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, but that’s just fine with us. 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 are plenty of weekend things to do in Jacksonville, after exploring their food scene, outdoor fun spots, and much more.
Weekend Things to Do in Jacksonville NC
Grab Coffee and Waffles at the Milk Road
There are some great coffee shops all around, 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
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.
Start Your Journey Downtown
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 along the New. A drive toward Sturgeon City Park led us through one of the most beautiful parts of this area. An old train depot sits at the corner of Railroad St and Court St, and is nice for some early morning photos.
That last picturesque spot is part of Riverwalk Park, where Jacksonville’s Oktoberfest is held in the fall. In case you want to come then or at another specific time of year, check Visit Jacksonville’s site for event info.
Lejeune Memorial Gardens
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.
As you drive through 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.
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
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.
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, fountain and glass wall. And on the wall, which circles the dome, the 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.
Montford Point Marine Memorial
Last but not least, the Montford Point Marine Memorial remembers African-Americans who trained, 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.
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 congressional gold medals. If you know a Montford Point Marine who hasn’t yet been recognized, contact the Montford Point Marine Association.
African-American Heritage Trail
Something else to make your “weekend things to do in Jacksonville” list 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.
Zing Zum at the Children’s Museum
If you’re traveling with kid(s) like us, spend some time at Zing Zumm Children’s Museum of Jacksonville (625 New Bridge St). 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 creatively play without any specific expectations. Plus, it’s a great spot for little ones to just have some fun!
Eat a Paul Parker at Jeff’s
And you thought we were just going to talk 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. For me, I ordered a “Paul Parker,” which is literally pork on top of pork. For those keeping score, it comes with pork tenderloin that’s covered with grill-fried cheddar cheese and bacon. Go for it if you love yourself!
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?
Sip at 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 weekend things to do. 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 on every day except for Sunday.
We also included Walton’s among our favorite North Carolina distilleries!
Dig Into Cuisine from Near and Far
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. And that’s why there are so many restaurants in Jacksonville to cater to various palettes. And those in search of Mediterranean food (Marrakesh, 409 Western Blvd), Colombian (Liliana’s, 4075 Gum Branch Rd), and even Caribbean (Elsa’s Place, 610 Court St) will come away very happy.
Stay In Style
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 the 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.
Shop and Peruse at Saigon Sam’s
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.
Use Jacksonville as Your Coastal Travel Base
Being between Wilmington and New Bern, there are lots of places you can explore near Jacksonville during your weekend. Topsail Island, which we love on both the sound and sea sides, is about 45 minutes to an hour away. You’re also not far from Morehead City, which we love for its cool digs and for Atlantic Beach. Another spot within 45 minutes is Croatan National Forest, home to some beautiful views of the Neuse River and some great hikes (Neusiok for the win!).
Got any more places to visit near Jacksonville that you’d like to share? We’d love to know about them!
Check Out a Show (and Animals) at Mikes Farm
In nearby Duplin County’s Beulaville, Mike’s Farm puts on dinner shows three times a year, 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.
Dine, Shop, and Chill in 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. Then, go grab a cup of coffee or glass of wine for views from Bake Bottle and Brew’s waterside balcony. Don’t forget to explore all the sweets available at Candy Edventure. In the middle of your fun day, grab some delicious food at Swansboro Food & Beverage Co.
Get Outside at 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’s 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.
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. Oh, and 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.
Bonus Hammocks Fun: Bear Island
Florence destroyed the dock from Hammocks Beach, but we’re hopeful that the ferry to Bear Island will resume (tentative July 1 reopening). That way, more people will get to enjoy some of the best primitive camping spots you’ll find on the coast. You can still reach the island by private boat, but we’ll keep tabs on the public boat option. You can, too, via this NC State Parks page.
Our Thoughts and Yours, Too!
Does it ever end? Honestly, I had to stop at these 20 weekend things to do in Jacksonville, or else my head was going to spin. 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 weekend things to do in Jacksonville, let us know below.
Special thanks to the Jacksonville Tourism Development Authority for providing us with complimentary accommodations, admission, and meals throughout our stay. All opinions within this article are our own.