Wilmington was our first real getaway from Raleigh when we first moved to North Carolina in 2004 and instantly fell for its charm, history and beautiful riverfront location.
Growing up in Australia we were fans of Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill (both filmed in Wilmington), and that’s how we first came to know of this historical port city and have since visited several times – there is no shortage of fun things to do in Wilmington, NC, as we share in this post below!
Wilmington offers a combination of historic architecture, a bustling riverfront, and a short 10-20 minute drive away are some of the best beaches in North Carolina, if not the USA!
With history and plenty of charm, we like to say that Wilmington, North Carolina, is a smaller version of Charleston or Savannah – oodles of Southern Charm with a vibrant, unique personality and plenty to do.
In this ultimate guide we focus mostly on the historic Wilmington Riverfront District, plus other districts within a short drive and the two closest beaches to help you plan your own Wilmington trip. Let’s get started.
- Where is Wilmington, North Carolina?
- Things to Do in Wilmington NC
- First, Coffee at Bespoke Coffee & Dry Goods
- Wilmington Riverwalk
- Horsedrawn Carriage Ride of Historic Wilmington
- Sightseeing Cruise of the Cape Fear River
- Bellamy Mansion and Museum
- Tour the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA
- Museum of the Bizarre
- Shopping in Downtown Wilmington
- Airlie Gardens
- Brooklyn Arts District
- Cargo District
- Sunset on the River
- Restaurants in Wilmington NC
- Breweries in Wilmington
- Wilmington Beaches
- Video on things to do in Wilmington
- Hotels in Wilmington
Where is Wilmington, North Carolina?
The port city of Wilmington is in the Southeastern corner of North Carolina in New Hanover County and is a popular coastal city with a current population of about 117,000 (2022).
Since the 1980s it has been an active film production hub, supporting feature films, TV series, and independent productions and is known as “Hollywood East” or “Wilmywood” to the locals.
If you’re wondering how far is Wilmington NC from me, it’s almost directly south of Raleigh (about a 2 hour drive), 3.5 hours drive Southeast of Charlotte, and about 1.5 hours Northeast of Myrtle Beach.
Fun Fact: Interstate 40 (I-40) starts or ends in Wilmington and goes all the way to Barstow, California. At a length of 2,556.61 miles, I-40 is the third largest component in the interstate highway system. We have driven it as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Things to Do in Wilmington NC
Park your car at the hotel, you won’t need it for most of the time exploring downtown Wilmington and we just love destinations where we can walk everywhere.
Then get ready to explore the city’s National Register Historic District which spans 230-plus blocks of churches, classic architecture, moss-draped live oaks, brick-lined streets and historic homes.
First, Coffee at Bespoke Coffee & Dry Goods
Whenever we visit Wilmington or pass through on road trips we always stop at Bespoke Coffee who makes our favorite coffee in Wilmington.
Not only is their coffee good but the space is aesthetically pleasing with the black and white modern design that invites you to sit for a while – locals tend to gravitate here with their laptops and work online.
There is a Triangle area connection here too, they use Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee, and if you’ve got young kids, ours enjoys their hot chocolates and smoothies, and our teen their chai latte.
We miss being by the water having grown up in Australia and one of our favorite things to do in Wilmington is stroll along the pedestrian-friendly Riverwalk lined with shops and cafes and the Port City Marina.
The Wilmington Boardwalk is 1.75 miles long but you don’t have to walk that far and I recommend you at least do the section from Market Street to Nun Street to get a close up view of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, and then we like to double back on S Front Street to access some of the downtown area’s favorite historical shops, colorful buildings and restaurants.
But when we stay overnight at the Embassy Suites by Hilton we like to start from there and walk along the Riverwalk to Market Street (about a 15-minute walk) and enjoy views of the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA across the river.
Hot Tip: Wilmington takes awhile to wake up so take advantage of the early hours to have the riverfront area almost all to yourself (easy to do when you stay overnight on the Riverfront). One of the best free things to do in Wilmington!
Horsedrawn Carriage Ride of Historic Wilmington
A relaxing and great way to start your trip to Wilmington is to take a horse drawn carriage ride through historic downtown Wilmington and learn about the history of this port city. We love doing these guided tours, like the horse drawn carriage in Charleston, or the trolley tour in Savannah.
We learned that 30 years ago this district was dilapidated and you could have bought a house for around $10,000 – but you’d need cash as no bank was willing to loan money for this run down area!
So, the people came together to call it a historic district which then gave them access to federal money and grants to restore the buildings and fast forward to today and now it’s an expensive and well-sought area to live.
Black plaques on homes signify they are over 100 years old, and anything new that now gets built in downtown Wilmington must blend in with the historic look and feel.
You’ll learn all of this and more on one of eight different routes. Prominent homes we passed were the oldest home in Wilmington (284 years old) and the childhood home of President Woodrow Wilson.
