20+ Great Things to Do in Jacksonville (+ Our Top 5)

Last Updated on January 12, 2023

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Many folks associate Jacksonville, North Carolina (Onslow County) with Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine base on the US East Coast. And of course, there’s a heavy presence of the first in and last out, and that’s just fine with us, but there are also a lot of fun things to do in Jacksonville.

However, we think Jacksonville is a place for civilians like us, too. At least that’s how we felt after a trip out to this awesome coastal city.

We also quickly learned that there is plenty of stuff to do in Jacksonville, after exploring its food scene, outdoor places to visit, and much more.

In case you’re looking for something specific, here’s how we’ve organized this guide:

You can scroll ahead to one of these sections or keep reading about where to stay in Jacksonville.

Read More: Eastern North Carolina (and 100+ Awesome Places to Visit)

Where is Jacksonville, North Carolina?

Map of North Carolina highlighting Onslow County David Benbennick Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
David Benbennick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Before digging into our favorite activities, it’s important to understand the background of this city and its geography.

Jacksonville is the seat of Onslow County in Eastern North Carolina. The New River is a prominent geographical marker and has been important to this area long before Jacksonville was established.

The coastal town is within a short drive from quite a few small towns and cities in Eastern NC and Central NC.

You can visually travel to Jacksonville and the places mentioned in our North Carolina Travel Map.

Read More: Eastern North Carolina Map (with 300+ Amazing Places Listed)

The History of Jacksonville

  • Before Jacksonville was established, the area that makes up Onslow County was occupied by Native Americans.
  • After the Tuscarora War in the early 1700s, Native Americans were forcibly removed from the area and settlers arrived.
  • Onslow County formed from parts of New Hanover County in 1731.
  • A courthouse was built at Wantland’s Ferry (as Jacksonville was then known) and the first session was held there in 1757.
  • In 1842, the town was authorized as “Jacksonville” to honor President Andrew Jackson.
  • The town’s main industries during its early days were agriculture, tobacco, lumber, and naval stores.
  • During the Civil War, Union Liuetentant William Cushing led a raiding party to capture and occupy Jacksonville.
  • In 1941, the Marine Barracks, New River was established in Jacksonville. It was later renamed Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.

Read More: 125+ Important Facts About North Carolina You Should Know (History, Geography, and More!)

Visiting Today (and Where to Stay in Jacksonville)

Staybridge Suites Jacksonville NC
Staybridge Suites.

Many people come to the Jacksonville area when they are sent to train and serve at Camp Lejeune. The city is also in a sweet spot in Eastern North Carolina, with more than a few fun things to do for R&R.

If you’re seeking more than a day trip, there are quite a few hotels in Jacksonville along Western Boulevard.

  • We were lucky enough to stay at their Hampton Inn & Suites. Honestly, this is our favorite brand in the Hilton family and the Jacksonville location doesn’t let up on the fun vibes and friendly service that they’re known for. Ask for Hampton’s “Waffle Lady” and confirm for us the legend that is Regina, who’ll whip up some pretty amazing waffles along with a big smile.
  • We were also impressed with Hilton Garden Inn, right across the street from Hampton Inn. If you’re lucky enough to book a suite, this place is the one for you.
  • During a more recent stay, we enjoyed a few days at Staybridge Suites. The rooms are spacious and perfect for longterm stays or short ones with families or solo.
  • Other familiar names for your weekend include Courtyard by Marriott.

Read More: 20 Amazing Hotels in North Carolina (+ Inns, Resorts, & Rentals)

Annual Events

Things to Do in NC in November Veterans Tribute Onslow Pow Wow
The Onslow Pow Wow During Veterans Tribute.

No matter when you visit, there are some pretty fun events around the corner. Here are some of the best things to do in Jacksonville by month.

Read More: 60+ Kid-Friendly Events in North Carolina for the Whole Year

Year-Round Things to Do in Jacksonville

Now that you know where to stay and where to eat, here are the best things to do in Jacksonville.

