North Carolina may be best known by travelers for the capital city, Raleigh, and the beautiful barrier islands of the Outer Banks. But there are at least 18 reasons why Wilmington may be the most perfect vacation destination in the state.
Wilmington is an impossibly charming city, with downtown architecture that can transport you back to another century and an idyllic position alongside the Cape Fear River. Travelers from across the country flock here for its attractive barrier island beaches and famous southern hospitality.
Of course, there are plenty of fun things to do in Wilmington, too. Visitors can discover historic battleships and restored plantations; participate in a week-long celebration of beer; and spend an afternoon strolling along the Carolina Beach boardwalk. From where to shop and to what to do, consider this your definitive guide to planning a perfect trip to Wilmington, North Carolina.
Where is Wilmington?
Not to be confused with Wilmington, Delware — Wilmington, North Carolina is a riverfront city that’s considered the most accessible coastal area in the entire state. It's one of North Carolina’s largest cities, too, and is easily reached by car from Raleigh (two hours), and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (an hour and 20 minutes).
The closest airport, Wilmington International Airport, is just north of the city, in nearby Wrightsboro. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines operate regular flights to and from Wilmington, with United launching regular daily service in April 2018.
Wilmington’s Top Attractions
Historical sites are popular points of interest for Wilmington's visitors — as are the city's stunning beaches. Whether you want a crash course in southern history or would rather spend your afternoons sunning and splashing in the warm surf, these are a few of examples of the great activities in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Across the river from downtown Wilmington sits the Battleship North Carolina: a highly decorated battleship that faced combat during World War II. Now restored and considered a National Historic Landmark, visitors can tour the vessel and imagine what life was like aboard this ship (it was one of the first 10 battleships to join the American Fleet).
For those who want to take in the natural beauty of Wilmington, a visit to Airlie Gardens is an absolute must. What was once a piece of 640-acre property gifted from King George II to the Ogden brothers in the 1700s is now 67-acres of public land. Take a self-guided walking tour to see a freshwater lake (complete with swans), lush gardens colored by seasonal blooms, and the historic Airlie Oak, which dates back over 400 years. A popular time to visit is in the fall, when the annual Airlie Oyster Roast takes place.
A former sweet potato and peanut plantation, Poplar Grove is now one of the last remaining plantations of its kind in the United States. The manor house was restored in 1980 and opened to the public, and is a unique activity to consider when visiting Wilmington. You can enjoy a self-guided tour to view the grounds, or participate in blacksmith and basket-weaving workshops. For something a bit more offbeat, consider taking the plantation's paranormal tour, Moonlight in the Manor. You'll tour the property (which includes a cemetery) and learn of all the people who have passed away on the premises. This tour only runs between April and October, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Art-hounds should head straight to the Cameron Art Museum, or CAM. Book a guided tour or admire the mix of contemporary and historic artworks at your own speed. There are more than 700 pieces in the collection, which features Mary Cassatt and, in the outdoor sculpture garden, Dixon Setler and Tom Spleth.
Best Beaches in Wilmington
With a picturesque seaside boardwalk and a trail that leads to an overlook of the Cape Fear River, Carolina Beach is much more than just sand and surf. Visitors can fill a day on an offshore fishing charter, sipping cocktails at an oceanfront tiki bar, and snacking on the area's famous hot donuts. But if sand and surf is what you’re looking for, you will absolutely find that here, too.
Just south of Carolina Beach, Kure Beach is at the southernmost tip of Pleasure Island, and has a lovely, small town vibe. Head to Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, where you can hike along the six-mile span of undeveloped beach. The soft, powdery sand and a mellow surf make Kure Beach a great spot for sunbathers and families, while those who prefer water activities can head straight to the oldest fishing pier on the entire Atlantic coast.
Major Events and Festivals in Wilmington
Downtown Wilmington hosts an exciting mix of annual festivals and events all year, so no matter when you choose to visit, you're likely to encounter everything from family-friendly street fairs to fireworks displays or popular beer tastings.
