By Kelly McCall Branson
Featured Photo By Bryan Regan/shutterstock.com
With a population approaching a half-million, Raleigh, the state’s capital, is the second largest city in North Carolina and the largest in the Triangle. And the quality-of-life big picture for Raleigh is indeed a rosy one — an impressive job market, affordable cost of living, outstanding educational options, abundant outdoor spaces and myriad cultural, dining and entertainment choices — it’s no wonder this Triangle city is one of the fastest growing in the nation, attracting more than 1,000 new residents each and every month.
The long list of accolades Raleigh has garnered in recent years tick off just about every box one might have for a great place to live, work, raise a family or retire. Named among the top three Hottest Job Markets in America by the Wall Street Journal, Raleigh has also been rated the number one best city for working women, third on the STEM job growth index and the eighth biggest boomtown in America.
Whatever stage of life you might be in, Raleigh ranks high — among the top ten metros for families with children, best cities for senior citizens, most attractive for millennials, Gen Z hotspots and best places for college students to live. It has been named among the top five of America’s happiest cities and Best U.S. cities for work/life balance. People say Raleigh is the best of both worlds — small enough to be a friendly, affordable hometown, but big enough to have a booming economy and the vibrant energy and diversity of an urban center.
A Capital is Founded
Long before Europeans arrived in America, indigenous nomadic tribes roamed the land that is now Raleigh. The city sits on the border of what were once large Tuscarora and Siouan communities.
By the 1760s, only a few sparse Colonial settlements and plantations could be found in this Piedmont “backcountry.” A courthouse and jail were constructed on a hillside in front of local plantation owner Joel Lane’s residence, along with a tavern and a church. This popular stopover for travelers was called Wake Courthouse or Bloomsbury. (You can visit Joel Lane’s restored home on St. Mary’s Street.)
In 1778, the N.C. Constitutional Convention directed the General Assembly to establish an “unalterable seat of government” in a central location, protected from attacks from the coast, with one stipulation — the location had to be within 10 miles of the legislators’ favorite watering hole, Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, (a historical marker for this site can be found on Wake Forest Road in North Hills).
And so, in 1792, one thousand acres was purchased from Joel Lane, and the new capital was named for Sir Walter Raleigh, sponsor of Roanoke, the “lost colony” on Roanoke Island. Raleigh is one of the few cities in the United States that was planned and built specifically to serve as a state capital. It was surveyed by William Christmas in a grid pattern with the State House at the center, and when completed in 1794, was dubbed a “city of streets without houses.”
The original brick State House was destroyed in a fire in 1831, and today’s State Capitol was built in 1840 out of granite that was quarried in southeast Raleigh and hauled to the site on the horse-drawn Experimental Railroad, the state’s first railway.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
It may have been state government that originally drew folks to Raleigh, but these days, it’s all about the jobs. With more than 20,000 job openings on any given day — many in the high-paying tech sector — Raleigh is definitely one of the nation’s hot spots when it comes to making a decent living. Known for its growing technology and start-up scene, the city has attracted major employers like Apple, which expects to bring 3,000 new jobs, Google, forecasting 1,000 new jobs, and Toyota, looking at adding 1,750 new jobs, just to name a few. And big employers like the State of North Carolina, Wake Med and NC State University help to make this a stable and diverse job market, with abundant higher-than-average salary offerings.
But it’s not just the quantity of well-paying jobs that make Raleigh an attractive market; the city consistently earns high job satisfaction ratings. And beyond being a techie town, Raleigh has been named one of the best cities in the country for creatives too.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the robust jobs climate, Raleigh remains a relatively affordable place to live. Despite the city’s growing popularity, residents are not seeing the sky-high housing prices and overall cost of living that other tech hubs, like San Francisco and Austin, Texas have. In fact, Raleigh is the only major technology city with home prices below the national average — 30% lower. And with lower-than-average utility, transportation and property tax expenses, Raleigh stacks up as one of the best deals going, when it comes to the quality-of-life/cost-of-living equation.
Speaking of homes, those in Raleigh neighborhoods run the gamut from 19th-century cottages to spacious golf-course living, to amenity-rich urban condos to Mid-Century Modern swank to brand new homes in state-of-the-art planned communities.
Raleigh’s urban core has exploded with new construction in recent years, with condos downtown, in the Warehouse District, Glenwood South, along Peace Street and more completed, under construction or on the drawing board. True urban living, virtually nonexistent in Raleigh just a few decades ago, is now a reality for many.
I-440, known to locals as the Beltline, encircles the city’s original center, and “Inside-the-Beltline” includes some of Raleigh’s most sought-after residential areas. Here you’ll find the city’s oldest neighborhood, Historic Oakwood. True to its name, this tree-covered neighborhood, and its surrounding environs, feature homes built in the 1800s — from modest Craftsman bungalows to grand Victorian mansions.
Other pre-World War II neighborhoods in the area include Boylan Heights, Hayes Barton, Mordecai (pronounced mor-de-KEY), Forest Park, University Park and Five Points. Fanning out toward the Beltline are neighborhoods built in the second half of the 20th century where there are homes of just about any size and style, and there’s even new-home construction replacing whole streets.
