Wilmington, North Carolina made headlines last year when Hurricane Florence hit the region, flooding the city with nearly two feet of rain and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. But the area is bouncing back. While some local residents are still waiting on housing assistance and repairs, most hotels, restaurants, and attractions in the Wilmington region have reopened and are eager to welcome back visitors.
On a recent trip to Wilmington, I discovered not a disaster zone but a friendly Southern city with a growing riverfront district, a burgeoning food scene, and streets full of gracious historic homes with rocking chairs on their front porches. The city is within a quick drive of several beach towns, making it easy to combine an urban getaway with a day or two of sun and sand. Below is a sampling of the many fun things to do in Wilmington, NC.
Explore Downtown and the Riverfront
The heart of Wilmington is its historic downtown, which runs inland from the Cape Fear River. Shops, galleries, eateries, and a 1.75-mile-long wooden Riverwalk make this area an excellent spot for a stroll. While it’s fun to wander on your own, a good guide can offer context and local color to bring the area to life. Consider a spooky ghost walk, a literary tour with Old Books on Front Street, or even a horse-drawn carriage ride. You can also get out on the river with Wilmington Water Tours.
One of the best downtown shopping spots is the Cotton Exchange, a collection of boutiques and restaurants housed in a 19th-century building that was once home to the largest flour mill in the South. Recommended stops here include Down to Earth for aromatherapy oils, Heart of Carolina for local gifts, and Two Sisters Bookery for books (while you’re there, say hi to Katie, the bookstore cat).
Visit Battleship North Carolina
This WWII-era battleship is one of Wilmington’s most famous landmarks, docked on the opposite shore of the Cape Fear River from downtown. The ship earned 15 battle stars during action in Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and other encounters in the Pacific.
The battleship is bigger than it looks from across the river: It stretches the length of two city blocks and has nine different levels for visitors to discover. Wear comfortable shoes for climbing from one deck to another as you explore the engine room, bridge, mess, and berthing areas. Keep an eye out for Charlie, an alligator who lives in the swamp surrounding the battleship.
Tour Historic Homes
There are three historic homes-turned-museums within easy walking distance of each other in downtown Wilmington. Bellamy Mansion was built on the eve of the Civil War, and the family who owned it had to flee to escape the war. Today it’s notable not only for its grand architecture and attractive gardens, but also for its well-preserved urban slave quarters—a rarity in the U.S.
Just a few blocks away is Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens, which dates back to 1770 and is the only colonial home in Wilmington that’s open to the public. The house is furnished with elegant antiques, while the gardens include colonial-era culinary herbs as well as flowering trees and plants.
Also worth a stop is the Zebulon Latimer House, built in 1852 and now the headquarters for the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. Tours are available to guide you through the house’s 14 rooms and tell you about the lives of the people who once lived here.
Check Out Local Museums
Want to learn something new? Visit the museums of Wilmington, NC. The Wilmington Railroad Museum details the history of what was once one of the city’s key economic drivers: the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Exhibits include a 100-year-old steam locomotive, more than 20 scale-model trains, and even a Thomas the Tank Engine play area for kids.
The Cape Fear Museum is another must-visit, with wide-ranging collections of all things regional, from Native American artifacts to 20th-century photographs and toys.
Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Cameron Art Museum, which hosts a rotating slate of exhibitions as well as select objects from its own collection of regional, national, and international artwork. Leave time to stroll the museum’s sculpture garden and nature trails.
If you’ve got kids in tow, you won’t want to miss the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, where little ones can enjoy hands-on activities like playing on a pirate ship and going “shopping” in a market exhibit.
Stroll Through Airlie Gardens
The lush wooded grounds of Airlie Gardens are just a short drive from downtown Wilmington. Scattered across the garden’s 67 waterfront acres are sculptures, ponds, historical buildings, a chapel made entirely of bottles, and the Airlie Oak, the state’s largest oak tree, which dates back to 1545.
Come in early spring to see camellias, azaleas, and flowering trees, or in the warmer months (mid-May through mid-October) to explore the seasonal Butterfly House.
Get a Taste of Wilmington
For a small city, Wilmington has a wide variety of great food. Sample it for yourself with Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours. The company runs afternoon and evening food tours to restaurants around Wilmington. Another option is Tasting History, which offers food tours in nearby Carolina Beach and Kure Beach.
Beyond the tours, you’ll want to make time for full meals at some of these popular local spots: Savorez (for vibrant Latin American flavors), Manna Ave. 123 (the city’s only AAA Four-Diamond restaurant), Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria (for pasta, wood-fired pizza, and other Italian delights), and Indochine (for authentic Thai/Vietnamese cuisine).
Hit the Beach
There are three beach towns within a half-hour drive of Wilmington, each with its own unique vibe. The closest is Wrightsville Beach, known for watersports, spas, and chic boutiques. Here you can go stand-up paddleboarding, take an eco-cruise with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, or simply relax on the sand.
A few miles south is fun-loving Carolina Beach with its family-friendly boardwalk and a state park where you can see Venus flytraps growing in the wild. There’s also a lake in the center of town where you can rent paddleboats or watch outdoor movies in the summer. Don’t miss a meal at Surf House, one of the region’s best restaurants.
With just one stoplight and no full-service hotels, Kure Beach is the quietest and most laid-back of the Wilmington, NC-area beaches. You can see the remains of a Civil War-era fort at Fort Fisher State Historic Site or learn about local marine life at the North Carolina Aquarium. Fort Fisher State Recreation Area features nearly six miles of pristine, undeveloped beach.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The Essential Beach Packing List
- The 10 Best U.S. Cities to Visit in 2019
- The 10 Best Cities for Day Trips
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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Wilmington, NC, as a guest of the Wilmington and Beaches CVB. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.
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