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Roofs with a view: Downtown rooftop bars offer sips and scenery

The July 4 fireworks have come and gone, yet we’re still weeks away from sweltering August humidity. That means there’s still time to milk every pleasantly warm evening hour: it’s rooftop bar season.

We take you on a tour of the four Durham rooftops in preparation for a fifth, The Lenny, coming in fall 2024. This restaurant will sit alongside its peers in the center of downtown Durham, with a nice view over the Durham Bulls stadium to rival that of Tobacco Road. Four is not as limited as it sounds. It turns out this selection has you covered for whatever your plan is—be it girls night, first date, pool day, or watch party.

If you park your car in The Chapel Hill Street Garage, the pedestrian exit spits you out straight in front of The Velvet Hippo Bar & Lounge.

A peek inside Velvet Hippo Bar & Lounge.

The threshold of the Velvet Hippo is like a portal; from the street, getting to the bar feels a bit more like going to a doctor’s office than going to a bar. Nestled on the top floor of a nondescript office building, the bar’s presence is indicated by a small sign on the building’s front door: “The Velvet Hippo.” You wander up past the therapist chairs on the second floor to an empty open room on the third. At the Hippo’s doorway, though, you’re transported somewhere else. 

The brightly colored interior has a fantastic flair, but we’re here for the outside. For big groups and fair weather nights, that’s where you want to be. It’s not the most spectacular view, but the vibes after dark are well worth the trip. With warm fairy lights strung around, the best view is actually from the center of the patio, unless brutalist architecture is your thing. There, you get lively rooftop bar energy and fresh air without the direct view of a parking garage.

It’s a social midpoint, designed to fit everyone’s needs. Boasting a great cocktail, mocktail, and small snack menu, The Velvet Hippo has options for you, your sober friend, and your perpetually hungry friend.

From there, if you walk around the corner you’ll find yourself at the front door of The Durham Hotel.

Looking out over downtown from the roof of The Durham Hotel. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

This rooftop view might be my favorite of all. The Durham skyline has its charm, but it’s no major metropolitan. If you squint your eyes and turn your head, or just look behind the rows of tables, you’ll catch a view of practically uninterrupted greenery. That’s what I come here for. It’s peaceful, and the ideal spot to watch the sunset.

Unlike some bars, this one is designed for groups big and small: you can opt for wide casual couch seating to pack in a dozen friends or a quiet two-person table close to the bar. It’s definitely a place to drink and socialize; the food menu is limited (though it has expanded recently) and the nonalcoholic drinks aren’t even on the main menu. 

Nonetheless, I’d bring both my mom and my girls for a night here. I could spend an afternoon and stay far after it’s dark. It’s classy enough to impress, fun enough for friends, and the most versatile location on the list.

If you look down and to the left from the roof of The Durham Hotel, you’re staring straight into the next spot: The Patio at Unscripted Durham.

The Patio at Unscripted Durham on a quiet afternoon.

This stop on the journey was an unexpected delight. Don’t let the gaudy bright colors throw you off; this is the perfect weekend pause on these beautiful sunny days. Of all the spots on this list, the Unscripted is your daytime spot. Practically all-day pool, bar, and kitchen —what else do you need?

The view is admittedly not as good as what you’ll get at The Durham Hotel, but this rooftop gets you just high enough off the ground that you forget where you are for a moment. Transporting you to a mid-week coast-side vacation, you feel like you could be in any beach town in America.

A moment must also be given for the service here: the bartender joined in on our gossip, kept our drinks refreshingly full, and the food was a pleasant surprise. A day would be well spent gallivanting between the pool, sun chairs, and bar, especially if you don’t have a pool at home.

When you lean over the railing at the Unscripted, you can trace the long street down to Tobacco Road Sports Cafe, our final stop and an eight-minute walk away.

The patio at Tobacco Road Sports Cafe, overlooking Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

Tobacco Road makes our list on a technicality: it’s more of an outdoor patio than a rooftop bar, but the view overlooking Durham Bulls Athletic Park is its saving grace. With a beer and a hefty platter of bar food in hand, these are handily some of the best—and highest—seats in the house.

Even on a night when the Bulls are not playing, the outdoor seating fills first. On game nights it’s even better. It’s the epitome of a sports bar: loud and gregarious, with walls decked in TVs playing every major sport. It’s the kind of spot to bring the whole friend group to goof around. With no look or age to the crowd on the patio, it’s a good time for all.

Unlike the other three, Tobacco Road is a full-time restaurant, not just a bar with light snacks.  The offerings are mostly American, but the menu offers up enough options for every palate to find something. You can easily hunker down for the whole game: no need to bring your own snacks or cough up for egregious stadium prices. I don’t go to Tobacco Road for the food, though — I go for the vibes and the view and stay for a bite.

Tobacco Road will soon be competing for the title of best stadium view. Across the way at 555 Mangum, a new rooftop will be opening up: The Lenny, expected in fall 2024. Still a few months away, its menu remains a mystery, but we know to expect drinks and shareable bites. Count me in for cocktails and tapas.

Pictured above: The view from the rooftop of The Durham. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal