You’ll find Chapel Hill to be a little bit urbanist and a little bit village. The town of Carrboro runs right into Chapel Hill, so it may seem difficult to determine where one begins and the other ends. Hailed as one of America’s Foodiest Small Towns by Bon Appétit, Chapel Hill is rapidly becoming a hot spot for pop American cuisine. World-famous musician James Taylor (of whom this writer is a huge fan) hails from this city, and his probably Chapel Hill’s most famous native son. Chapel Hill has been the birthplace of many other artists as well.
Chapel Hill, founded in 1793, saddles both Orange and Durham counties, is the 15th-largest city in North Carolina, and is one of the corners of the Research Triangle (RTP) area. Chapel Hill was named for the New Hope Chapel, which stood at the crossing of the town’s two primary roads–and is now the site of The Carolina Inn. The town is centered on Franklin Street, named for Benjamin Franklin, and contains several districts and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally developed along a hill, Chapel Hill has established itself surrounding The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has a very large presence here. In 1819, the town was actually founded to serve the University of North Carolina.
In 1969, a year after the city fully integrated its schools, Chapel Hill elected Howard Lee as mayor. It was the first majority-white municipality in the South to elect an African-American mayor. Serving from 1969 to 1975, Lee helped establish Chapel Hill Transit, the town’s bus system. Some 30 years later, in 2002, the state passed legislation to provide free service to all riders on local buses. The bus operations are funded through Chapel Hill and Carrboro town taxes, federal grants, and UNC student tuition. The change has resulted in a large increase in ridership, taking many cars off the roads. Several hybrid and articulated buses have been added recently. All buses carry GPS transmitters to report their location in real-time to a tracking web site. Buses can also transport bicycles and have wheelchair lifts.
In 1993, the town celebrated its bicentennial and founded the Chapel Hill Museum. This cultural community resource “exhibiting the character and characters of Chapel Hill, North Carolina” includes among its permanent exhibits Alexander Julian, History of the Chapel Hill Fire Department, Chapel Hill’s 1914 Fire Truck, The James Taylor Story, Farmer/James Pottery, and The Paul Green Legacy.
For more than 30 years, Chapel Hill has sponsored the annual street fair, Festifall, in October. The fair offers booths to artists, crafters, nonprofits, and food vendors. Performance space is also available for musicians, martial artists, and other groups. The fair is attended by tens of thousands each year. Several free walking tours and guided tours are available.
Chapel Hill’s sister city is Ecuador Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal (Galápagos, Ecuador).
Won Buddhist Temple
Before you head into Chapel Hill proper, stop by the Won Buddhist Temple for a little peace in your life. Beside the beautiful Far Eastern architecture building, you’ll find a meditation garden. Take some time to peacefully sit and contemplate amongst the beautiful plants, paths, and water features. And if they are having a service while you’re there, you may be welcome to attend. Just be sure to remove your shoes upon entering the building and refrain from speaking or only communicate in a quite whisper. They have YouTube livestreams and Zoom gatherings as well as early morning indoor meditations plus other workshops, retreats, and outdoor meditations. Everyone is welcome!
P.S. The temple is right down the road from Hartleyhenge in Calvander (both are on the same side of the street). Both structures were built by John Hartley. See the Orange County blog for more details.
Chapel Hill, NC, is all about Carolina Blue! Chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly on December 11, 1789, the University of North Carolina’s cornerstone was laid on October 12, 1793, near the ruins of a chapel, chosen due to its central location within the state. Beginning instruction of undergraduates in 1795, UNC is the oldest public/state university in the United States and the only one to award degrees in the 18th century.
Influences of the university are seen throughout the town, even in the fire departments. Each fire station in Chapel Hill has a fire engine (numbers 31, 32, 33, 34, and 35) that is Carolina blue. These engines are also decorated with different UNC decals, including a firefighter Rameses, which is the school mascot. The Old Well is UNC’s most recognized–and most photographed–landmark.
Be sure to stop by The Morehead Planetarium at UNC (250 E. Franklin St.), opened in 1949, which is one of only a handful of planetariums in the nation, and it has remained an important town landmark for Chapel Hill. During the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, astronauts were trained here!
The Morehead Planetarium was the first planetarium built on a U.S. college campus and continues to show in their Fulldome Theater. When it opened in 1949, it was one of six planetariums in the nation and has remained an important town landmark. One of the town’s hallmark features is the giant sundial, located in the rose gardens in front of the planetarium on Franklin Street.
