The tobacco and textile industries left their imprint on Durham long ago, but now the historic brick mills and repurposed factories form the backdrop of North Carolina’s re-energized Bull City. Recently, artist studios and upstart galleries have multiplied in the flourishing downtown area, where new bakeries, pizzerias, tapas bars and food trucks — and trailers and buses and even the odd tricycle — seem to surface at every turn. Since Big Tobacco is dead, consider this cool mix of culture and food the new Durham blend.
Campus tour: Durham is hardly a college town, yet its identity remains inextricably linked to Duke University. The university’s West Campus is the quintessential collegiate setting, with grassy quads and lovely neo-Gothic buildings lorded over by the stately stone facade of the 210-foot-tall Duke Chapel.
Nearby are the Sarah P. Duke Gardens (420 Anderson St.; 919-684-3698; hr.duke.edu/dukegardens/), 55 meticulously maintained acres bursting with diverse flora. Stroll along the circuitous walking paths that curl around the gorgeous gardens’ grassy slopes and placid ponds, keeping an eye out for the majestic resident great blue heron.
From the gardens, it’s not far to the Nasher Museum of Art (2001 Campus Dr.; 919-684-5135; nasher.duke.edu; $5). Housed in a cluster of modern, monolithic structures, this on-campus museum hosts an impressive slate of exhibitions focusing on contemporary and visual art, like the current Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters show that runs through Feb. 10.
Spanish courses: If authenticity trumps atmosphere where your appetite is concerned, head to Los Comales (2103 N. Roxboro St.; 919-220-1614), a no-frills taqueria where the posted menu is in Spanish only, and the television is most likely tuned to ESPN Deportes. The succulent tacos al pastor on homemade corn tortillas ($1.75) and oozing cheese-and-pork pupusas ($3) are reason enough to overlook the simple setting, as are the refreshing aguas frescas (try the melon flavor, $1.75) and spicy chorizo tacos ($2) topped with salsa verde, cilantro and pico de gallo from the salsa bar.
Full steam ahead: On any given night, evidence of the Bull City’s youth-driven renaissance is on display at the intersection of Rigsbee Avenue and Geer. On one corner sits Motorco Music Hall (723 Rigsbee Ave.; 919-901-0875; motorcomusic.com), a garage bar and music venue that has hosted everything from indie bands and improv nights to all-female Mexican wrestling events.
Across the street is the cavernous Fullsteam Brewery (726 Rigsbee Ave.; 919-682-2337; fullsteam.ag), where picnic tables are packed with people sipping house-brewed beers like hickory-smoked porter and sweet potato lager made from local tubers.
Pair your pint with a snack from one of the food trucks usually parked outside. Try a warm Pigs ’n’ Figs sandwich (with fig, speck and goat cheese; $6) from the American Meltdown truck (americanmeltdown.org; Twitter: AmericanMLTDWN) or juicy pork-filled buns ($5) from the Chirba Chirba Dumpling truck (chirbachirba.com; Twitter: ChirbaChirba) are solid bets.
Close out the night with a nightcap at the newcomer Kotuku Surf Club (703 Rigsbee Ave.; 919-294-9661), a laid-back bar that opened down the block in December 2011.