Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Smithfield, NC

  • Published 2022/01/20

Smithfield is an endearing town with an area of about 30 square kilometers in the central part of Johnston County, North Carolina.

Aptly enough, Smithville is the seat of Johnston County and is also its first town.

This town’s history, as to be expected, is closely woven with the development of Johnston County.

The town’s first settlement was called the Johnston County Court House, as it hosted this judicial building of the county.

The settlement’s name was later changed to Smithfield when the town was incorporated in 1777.

This name was derived from the town’s pioneer farmer-landowner John Smith Jr., who also operated a ferry on the Neuse River, bisecting the town’s acreage.

To further explore the charms of this town, take a look at these 15 top things to do in Smithville.

Watch Blockbusters at the Howell Theatre

Front View of the famous Howell Theatre in Smithfield, North Carolina

Wileydoc /

If you want to have the feel of a movie house where film classics like Gone with the Wind were first screened, buy a ticket at the Howell Theatre on South Third Street.

The Howell Theatre opened in 1935 and certainly must have shown such past hits like the King Kong first movie production and iconic Charlie Chaplin silent films.

This movie theater is one of the few in the US that has continuously operated for more than 75 years.

Quite endearing, the Howell Theatre features the restored original hardwood floors in all of its auditoriums.

There are four auditoriums in this vintage movie theater’s building, one of the stops in the Smithfield Walking Tour.

Watching a current hit Hollywood movie in any of these auditoriums should be a doubly exciting experience, given the pedigree of the Howell Theatre.

Go on a Trek at the Buffalo Creek Greenway

The access points to the Buffalo Creek Greenway Trail are located throughout Historic Downtown Smithfield.

However, the most popular entrance is the trailhead at the back of Smithfield Community Park on Booker Dairy Road.

The Buffalo Creek Greenway stretches for three miles along the Spring Branch to the Neuse River Walk at Smithfield Commons, a pathway wherein you can enjoy nature.

If you’re in for an extended adventure, you can go a bit farther, as the Buffalo Creek Greenway is a part of Segment No. 11 of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) through Johnston County.

The 10-foot wide MST path, open to hikers, runners, and bikers, is North Carolina’s state hiking trail.

It stretches for 1,175 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks, traversing across many of the most beautiful places in North Carolina.

Visit the Johnston County Heritage Center

Drop by the Johnston County Heritage Center on the northwest corner of East Market Street and North 3rd Street.

The center, housed in the circa 1913 building of the First Citizens Bank, is dedicated to preserving Johnston County’s history and culture through exhibits, publications, and programs.

This center features an exhibit hall where one mainstay is an extensive collection of World War II artifacts.

The Johnston County Heritage Center provides a reading room on its third floor for those who want to research the culture and history of the county and its people.

In this center, you will also find a gift shop with displays of quilts and 1940s–50s memorabilia, as well as books, T-shirts, and postcards.

Sample Smithfield’s Bright Leaf Hot Dogs

Don’t miss out on tasting the popular Bright Leaf hot dogs that the family-owned Carolina Packers has been producing in Smithfield since 1941.

The brand name of this hot dog is taken from the location of the Carolina Packers factory on Brightleaf Boulevard.

The popularity of Bright Leaf hot dogs owes much to their unique blend of spices and herbs, giving them a unique, slightly spicy flavor.

These hot dogs are gluten-free and made of beef and pork with only 8 grams of fat.

You can enjoy Bright Leaf hot dogs at Smithfield’s restaurants and cart vending JoCos outside many local establishments.

Besides hot dogs, Carolina Packers also offers sausages, bologna, chili, Red Hots, bacon, and BBQ.

Tour the Downtown Smithfield Historic District

Take a map of the Smithfield Walking Tour at the Johnston County Heritage Center, where the walking tour starts.

This tour will take you around the Downtown Smithfield Historic District that has been officially designated as a US historic district.

The tour outlines the town’s history in its 19 stops in a walk near the scenic Neuse River that will take you to the Johnston County Courthouse.

The vintage buildings comprising the Downtown Smithfield Historic District include superb renditions of the Art Deco and Classical Revival architectural styles.

These buildings were built from around the 1890s up to the 1930s and include the 1913 Carolina Telephone Building, the 1921 Austin Building, the 1935 Howel Theater, and the 1937 Municipal Building.

Dine at White Swan Bar-B-Q & Fried Chicken

Have a taste of the award-winning, genuine Eastern North Carolina pork barbecue at the White Swan Bar-B-Q & Fried Chicken.

Cooked using a secret family recipe over 90 years old, the flagship barbecue of this restaurant is a winner in the 2017 Metro Cooking Competition in Washington DC.

In this restaurant, pork cooks slowly in a covered cooker, thus holding in the smoked flavor.

When the meat is done, it is then chopped and served either in a hamburger bun sandwich with coleslaw or just by itself.

You can pick from the two Smithfield locations of this restaurant, either at Brightleaf Boulevard or on Wilsons Mills Road.

Tee Off at the Country Club of Johnston County

The Country Club of Johnston County is semi-private and offers daily-fee play in its 18-hole, 7,000-yard golf course.

Play in this Smithfield pride is par 72 over a 6,630-yard layout from the longest tees.

Located on Country Club Road, this course has a 71.2 rating, and its slope rating is 118 on Bermuda grass.

The Country Club of Johnston County was established in 1936, and its golf course affords picturesque views of the nearby Holt Lake.

This country club, the oldest in Johnston County, is conveniently located less than a mile from Exit 90 of I-95 on Highway 301 North.

Besides golf, the Country Club of Johnston County also features tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a clubhouse available for rentals.

