Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a place full of places. The history of the town, founded in 1783, is inextricably tied to that of the country’s first public university and the flagship university of the state of North Carolina.
Such a close association between a university and the town it resides in is evident as the university carries the name of its locale on its back as an act of homage. Not only do the Tar Heels represent the state of North Carolina, but they also represent the town which brought them together – the place of their gathering – in an equally important manner.
It is truly the University of North Carolina, founded, nourished, and experienced in no place other than Chapel Hill. The boundaries between the two are seamless, developing organically over the past 200 years, and forming a town-and-gown relationship united by an everlasting commitment to the pursuit of the public good.
There are many notable public spaces and places created along the way of this centuries-old, collective journey. Each vary in their methods of leaving a warm impression on its visitors. Here are the top 10 best public places in the Southern Part of Heaven from the eyes of a senior undergraduate.
1. The Pit
The Pit functions as the Times Square of Chapel Hill. Adjacent to two major libraries, the student union, and the bookstore, the Pit is an energetic junction and gathering space central on campus grounds. Among the sea of worn red bricks, overstuffed backpacks, eye-popping posters, and dizzying arrays of free food lies the true meaning of what it means to be a member of the Chapel Hill community: full-fledged engagement in the present. When passing through the Pit, embrace the conversation a hollering club rep will most definitely try to have with you, and eat your messy gyro on a set of low steps with vigor. Life in the Pit moves fast. Don’t let it pass you by.
2. North Carolina Botanical Garden
The North Carolina Botanical Garden is a mature nature preserve located at the base of Laurel Hill Road. The educational purpose of this green oasis is evident through its insightful displays and innovative learning activities. The Garden is magnificently designed to allow for a cohesive experience as you transition between its formally bounded grounds (pictured) and the pristine natural habitat which surrounds it. The Garden’s omnipresent serenity eases the mind and invites you to think and explore with childish wonder.
3. North Graham Street
This eclectic plaza is truly what any small-scale, public-private hybrid space should aspire to be. Nestled between Rosemary and Franklin on the intimate side-street of North Graham is the conglomeration of one of the country’s best burger shacks, a mysterious mobile coffee shop, a fashion-forward thrift boutique, two high-end hair salons, a bar-arcade, and a beer garden. The vitality of this strip is drawn from its inviting outdoor seating which is shared amongst all of the businesses on the street, cultivating an ever-enduring block party vibe. The space encourages cross-pollination between different types of people all brought together under the allegiance to be conversational, kind, and quirky.
4. Carolina Basketball Museum
The accomplishments of the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team cannot be understated, thanks to the inspiring, historical adventure provided by the Carolina Basketball Museum. Located on Skipper Bowles Drive near the Dean E. Smith Center, the museum accentuates the art of sport from the point of view of one of the most esteemed college basketball programs in the NCAA. At this public space, you can encounter people of all ages from near and far, gleefully marveled by the accomplishments reaped through the hard work of some of Carolina’s finest players and coaches.
5. Ackland Art Museum
The Ackland Art Museum’s free admissions and special exhibitions create a barrier-free public art space right off Franklin Street on South Columbia. With over 17,000 works of art featured, be assured that whoever tags along with you on your next spontaneous Franklin Street detour will not be dismayed upon entrance to the Ackland. On your visit, the art will surely entertain, but the assemblage of curious, wandering minds strolling through the free museum will move your mind and heart further than anticipated.
6. Chapel Hill Public Library
Being in the Chapel Hill Library, built on a hill, sometimes feels like studying in a treehouse. The translucent design creates an interior unaccompanied by the gloom and stuffiness which too many libraries fail to shake. Located right near the de facto library of Caribou Coffee on East Franklin Street, this substantial, open-air public space hosts a diverse community of insatiable minds and curious souls. With strong community backing, the Chapel Hill Public Library highlights the significance of public engagement in creating and maintaining accessible public places with dynamic purposes.
7. Kenan Stadium
Kenan Stadium is unique from the rest of the places on this list because its uses come in feast-or-famine bouts. On gameday, 50,000 people pack into the stadium nestled in the pines to watch their Tar Heel gladiators go to war with whoever dared to enter the Chapel Hill town boundaries earlier that day. But outside of those rare moments, waltzing into the stadium, which is regularly open to the public, you’ll find yourself overcome by the massive beauty – and stillness – of the largest public arena Chapel Hill offers. As the bell tower’s ringing subtly echoes through the stadium, a runner punishes themself with bleacher drills while a couple students indulge in some leisure reading with a dramatic view. Kenan Stadium is a boundless public space for big dreamers, on and off gameday.
8. Hooker Fields
Hooker Fields comes in strong as a magnet for the vigorously active looking to get their exercise fix – rain or shine. The stadium lights illuminate the plane of synthetic turf, attracting crowds at all hours of night and day in both organized and spontaneous fashions. The good news: there is always room for one more on Hooker. Access to public restrooms and the widely assorted usage patterns amplify the space’s calling to anyone and everyone looking to break a sweat on their own terms.
9. Bolin Creek Trail
The Bolin Creek Trail functions as an avenue for pedestrians, cyclists, and runners to meander through various parks and places in Chapel Hill. The trail is always bustling – especially on weekends – with a vibrant array of people from all over the Town who are graciously connected and united by the path set out by Chapel Hill’s favorite babbling brook.
10. Carolina North Forest
Carolina North Forest is owned and operated by the university but lies far from campus grounds. With several entrances in the Seawell School area, Carolina North is a highly accessible environmental enclave in the center of Chapel Hill. A vast network of trails summons people on many different missions. It serves as a haven for dog-spotting while simultaneously offering top-notch mountain biking and soft-surface running trails. It is more of a tranquil, active space for the local exercise guru than the unconcealed, chaotic public space that is Hooker Fields. You can truly lose (or find) yourself along one of the winding paths which meander through Carolina North.
Featured image: A giant chess set at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (via North Carolina Botanical Garden)
About the Author: Brandon Tubby is a fourth-year undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in public policy with a minor in urban studies and planning. His research interests include gentrification, complete streets, and sustainable development. Brandon competes for the Tar Heels as a distance runner on the varsity cross country and track teams, specializing in the 1500m run.