  • Downtown
  • Sturgeon City
  • Lejeune Memorial Gardens
    • Freedom Fountain
    • Beirut Memorial
    • 9/11 Memorial Beam
    • Vietnam Memorial
    • Montford Point Marine Memorial
  • Saigon Sam’s
  • Zing Zumm Children’s Museum

Start Your Journey Downtown

Things to Do in Jacksonville NC Downtown Waterfront Park Image
  • The New River snakes around Downtown Jacksonville and meets Wilson Bay to create beautiful, watery views.
  • You’ll like cruising down Court St or New Bridge St toward the water as we did.
  • We also enjoyed strolling around Riverwalk Crossing Park (421 Court St) along the New.
  • A drive toward Sturgeon City Park led us through one of the most beautiful parts of this area.
Downtown Jacksonville NC Old Train Depot Image
The former train depot in Downtown.
  • An old train depot (421 Court St) sits at the corner of Railroad St and Court St and is nice for some early morning photos. It also serves as the offices for Jacksonville Onslow Economic Development.
  • That last picturesque spot is part of Riverwalk Park, where Jacksonville’s Oktoberfest is held in the fall.

Read More: 50 of the Best Day Trips from Raleigh (Fun Getaways!)

Sturgeon City

Address: 50 Court St

The former Wilson Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant has been repurposed into Sturgeon City, one of the most popular Jacksonville attractions. Outside is an excellent play space for kids with a set of scenic walking paths along the New River.

Inside, the building hosts events throughout the year, with huge spaces available for business conferences and related activities. Public programs held at Sturgeon City include camps, planetarium shows, and more!

Read More: The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (History + How to Visit)

Lejeune Memorial Gardens

Address: 109 Montford Landing Rd

Lejeune Memorial Gardens is a place you must visit when in Jacksonville. It’s filled with powerful representations of those who’ve served and many who died while serving our nation.

There’s even an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor statue that serves as a reminder that more is coming when the future Museum of the Marine is constructed. 

Read More: The NC Museum of History in Raleigh (+7 Things We Love About It!)

Freedom Fountain

Address: 895 New Bridge St

Things to do in Jacksonville NC Freedom Fountain Image

As you drive around Downtown toward the New River, you’ll see Freedom Fountain next to City Hall. It honors everyone who has served and is currently serving in all branches of our military.

50 water jets recognize each state and three flag and fountain jets that feature our local, state, and federal governments. And on most nights, the fountain is lit up with red, white, and blue. 

Beirut Memorial

Jacksonville NC Beirut Memorial Lejeune Memorial Gardens

October 23, 1983, is the reason the Beirut Memorial sits inside Lejeune Memorial Gardens today. On that day, a truck bomb destroyed a Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 220 marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers.

The words “They Came in Peace” are engraved to the right while the names of those who perished form the center of this memorial.

It’s the largest 100 percent privately funded military memorial and was a gift from Onslow County’s citizens. 

9/11 Memorial Beam

911 Monument Lejeune Memorial Gardens Jacksonville NC

Another powerful tribute near the Beirut Memorial is the 9/11 Memorial Beam. It was delivered by NYC police and firefighters to the Marines as appreciation for them being the “first in” to Afghanistan, at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.

This was the first beam that left New York City, as many towns throughout the US now have one. At 8:15 each year on September 11, a ceremony marks the time when the first Twin Tower was hit. 

Vietnam Memorial

Jacksonville NC Lejeune Memorial Gardens Vietnam Memorial Image
The Vietnam Memorial.

And then there’s the Vietnam Memorial, which is the second-largest in the nation, next to the one in Washington, DC. There’s an entry wall with a medallion to recognize each branch of our military and past that, a bridge. Beyond the bridge, there’s a dome, a fountain, and a glass wall.

And on the wall, which circles the dome, names of all 58,229 fallen veterans from the Vietnam War Era. A circle follows some names on the wall to signify them as POW/MIA, and an asterisk next to their names notes that they’ve returned home. 

Read More: 50+ Easy Day Trips from Fayetteville (Great Getaways!)

Montford Point Marine Memorial

Montford Point Marine Memorial Jacksonville NC Lejeune Memorial Gardens

Last but not least, the Montford Point Marine Memorial remembers African-Americans who trained and were segregated from white soldiers, during and after World War II from 1942-49. They trained at Montford Point at Camp Lejeune until 1949 when President Truman integrated the Corps.

When walking through, you’ll notice the wall of stars, of which there are 20,000. Those honor the troops without names because no active roster can be located. There’s even more that makes this one of the most important places to learn about Black history in North Carolina.

Interestingly, the Montford Point Marine Association continues to search for those who served from ’42 to ’49. That way, those veterans can rightly be presented with Congressional Gold Medals.

If you know a Montford Point Marine who hasn’t yet been recognized, visit MontfordPointMarines.org or contact the Montford Point Marine Association by email or call at (610) 608-5786.

