Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on November 7, 2023.
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 many fun things to do in Jacksonville.
In case you’re looking for something specific, here’s how we’ve organized this guide:
- Where is Jacksonville?
- Where to Stay in Jacksonville
- Where to Eat in Jacksonville
- Annual Events
- Year-Round Things to Do in Jacksonville
- Where to Eat
- The Best Things to Do in Jacksonville (Our Top 5)
- Things to Do Near Jacksonville (Hammocks Beach State Park, Swansboro, and More!)
You can scroll ahead to one of these sections or keep reading about where to stay in Jacksonville.
Where is Jacksonville, North Carolina?
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.
- Swansboro (30 minutes)
- New Bern (45 minutes)
- Wilmington (1 hour)
- Fayetteville (2 hours)
- Raleigh (2 hours 15 minutes)
- Durham (2 hours 30 minutes)
You can visually travel to Jacksonville and the places mentioned in our North Carolina Travel Map.
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 was 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 Lieutenant 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.
Visiting Today (and Where to Stay in Jacksonville)
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 several 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.
- 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.
- We’ve also enjoyed a few days at Staybridge Suites. The rooms are spacious and perfect for long-term stays or short ones with families or solo.
- Other familiar names for your weekend include Courtyard by Marriott.
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.
- February: Jazz in the City
- April: FTM Fashion Week (Spring Show)
- May: Jacksonville Jamboree and New River Splash
- July: Running with the Law
- August: Montford Point Marines Day Ceremony and National Night Out
- September: Patriot Day Observance
- October: Oktoberfest and Beirut Memorial Observance
- November: Veterans Tribute Weekend
- November to December: ELJ Farms Christmas Town
- December: Jacksonville Winterfest
Things to Do in Jacksonville This Weekend (and Year-Round!)
Now that you know where to stay and where to eat, here are the best things to do in Jacksonville.
- Sturgeon City
- Lejeune Memorial Gardens
- Freedom Fountain
- Beirut Memorial
- 9/11 Memorial Beam
- Vietnam Memorial
- Montford Point Marine Memorial
- Saigon Sam’s
- Walton’s Distillery
- Zing Zumm Children’s Museum
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 (421 Court St) 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 (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 office for Jacksonville Onslow Economic Development.
- That last picturesque spot is part of Riverwalk Park, where Jacksonville’s Oktoberfest is held in the fall.
Address: 50 Court St, Jacksonville, NC
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 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!
Lejeune Memorial Gardens
Address: 109 Montford Landing Rd, Jacksonville, NC
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.
Address: 895 New Bridge St, Jacksonville, NC
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.
Fifty water jets recognize each state and three flag and fountain jets 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, 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.
Montford Point Marine Memorial
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.
Address: 225 Western Blvd., #A, Jacksonville, NC
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.
Address: 261 Ben Williams Rd, Jacksonville, NC
About 15 minutes from Downtown, Walton’s Distillery 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.
Zing Zumm Children’s Museum
Address: 625 New Bridge St, Jacksonville, NC
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!
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, Jacksonville, NC). 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, Jacksonville, NC) 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, Jacksonville, NC).
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, Jacksonville, NC) 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
- In Jacksonville, you can go Southern with some delicious barbecue at Thig’s (1722 Catherine Lake Rd, Jacksonville, NC) or Mission (1638 Western Blvd, Jacksonville, NC), 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.
So many restaurants in Jacksonville to cater to various palettes and are on the International Food Trail. Here are a few of them:
- Liliana’s (Colombian, 4075 Gum Branch Rd, Jacksonville, NC)
- Mi Cabana (Mexican, 3 Locations)
- 1153 Western Blvd, Jacksonville, NC
- 521 Yopp Rd, Jacksonville, NC
- 135 Glade Ln #1425, Jacksonville, NC
- Marrakesh, (Mediterranean, 409 Western Blvd, Jacksonville, NC)
- Paleteria Deya (Mexican Ice Pops, 224 Brynn Marr Rd, Jacksonville, NC)
- Pho 7 (Vietnamese, 423 Yopp Rd, Jacksonville, NC)
- Pollos Tete (Peruvian, 222 Brynn Marr Rd, Jacksonville, NC)
Things to Do Near Jacksonville NC
- Topsail Island, which we love on both the sound and sea sides, is about 45 minutes to an hour away. Its coastal towns have great restaurants, including North Topsail, Surf City, and Topsail Beach.
- You’re also not far from Morehead City, which we love for its cool digs and access to Atlantic Beach. We love staying at Atlantis Lodge in Atlantic Beach, which is a major reason we consider the town among the best beaches in North Carolina.
- 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!).
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.
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.
- We loved our time in Swansboro and have to mention Saltwater Grill for more eats, as well as Poor Man’s Hole for all the fun stuff you can unearth inside.
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 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.
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.
Bonus Hammocks Beach State Park Fun: Bear Island
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.
The Best Things to Do in Jacksonville NC (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:
- Lejeune Memorial Gardens
- Sturgeon City
- ELJ Christmas Town
- Veterans Tribute
- Kettle Diner
Ready to Dig into these Great Jacksonville NC Things to Do?
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 activities or have questions about what to do in Jacksonville, let us know below in the comments. Don’t forget to share your Jacksonville NC adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.
More Things to Do in Jacksonville NC (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.