By Laurie Paolicelli
Since its founding in 1789, Chapel Hill has rightly been known as the “University Town”. For generations, the truth has been that Chapel Hill would not exist without the University.
But all of that is changing. Although UNC is still one of the best universities in the country and about a third of the city’s population is enrolled there, it is no longer “just” a university town. Especially for families with small children, this area now has another side that is worth exploring.
First, where to stay when visiting? As the holidays get closer and we prepare to see more friends and family visiting, 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 food market, a gelato shop, miles of hiking trails, and in the summer, movies on the lawn under the stars.
Residence Inn – Free breakfast, pool, pet friendly, pool table and affordable rates. Bonus: It has apartment-style suites with kitchens.
True – Breakfast, pet friendly, games room (foosball tables) and affordable prices.
There are more family-friendly restaurants in Chapel Hill and Carrboro than 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 restaurants like IP3 and Suttons. Aimed at families with young children, Top of the Hill offers chicken fingers, burgers, and a selection of sandwiches. Mama Dip’s Kitchen on historic Rosemary Street offers traditional Southern cuisine including chicken and gravy, cornbread and cabbage.
Kid-centric activities abound, and some of them are absolutely free. Here are some of our favourites:
Kidzu Children’s Museum is located in the (former) University Mall which means parking is easy. Interactive play in many forms for toddlers through tweens, with multiple stations designed to engage children in experiencing the world around them. Through January 8, 2023, Kidzu welcomes The Questioneers touring exhibit based on the book series written by Andrea Beaty. Check out Kidzu and its offerings online. Bonus: A pizzeria is just around the corner.
The North Carolina Botanical Garden is beautiful and the perfect place for a family on a nice day. One section is called the Children’s Wonder Garden, and it offers hands-on opportunities to explore the garden’s wildlife and habitats, 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 has been expanded to include many areas of science.
In the city center, look at the mirrors in front of the Ackland Art Museum. The museum says: “pARC is conceived as an open-ended spatial gesture that comes to life when people engage with it. pARC designed the Urban Conga to inspire a variety of playing styles; From constructive play to fantasy play, the installation is a transformative community platform for all users to engage with space, the museum and the university in new ways.”
Carolina Basketball Museum: Yes, most kids want to see the Michael Jordan jersey and shoes and learn more about basketball hoops on the mound. Located on the first floor of the Ernie Williamson Athletic Center, the museum celebrates the rich history of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball program. Admission to the museum is free.
Across town, the ArtsCenter offers classes, concerts, plays and performances year-round, including the music of the Holiday Circle Show in December. Be sure to bring the family to see Luna’s Magic Flute on January 8, 2023 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. In this family-friendly program, audiences are taken on a journey with Luna as she encounters a galloping pony, a swimming turtle and other creatures, including a ferocious dragon! First performance is 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.; The second performance is from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
For those so inclined, the Chapel Hill Community Center has a climbing wall that offers climbers of all skill levels the opportunity to practice and train with other local climbers. There are about 50 different routes to choose from, ranging from beginner to expert. And Hank Anderson Park in Carrboro is one of the most popular spots for disc golf, a fishing pond, hiking trail and gazebo.
Finally, as the holidays approach, families have several parades to choose from. Chapel Hill/Carrboro Holiday Community Parade on December 3rd 10:30am – 12:30pm Hillsborough Light Up the Night Holiday Parade December 4th 4:00pm and many events at the Carolina Inn including:
- Holiday markets: November 27, December 4 or December 18 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
- Brunch with Santa: December 3rd, 4th, 10th, 11th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd at 10:00 & 12:30
- The Gingerbread Build: December 3rd, 10th, 20th, 21st, 22nd at 2:00 p.m
Hanukkah 2022 begins on the evening of Sunday, December 18th and ends on the evening of Monday, December 26th. A list of local activities can be found here: https://kehillahsynagogue.org/practice/holidays
Taken together, it’s clear that Chapel Hill is more than just the best college town in the world; It’s also the perfect family town.
Laurie Paolicelli is executive director of the Chapel Hill, Orange County Visitors Bureau.