11 best things to do in Swansboro

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Swansboro is one of the most scenic destinations on the east coast. When you add its southern charm and hospitality – plus affordability – this makes Swansboro a vacation destination like no other. The small community is bordered by both the White Oak River and the IntraCoastal Waterway, with the Outer Banks Crystal Coast and the Atlantic Ocean just minutes away. It is less than an hour and a half to drive north from Wilmington, North Carolina and less than two and a half hours from Fayetteville and the state capital, Raleigh.

The picturesque seaside village of Swansboro (Swannsborough around 1783), known as the “Friendly City by the Sea”, is like something out of a novel. Indeed, Nicholas did Sparks The guard takes place in Swansboro. With its laid-back, laid-back vibe, Swansboro also earned a spot on the Matador Network’s GO Magazine lists of “The Coolest Cities in America You Should Visit in 2021” and “Top Dock Spots From North Carolina to Florida”.

Surrounded by so much water, it makes sense that early maritime history was based on commercial fishing, shipbuilding, and sea fishing. Popular activities in Swansboro today include going to the beach, fishing, boating, and kayaking. But you can also find golf, hiking, biking, and camping – as well as shopping, history, art, a variety of great restaurants, and much more.

We were having a hard time deciding what to do in Swansboro first and wished we had more time to explore. Here are just a few of the wonderful things to do in charming and historic Swansboro, North Carolina.

Visit Jacksonville, NC and Only in Onslow Tourism provided hosted experiences during our visit. All opinions are my own.

1. Discover Wanderlust (self-guided tour)

Imagine life as it once was in this quiet seaside village. Short narrow streets make strolling through the city a real pleasure. Many of Swansboro’s historic homes and buildings are well preserved. Downtown includes a scenic waterfront, an eclectic mix of quaint shops and restaurants, and green spaces to sit and relax.

In addition to the waterfront and downtown business district, be sure to stroll through some of the nearby historic districts. Cute, well-kept houses and other buildings are marked with a “swan” badge, which shows the original family (or company) and the year of construction. Many are listed on the North Carolina Historical Register.

Pro tip: You may want to make your first stop at the Swansboro Heritage Center (in the old Emmerton School) for information or to download a walking map.

2. Play on the water

Surrounded by water, it’s no wonder that water sports enthusiasts of all kinds flock to Swansboro. I can’t think of a nicer place to go canoeing, kayaking, or stand up paddleboarding. Bring your own or rent one of several outfits including Swansboro paddle boarding, Barrier Island kayaks, or NC paddle to name a few. Many offer guided tours, or you can set out on your own for a few hours or the whole day.

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3. Wind up the big one

Boaters and anglers will enjoy cruising up and down the Intracoastal Waterway and White Oak River. Whether you want to drop a line or just take a cruise, there are several marinas with public docks, boats, and equipment rentals. Local fishing charters offer coastal, coastal and deep water excursions. Places like Friendly City Fishing, Pogies, and Nancy Lee Fishing Charters and others all offer full and half day charters.

Attracting spectators and anglers of all ages, Swansboro hosts several fishing tournaments including the Memorial Day King Mackerel Blue Water Tournament, the Hook & Bones Redfish Tournament, and the Speckled Trout Tournament.

4. Enjoy a scenic boat tour

Let someone else do the navigation and enjoy the ride. Spend the day or just a few hours sightseeing, bird watching, and exploring on a guided tour of the Carolina Coast’s backwaters, swamps, and bays. There are several experiences to choose from. Lady Swan Tours offers a variety of private and public tours on boats with plenty of space, a shaded canopy, padded seats and an on-board toilet. They are fully accessible.

Enjoy the sunset on the open water on a 34-foot sailboat at Swansboro By Sail.

Shelling on Bear Island.
Only in Onslow Tourism

Or get off the beaten path and experience one of the best boating experiences with Marsh Cruises. Captain Darryl Marsh guides passengers on an up-close and personal boating, sightseeing, shelling and ecological experience. Glide through the scenic waterways and marshes, stop at secluded beaches on Bear Island for exclusive shelling, and hunt for shark teeth on Shark Tooth Beach. You never know what you will find or see, even dolphins!

Pro tip: Bring binoculars, a camera, sunscreen, and water.

Hammocks Beach State Park Ferry.
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5. Explore Hammocks Beach State Park

However you choose to enjoy the great outdoors, Hammocks Beach State Park caters for outdoor enthusiasts. Here you will find wooded hiking trails (easy to moderate), relaxing green spaces, picnic areas and a waterfront pavilion. The Welcome Center offers information, history of the region and exhibitions on the wildlife of nature.

What makes Hammocks Beach State Park so special? The 1,500-acre park includes both a mainland park and four islands – Dudley, Huggins, Jones, and Bear Island – which are only accessible by boat. At Bear Island, visitors can enjoy four miles of pristine, pristine white sand beaches and crystal clear blue waters, hunt clams and sand dollars, and fish. You can also rest on a blanket under an umbrella and enjoy a picnic. And at night, bring your gear and camp under the splendor of the starry sky.