Chapel Hill is also a treasure trove of public art wall murals, many of them painted by UNC alumnus and artist Michael Brown.
Greetings from Chapel Hill
One of the most photographed pieces in Chapel Hill, this public art wall mural might be a little hard to find. The “Greetings from Chapel Hill” mural is located on the back side of He’s Not Here, along Rosemary Street. Depicting a 1941 postcard by German illustrator Curt Teich, this mural was created by Scott Nurkin, who graduated from UNC with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and was once Michael Brown’s intern. While facing the mural, turn around and looking diagonally in the opposite direction and you’ll see the Sea Turtles mural.
Considered one of Michael Brown’s best known and most popular murals is “Sea Turtles,” painted on the corner of Columbia Street and East Rosemary Streets. The mural was originally painted in 1993 and was restored in 2011 with the help of funds raised by Sadie Rapp.
Be sure to stop and admire this work of art before or after you head to the Visitors Bureau at 501 West Franklin Street. It’s located in their back parking lot. This is another one of Michael Brown’s more recent murals, finished in 2011.
P.S. There’s another cute little mural across the adjacent parking lot, so this visit is a two-fer.
The Blue Mural
This was Michael Brown’s first painted mural, completed in 1989 and the first one restored by the Painted Walls Project in 2009. Michael had so many volunteers to help paint this mural that he gave everyone paintbrushes of the same size, and “The Blue Mural” was painted in the pointillist style (dots) so that the mural would have a uniform look. You can find it at 109 East Franklin Street, visible from the parking lot on the corner of Columbia Street and Rosemary Street. When facing The Blue Mural, look directly to your left and you’ll see the next mural.
Walking Up the Wall
Painted in 1996, “Walking Up the Wall” is a wonderful optical illusion. The number of people painted into the mural at 100 East Rosemary Street relates to every donation that was received to bring this piece of art to completion. (It was difficult to get a good photo of this mural due to the construction happening in front of it at the time.)
Paint By Numbers
Located on the side of Pantana Bob’s on Rosemary Street, this was the last mural Michael Brown painted during the 18 years of the Mural Project. He painted figures that represent the many student volunteers that Michael had worked with over the years. He designed the mural, which kind of looks like a work in progress, to show the “paint-by-numbers” process he used for many of his pieces.
Sutton’s Drug Store
Suttons Drug Store is a local icon that’s been around for decades, since 1923. It’s a Chapel Hill tradition. While dining, you can view all the photos on the walls and hanging from the ceilings. While the pharmacy is no longer in operation to the public (since the local CVS came along), you can still find all of the old fashioned staples and hot off the grill eats that attract new Tar Heels and keep customers coming back year after year, plus flavored sodas and milkshakes. (I was told, however, that there is a pharmacist that still comes in once a week to service employees.)
Carolina Coffee Shop
Another local icon, you’ll find the markings Est. 1922 on the front of the Carolina Coffee Shop. It’s even older than Sutton’s and holds the title of the oldest continually running restaurant in North Carolina. It’s easy to find, just look for the Parade of Humanity mural at Port Hole Alley on East Franklin Street. Don’t let the year distort your idea of the menu – they serve modern southern cuisine, a full bar of cocktails, and weekend brunch.
Top of the Hill Restaurant
Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery (or TOPO), aka the social crossroads of Chapel Hill, is the place to be during basketball season; particularly a UNC vs. Duke game or better yet, a championship game where you’ll find a trail of people camping out the night before just for a seat in the outdoor patio. It’s a perfect view of the thousands and thousands of people that rush to the intersection of Franklin and Columbia after a Tar Heel victory. And if you’re into craft brews, you’ll be interested to know they use locally sources ingredients and are the eighth oldest surviving brewery in the state and developer of over eighty different acclaimed varieties since 1996 and many award-winning beers.
You can get a bird’s-eye, panoramic view of Chapel Hill at this hot spot, must-eat-at restaurant in Chapel Hill that overlooks the city streets. Eat inside or on the outdoor patio with a beautiful view below.
Peruse through five acres of luxuriously landscaped gardens on UNC’s campus showcasing more than 500 flora and fauna specimens since 1903. The garden’s prominent features include a cascading stream and a 300-foot native vine arbor. It is free to walk through, and free guided tours are offered on the third Saturday at 11am, March-November.
