Mention the town’s name to a resident of the Triangle—the three city educational and cultural powerhouse of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—and you’re likely to elicit a sincere response of “Oh, I love Carrboro.” In a region of North Carolina that has become known for its revitalized food, beer, and entertainment scene, this little burgh of 20,000 residents has managed to carve out its own identity. With bike lanes and paths leading two-wheeled commuters everywhere, hiking paths just a few miles from downtown, and an adventure outfitter with 25 years of service, Carrboro is a great town for anyone who likes to spend some time outside. Flavored by its small town heritage and fueled by its metropolitan neighbors, Carrboro packs a whole lot in it’s very walkable, 6.5 square miles. Here are some recommendations for the perfect weekend of outdoor fun and adventure in this great city.
Start Off Right
With so many universities nearby, it’s no surprise that Carrboro harbors several cool and crafty coffee shops. The Looking Glass Café , with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating plus a great menu is good choice for a coffee and breakfast. Since you can’t get much fresher than a shop that roasts its own beans, Jessee’s Coffee is a perfect pick for their robust and varied varietals. Keeping a breakfast and brunch menu going throughout the day means you can always get a great snack or sandwich at Jesse’s.
Among the quirkiest of these caffeine purveyors is Johnny’s Gone Fishing, or just Johnny’s as it's referred to by the locals. Creaky wood floors and bead board everything else tell the history of a space dating back to the 1930's. Originally a bait and tackle shop, hence the name, Johnny’s has been able to retain the charm and familiarity of a local gathering spot. Cozy seating includes comfy little nooks, tables ready for work, and an open outdoor space that’s part relaxing patio and part playground. Coffees chosen for balanced flavor from several growing regions fill actual ceramic mugs. Latte’s with flavors like peanut butter cup and salted caramel round out a drink menu ready for just about any taste. For something even sweeter, Johnny’s scoops Tarheel Creamery Ice Cream and mixes up several flavors of shakes. Local goods—diary products, fresh eggs, and more—and a list of bakery items, paninis, and biscuits fill shelves and bellies at Johnny’s.
Weaver Street Market and Café is one of these fantastic small town finds we all wish was around the corner from our home. Part grocery store and part café, this eclectic spot is a great place for a cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast. The cafeteria style hot and cold food islands hold all sorts of morning staples like scrambled eggs, french toast, and potatoes plus a whole load of fresh bakery items. Keeping true to its local co-op mission, the market and café offers aisles full of local grocery items to suit all sorts of diets. Grab a plate full and head outside to one of the picnic tables. Each Sunday the Market hosts a free jazz concert on the front lawn.
Hit the Trail
The central piedmont of North Carolina is known for its rolling hills and deep, dense forests of pine and hardwoods. Several parks near Carrboro have protected these natural places—offering a quick escape or a full day adventure in the woods.
A favorite of Townsend Bertram & Company, Carrboro's long-standing outdoor retailer, the trails at Eno River State Park follow the swift waters of the Eno River. At times the trail system, a nearly 30-mile network, winds its way up and down steep bluffs or ambles more gently near a rocky stream bed. Passing through tunnels of flowering rhododendron, past fragrant dogwoods, and beneath towering poplar trees with their brilliant fall foliage. There are five entry points to Eno River State Park with the most elevation changes near the Fews Ford access. Hiking the 3.75-mile Cox Mountain Loop Trail means first a quick descent to the river and swinging pedestrian bridge before climbing several hundred feet back up the opposite bank. For a more gentle grade that follows the river, begin at the Cole Mill Access and walk to Bobbit’s hole. The 18-foot “hole” retains a bit of mystery in its origin but is a great swimming spot in warmer months.
A little closer to downtown, the Carolina North Forest trails are a pleasant ramble through a managed research forest. Dozens of miles of path—ranging from wide, gravel road to tight, almost imperceptible single track—create a web of loops throughout the forest. Expect to see turtles making their way across the natural path and hear hawks call from huge pine trees overhead. The tightly packed trails are easy to get lost on, but never fear, keep strolling and it won’t be long before you’re back on one of the main, gravel roads. Sitting at the northern edge of town, this is an extremely convenient getaway for Carrboro’s hikers, bikers, and trail runners.
Where to Grab Lunch
Whether it’s for a quick bite before heading back for more exploring or a relaxing meal with a cool beer, the laid back atmosphere of Carrboro’s many eateries will fit the bill. A stop in Neal’s Deli for lunch nets ham biscuits or over-stuffed sandwiches and homemade soups served counter-service style. And whether you visit Milltown for an afternoon salad or super-hardy plate of poutine or sausages, plan on staying for a couple cold ones. They have an incredible selection of local brews and hard to find beers from around the world.
