An idyllic and unabashedly liberal university town prized for its delightful and highly walkable downtown, Chapel Hill - especially its lively West End - buzzes with nationally acclaimed dining, indie shopping, and eclectic nightlife. The city has a population of 58,000, more than half of whom are students at prestigious University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which is notable for its many historic buildings and a uniformly attractive and well planned appearance.
Chapel Hill is the smallest component of North Carolina's intellectually endowed "Research Triangle" - it's 30 miles west of Raleigh and 12 miles southwest of Durham, and each September it takes an active part in the region's North Carolina Gay Pride festival (the date this year is Sept. 24, 2011). Chapel Hill is also very close to one of the most charming and liberal towns in the state, Carrboro, which became the first community in North Carolina to elect an openly gay mayor (Mike Nelson, in 1995), and also the first to extend domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples. It's worth noting that Chapel Hill was the state's first town to elect an openly gay council member, and its town council was first in the state to favor repealing of the NC Defense of Marriage Act.
Most of Chapel Hill's key attractions are on the campus of UNC. These include the Morehead Planetarium, the impressive Ackland Art Museum, the Wilson Library (with its engrossing special collections on rare books, Southern folklife, and North Carolina history), and the lush and stunningly laid-out North Carolina Botanical Garden.
For a small city, Chapel Hill receives an unusual amount of attention for its stellar restaurant scene, with long-time favorite Crooks Corner among the longtime culinary stars. This restaurant specializing in contemporary Southern fare is along Franklin Street, which is home to a number of fine eateries. Foodies should also stop by Weathervane, which is situated inside the fabulous Southern Season gourmet market - the market also has a terrific cooking school. Also worth trying are Mint, for creative and contemporary Indian cuisine; the stylish Asian-Fusion eatery Lantern, and romantic 411 West for first-rate Italian food and wood-fire pizzas - and that's just scratching the surface.
For first-rate coffee, beer, wine, and baked goods - and great people-watching - pay a visit to Caffe Driade, one of the favorite hangouts in town among GLBT locals and visitors. The neighboring town of Carrboro also has a number of super eateries, among them the convivial, veggie-friendly Spotted Dog, the progressive co-op and bakery Weaver Street Market, and the Belgian-inspired beer hall and frites joint Milltown.
In the absence of specific gay bars, consider that most of the restaurants noted above also have lively bar scenes and pull in a good mix of gays and straights. There are also several popular gay bars in the nearby cities of Durham and Raleigh. In Carrboro, the justly famous Cat's Cradle books first-rate musicians, including many with queer followings, throughout the year - Melissa Ferrick, the Indigo Girls, the Gossip, and Pink Martini have all performed here. It's Chapel Hill spinoff, the Nightlight Club, is another cool mixed gay/straight venue that's fun for catching live shows, and Carrboro's Open Eye Cafe is a wonderful, gay-friendly spot for fine coffee, drinks, art shows, music, and mingling.
There are several distinctive, gay-friendly hotels and inns here, including the beautiful Siena Hotel, a handsomely designed boutique property with decor and a design inspired by the aesthetic of Siena, Italy. Rooms are spacious with warm colors and fabrics. The on-site restaurant, Il Palio, serves fine Italian fare. The swanky and beautifully furnished Franklin Hotel is an easy walk from campus and many of the best restaurants in town - rooms have a modern, airy feel. Adjacent to campus and with a rich history and an elegant design, the Carolina Inn has been Chapel Hill's most prestigious place to stay since it opened in 1924. Afternoon tea at the hotel is a longtime tradition, and the tasteful guest rooms emphasize locally crafted furniture and sustainable materials.
For more on the area, visit the excellent gay visitor site produced by the area's official tourism organization, the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.