Wilmington is one of the most captivating cities on the North Carolina coast. Though not as well known as Charleston, South Carolina or Savannah, Georgia, Wilmington has a photogenic historic district, a great dining scene and wide-ranging attractions, plus lovely beaches just outside of town.
Bursting with southern charm, Wilmington is an easy place to love – in part because there’s so much to do here. You can peer back in time at a packed history museum or scramble through the corridors of a WWII battleship.
The city’s gardens have a blend of beauty and the bizarre, from fragrant magnolias to Venus flytraps. You can also get a dose of nature, taking kayaking trips through the Banks Channel or watching the sunset from the Riverwalk. Here's our pick of the top things to do in Wilmington.
Learn about the way people lived in the 19th century at the Bellamy Mansion
The grand 22-room mansion in Wilmington’s historic district gives an eye-opening perspective of how residents lived prior to and during the Civil War. A self-guided tour takes you through the entire house from basement to belvedere as well as to the restored quarters of the people who were enslaved here at the back of the property.
Along the way, you’ll gain insight into the real people who lived here, like William B Gould, an enslaved artisan who escaped to freedom in 1862, and later served the remainder of the Civil War working for the Union Navy.
Peer back in time at the Cape Fear Museum of Science and History
Even the most reluctant of museum-goers tend to have a great time exploring the fascinating collections of this Smithsonian affiliate. Open since 1898, the Cape Fear Museum of Science and History has exhibited everything from 8000-year-old Native American artifacts and a prehistoric ground sloth (the skeleton) to Michael Jordan memorabilia – the NBA star grew up in Wilmington and he remains the city’s best-loved native son. Hands-on activities add to the fun at this top destination for families.
Explore the decks of the USS North Carolina, a restored WWII battleship
The massive, 45,000-ton USS North Carolina played a major role during conflicts in the Pacific. You can learn all about the vessel’s adventures and see what life was like for the 2300 wartime sailors who lived and worked aboard this floating city on a self-guided tour. Visiting the ship’s nine different levels, you’ll pass living spaces, the barbershop, the sick bay, the engine room and many other areas.
Breathe in the salt-tinged air while taking in the views along the Riverwalk
Skirting along the Cape Fear River, the Riverwalk is hands-down the best place in Wilmington for a memorable stroll. The boardwalk path, which runs for 1.75 miles, passes waterfront parks, restaurant terraces and bars, with fine viewpoints along the way. Some 30 years in the making, the Riverwalk remains the pride of Wilmington since its completion back in 2017.
Stop and smell the azaleas in Airlie Gardens
If you’re around in early spring, don’t miss a visit to the 67-acre Airlie Gardens. Thousands of bright azaleas transform these botanical gardens into a brilliant kaleidoscope of colors. At other times of the year, the Airlie is still worth your time as there’s always something in bloom, and the garden's icons – like its centuries-old live oak trees – never fail to impress.
Ponder nature’s oddities at the Museum of the Bizarre
What are the best cheap things to do in Wilmington? The list in this budget-friendly town runs rather long, but at the top is undoubtedly the Museum of the Bizarre. For a mere $3, you can check out one collector’s macabre assemblage of exotica, from a taxidermy two-headed goat to an imprint of Bigfoot’s, uh big foot. Afterward, head to the Laser Vault Maze, a favorite with kids. There you can navigate through a web of lasers attempting to reach the end without crossing through a beam.
Indulge in a multi-course feast at one of the best restaurants in Wilmington
Famed for its seasonal fare, PinPoint Restaurant serves some of the best cooking in the south. Executive chef Cameron Garvey sources from local fishers, farmers and foragers with a menu that changes nightly. Expect mouthwatering seafood (like sea bass carpaccio topped with caviar), tender grilled meats with surprising accents (hemp butter, duck fat, melted leeks) and imaginative vegan delicacies like fried oyster mushroom steak.
Enjoy a day by the seaside at Wrightsville Beach
Just east of Wilmington, a short causeway leads out to the island of Wrightsville Beach. Four miles of sandy shoreline sets the stage for a memorable seaside getaway.
Come early to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic, or spend the day relaxing on the beach and frolicking in the waves. Whether you’re looking for the best free things to do in the area or simply seeking a great family activity, Wrightsville Beach should figure at the top of your list.
Go for a scenic paddle through Banks Channel
Immerse yourself in the rhythms of coastal life on a paddling adventure near Wilmington. Picture yourself gliding past marsh grass on the mirrorlike waters of the Banks Channel as an osprey soars overhead, and you’ll understand why so many local paddlers rave about this unique area.
Wrightsville SUP rents standup paddleboards, kayaks and other aquatic gear, and they also lead tours, offer lessons and give combo yoga/SUP classes.
Have a drink at one of Wilmington’s best local hangouts
The Satellite Bar and Lounge hits all the right notes when it comes to nightlife. There’s always something on whether it’s DJs spinning danceable indie grooves on vinyl or live bluegrass bands holding court (most Sundays). The big outdoor terrace is a dog-friendly spot to play a few games of cornhole or sip a craft brew and watch the evening unfold.
Browse for gift ideas at the City Market Shops
When you’re looking for the best shopping in Wilmington, bypass the mall and head to an 1880s building near the waterfront. You’ll find artwork, housewares and organic bath and body products and many edible temptations. The North Carolina Country Store sells quality jams, specialty coffee, hot sauces and other items created by North Carolina disabled artisans.
Taste some of Wilmington’s best craft beer at Front Street Brewery
Going strong since 1995, Front Street Brewery remains a pillar of the craft brewing scene. Brewmasters here have racked up over 100 awards over the years, which is no surprise once you taste its flagship German-style lager or the best-selling Port City IPA (a bold, citrusy combination of west coast and New England styles).
Enjoy unfussy drinks and a great crowd at the best dive bar in Wilmington
A great place to start (or end the night), Lula’s A Pub is a basement dive with a heart of gold. Expect well-made classic drinks (go for the old-fashioned), feel-good rock anthems and a cozy low-lit interior that makes for an atmospheric watering hole. The challenge of finding the place only adds to the appeal.
Tour the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Wilmington, head over to the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden. Located behind an elementary school, this small wetlands park is home to Venus flytraps, sundews and other carnivorous plants. Come in the spring for the best chance to see the flora in action.