For an ultra-hip and easy going lunch spot, it’s hard to beat the Spotted Dog. The low-key and well-rounded menu offers a fantastic selection of gluten free and vegetarian dishes as well as plenty of mainstays for the meat eater. Their lighthearted approach to dining is evident in dish names such as Puppy Caio, a Mediterranean style dip, and Fido’s Fries, beer battered fries topped with cheese and bacon. With puppy themed decorations dominating inside and a small seating area outside, the Spotted Dog makes the entire experience fun.
Fueled by the cultural centers nearby and its small town, agricultural roots, a weekend in Carrboro means music and markets. Several restaurants and bars keep full schedules touting local music.
Every Saturday the Town Commons comes alive with dozens of growers and makers at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. Coming from no further than 50 miles, every item is ultra-local. The smell of freshly baked sourdough intermingles with the aroma of locally roasted coffee. Chapel Hill Creamery hands out samples of Carolina Moon—an ultra-smooth and creamy Camembert style cheese. Vendors offer everything from meats and veggies to handmade soaps and candles. The market, in its 37th year, is always hopping. Parking can be slim and may require a short walk of a couple blocks. While Carrboro is a very dog friendly town, they ask that pups sit this event out. The market operates every Saturday morning year-round and on Wednesday nights seasonally.
The center of the music scene in Carrboro is the nationally recognized Cat’s Cradle. From the outside, the front facing façade of the 750-person venue belies what’s inside. Located at the end of a strip mall, a very cool one shared with Yesteryears Brewery and Fleet Feet running store, the Cat’s Cradle doesn’t stand out against its neighbors. But the music that has been produced over its 40-year history is astounding. Nirvana, John Mayer, and Iggy Pop have all made appearances at the Cradle. Every week the calendar is filled with local, regional, and national acts. The no frills space offers a connection from artist to audience that is missed in much larger venues. Besides the location on Main Street, the team at the Cat’s Cradle is involved in producing shows all over Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and beyond.
And in speaking of the artistry of Carrboro, it would be remiss to not mention the Carrboro Arts Center. Not only do they instruct a new generation of visual and performing artists, but hold regular performances in Carrboro as well.
Post-Adventure Bites and Brews
It’s not your typical small town food scene in Carrboro. The farm-to-fork focus pervades every creation from beer to burritos without big city pretention. Dining in a rail car at Southern Rail reminds visitors of the town’s locomotive history. The Venable Bistro serves next level comfort food ranging from quality standards to the unexpected. Banh-Mi sandwiches share menu space with burgers built around local grass-fed beef. Baby back ribs and fried chicken or udon noodles? Venable’s menu expresses a large comfort zone. For a lighter bite right next door, the B-Side , a creation by the same owners as Venable, offers craft beer, wines on tap, and an excellent list of mixed drinks along with small plates and tapas.
There is one restaurant in particular, however, that seems to epitomize all that’s great about Carrboro. The simple name, Acme Food and Beverage Company, doesn’t shout great dining. And the slogan, Damn Good Food, is as straight forward as the small town itself. The reality behind the chef-owned, locally-focused eatery is much more intricate. The atmosphere is upscale with subtle lighting inside. Like most of Carrboro, outdoor seating is offered and preferred. Decorated with huge-leafed plants and a bubbling water feature, the secluded patio has an almost tropical but cozy feel. The cuisine is high-end-southern. Think pan of dense, sweet cornbread and fried green tomatoes sitting beside roasted duck breast or pork chop cooked ala cast iron skillet. Desserts should be considered, particularly the chocolate bourbon pecan pie.
While Acme offers a solid list of craft beers, sometimes it’s best to go right to the source. Steel String Brewing is one of the newest entries in the growing Carrboro craft beer scene and sits just a few easy steps from Acme (everything is close in Carrboro) and is conveniently adjacent to the upscale wine bar Glass Half Full. Steel String pours a full range of styles, including the full bodied, roasted cocoa Neutral Porter and the lightly citrus but floral Big Man IPA. A growing list of well-received experimental brews finds its way to the chalkboard menu each week as well. The large tasting room is a comfortable place to meet after a day on the trail to soak up some local music.
Where to Get a Good Night's Sleep
If, after a full day of food, music, beer, and hiking you’re ready for a convenient place to crash, the Hampton Inn downtown is very clean, modern, and super convenient. But for a little Carrboro flair in your accommodations, consider renting the fully furnished apartment above Johnny’s (yes, that Johnny’s). Functional and cozy with hardwood floors and the same “they knew how to build ‘em back then” feel as the downstairs coffee shop, the affordable space sleeps four and is a mile from everything downtown Carrboro. Or, even better, it's a few steps from great coffee and the local sundries available at Johnny’s.