The park offers daily passenger ferry trips to Bear Island. Canoe and kayaker can reach Bear Island and explore the swamp on designated canoe trails. Bring your own or rent them at the park. And for state park aficionados, make sure to check out some of the best state parks on the North Carolina coast.

Pro tip: The parking ferry depends on the season and the weather (lightning). Find out more on Bear Island’s current information page before you visit. Pets are not allowed on the ferry.

Yanas Restaurant on Front Street in Swansboro, North Carolina.
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The city center by the water is a true shoppers’ paradise. Stroll and browse dozens of quaint shops, galleries and eclectic boutiques in historic buildings. Beach home accessories can be found at stores like Coastal Farmhouse and Salt Marsh Cottage. For gifts and souvenirs, visit Gray Dolphin Gifts and Quilt Cottage – and nautical treasures and antiques can be found at Poor Man’s Hole.

Lovely's Boutique on Old Brick Building Front Street in Swansboro, North Carolina.
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Other unique boutiques include the Silver Line Jewelry and Art Gallery, The Mercantile, The Lighthouse Boutique, and Lovely’s Boutique, which are located on the second floor of the oldest brick building in Onslow County. You will be amazed by all of the shops and boutiques in Swansboro.

Candy Edventure Shop Inside in Swansboro, North Carolina.
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7. Satisfy your sweet tooth

Candy Edventure is “the cutest place in Swansboro”. It’s more than just a candy store. Inside, discover a fun environment with an old-fashioned soda fountain counter, homemade fudge, ice cream, and popcorn, and a variety of your favorite childhood candies. Be sure to try the new ice cream nachos!

For a completely different, yet sweet setting, try the Sweet Edventure Dessert and Martini Bar just down the street. They serve special desserts along with shakes and sundaes. They also offer a full martini and coffee menu – all in an upscale but casual atmosphere.

Boro restaurant with pirates in Swansboro, North Carolina.
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8. Free your inner foodie

Seafood is plentiful in a seaside town like Swansboro. Nestled in and between the waterfront shops, you’ll find dozens of great restaurants – each with different characteristics and charms, making it difficult to choose.

Prawn and groats meal in Boro restaurant.
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I recommend the typical prawns and grits with watermelon salsa (and the drinks) in the Boro Restaurant and Bar, the lobster ravioli in the Riverside Steak and Seafood and the fresh fish, gourmet salads and the fantastic view of the water in the Saltwater Grill. When in town for breakfast, stop at Yanas Ye Olde Restaurant. Don’t forget to add the famous homemade fritters with fresh fruit to your order.

Church Street Pavilion in Swansboro, North Carolina.

9. Watch the water (and boats) go by

After a morning of exploring or shopping, treat yourself to a snack or a refreshing drink and take a break. There are several short promenades (with benches) and small parks along the waterfront. Downtown, just outside of Bake Bottle & Brew and Willy Nilly’s Warehouse – both in a charming, renovated two-story waterfront home – there is plenty of seating with what some say are the best views in town. The Church Street Gazebo is right next door.

Bicentennial Park in Swansboro, North Carolina.
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There are several small parks within walking distance of the city center. Just south of downtown is Ward’s Shore Park, a flat, grassy park with picnic tables right on the water. Bicentennial Park is located on the White Oak River and has green spaces, walkways, picnic tables, fishing opportunities, and restrooms. Riverview Park offers just that – sweeping panoramic views of the river from elevated boardwalks that stretch over the swamp, covered viewing platforms, and picnic tables.

10. Honor the fallen in nearby Jacksonville

Jacksonville is home to US Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, just 20 miles inland from Swansboro. The Lejeune Memorial Gardens and Freedom Fountain are well worth the drive. Here you will feel Freedom. The Gardens is a beautiful 27-acre park with moving monuments honoring our military and paying tribute to some of our nation’s greatest heroes. These monuments include the nation’s second largest Vietnam memorial with every single name engraved on glass, the beam from the 11th memorial in honor of the historic Montford Point Marines.

11. Attend festivals

The Friendly City by the Sea hosts a variety of major events throughout the year. The Arts by the Sea Festival (early June) is very popular, as is the Mullet Festival, which began in October 1954 and is the oldest festival on the Crystal Coast.

Olde Towne Square Pavilion close-up in Swansboro, North Carolina.
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Swanfest, a series of summer concerts, is held every week at the Olde Towne Square Pavilion. Swansboro by Candlelight (holiday shopping) and the Christmas flotilla both take place in December. Then there is the annual oyster roast and pork boil, the 4th of July fireworks display, and Military Recognition Day.

There is so much fun to be had and memories to be made. The hardest part in Swansboro is deciding what to do first – or do nothing at all.


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