This is the second castle in NC that this travel blogger has visited. (See the Person County blog for details on Castle Mont Rouge in Rougemont, NC.) The legend of Gimghoul Castle has long been a source of mystery, rumor, and curiosity for students and locals alike. Located at 705 Gimghoul Road in Chapel Hill, Gimghoul Castle was formerly known as Hippol Castle. Castle construction was accomplished at an exorbitant cost of $50,000 and took more than five years. The castle is thought to be haunted by the ghost of Peter Dromgoole, who died in a duel over his love for a local girl named Fanny. The castle has also been associated with a secret society known as the Order of the Gimghoul, which was founded in 1889 by noted UNC alumni.
Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower
Amidst well-kept hedges and a grassy lawn, the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower is a 172-foot-tall functioning bell tower located on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. The tower boasts an observation tower at the top (though not available for viewing), a conical spire structure, and a Roman numeral clock on each of the four sides of the tower. The surrounding grounds were designed by University botany professor William Chambers Coker, who also designed the Coker Arboretum on campus (see below). The tower is one of the most visible landmarks on campus.
The belfry originally began with 12 manually operated bells in 1931 and is currently equipped with 14 mechanized bells with the addition of 2 bells in 1998. The names of prominent figures in the University history, Governor John Motley Morehead and William Lenoir, are inscribed on the two largest bells. The bells ring every 15 minutes, chiming on the hour. In addition, the bells play other songs or the alma mater as part of University celebrations or holidays.
The idea of erecting a bell tower on the University of North Carolina campus was originally suggested by John Motley Morehead III in the 1920s, but it was denied several times by the University because of conflicts regarding the location. When the idea was finally approved, construction began with the funding of two sponsors: Morehead and Rufus Lenoir Patterson II. It shares a resemblance to the North Carolina State University (NC State) bell tower that was initially built to commemorate the NC State alumni that fell during World War I.
Head football coach Mack Brown started the tradition of lighting the bell tower blue after every Tar Heel victory.
Merritt’s Store & Grill
Do you love bacon? Who doesn’t??? Merritt’s has the hands-down reputation for the most delicious BLTs–and BBBLTs—and other bacon-related food fare–all loaded up with bacon and the freshest lettuce and tomatoes. Yum! This bacon lover couldn’t wait to eat there. There is a small amount of indoor seating for non-pandemic days. But most everyone eats out front under the umbrellas or out back surrounded by bamboo. But be careful… it comes up quick around a curve with fast-moving traffic that goes by. If you miss it, just turn around… and don’t run over the median.
P.S. You can call your order in ahead of time, but their service is pretty quick.
NC Botanical Garden
On your way out of Chapel Hill, head South on 15-501 from University Place to 100 Old Mason Farm Rd. to see one of the largest native plant botanical gardens in the Southeast. The scenery and native landscapes of The North Carolina Botanical Garden creates a stunning stage for art in media ranging from steel to ceramic to glass. Each year, the Garden hosts a show of local artists, around 30, that showcase their pieces, around 50, magnificently curated throughout the garden. Free guided tours are available at 10am on the first Saturday of each month.
Lavender Oaks Farm
“Fragrant fields in a timeless setting, far away in a nearby place.” Owned by Robert and Karen Macdonald (yes, the Macdonalds), Lavender Oaks Farm (3833 Millard Whitley Rd.) is an isle of quiet tranquility not far outside of bustling Chapel Hill. Stop here to pick your own lavender from rows and rows of 15 varietals. You’ll also love the adorable gift shop with loads of lavender gifts: lotions, sachets, candles, soaps, and much more. They do host weddings and events here. And they are gearing up for 2022 with a big musical and entertainment event. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram for updates.
Maple View Ice Cream & Country Store
Top off your day with a few scoops! On the outskirts of Chapel Hill, Maple View Ice Cream & Country Store, with its wrap around porch, rocking chairs, and farm acreage views has the most delicious, creamy, award winning ice cream. The flavors change with the season and are as wholesome as the Holstein milking cows across the street at Maple View Farm. No worries if you’re a true chocolate, vanilla and strawberry kind of person, they serve those flavors plus favorites like butter pecan, and cookies and cream all year ‘round.
Next up… Catawba County!