Wake County is the largest of the three primary counties both in terms of area and population. Raleigh is the largest city in Wake and the region but Wake has a number of smaller cities including Cary.
35 years ago Cary was a tiny city with a quaint downtown that still exists, but with its proximity to RTP it grew one suburban development and office park at a time into a city much larger than Chapel Hill. In fact, except for the signage, it’s hard to tell these days where Raleigh stops and Cary, Apex, Morrisville, Wake Forest, Zebulon, Youngsville, Rolesville, Clayton, Knightdale or Garner begin.
In spite of all these towns, Wake still has rural areas tied more closely to the agricultural counties to its east than to the high tech atmosphere of RTP. Raleigh, as the state capital, is dominated downtown by state office buildings, museums and of course the lobbyists and lawyers that thrive in that atmosphere.
Memorial Auditorium downtown is an excellent performance venue that was the best in the region but may now have to give up, or at least, share that distinction with the Performing Arts Center in Durham. In spite of its agricultural/land grant origins, NC State is more urban in character than the other two major Triangle universities and sits on the western edge of Raleigh separated from Cary by the State Fairgrounds, Carter-Finley Stadium for Wolfpack football and the RBC Center, home to Wolfpack basketball and the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team, the only major league professional sports franchise in the region. The excellent North Carolina Museum of Art is also a prominent fixture in this area.
Raleigh is circled by I-440, otherwise known as the Beltway. Real estate “inside the Beltway” usually sells at a premium and is where the older more historic neighborhoods are. Much of Raleigh growth in the last few decades has been north of the city stretching all the way to the quaint town of Wake Forest. This was accelerated when I-540 was completed connecting the northern suburbs with the airport, I-40 and RTP.
Wake’s school system is generally considered good although rapid growth is forcing them to adopt a year round school calendar to stretch its capital resources. Unlike most public school systems in the country, North Carolina public school districts do not have the taxing authority to raise revenues themselves and are therefore fiscally dependent on other government entities for funding. About 70% is provided by the state, the rest from Federal sources and local governments. NCReportCards.org is a state sponsored website with information on all the public schools in North Carolina. RTPlinks.com provides links to private schools in the RTP area as well.
In the 80’s and 90’s sections of I-40 were built from Raleigh east to Wilmington on the coast and west linking to southern Durham, Chapel Hill and I-85 heading south and west to Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. I-540 is still being built but currently connects with I-40 near RDU International Airport and funnels commuter traffic from Research Triangle Park to Raleigh’s northern suburbs. Just west of where 540 ties into I-40, another major artery, the Durham Freeway funnels traffic to Downtown Durham and Duke. I mention this only to point out that, although Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill are very different communities, these arteries make access to each other, the three universities, RTP, and the airport relatively easy. If you avoid rush hour, the Forest Hills neighborhood near Durham’s downtown is an easy twenty minute commute via 147 and I-40 to the area around the RBC Center, the Fairgrounds and the North Carolina Museum of Art.