Saigon Sam’s

Address: 225 Western Blvd., #A

Saigon Sam’s Military Surplus is another of the many family-owned businesses in Jacksonville.

However, I like to think that Saigon Sam’s would be a nice place for you to visit to find something for your next outdoor trip or to just harken back to days when you possessed a lot of military-issued gear.

There really is a lot here. They sell current stuff like molle gear but also many Vietnam-era goods. You can also buy dog tags, name tape, boots, and much more. 

Read More: Why and How to Support Amazing Local Businesses Every Day

Zing Zumm Children’s Museum

Address: 625 New Bridge St

If you’re traveling with kid(s) like us, spend some time at Zing Zumm Children’s Museum of Jacksonville. Children up to 10 can easily enjoy this place, but we can even see everyone who visits having fun.

Their interactive and unstructured exhibits give kids a chance to play creatively without any specific expectations. Plus, it’s a great spot for little ones to just have some fun! 

Read More: 20+ Amazing Children’s Museums in North Carolina for All

Eat at These Jacksonville Restaurants

Before we share the best things to do in Jacksonville, let’s dig into the amazing eats that you’ll find here.

Grab Coffee and Waffles at the Milk Road

There are some great coffee shops in Jacksonville, NC, especially at the Milk Road (4240 Gum Brand Rd). This veteran-owned shop pours single-origin coffees, and I give bonus points for them having Yirgacheffe on hand.

You can also order one of their Belgian pearl sugar-topped liege waffles, which you’ll have a hard time finding anywhere else in North Carolina. Honestly, stopping there for a nosh and pick-me-up was a great start to our day. 

Breakfast at Kettle Diner

Restaurants in Jacksonville NC Kettle Diner Image

One of our favorite restaurants in Jacksonville was the one that starts so many people’s days there. Kettle Diner (300 Marine Blvd) serves breakfast all day long, including hot and cold sandwiches, salads, and dinner items.

Personally, the Southerner (chicken-fried steak topped with gravy) is the way to go, but you can be you and order whatever you want! They’ll most likely have it.  

Eat at Jeff’s

And you thought we were just going to talk about breakfast and coffee. We couldn’t mention the best Jacksonville restaurants without starting with Jeff’s Burgers, Dogs, and Shakes (2550 Onslow Dr). It’s got that nice old-school diner vibe and according to Christina, a place you’d go in search of a truly good burger.

Enjoy Chef-Prepared Dishes at Duck’s

We got to eat quite a bit at Duck’s Grille and Bar (1207 Gum Branch Rd) and think you should stop by for a meal, too! With lunch, dinner, brunch, and late-night options available, you’ll have plenty of chances to sample from their chef-prepared menu.

I was a big fan of their Pepper-Seared Tuna and Low Country Shrimp & Grits that was available during brunch. If you’ve been to Duck’s, what do you like to order? 

Dig Into Cuisine from Near and Far

Restaurants in Jacksonville NC Marrakech Image
Please eat at Marrakech. Your belly will thank you.
  • In Jacksonville, you can go Southern with some delicious barbecue at Thig’s (1722 Catherine Lake Rd) or Mission (1638 Western Blvd), and that’s fine if you want to do that. But thanks to tens of thousands of Marines being on base, there’s a huge and diverse population to feed.
Jacksonville NC Restaurants Mi Cabana
Chimichangas at Mi Cabana.

So many restaurants in Jacksonville to cater to various palettes. Here area few of them:

Read More: Amazing Restaurants in Jacksonville, NC and Onslow County

The Best Things to Do in Jacksonville (Our Top 5)

We made some tough decisions when picking our favorite things to do in Jacksonville. Nevertheless, here’s what we think are the best of the best:

  1. Lejeune Memorial Gardens
  2. Sturgeon City
  3. ELJ Christmas Town
  4. Veterans Tribute
  5. Kettle Diner

Ready to Dig into these Great Things to Do in Jacksonville?

There are so many fun things to do in Jacksonville.

This place has it all, including a wealth of military history memorials, outdoor fun, amazing food, and so much more.

I can’t wait to return to this awesome coastal spot and hope you get to visit soon, too!

If you’ve been to Jacksonville, where do you like going? For those who haven’t made it yet, what’s the first thing about this place that stands out to you?

If you have any questions or comments about these or any other things to do in Jacksonville, let us know below or send us an email. Don’t forget to share your Jacksonville NC adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.

