A Family Day out in Johnston County (Shopping & Christmas Holiday Lights)

As you’re closing out the busy Holiday season, why not bring an element of fun to the shopping mundane with some Christmas bargains, unique stores, a delicious meal, and Christmas lights? 

Christmas lights display in a field
Meadow Lights, Benson, NC

We have a knack for dressing up the mundane in a sparkling suit, and we set out to do that for the afternoon in Johnston County (JoCo).

You know we have a long history with JoCo and often return on day trips from Raleigh. Why not? It’s only 20-50 minutes away, depending on where you are coming from and going to!

Row of shopfronts
Downtown Selma

In Johnston County you’ll find more space, less chaos, better deals, and a warm, friendly Southern personality. On this trip, we partnered with Johnston County Visitor’s Bureau for an afternoon exploring Christmas experiences in Selma and Benson.

Lunch at the Old North State Food Hall, Selma 

Food hall with people eating lunch

The Old North State Food Hall is a new food Hall in Johnston County. It opened in August 2022, in the former JR Cigars Outlet building.

As you walk in the door, you’re greeted with intoxicating aromas inviting you to take a trip from Jamaica to Cuba via India and Italy. 

Families will love eating here as it’s absent from the usual fast-food options, instead offering a mix of international cuisines from North Carolina businesses, several of which have recently moved from food trucks to an affordable brick and mortar co-op space.

Man holding a tray with a burger and brussel sprouts
Craig with his pulled pork sandwich from Cock a Doodle Moo

There is a cuisine to suit all taste buds. All of us ordered lunch from different vendors: a gluten free pizza for Savannah from Luna Pizza Cafe; a spicy fried chicken sandwich from Fuku for Kalyra, along with her favorite Boba tea from Bowl and Bubble; a pulled pork sandwich with delicious fried brussels sprouts for Craig from Cock a Doodle Moo; and a hearty Jamaican goat curry for me from Levy’s Jerkstand.

Plate of chicken curry and plantains
Goat curry from Curry in a Hurry!

And of course, the girls rounded it off with a soft serve ice cream and gigantic chocolate chip cookie from Butter Cream, and Craig a beer at Longleaf Tavern.

With its location just off the I-95, this food hall is a popular eating area for those visiting Johnston County and those passing through on a road trip north or south.

Another cool place to eat with kids is the incredible Waffee Station that we visited on our day trip to Pine Level and Princeton areas.

  • Address: 67 Jr Rd Suite 300, Selma, NC 27576 

Shopping in Downtown Selma 

Store on a corner block
Southern Bostonian in downtown Selma

Selma was born as a “Railroad Town” in the late 1800s and still has Amtrak trains running through the renovated Historic Selma Union Depot. 

Downtown Selma is on the move and much of its rebirth can be attributed to Activate Selma, a grassroots group of residents, volunteers, and business owners who gather each week to creatively problem solve and promote Selma. Their motto is, “We don’t complain, we take action.”

I’m looking forward to seeing how Selma evolves as it has so much potential for a charming small town Main Street. 

Mural of kids climbing a ladder up a wall
Cool murals in downtown Selma too!

Selma has been a mecca for antique shopping for years and along its main streets you’ll find several antique stores as well as quant shops.

In between perusing the stores, you can grab a coffee at Coffee on Raiford – or even take a break to enjoy drinking it on their cute patio with a couple of colorful mandala murals on the wall – or a homemade ice cream for the kids at the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Shop.

The Southern Bostonian 

Arts and crafts for sale in a store

There is so much to love about this vintage antique store with a modern touch in Downtown Selma. 

The Southern Bostonian’s uplifting energy starts as soon as you walk in the door and are greeted by friendly attendants. It continues as you browse the independent stores that make up the 4,000 sq ft space with fun up-tempo music that makes you want to dance.

On our visit it was jazz vibes straight from Princess Tiana’s bayou adventures.

I’m sure you’ll easily find something for almost everyone on your Christmas list. A variety of items include home decor, graphic tees, jewelry, candles, antiques and vintage and pantry items. We walked out with jewelry gifts for school friends and calming crystals for our own spirits.

To the side of the retail space is a DIY Studio where you can participate in workshops and special events throughout the year.

Southern Bostonian is about to get even cooler, with a bar coming soon so you can sip while you shop. Now you really will be dancing to those tunes.

Desk with arts and crafts
DIY Studio

What really struck me chatting to Kristina, the owner of The Southern Bostonian, was her enthusiasm for sharing life in Selma and its downtown revitalization and encouraging us to visit fellow shop owners on the street. It’s that attitude we find so often in Raleigh – “a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

Because of her suggestions, we discovered a few other unique gems on Raiford Street – downtown Selma’s main street.

  • Address: 202 N. Raiford St., Selma, NC 27576 

Hanky E Panky Soap Shop 

Girl in a store looking at bars of soap

Nothing spells thoughtful gifts more than handmade soaps and lotions made from goats’ milk from a local goat farm. 

Owners of the Hanky E Panky Soap Shop have created an inviting space full of the smells of cleanliness and serenity, also enhanced with the bathtub over brimming with greenery as you walk in.

Not only do they have a wide variety of handmade soaps and lotions made from goats’ milk and simple, natural ingredients, but soy and beeswax candles, raw honey made from their own beehives, and a few other products from local suppliers, like tea from Wendell and coffee from Clayton.

Again, we walked out with a bag full of gifts with the intention to become a regular customer. Hanky E Panky can also be found at various pop-up markets in Raleigh!

Spring is another great time to visit as they bring their kids (as in goat babies) to the store. OR you can help feed them at the farm.

