Experience Your Own Renewal in the North Carolina Spots That Have Perfected It

May 7, 2021

Granted, in any given year, spring is associated with renewal. But in 2021, the link feels less like an abstraction and more like a personal imperative—the kind of thing nearly everyone wants in a getaway. And though the details of what that looks like differ from person to person, there’s a place whose restorative spirit so pervasive, anyone would feel revived there.

We’re talking about the swath of North Carolina where an entire series of Industrial Revolution-era spaces have been reborn as flourishing hubs of creativity. Think arts, crafts, fashion, brewing, interactive museums—and some of the best food you’ll ever eat. If you string even a few of these experiences into a tour of the region, your revival quotient will be off the charts.  

Read on for six of our favorites.

Optimist Hall, Charlotte

Pretty much everything in Charlotte’s newest food hall is cheery, from the name itself to the fabric that used to be milled here: This was one of the nation’s largest gingham producers at the turn of the 19th century, and in a nod to that past, gingham screens help create the seating nooks you can settle into with whatever delicacies you’ve scored on your latest lap around the hall. And you’ll want to do several.

Outdoor courtyard at Optimist Hall, Photo courtesy of Optimist Hall

The short list of top stops includes Boxcar Betty’s for the fried chicken sandwiches; Botiwalla Indian Street Grill for kabab; Bao and Broth for ramen and steamed buns; and Ava for the Neapolitan wood-fired pizza.  Then again, there are certain spots within Optimist Hall where you may want to park yourself for a while: El Thrifty CLT, for one, serves up not only delicious Mexican fare, but also fun games from shuffleboard to “hockey de aire.

Saxapahaw River Mill, Saxapahaw

Though Charlotte may be home to the latest mill revivals (another intriguing newcomer called Lintmen’s is scheduled to open just about a mile from Optimist Hall later this year), there’s one outside Chapel Hill that’s been garnering national headlines for at least a decade. Saxapahaw Rivermill, a onetime cotton mill village, “has undergone an impressively nonconformist rebirth,” according to a Washington Post reporter who was instantly smitten with the Saxapahaw General Store Café, the Eddy Pub and nearly all else she found during a reporting trip to this bucolic river several years back. And since then, the place has only gotten better.

The Eddy Pub, Photo Credit: VisitNC.com

There are still the beloved old standbys, from the hyperlocal and seasonal General Store Café and The Eddy Pub to the family-friendly theater troupe known as Paperhand Puppet Intervention. But the site has also become home to "Saturdays in Saxapahaw," a warm-weather celebration that’s part farmers market, part music festival and part food truck extravaganza. The event, which usually runs from May through August, doesn’t yet have a set reopening date for 2021, but watch this space for details on a likely summer return.

Whatever you do, don’t miss at least one foray into nature, whether by boat (check out Haw River Canoe & Kayak) or by foot: The Haw River Trail/Mountains-to-Sea Trail parallels a stretch of the river that’s home to both the endangered Yellow Lampmussel and the threatened Eastern Creekshell.

Rocky Mount Mills, Rocky Mount

Another variation on the restored mill theme offers one of the state’s coolest stays: a hotel composed of 20 tiny homes and a 1900s millhouse turned trio of guest suites, collectively known as River and Twine. The name is a reference to the adjacent historic cotton mill on the banks of the Tar River—and that proximity comes in extra handy for fans of craft brews: The region’s sole beer incubator occupies some of the centuries-old mill space, where you can roam from one producer to the next for samples of whatever’s on tap.

Tiny Homes at River and Twine, Photo Credit: VisitNC.com

But whether or not you turn your visit into a craft brew crawl, you’ll appreciate the local food purveyors. One favorite? Books and Beans, a coffeehouse and bookstore that also serves up great pastries and sandwiches.

American Tobacco Campus, Durham

Born largely as a tobacco town in the mid-1800s, Durham has fittingly turned its American Tobacco Historic District into the scene of a downtown rebirth: In the handsome, hulking remains of the American Tobacco company, you’ll find restaurants, shops, arts venues and one of the most iconic movie sets in existence.

American Tobacco District, Photo Credit; VisitNC.com

Despite the Lucky Strike smokestack and water tower, among other nods to the past, there’s a decidedly 21st century feel to the place. To see what we mean, start out at Saladelia’s with some organic, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee and house-made, locally and organically sourced treats. Just remember to pace yourself food-wise, because you’ll want to sample as many of the neighborhood offerings as possible, from the Puerto Rican fusion menu at Boricua Soul to the wagyu fat fries at NanaSteak (the latter having just made Eater’s list of standout destination dining spots in Durham).  

For fans of baseball, cinema—or both—there’s one spot you can’t miss: Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Fans still flock here to see sites from the silver screen's Bull Durham, such as the brick tobacco building Annie walks past at the beginning of the movie. 

North Carolina Transportation Museum, Spencer

What used to be the Southern Railway’s largest steam locomotive repair facility is now home to all manner of transportation history, so every type of transit nerd is happy here. Antique cars? Check. Vintage fire trucks? Those, too. A restoration of the Piedmont Airlines’ Potomac Pacemaker DC-3? Naturally. Even the visitor’s center is an 1898 train station.

North Carolina Transportation Museum, Photo Credit: VisitNC.com

But arguably the biggest draw is riding the 1924 turntable at the largest remaining roundhouse in North America. Pair that with the train ride you can take through the entire 57-acre site, and you have some travelers’ idea of a perfect Saturday.

Transfer Co. Food Hall, Raleigh

Historic train repair facilities aren’t the only ones enjoying a new life. The bus service center formerly known as the Carolina Coach Garage and Shops now serves as Raleigh’s favorite new food hall, where you won’t want to miss—for starters—wood-fired bagels from Benchwarmers, ice cream sandwiches from Captain Cookie and the Milkman, hand-cut fries from Mama Crow’s and a Jamón y Queso from Che Empanadas.

Transfer Co. Food Hall, Photo Credit: Brian Strickland

You’ll need to take breaks to digest—ideally, with an award-winning brew from Burial Beer Co. in hand. Alternatively, chill out under the strings of lights on the patio, where the views of the Raleigh skyline are rivaled only by whatever you’ve just eaten.

Ready to go? Find even more transformed NC spaces that will also transform you. 

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