When we first arrived in Kinston during a day trip from the Triangle, 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 visit more locally-owned businesses.
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 and why this place is on our NC Bucket List!
Things to Do in Kinston During Your Weekend
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. And beyond that wonderful TV show, 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.
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
The Chef and the Farmer
Eating in Kinston is an experience just in itself. Whether you’re in town to eat at Vivian Howard’s upscale Chef and The Farmer or kicking back with some of the best barbecue in Kinston at King’s Restaurant, there are plenty of ways to fill your belly.
From the famed PBS show, A Chef’s Life, Vivian Howard, and her restaurants gained quite a bit of notoriety.
Chef and the Farmer uses local ingredients in ways you would never expect. Howard’s second Kinston restaurant, Boiler Room, is a place where families can slurp down delicious fresh seafood with home-made saltines but with enough options for everyone in the whole family.
There are plenty of other options outside of Vivian Howard’s restaurants because after all, there are three square meals a day! Hop over to Sugar Hill Pizzeria for authentic New York-style pies or a made from scratch soup and sandwich at Queen Street Deli.
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.
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.