  • Address: 2996 Lizzie Mill Rd., Selma NC 27576

Treasury Antiques 

Christmas decorations inside a store

If you have memories of the smells of Vicks VapoRub helping your chest open up for breathing when you were young, you may want to pop into Treasury Antiques.

It was in Dr. Joshua Vick’s drugstore in 1905 that pharmacist Lunsford Richardson invented the Vicks VapoRub recipe in an effort to treat his son’s croup.

There’s nothing inside that marks that unique history, but inside you’ll find an eclectic mix of antiques with something for everyone including a “treasure chest” of toys that kids can rummage through while you shop. 

Selma Murals 

Girl sitting on a bench seat surrounded by murals

On the side of Treasury Antiques is a beautiful five-panel mural ‘Celebrating Love’ created by five local artists. Cross over the road for the young children and firefighters climb up the side of the brick building. And on the corner is this fun illusionary swing. 

Mom and daughter sitting on a pretend swing

Keep an eye out for more murals brightening up Selma as you walk around downtown – part of the trail JoCo Mural Art Trail.

On the way to Benson, where we’ll finish our Christmas fun in Johnston County, there are two more incredible Christmas shopping locations.

DeWayne’s (& their Christmas Land)

People shopping inside a department store!

I’m not sure how I’d never heard of this award-winning, nationally recognized garden center which began as a DeWayne’s Pumpkin Patch in 1991 and has grown to over 40,000 square foot space featuring a whole lot more than pumpkins!

This is a shopping destination with a difference. I did not realize how different DeWayne’s would be until I walked through its many different rooms filled with designer brands like Vera Bradley, Simply Southern and Yeti. There is even a sweet shop here where you can pick up a fudge or an ice cream treat. 

Most enchanting was the Christmas Land, which features 10 themed rooms and over 70 uniquely decorated trees. It was like we had walked into the North Pole. If Christmas is your THING, this is the reason alone for you to visit Johnston County during the Holiday season.

Christmas ornaments for sale in a store

Savannah and I played our own version of Where’s Wally? Can you see where Savannah is in these rooms? 

You could easily check everything off your Christmas shopping list here alone, and I found the prices quite reasonable. We picked up a few more Christmas presents from here and almost lost Savannah in the garden center. Our teen also really enjoyed DeWayne’s and wished we had stayed longer.

  • Address: 1575 Outlet Center Dr., Selma, NC 27576 

Drive a mile down the road for your next destination.

Carolina Premium Outlets 

Exterior of a clothing store named Columbia

Now for some more bargains for your Christmas shopping. As soon as I walked into Timberland and saw the low prices for such high-quality gear from a brand we love, I regretted not coming here earlier for my Christmas shopping. 

The Carolina Premium Outlets in Smithfield are not new to us. We’ve been coming here since we first moved to Raleigh in 2004 on the hunt for bargains.

We previously bought all our gear for our ski trip to Idaho from the Columbia store here and this time I walked out with my Christmas present: an omni heat thermal jacket and hoodie for $100 – unbeatable prices.

  • Address: 1025 Outlet Center Drive, Smithfield 

Dinner at Anthony’s La Piazza 

Table and chairs on the sidewalk outside an Italian restaurant

After almost completing our Christmas shopping, we drove to Benson for an early Italian dinner at Anthony’s La Piazza on main street.

Come hungry – the servings were huge. We carried out half of Kalyra’s lasagna for her lunch the next day. You’ll find your typical Italian meals of pizza, pasta, antipasto, and salads.

Plate of spaghetti Bolognese
Spaghetti and meat balls

Here’s a great deal as well. While they wait for their liquor license, they have a wine promo. Spend over $30 and you get two glasses of wine!

  • Address: 206 E. Main St., Benson, NC 27504 (they also have four other locations across the Triangle)

Meadow Lights Christmas Light Show

Christmas lights display

What would a Christmas experience be like in Johnston County without ending the day at the oldest and largest Christmas light display in Eastern North Carolina? 

Meadow Lights is family operated and has been running this Christmas light show for more than 40 years!

Unlike other Holiday light experiences, where you typically drive your car, or walk around, Meadow Lights has a point of difference in that you cruise around in a small train to look at the light displays which are spread out over 10 acres. Light displays are also all along the road as you drive into the property.

There is an old carousel for younger kids to ride and the opportunity to have your photo taken with Santa.

Many people come here for the Old Country Store, which is a warehouse full of Christmas candy. It’s one of the largest candy stores in the state specializing in Christmas and old fashion candy, carrying over 300 varieties.

But don’t delay in getting here, because once it’s gone, it’s gone!

The earlier you arrive for the Holiday Lights the better, as this is a popular Christmas experience, but since there are four trains running at once and each can seat about 40 people, the lines do move quickly.

The train is for a small cost, but you can come and see the lights in the distance without riding the train. The Christmas lights are open every night until December 31st.

  • Address: 4546 Godwin Lake Rd., Benson, NC 27504 

In Summary 

Exterior entrance to a shopping mall

We enjoyed our Christmas day out in Johnston County. We love to find ways to turn the mundane into joyful experiences together.

We checked off our Christmas list with a few bargains and peppered it with fun experiences like silly mural poses, lovely food, and Christmas lights.

If you want to extend your Christmas day out in Johnston County, I’d recommend shopping in Selma first, then heading to the Old North State Food Hall for lunch, then spending more time at Carolina Premium Outlets and DeWayne’s.

Don’t forget to bring your open heart and festive spirit! If you need other ideas for Johnston County, you can read more about the wonderful date experience Craig and I had a couple of weeks ago (wine tasting and the coolest cocktail bar!) 

NC Bucket List
45 Unique things to do in NC + 4 destinations not to miss + insider travel tips. 
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