When we first arrived in Kinston, we knew we were coming to the land of Mother Earth Brewing and Vivian Howard. But beyond those two town heavyweights, we were excited to explore this awesome small town. And not just because we started our days in a colorful retro motor lodge. We also dug into the awesome Kinston food scene, learned about its Civil War history, and explored the arts, but that’s just the beginning. All these fun things to do in Kinston (and more) are a big reason why we’ll be back to this wonderful spot in Eastern North Carolina. In case you’re still curious, read on to see why you should head here for your next weekend out!
Things to Do in Kinston During Your Weekend
Special thanks to Visit Kinston for hosting us, providing complimentary accommodations, admission, and meals throughout our stay. All opinions within this article are our own.
Understand Kinston’s History
Recent Heyday and Decline
In the 1970s, Kinston was the place to be. Known as the “Magic Mile,” Carolinians came from all over to shop and eat. They’d also boogie to the hottest musical acts inside Sugar Hill. And rumor has it that Kinston sold more records per capita than anywhere in the US in the 1960s. Kinston was also a major agricultural provider and distributor of Bright Leaf Tobacco. However, by the ‘90s, jobs were outsourced, youth were drawn to city life, and Neuse River flood threats left Downtown Kinston nearly abandoned. The town had to reinvent itself, and the community was not willing to let their beautiful slice of North Carolina slip away.
A lot of folks will credit A Chef’s Life, which highlights Vivian Howard and her family’s adventure in building a successful restaurant. She has done so much for the community and the people of Kinston are clearly grateful. But the community itself deserves a share of the credit for Kinston’s resurgence with new and familiar food favorites, history, and especially the arts. Put all of this together and Kinston today has more things to do and places to eat than it did during its tobacco days heyday! Here are a few of them, beginning with a couple of awesome Kinston hotels.
Stay in a Locally Owned Hotel
Another person who deserves some credit for Kinston’s revival is Stephen Hill. In case you don’t know his name, you’ll likely know his Mother Earth Brewing. He’s also the driving force behind two incredible places to stay in Kinston. If you’re seeking a luxury experience, step into The O’Neil. This eccentric boutique hotel was once a bank and was built in 1924. Upon entering the lobby, you will immediately notice the 16-ton vault door which now serves as the refreshment center for guests to enjoy coffee, tea, cookies, and, of course, free Mother Earth beer.
Mother Earth Motor Lodge
Hill’s second guest experience takes us to Mother Earth Motor Lodge, a refurbished motel with a retro Miami vibe to maintain the building’s history. Back in Kinston’s thriving days, the hotel was known as Kinston’s Mid-Town Motor Lodge and was always packed. Today, it’s listed as a National Historic Building and reviving the good ole’ days with bright colors, mini-golf, shuffleboard, and a three-ring pool in the center.
The Motor Lodge’s location also wins since it’s within walking distance of most of the things to do in Kinston’s downtown. Check into one of their 45 rooms, purchase a Mother Earth beer from the front desk, and spend a couple of hours lazing around the pool as we did!
Stroll Around Downtown
And after you get settled into your place, spend some time strolling around downtown Kinston. It’s the perfect way to get started. We got to know those streets very well on our morning stroller runs and afternoon walks. And if you’re in for a full weekend, keep in mind that most businesses downtown are closed or open later on Sundays, so plan accordingly! Honestly, I think the quietness of Sunday mornings adds to the charm and hope that doesn’t change.
Arts and Cultural District & smART
Spend some time walking through Mitchelltown Historic District, which is an area filled with brightly painted Victorian cottages and majestic homes. The colorful houses and white picket fences are a part of smART Kinston, another Stephen Hill-founded project charged with the mission to transform abandoned historic buildings into studios and housing for artists. smART is also committed to building Kinston and Lenoir County’s creative economy. And through a collaboration between residents, artists, the Kinston Community Council for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council and other agencies, smART has rehabilitated 50-plus homes. Currently, 25 artists have relocated to Kinston to live and create. Make sure to stop in the smART Gallery on Queen Street to see the resident artists work!
Visit NC’s Largest Public Art Trail
The cooperative has also led to painted murals and crafted sculptures all around downtown, making it the largest public art trail in North Carolina. Stroll along the Riverwalk or wander Blount Street and see Kinston’s renaissance in progress. Don’t miss the “Flue” at Tobacco Square, a Thomas Sayre sculpture of earth-cast tobacco rows commemorating Kinston’s tobacco history and bridging the modern rebirth of the arts. Grab a coffee from Middle Grounds and enjoy the beautiful sculptures and public art in this beautiful community.
Community Council for the Arts
You can also step inside the 30,000 square feet of the Community Council for the Arts, which brings art to an accessible place for Kinston residents and visitors. One-third of the refurbished warehouse houses visual art with exhibits changing every six to eight weeks. As many as 300 works are displayed at any given time and the CCA currently has the largest public collection of 2D and 3D art in North Carolina. The CCA’s spaces also host workshops for children and serve as a venue for community events.