But there are so many more places to live in Raleigh. Just north of the Beltline, Midtown is experiencing its own urbanization, with several new high-rise buildings and more in the works, surrounded by residential neighborhoods built largely in the 1960s. North Raleigh stretches all the way to Wake Forest and features everything from townhomes to golf course living. Heading northwest, Brier Creek is a more recently developed area of Raleigh with new, innovative planned communities and up-to-the minute amenities.
A City for Learning
Forbes has ranked Raleigh as the second most educated city in America. It is home to an impressive number of institutions of higher learning, including NC State University, Meredith College, St. Augustine College, Peace University, Shaw University, Campbell Law School and Wake Technical Community College.
And the educational opportunities for families with children in Raleigh are equally impressive. The Wake County school system is one of the largest in the country and consistently outperforms schools across the state and nation in end-of-course proficiency tests and SAT scores.
Raleigh is home to numerous magnet schools and several high schools offering the International Baccalaureate program, as well as four early college high schools. There are also 11 charter schools, including the nationally recognized Raleigh Charter High, and more than two dozen private schools in the city.
Of course, great options for working and living and learning aren’t the only vital components of a great hometown — you’ve got to have places to play. When it comes to getting outside, Raleigh’s got the whole play thing covered. Long known as a “city in a park,” Raleigh boasts more than 10,000 acres of parkland and 180 miles of greenway for hiking, biking, paddling, fishing, picnicking, disc golfing, kite flying, sledding or just general outdooring.
The Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department offers a BMX championship caliber racetrack, 112 tennis courts and five public lakes. There are 19 golf courses in Raleigh, and opportunities for action sports abound as well, with skate parks, go-kart tracks and more.
The 164-acre Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park and its trail system welcome visitors through natural areas and boasts more than a dozen commissioned monumental works of outdoor art. (It’s one of the largest public art parks in the country.) Pullen Park, established in 1887, includes a vintage 1911 carousel, a miniature train and paddle boats. The J.C. Raulston Arboretum offers eight acres of spectacular gardens.
Dorothea Dix Park is 308 acres of rolling hills and venerable old shade trees and home to music festivals, winter sledding, outdoor yoga and an off-leash dog park. Umstead State Park is a nearly 5,600-acre oasis featuring extensive hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails, as well as camping, picnicking, canoe rentals and fishing.
And if spectator sports are your jam, Raleigh has ACC basketball and football with the NC State Wolfpack and the Stanley-cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes Hockey team.
Culture and the Arts
For playtime of a more cultured nature, there’s the North Carolina Museum of Art, maintaining one of the premier public art collections in the Southeast, including extensive collections of American, European and ancient art, as well as one of the world’s largest collections of Auguste Rodin sculpture. Established in 1947, the NCMA was the first state-sponsored museum in the nation.
In downtown Raleigh, you’ll find the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (with its spectacular “Terror of the South” dinosaur tower), Marbles Kids Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM)
Raleigh is a hub for performance art as well, with state-of-the-art performance venues like the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, which hosts the NC Symphony, the NC Opera, the NC Theatre, the Carolina Ballet and more on its three stages.
Music, from international stars to local talent, can be enjoyed under the stars at Coastal Credit Union Park at Walnut Creek, Red Hat Amphitheater and the NCMA Park. You can likewise hear big names and new up-and-comers indoors at venues ranging from the 20,000-seat PNC Arena to long-time downtown music haunts like the Lincoln Theatre and the Pour House Music Hall.
Raleigh is host to some impressive and diverse music festivals too. Hopscotch Music Festival, called “the premiere experimental and underground festival in America,” features more than 130 bands over 3 days in venues throughout downtown Raleigh. Dreamville is a multi-day, multi-stage hip hop festival held on the grounds of Dorothea Dix Park. The International World of Bluegrass Festival is a two-day street fair and music event that attracts the very top names in Bluegrass.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Raleigh has more than 1,200 restaurants with menus from just about every culinary school and ethnicity you can think of, from Laotian to Peruvian to classic French to good old Southern barbeque. Numerous chefs and restaurants have been James Beard Award nominees and finalists, including the 2019 Outstanding Chef in the country, Ashley Christensen, whose local dining empire includes Poole’s Diner, famous for its incomparable Macaroni Au Gratin.
The wildly popular Snap Pea hosts popup dinners at unconventional locations like the ruins of St. Agnes Hospital on the St. Augustine campus, or along the dam at Lake Raleigh on NC State’s Centennial campus.
The nightlife scene downtown and on Glenwood South is hopping every weekend. And this city just surpassed Munich, Germany with the largest beer garden in the world, Raleigh Beer Garden, with more than 350 beers on tap. There are almost too many local breweries to count, including standouts, Trophy, Crank Arm, Big Boss, Raleigh Brewing Co. and Lonerider.
Raleigh, it seems, has managed to strike a fine balance between plentiful, well-paying jobs and affordable cost of living, a not-too-big hometown warmth and the diversity and energy of an urban center, skyscrapers and oak trees. Indeed, this “City of Oaks” is a fine place to call home.