Wilmington, North Carolina and its surrounds were first inhabited by Native American tribes and were later explored by an Italian explorer.
European colonists arrived in the 1720s and an official settlement was created, named for the Earl of Wilmington. It sits at a strategic location on the Cape Fear River, inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
For this reason, it became an important site for battles during the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Shipbuilding operations took place during World War II. In the 1980s, a film studio was established that would later bring shows like One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek to the area.
The area was hit by a hurricane in 2018 but is back open for business. For the purposes of this guide, we will include Wilmington, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach.
What to Do in Wilmington
Wilmington Water Tours– Head out on a catamaran on the Cape Fear River to learn about the city and its surrounding ecosystem. There’s an onboard bar selling drinks and snacks. 212 South Water Street, Wilmington
Battleship North Carolina– The World War II battleship now permanently resides in the Cape Fear River. It has been restored to the time period with its barracks and public spaces available for self-guided tours. Go early in the day because it gets hot below deck. Give yourself at least 90 minutes to wander around. 1 Battleship Road, Wilmington
Cape Fear Museum of History– This incredible museum starts its history of the region in the prehistoric age with giant ground sloths roamed the earth. Highlights of the collection include fossils of the sloth, a simulated space station, and artifacts from basketball legend Michael Jordan. 814 Market Street, Wilmington
Hollywood Location Walk– Haunted Wilmington puts on this popular walk through Wilmington’s most iconic film locations from Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, and more. The company also runs a ghost tour and haunted pub crawl. 8 Market Street, Wilmington
Museum of the Bizarre– What started as a private collection is now Wilmington’s “odditorium.” The collection includes Houdini’s Ouija board, a lock of Hamilton’s hair, a shrunken head, and movie props. 201 South Water Street, Wilmington
Airlie Gardens– The premiere garden originated as a private home and now sits on 67 acres dotted with sculptures. It’s popular for weddings and as a filming location. 300 Airlie Road, Wilmington
Fort Fisher- This area includes the Fort Fisher Historic Site, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. It includes miles of trails including a World War II bunker, Civil War museum, and the popular aquarium with local sea life. Fort Fisher Boulevard, Kure Beach
Carolina Beach Boardwalk– The 1930s boardwalk has longtime vendors including Britt’s Donuts and the Fudge Boat along with vintage rides. Carolina Beach Avenue, Carolina Beach
Cameron Art Museum– Established in 1964, Wilmington’s art museum is located on the site of a Civil War battle. They showcase rotating exhibits and also have a sculpture garden and nature trails. 3201 South 17th Street, Wilmington
Wrightsville Beach Mailbox- Located at the northernmost beach access, this mailbox was placed by a local family in 2003 for people to leave notes and letters. It’s now mysteriously cleaned out with past letters now featured in the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History. Public Beach Access 2, Wrightsville Beach
Recreation- Because of its waterfront location, Wilmington and its beaches have plenty of opportunities to connect with nature. Rent paddleboards or kayaks or even go scuba diving for megalodon teeth. The Coastal Sailing Adventure in Wrightsville Beach is a great way to see the area.
Where to Eat in Wilmington
Pinpoint– The incredible restaurant focuses on sustainable and local ingredients, especially seafood. Their catfish was featured on the Food Network for The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Don’t miss the desserts either. 114 Market Street, Wilmington, (910) 769-2972
Savorez– For colorful Caribbean-inspired cuisine, there’s nowhere better than this cozy downtown restaurant. The tuna tostadas, sancocho, and jerk shrimp tacos are incredible. They don’t take reservations so be prepared to wait. 402 Chestnut Street, Wilmington, (910) 833-8894
Manna– This beloved local restaurant serves dishes with fresh, local ingredients, earning them a AAA Four Diamond award and an Ocean Friendly certification. Their cocktails are also incredible. 123 Princess Street, Wilmington
Fork & Cork– Locals love this downtown restaurant for its elevated pub fare like duck wings, lamb burger, and crispy chicken sandwich. They also have brunch. 122 Market Street, Wilmington, (910) 228-5247