And for more art galleries, don’t forget about Art 105 on W Blount St. You’ll find artists on the job working in a variety of mediums. They also have plenty of finished work on display for you to peruse and most likely, take home.
African American Music Trail
Located at Spring Hill and South Queen street is the Sugar Hill district of Kinston once hosted some of music’s biggest names. And further, did you know that five of the members of James Brown’s band were from Kinston? Musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Nathaniel “Nat” Jones all played in Sugar Hill at one time. Today, The Kinston Music Park sits as a commemorative gathering place to celebrate the rich African American musical heritage of Eastern North Carolina. The park includes giant sculptures, beautiful tile mosaics, and concrete-etched lyrics.
Neuseway Nature Park
You can easily spend an entire weekend of interactive play and learning for children and adults of all ages at the Neuseway Nature Park. Explore the trails in the park, go fishing, or rent a canoe for the day! Inside the Neuseway Nature Center, learn about plants and animals native to North Carolina. Crawl through 22 feet of giant intestines and learn about health and science with hands-on exhibits at the Neuseway Health & Science Museum. Oh, and don’t forget about the daily shows available in the Neuseway Planetarium.
Neuse Sports Shop
And if you forgot something for your outdoor adventure, browse the racks at Neuse Sport Shop in Frenchman’s Creek. You can lock and load in one of their indoor firearm training facility’s eight fixed-position shooting stalls. You could also channel your inner Katniss Everdeen at the indoor archery training range. This place is a big part of the community and truly a destination in itself. You’ll see tons of billboards advertising Neuse as you approach Kinston.
Caswell No. 1 Fire Station Museum
A fire in 1895 destroyed most of downtown Kinston. The Caswell No. 1 Fire Station was constructed afterward and today, it remains the town’s oldest brick building and serves as a museum. Admission inside is free on Saturdays and there, you can browse photos of the historic fire and vintage and antique fire-fighting equipment.
Lenoir County Farmers Market
There’s nothing better than buying fresh produce and you can do that at the Lenoir County Farmers Market along the Neuse River. The open-air market brings together area farmers and artisans. We hear you can sometimes rub elbows with Vivian Howard, who we’ll be mentioning in more detail shortly! The farmers market is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm and only on Saturdays in the winter.
CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center
Civil War history also lives on in Kinston, considering the ironclad gunship named CSS Neuse has occupied the town since it was burned in 1865. For nearly 100 years, it was preserved by the Neuse River, with private recovery efforts beginning in the early 1960s. Since 2012, it has lived on North Queen St in the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center, which opened to the public in 2015. Here, you can see the ship’s remnants, view tons of ship artifacts, and learn about it and the area through permanent exhibits.
CSS Neuse II
And if you want to see what the ship was like before it burned, check out the CSS Neuse II. This unique replica was built following the ship’s original plans and is open to the public from 10 am to 4 pm on Saturdays. You can tour at other times and even bring groups along. Check here for more info.
Eat at these Awesome Restaurants in Kinston
These are just a few of Kinston’s awesome restaurants. Stay tuned, because we’ll be focusing more on the town’s food scene and remember, this is a growing list.
The Chef and the Farmer
You might have seen the PBS show A Chef’s Life and gotten to know Vivian Howard and her masterpiece The Chef and the Farmer there. Or maybe you’re a major foodie and recognize her cookbooks. Beyond all the fame, Howard is a renowned James Beard-recognized chef whose roots run deep in the Kinston area.
With Lenoir County rich in produce, Howard wanted to support the community and bring her culinary creativity to the Southern-style cooking that she grew up with. With everything as locally sourced as possible and prepared to order, we hope you’re lucky enough to enjoy a meal at Chef and the Farmer. It is truly a restaurant worth visiting if you had to choose one in North Carolina.
Lovick’s Cafe is a Lenoir County institution, serving up affordable quick bites to downtown Kinston since 1941. Their original location sat between two tobacco warehouses and was the perfect location for farmers to stop while selling their crops in town. The Doughburger is their best-known thing to eat and for good reason. This delicious sandwich was made as a result of the meat rationing during World War II. Another bonus to eating at Lovick’s is to look around and notice the smiles on everyone’s faces. Whether eating with family or seeing an old friend who came to town, people here just seem happy here when enjoying their delicious plate of breakfast or lunch!
Vivian Howard’s second Kinston restaurant, Boiler Room, is located down an alleyway which you’ll find by their fluorescent sign outside. Kinston’s proximity to the coast makes Boiler Room a great spot to slurp down fresh seafood. Howard’s inspiration behind this place came from being dragged around Eastern Carolina’s oyster bars with her parents as a child. She sat there as they slurped oysters, slaw, and saltines and she grumbled that there wasn’t anything for her to eat. The Boiler Room fixes that problem for future mini Vivian Howards with a kids menu! Beyond that, the serve fresh North Carolina and Chesapeake Bay oysters alongside house-made saltines, burgers, and salads.
