By Laurie Paolicelli
Since its inception in 1789, Chapel Hill has been known as a “college town,” and justifiably so. For generations, it’s been a truth that without the university Chapel Hill would not exist at all.
But all that is changing. While UNC is still one of the best colleges in the country, and about a third of the town’s population is enrolled there, it’s no longer “just” a college town. Especially for families with young children, this area now has another side to it very much worth exploring.
First, where to stay when you visit? As the holidays approach and we get ready to see more visiting friends and family, here are a few budget friendly suggestions:
Hyatt Southern Village includes free breakfast, pool, it’s pet friendly, and has affordable rates. Bonus: It’s walking distance to a natural foods market, a gelato shop, miles and miles of hiking trails, and, in the summer, movies on the lawn beneath the stars.
Residence Inn – Free breakfast, pool, pet friendly, pool table, and affordable rates. Bonus: It features apartment-like suites complete with kitchens.
Tru – Breakfast, Pet Friendly, Game Room (foosball tables), and affordable rates.
There are more family-friendly restaurants in Chapel Hill and Carrboro than there are championship banners hanging from the rafters of the Dean Dome. A partial list includes everything from Al’s Burgers to Breadman’s, Sup Dogs, Sunrise Biscuits, Carrburitos, and downtown eateries such as IP3 and Suttons. Top of the Hill caters to families with small children, offering chicken fingers, burgers, and a variety of sandwiches. Mama Dip’s Kitchen on historic Rosemary Street offers traditional southern cooking including chicken and gravy, cornbread, and collards.
Kid-centric activities are in great supply, and some of them are absolutely free. Here are some of our favorites:
Kidzu Children’s Museum is located inside the (former) University Mall, which means parking is easy. Interactive play in many forms for infants up to tweens, with multiple stations geared to engage children to experience the world around them. Now through January 8, 2023, Kidzu welcomes the traveling exhibit “The Questioneers,” based on the book series, written by Andrea Beaty. Check out Kidzu and its offerings online. Bonus: a pizza shop is right around the corner.
The North Carolina Botanical Garden is beautiful and the perfect spot for a family on a lovely day. One section is called the Children’s Wonder Garden which offers a hands-on ways to explore the wildlife and habitats of the Garden which change seasonally. Admission is free.
Morehead Planetarium and Science Center – The Planetarium is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and offers rotating star shows for a variety of ages and interests. The Science Center was expanded to include many areas of science.
While downtown, check out the Mirrors in Front of the Ackland Art Museum. Says the Museum: “pARC is designed as an open-ended spatial gesture that comes to life when people engage with it. The Urban Conga designed pARC to inspire a variety of ways to play; from constructive play to fantasy play, the installation is a transformative communal platform for all users to engage with the space, the Museum, and the University in new ways.”
Carolina Basketball Museum: Yes, most kids want to see Michael Jordan’s jersey and shoes and learn about hoops on the Hill. The Museum, located on the ground floor of the Ernie Williamson Athletic Center, celebrates the rich history of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball program. Admission to the Museum is free.
On the other end of town the ArtsCenter offers classes, concerts, plays, and performances throughout the year, including music of the Holiday Circle show in December. Be sure to bring the family to see Luna’s Magic Flute on January 8th, 2023, 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm. In this family-friendly program, the audience is taken on a journey with Luna as she encounters a galloping pony, swimming turtle, and other creatures including a fierce dragon! First showing is 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm; Second Showing is 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm.
For those so inclined, The Chapel Hill Community Center features a climbing wall providing opportunities for climbers of all skill levels to train and exercise with other local climbers. There are about 50 different routes to choose, ranging from beginner to expert. And Hank Anderson Park in Carrboro is one of the most popular spots for disc golf, a fishing pond, walking trail, and pavilion.
And, finally, as the holidays approach families will have several parades to choose from. Chapel Hill/Carrboro Holiday Community Parade on December 3rd, 10:30 am – 12:30 pm, Hillsborough Light Up the Night Holiday Parade, December 4th, 4pm, and many events at the Carolina Inn, including:
- Holiday Markets: November 27, December 4 or December 18 from 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm.
- Brunch with Santa: December 3, 4, 10, 11, 20, 21, 22, 23 at 10:00 am & 12:30 pm
- The Gingerbread Build: December 3, 10, 20, 21, 22 at 2:00 pm
Hanukkah 2022 will begin in the evening of Sunday, December 18th and ends in the evening of Monday, December 26th. See a list of local activities here: https://kehillahsynagogue.org/practice/holidays
Taken together it’s clear that Chapel Hill is more than just the best college town on the planet; it’s the perfect family town, too.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.