Each year, on the first full weekend of October, Downtown Wilmington celebrates Riverfest — a two-day event that draws hundreds of thousands of people. It's a family-friendly affair that focuses on live entertainment, craft vendors, and festival food. Just be sure to arrive by Saturday night, when the fireworks display begins.
Since its inception in 2012, Wilmington Beer Week has been an extremely popular fall event. Expect some 60 craft breweries to participate in the mix of showcases and activities taking place at venues all over Wilmington.
Fireworks in Wilmington
You don’t have to wait until the Fourth of July to watch fireworks in Wilmington. Every Thursday night during the summer, Carolina Beach puts on a firework show as part of the city’s Fireworks by the Sea programming. There’s no admission fee, meaning you can have a fantastic night without even having to take out your wallet.
There are also, of course, fireworks during the Fourth of July and during downtown Wilmington's Riverfest.
Shopping in Wilmington
Perhaps the best place to shop in Wilmington is the River District, where historic buildings are filled with charming, independent boutiques. Take a stroll down Front Street and Market Street to see Wilmington's finest locally-owned stores, which sell everything from modern handmade jewelry to eclectic antiques.
Best Restaurants in Wilmington
Wilmington is a food-centric city, and the list of popular places to eat is extensive. Restaurants here cook up everything from traditional southern fare to far-flung flavors and quirky, fusion plates.
Most Romantic Restaurant: Manna
With a constantly-evolving menu, Manna is an American-style restaurant that features locally sourced ingredients and has a serious affinity for cocktails. White table linens, exposed brick, and a fully stocked bar make Manna a perfect, intimate spot for date nights in Wilmington.
Serving up breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Blue Surf Cafe is a casual restaurant where table service is reserved only for dinner (counter-service is offered for breakfast and lunch). Set in a shabby-chic atmosphere (think: reclaimed wood pallets displaying art and a large chalkboard for the menu), Blue Surf really captures Wilmington's laidback beach vibe.
If you’re craving Thai and Vietnamese food, Indochine is a great place to dine. The atmosphere is exotic — with large half-moon windows looking out to a lush garden and gazebo — and the wait staff is very attentive.
Best Seafood: Doc Street Oyster Bar
You’ll fall in love with the vibrant and funky Doc Street Oyster Bar, which has been hailed as the best oyster bar in Wilmington for nearly two decades. This Caribbean-inspired joint is touted for their steamed and grilled seafood (do not expect plates of fried calamari or deep-fried fish).
Best Bars in Wilmington
Earning endless cool points for atmosphere is The Brewer’s Kettle. Set in a converted 1950s Esso service station, this casual bar and beverage store boasts hundreds of beers (available for purchase to-go or to drink on premises) and a parking lot that's been transformed into an outdoor lounge. Most nights, you’ll find a food truck or two parked on site.
For a more upscale experience, The Fortunate Glass is a wine bar that features libations from regions all over the world. With over 300 wines available by the bottle (and 50 served by the glass), the chances are good that you'll discover your next favorite wine here.
Where to Stay in Wilmington
Travelers searching for places to stay in Wilmington will note a wide variety of accommodations. You can splurge for a luxury, waterfront resort, or save on a cozy vacation rental.
Most visitors prefer to be in the heart of the city, meaning booking a room right in historic downtown Wilmington. Surrounded by gorgeous 19th-century homes and just minutes away from the Riverwalk on Cape Fear is The Wilmingtonian: a charming all-suite property that has beautiful on-site gardens and is within walking distance to a number of Wilmington's top attractions.
Hilton Wilmi is a riverside luxury hotel overlooking the Cape Fear coast, and is located at the epicenter Wilmington. It's walking distance to the city's most popular museums, and Wilmington’s beaches are just a short car ride away. From the hotel’s elevated patio, guests get a great view of the Battleship North Carolina.
Vacation Rentals in Wilmington
For those who would prefer a more homey — and often more affordable — place to stay, it's easy to book a an apartment or an entire home on Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway. This can also be a great way to feel like (and meet) a local. Look out for cozy bungalows and this 1930s cottage near Antique Row.