Taste Prized Wines at the Hinnant Family Vineyards

A closer look inside the Hinnant Family Vineyards

Southern Foodways Alliance, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Hinnant Family Vineyards & Winery, nearly 50 years old, is the largest commercial Muscadine vineyard in Carolina.

It is located in Pine Level, about 8 miles northeast of Smithfield, and sprawls over 100 acres.

This vineyard offers tastings daily, and you can sample a wide variety of its award-winning wines, from sweet to dry.

The Hinnant Family Vineyards & Winery also features a gift shop selling a wide variety of jams and jellies, crackers, and cheese.

While visiting, you are free to hang out on the winery’s large front porch and enjoy the view of the vineyard.

Enjoy a Live Performance at Neuse Little Theatre

Check the calendar of events at the Neuse Little Theatre, one of the most vibrant stages for the performing arts in Johnston County.

The Neuse Little Theatre staged its first show in 1974, and since then, it has brought audience delight in theatrical productions like Always a Bridesmaid and Spoon River Anthology.

Lending an added charm to the Neuse Little Theatre, it is now housed in the former American Legion Hut, a log cabin overlooking the scenic Neuse River.

In its new location, this community performing arts center has grown more active not only in hosting stage plays, like dramas and comedies.

The Neuse Little Theatre also conducts acting camps for kids to further bolster its lineup of local talents in the performing arts.

Enjoy the Smithfield Community Park

The Smithfield Community Park on Booker Dairy Road spreads over 47 acres and forms the center of outdoor recreational activities, including sports in Smithfield.

The park’s facilities include four baseball fields, four tennis courts, two soccer fields, two outdoor basketball courts, a double batting cage, and one youth football/multipurpose field.

The Smithfield Community Park also provides two horseshoe pits, a nine-hole disc golf course as well as facilities for shuffleboard and bocce ball.

Families and visitors also gather at this park for its three picnic shelters and two playground areas.

You can also stroll on the paved and flat mile-long walking trail looping around the park’s perimeter and providing benches for viewing the nearby forest and open field.

Visit the Arboretum at Johnston Community College

If you are a green thumb, then it’s a must that you drop by the Arboretum at Johnston Community College on East Market Street.

You stand to learn much in a visit to this arboretum that promotes the responsible and prudent utilization of cultivated plants.

It is also an advocate for the conservation of native species, and in so doing, the arboretum provides an educational environment not only for students but also visitors.

To achieve this objective, the arboretum evaluates and acquires select plant materials for aesthetic display.

The arboretum hosts community events and offers to visitors walking trails on its Southern Garden that showcase traditional flowers, ornamental shrubs, and trees of the southern region.

Stroll at the Smithfield Town Commons

Enjoy a leisurely visit to the historic Smithfield Town Commons on the northwest corner of South Front Street and Bridge Street.

The town’s founder, John Smith Jr., himself established this pocket park with a boat ramp and a walkway along the Neuse River.

At the Smithfield Town Commons, you can go fishing or picnic by the river.

The park also features an amphitheater that serves as the main venue for the annual Smithfield Ham & Yam Festival, launched in 1985 and traditionally held on the first weekend of May.

You can also watch out for the Annual Smithfield River Rat Regatta held in July or August at the Smithfield Town Commons’ boat ramp on the Neuse River.

This is a wacky river race of two-person teams paddling boats entirely made of cardboard put together with glue and duct tape.

Bolt Out at Ready-Set-Escape

Test your mental stamina at the puzzle rooms of Ready-Set-Escape on West Market Street.

Two up to 25 players from age ten and up can play in the escape rooms of this Smithfield recreational facility.

Once you and your team are locked in an escape room, you will search for clues and solve puzzles step by step.

To make the game challenging and exciting, there is a time limit of 60 minutes for you to find all the solutions to the puzzles and break out of the room.

At Ready-to-Escape, you can choose from three fictional locations that set the theme of the puzzle as well as its clues that you’ll search in a room’s decor and props.

Your room picks in Ready-to-Escape include Pirates Plunder, Million Heir Madness, and Hollywood Heist.

Shop at the Brightleaf Flea Market

The Brightleaf Flea Market in Smithfield, with 100,000 square feet of space in its main building, is one of North Carolina’s largest.

You may need a whole day to explore each vendor’s booth in this flea market on South Brightleaf Boulevard.

There is an eclectic choice of goods for sale in the Brightleaf Flea Market, with choices like handmade leather goods, various antique items, and assorted furniture.

Outside the main building, there are more vendors offering a mix of new and used items, vintage goods, craft supplies, Mexican handmade goods, and a lot more.

There are also plenty of food vendors on the flea market grounds, serving a wide selection ranging from tacos to Italian Ice.

Other Things to Do Nearby

See a North Carolina Pride in the Ava Gardner Museum

Smithfield honors in a museum the achievements of 1940s–1950s movie star Ava Gardner who was born in Grabtown, seven miles east of Smithfield.

The Ava Gardner Museum is on East Market Street next door to the Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield between North 3rd and 4th Streets.

The grave of the famed actress is also nearby at the Sunset Memorial Gardens, some two miles northwest of the museum.

The museum displays a comprehensive collection of memorabilia from the illustrious Hollywood career of Ava Gardner.

Among these items are her costumes, personal effects, photos, and movie scripts.

Souvenir merchandise items are also available at the museum’s gift shop.

Final Thoughts

Smithfield is an enchanting place to visit, given its rich history intertwined with the development and growth of Johnston County.

The points of interest in this town can easily rank among the best destinations in North Carolina in terms of appeal and variety.

With the myriad of things to do in Smithfield, more than one visit may be needed to fully capture the town’s distinctive character.

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