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Sprawling in the heart of North Carolina's Piedmont, the Research Triangle is a metro area of about two million people. Largely suburban in nature, the Triangle is unique for a metro area in that, rather than having one primary city at its center, the region's focus is split between three cities: Raleigh, the state capital; Durham, a former industrial center, and Chapel Hill, a prominent college town.
The region derives its name from the major research universities in each of the Triangle's three cities as well as the vast office park that sits between these cities and is home to many research and high tech firms. These industries have spurred the rapid economic growth of the region. Visitors will find scenic college campuses, many of the state's cultural institutions, and a diverse population drawn by the Triangle's academic institutions and relatively high standard of living.
The main three cities that make up the "Triangle" are:
- Chapel Hill - A lovely college town based around the University of North Carolina, with college basketball, live music venues, and a beautiful campus.
- Durham - Once the center of tobacco country, now home to Duke University, a vibrant arts scene, and a revitalizing downtown district.
- Raleigh - The state capital, with many of the state's cultural institutions.
In addition, there are a few small towns around the region that have become suburbs of the metro area:
- Apex - An expanding suburb near the Research Triangle Park.
- Cary - A sprawling, fast-growing suburb south of Raleigh.
- Fuquay-Varina - A town south of Raleigh, now a growing suburb.
- Hillsborough - A historic settlement west of Durham that's home to arts and music festivals.
- Zebulon - A suburb located to the east of Raleigh.
Raleigh-Durham International Airport (IATA: RDU) is the main airport for the region, located at the center of the metro area near the Research Triangle Park, just off I-40. RDU has two terminals; Terminal 1 services budget carriers Southwest and AirTran, while the more modern and architecturally impressive Terminal 2 services American Airlines/American Eagle, Delta, JetBlue, United and US Airways. A large rental car facility is located on-site. Public transit bus service is offered by Triangle Transit route #100, which runs between Raleigh and a transit center in the Research Triangle Park.
- Interstate 40 cuts east-west through the Triangle, passing through Raleigh and the Research Triangle Park and along the outskirts of Durham and Chapel Hill, continuing west to Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Asheville, and east to Wilmington.
- Interstates 85 and 95 run north-south through the area, providing easy access to the region from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. I-85 passes through Durham, continuing north to Petersburg, Virginia (where it terminates at I-95) and west, merging with I-40 to Greensboro before splitting off to Charlotte. I-95 doesn't serve the Triangle directly, but rather skirts the eastern edge of it, where you can take I-40, US-64, US-70, or US-264 into the Triangle.
- US-1, the East Coast corridor route, cuts through Raleigh on its way from New York to the Florida Keys.
Amtrak serves the Triangle with three routes: the Piedmont runs twice-daily to Charlotte, a trip of just over three hours, serving Raleigh, Cary, and Durham. The Carolinian runs once a day between Charlotte and the Eastern Seaboard, serving the same stops as the Piedmont, while the once-daily Silver Star stops in Cary and Raleigh on its way between New York City and Florida.
Given the very spread-out and suburban nature of the Triangle, driving is easily the most convenient way to get around. Interstate 40 is the main east-west corridor that links up the main cities of the Triangle, passing through Raleigh, the Research Triangle Park, and past RDU airport and Chapel Hill. The Durham Freeway (NC 147) links the Research Triangle Park and I-40 to Durham, while US-15/501 connects Durham to Chapel Hill. There are also two loop freeways circling Raleigh and serving many of the suburbs: I-440 circles the central portion of Raleigh proper, while I-540 traverses much of the suburban fringe north of Raleigh before heading south to the Research Triangle Park. South of the RTP, I-540 becomes a state-run toll freeway for the stretch around Cary south to Apex.
Each of the main cities operates a local bus service. Regional service is provided by Triangle Transit, which operates all-day service Monday-Sunday (no service during certain holidays) between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, operating out of a hub in the Research Triangle Park. Fares cost $2.25 per trip, with $4.50 for a day pass.
One of the best things to see in the Triangle are the beautiful campuses of the several universities in the area: Duke University in Durham, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill are the most prominent, with scenic campuses of historic architecture and beautiful gardens. Duke's campus is particularly scenic, with Gothic-style architecture (most notably a cathedral-like structure at the center of the west campus) and a fantastic public garden. UNC's main campus has plenty of colonial-style brick buildings surrounding a lush, tree-lined quad, with a lovely arboretum and a botanical garden also on campus.
There are also many prominent art and culture museums in the area. Downtown Raleigh's capitol complex is home to the historic State Capitol, which is open for tours, and the NC Museum of History and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, both of which have free admission. Elsewhere in Raleigh is another state museum, the NC Museum of Art. In Durham, on the campus of Duke University, is the Nasher Museum of Art, which plays host to some world-class art. There are also a couple of children's museums: the Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh and the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.
With the many universities in the area, it should come as no surprise that college sports are a big deal here. The Duke Blue Devils, the North Carolina Tar Heels, and (to a lesser extent) the NC State Wolfpack all have fiercely loyal fan bases, with immensely popular football and basketball programs. The Carolina-Duke rivalry is particularly fierce, with two of the most well-regarded basketball programs in the country. Non-college sports teams in the area include the popular Durham Bulls minor league baseball team and Raleigh's Carolina Hurricanes NHL hockey team.
There are many excellent performing arts spaces in the Triangle, hosting a lively theater scene. The lion's share of these are located in Durham, which is home to the prominent Durham Performing Arts Center, the historic Carolina Theatre, and a number of small, independent local theaters. Downtown Raleigh is home to the state-run Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, which plays host to the state ballet, opera, and symphony.