Hawk’s Nest Cafe & General Store
Hawk’s Nest is on the corner of Queen Street and sits inside a building that served as an important milestone in civil rights activity. While Greensboro’s Woolworth lunch counter sit-in on February 1, 1960 gets more press, Standard Drug #2 (now Hawk’s Nest) saw the second non-violent demonstration. And as a result, Standard Drug #2 became the first eating establishment in Kinston to offer non-segregated dining and even hired African Americans to work. Today, Hawk’s Nest honors that history with the original bar stools, tin ceiling, and delicious home-cooked food. In the back of the restaurant, you’ll find carefully curated North Carolina made products. Make sure to ask to sample some jelly with your biscuit because it is delicious!
Queen Street Deli
Wholesome and delicious is exactly what you’ll find at Queen Street Deli every Monday to Friday. Open since 2011, Queen Street features freshly made from scratch soups and side items using only the best ingredients. In addition to delicious deli sandwiches, Queen Street Deli also offers breakfast, take-out dinner choices, and freezer items. Don’t skip out on dessert because Queen Street’s cookies are made with in-house ground flour and hand-flaked oats. And trust me, you really can taste the difference!
The Mad Hatter
Grab a delicious gourmet burger or wrap from The Mad Hatter on W North Street! Serving up “All American” grub, The Mad Hatter is owned by the same people who brought Sugar Hill Pizzeria and The Inside Scoop to Kinston—also two places to visit for food in Kinston. You’ll probably notice various album artwork and concert posters as you walk in. That’s because the Moores and the Elmores are big music fans. For further proof of that, the owners named this establishment after Tom Petty’s role as the Mad Hatter in “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” We absolutely loved the Fiesta Burger topped with queso, pico de gallo, and tortilla strips!
With over three generations of deliciousness behind it, King’s Restaurant ensures you’ll oink your love for barbecue. Frank King first opened up in 1936 as a country store and filling station outside of his farm to supplement his income. And today, it’s owned by community icon Joe Hargitt, filling bellies in four locations across Lenoir and Greene Counties. We’ve visited their US Highway 70 spot a couple of times. There, you’ll find a buffet on one side and an eat-in room in the front. Be sure to arrive early before all the tables fill up because they will! We recommend getting their Pig in a Puppy, which is juicy Eastern barbecue between two slices of a massive hushpuppy. And if you’re feeling really homesick for North Carolina’s best barbecue, King’s ships with their Oink Express delivery service!
We also included King’s among our favorite places to eat barbecue in North Carolina!
Visit Mother Earth Brewery
To Stephen Hill and his son-in-law Trent Mooring, Kinston is home. And with Kinston’s roots in agriculture, both Hill and Mooring wanted to bring something to the town when it was searching for a new identity. Their goal was to make great beer brewed close to nature. Mother Earth strives for sustainable practices and was named the first LEED-certified brewery in the US. Their taproom is 100 percent solar-powered and even uses that solar energy to heat water during the brewing process. The facility is insulated with recycled blue jean fibers, has a rainwater barrel for the green spaces and toilets, and a bio diesel-fueled Brew Bus. Those are just a few of the other examples of Mother Earth’s environmental consciousness.
Drink Mother Earth Beer
But above all, visit for their incredible beer! This place is one of our favorites in all of North Carolina for a reason. They push the envelope with insanely delicious flavors (note the Tomato Cream Ale pictured). Carl’s personal favorite was Mother Earth’s Long Weekend IPA, but that could change as more seasonal varieties come out. Stop by the taproom and find out for yourself. Just don’t forget to grab a six-pack to go before you leave!
Seasonal Things to Do in Kinston
Watch Baseball at Grainger Stadium
Grainger Stadium has hosted baseball going back to 1949 and since 2017, the Carolina League’s Down East Wood Ducks have called it home. From April to August (and September for playoffs), Wood Ducks games bring in folks from all over the community. They’re a relatively new team to the Class A-Advanced Carolina League. Even so, the Wood Ducks have already produced players who’ve made it to the Big Leagues.
Lions Water Adventure Park
I mean, who doesn’t love a waterpark?! Open seasonally from Memorial Day to Labor Day, you can cool off at Lions Water Adventure! At this place, there’s plenty of wet water fun for an entire day. Float down the lazy river with buckets and sprayers, swim laps, and scream your way down all three water slides. There’s even a 5,000 square-foot Kiddo Lagoon perfect for your little travelers.
Why We’ll Be Back
Kinstonians are working hard every day to bring the town back to the Magic Mile days. While there are still a few abandoned storefronts, the occupied buildings are full of creativity and perseverance. The community has truly worked together to make Kinston the travel-worthy destination that it is today. And when you visit, you’ll see this through all the great places to explore downtown and beyond. We did and will be back for more because this might just be our new favorite spot for a weekend between Central NC and the coast.