Bespoke Coffee– The trendy coffee shop is the best places to start your day in Wilmington. They serve Counter Culture beans along with light bites as well as beer and wine later in the day. 202 Princess Street, Wilmington, (910) 769-4088
The Pilot House– Opened in 1978, the Pilot House has been praised by countless publications for its seafood. Favorite dishes include sweet potato grouper, oysters, and seafood carbonara. 2 Ann Street, Wilmington, (910) 343-0200
Benny’s Big Time– Vivian Howard’s Wilmington eatery serves Italian-inspired dishes like wood-fired pizzas, risotto, and ravioli. They even have wine on tap. 206 Greenfield Street, Wilmington, (910) 550-2525
Bitty & Beau’s Coffee– This incredible coffee shop employs those with Downs syndrome and other disabilities, first opening in Wilmington in 2016. They have their own blend of coffee and support a great cause. 4949 New Centre Drive, Wilmington, (910) 769-1252
RX– The seasonal ingredients play a large role on the menu at this restaurant, set in a cozy space with artwork and a wooden bar. Don’t miss their weekend brunch. 421 Castle Street, Wilmington, (910) 399-3080
Surf House– Gorgeous and colorful coastal-inspired plates are the draw at this restaurant. It started in 2009 as a surf shop and is known for its shrimp and grits and catch of the day. 604 North Lake Park Boulevard, Carolina Beach, (910) 707-0422
Michael’s Seafood– Don’t let this strip mall eatery dating back to 1998 fool you. The chowder has earned awards, but the fish of the day is also a great choice. 1206 North Lake Park Boulevard, Carolina Beach
The Workshop– This trendy coffee shop serves pastries and breakfast sandwiches. It’s also a jewelry store selling megalodon teeth and items made from teeth and sea glass. 86 Waynick Boulevard, Wrightsville Beach, (910) 679-8605
Adapt Kitchen & Juice Bar– For something healthy, visit this spot for coffee drinks, fresh juices, smoothies, breakfast bowls, artisan toasts, and poke. 32 North Lumina Avenue, Wrightsville Beach, (910) 679-8125
Oceanic Restaurant– The oceanfront restaurant on Crystal Pier has the best views on the island. Best sellers include the Carolina crab dip, crab cakes, and Calabash seafood baskets. 703 South Lumina Avenue, Wrightsville Beach, (910) 256-5551
Bridge Tender Restaurant– Boaters can arrive by water at this marina restaurant. They’re open for lunch and dinner with fresh seafood and steaks. 1414 Airlie Road, Wrightsville Beach, (910) 256-4519
Zeke’s Beans and Bowls– For a taste of Hawaii, head to Zeke’s. They have tuna poke, acai, pitas, coffee, and smoothies. 534 Causeway Drive, Wrightsville Beach, (910) 839-4999
Where to Stay in Wilmington
Arrive Wilmington– The second location of the Palm Springs hotel, Arrive is set inside the former Wilmingtonian Hotel popular with the film set. It features stylish rooms with amenities like free WiFi and an onsite bar and restaurant. Read our review here. 101 South 2nd Street, Wilmington
Hotel Ballast– This Tapestry Collection property has river views, three restaurants, a library, and a free airport shuttle. Guest rooms come with coffee makers and other amenities. 301 North Water Street, Wilmington
Dreamers Welcome– The design-focused inn in Wilmington has two properties within the city in historic homes. Each has a different vibe, offering individual rooms or the entire place. 118 South 4th Street
The Hive– The 14 design-focused suites are located in the heart of downtown Wilmington. The pet-friendly hotel features 24/7 self-check-in, high-speed WiFi, and flat-screen televisions. 505 North 2nd Street
Graystone Inn– Featured in countless film and television projects, the historic mansion-turned-inn was built in 1905. The AAA Four Diamond award winner has free daily breakfast, daily wine receptions, and Egyptian cotton linens. 100 South Third Street, Wilmington
Stemmerman’s Inn– The 1855 VonKampen Building has operated as an inn since 1987. The six guest suites resemble apartments with exposed brick, living rooms, and kitchens. 130 S. Front Street, Wilmington
Stella Maris Hostel – The owners of Bon Paul and Sharky’s in Asheville and Smoky Mountain Hostel in Bryson City run this hostel a few blocks south of the Riverwalk. There are dorms and private rooms along with free WiFi, parking, and a kitchen. 605 South Front Street, Wilmington
Blockade Runner Beach Resort– The 50-year-old beach resort was recently refurbished after hurricane damage. It has stylish rooms, multiple restaurants, pool and beach access, and activities like boat tours and sailing courses. Read our review here. 275 Waynick Boulevard, Wrightsville Beach
Vacation rentals- Airbnb and other companies like VRBO offer beach houses and apartments for larger groups. Check out this 1950s bungalow near the Cape Fear River and the funky surf shack in Wrightsville Beach.
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Our stay in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach was hosted by Wilmington and Beaches CVB but all editorial decisions are ours.