack of freshly milled cornmeal. The surrounding 174-acre park offers endless adventure with a pond for fishing, hiking trails, and gardens. After a long day of exploring, visitors can walk across the street to Howling Cow Creamery for a scoop of freshly made North Carolina ice cream.
Even more adventure beyond Wake County
Grady’s BBQ in Dudley is a true culinary destination for those looking to venture farther outside Raleigh city lines. The only whole-hog, Black-owned BBQ restaurant in the state, Grady’s has been run by Steve and Gerri Grady since the 1980s. Steve learned to cook from his grandparents and, at age 86, is now a vital part of North Carolina’s culinary history.
Lastly, go back in time with a visit to Horne Creek Farm in Pinnacle. The living historical farm invites visitors to experience life in the Piedmont Region in the early 1900s. Tour the original farmhouse and tobacco curing barn, hike through the beautiful wooded ridge along the creek, or join in one of the many historical special events they host yearly—from sheep shearing to ice cream socials.