Things to Do Near Jacksonville

Jacksonville NC Things to Do Drive to Topsail Island Image
Topsail is within 45 minutes. #JustSaying

Being between Wilmington and New Bern, there are lots of places you can explore near Jacksonville during your weekend.

Read More: 15 of the Best Topsail Island Restaurants (Great Food for All!)

Mike’s Farm

Things to Do Around Jacksonville NC Mikes Farm Restaurant Image

In nearby Beulaville (shared by Onslow and Duplin counties), Mike’s Farm puts on dinner shows, which are a hot ticket if you’ve never been to one.

We enjoyed walking around and our little one loved chatting with the goats, chickens, peacocks, and all the other animals on the farm.

There’s also a bakery on-site and I can’t wait to go back for more cheese danish and jam samples before buying as many jars as our fridge would hold.  

Read More: Christmas in North Carolina (14 Holiday Events, Lights, and More!)

Swansboro

Historic Downtown Swansboro is about a half-hour drive from Jacksonville, truly a testament to small-town NC, and absolutely worth a weekend visit. Take a walk down Front St and check out all the fun places to shop—many open at 10 am on weekends.

African-American Heritage Trail

Something else to make your list of things to do in Jacksonville is the African-American Heritage Trail that you can follow. It commemorates the difference made by Onslow County’s African-American community.

Important points along the way include Verona Loop National Cemetery, the aforementioned Montford Point Marine Museum, and the Onslow County Museum. 

Hammocks Beach State Park

Hammocks Beach State Park

Hammocks Beach State Park is about a 10-minute drive from Swansboro and a visit there is one of our favorite weekend things to do when in Jacksonville. 

There’s a nice visitor center to get you started with guides and advice on what to do. You’ll also notice an area filled with interactive exhibits on the geography and animals native to NC’s barrier islands.

If you want to get out on the water, Paddle NC is just outside the Visitor’s Center and ready to help. You can rent single and tandem kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes from them.

I loved having a couple of hours going solo on the Intracoastal Waterway and Queen’s Creek.

Things to Do in Jacksonville NC Hammocks Beach State Park Paddle NC Image

Note for paddling: I wore Teva sandals while in the boat but noticed more folks wearing closed-toe shoes. That will help if you flip your boat and accidentally step on an oyster bed.

Don’t forget to load up on Earth-friendly sunscreen (especially on the tops of your knees) and insect repellent when you’re out there. That last bit is common knowledge anywhere in the outdoors but just thought the friendly reminder would help.

Read More: How to Explore the NC Oyster Trail (10+ Adventurous Ways!)

Bonus Hammocks Beach State Park Fun: Bear Island

Things to Do in Jacksonville NC Bear Island Hammocks Beach State Park

We’ve saved the best things to do in Jacksonville’s surroundings for last and anyone who’s ever visited Bear Island will agree. The State Park Ferry typically runs from April through the end of October, barring any unforeseen circumstances or weather issues.

The state park-managed island is where you’ll find some of the most untapped beaches, home to countless shells, and great primitive camping spots.

You can also reach the island by private boat, including Marsh Cruises, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

Read More: 20+ of the Best Beaches in North Carolina (+ Our Personal Tips)

Walton’s Distillery

About 15 minutes from Downtown, Walton’s Distillery (261 Ben Williams Rd) is a great spot for a tour and a tasting. It’s a family-owned and operated business, which is another reason why it’s featured among our favorite Jacksonville NC attractions.

But also, they offer good moonshine and whiskey for you to sip and buy.

I was particularly fond of Mag Walton’s Salted Caramel Moonshine and Junior Walton’s Pine Shine Colada. However, I’ll let you discover for yourself. Tours run every 30 minutes from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm every day except for Sunday. 

Read More: 20 Spirit-Filled North Carolina Distilleries, Liquor History, and What to Sip! 

More Things to Do in Jacksonville (and Onslow County)

We’ve created many more NC travel guides that cover things to do in Jacksonville and beyond! Here are a few of them.

2 thoughts on “20+ Great Things to Do in Jacksonville (+ Our Top 5)”

  1. Thank you Carl for the wonderful bit of information. My husband and I are retiring to Jacksonville in just 10 days. WE bought a house and go to closing on the 16th. I am excited to explore the area. It will be new to me, but not my husband he is a retired Marine. I am a retired special education teacher. Your blog just gave me so many things I desire to experience.

    Reply
  2. If you always wanted to act or your here when the Legacy Theater Company is putting on one of their amazing shows. It definitely a don’t miss stop. Community theater at its best!

    Reply

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