NOTE: the horses are well looked after, ours were two rescue horses from Amish County in Philadelphia. The tour company, Springbrook Farms has saved 18 draft horses in their 35 years of business.
- Reservations are not needed for the tour.
- Address: They leave from the end of Market St near the water
- Cost: $14 for adults, $6 for kids.
- Website: HorseDrawnTours.com
Sightseeing Cruise of the Cape Fear River
When you visit a port city on a river, I highly recommend you get a perspective from the water and in Wilmington we enjoyed a relaxing hour onboard a sightseeing Cruise with Cape Fear River Boats.
The Captain J.N. Maffit boat took us upriver to where the Cape Fear River forks before turning back south past the pastel colored shops and historical buildings of Downtown Wilmington on our left, and Battleship North Carolina on our right.
Commentary included a brief overview of Wilmington’s history from the early explorers to Modern day ships from all over the world, and also learned more about the geography of the region, including the fascinating story of Eagle Island – it was once filled with rice fields until river dredging turned the freshwater to salt and destroyed the industry.
Lastly, we got a good look at the shipping industry that gives Wilmington the name, Port City.
If you’re wondering how the Cape Fear river got its name, old merchants would notice the approaching shallow cape and would turn their boats around, only to run aground on the shoals. They would list on their charts that it was a Cape to be Feared.
Bellamy Mansion and Museum
One of the top Wilmington attractions is doing a self-guided audio tour of the 10,000 sq. ft and 22 room Bellamy Mansion that was built primarily by enslaved and free black artisans for the Bellamy family from 1859 to 1861.
They do retell the story tastefully and do a good job of sharing the truth of the slave story and help develop that understanding and empathy.
The tour begins outside the mansion and then moves to the two-story brick, slave quarters – one of the best preservered ones in the country. You then move up the five levels of the home to see how the Bellamy family lived.
The elaborate parlor room is impressive, as was the Belvedere, the small room that was responsible for creating natural air conditioning by capturing the natural breeze and sending it down to the rest of the house. And the magnificent magnolia tree at the side of the house in the small garden offers a peaceful place to rest under its shade.
All up it took us about one hour to tour by ourselves, but you can join a 90-minute guided tour. Even our kids enjoyed this property and I feel it’s a worthy family-friendly experience and recommend you add it to your list of Wilmington things to do.
Tour the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA
Another of the top things to do with kids in Wilmington, and one of the most popular attractions in North Carolina, is to tour the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, one of the first of ten battleships to join the American fleet in WWII.
In case you don’t know, during World War II North Carolina participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific area of operations and earned 15 battle stars.
This battleship was considered the world’s greatest navy ship and you’ll be mesmerized exploring the ship and seeing the sailor’s and officer’s quarters and mess hal,l as well as the vast amount of artillery on the expansive deck.
You can tour 9 different levels and arrows guide you along the self-guided trail.
Off the ship, be sure to walk around the perimeter on the SECU Memorial Walkway – you may even see an alligator or two! The views of Downtown Wilmington opposite the river are impressive.
Allow at least an hour here, but if you’re really into Navy ships you could easily spend several hours.
Museum of the Bizarre
If you like to visit quirky and unique museums, put the Museum of the Bizarre on your itinerary, and if you have a teen like us, she found it particularly interesting!
You only need about 30-60 minutes to tour this small museum in downtown Wilmington which focuses on the strange, unusual or collectable oddity.
On display are life-size movie characters, artifacts like Alexander Hamilton’s hair and Houdini’s ouija board, shrunken heads, bizarre creatures from the Circus like the goat brothers, a cast model of Regan from the exorcist, and a real life cauldron discovered in Pennsylvania that without warning blasts out a fiery steam to make you jump.
Another fun element is the laser trail game and mirror maze with fun music we danced away too as we slowly made our way through the confusing hall of mirrors.
Shopping in Downtown Wilmington
For those that like to browse stories and do a spot of shopping, there is a good selection of local stores in the downtown area and beyond so just wander around.
During your walk along the Riverfront, keep an eye out for the small City Market, a historic landmark and retail destination since 1880. There’s a melange of specialty shops as well as art and craft galleries inside.
Pop into City Gypsy Boutique who sell unique art from over 30 local artisans, fair trade, and boutique items including apparel, accessories, jewelry, crystals, pottery, and home décor, and much more!
Also in downtown Wilmington is the Cotton Exchange which is housed within eight restored buildings connected by brick walkways and an open-air courtyard giving a 19th Century Port City vibe from when Cotton was King – there are 30 unique specialty shops and restaurants.
If you love gardens, you can get lost among the the 67 acre Airlie Gardens consisting of formal gardens, walking trails, seasonal blooms, centuries-old oak trees, artistic sculptures and peaceful waterways.
Over 200 species of birds have been observed within the gardens, and don’t miss the famous Airlie Oak (c.1545), the largest Live Oak in North Carolina at 128 feet high.
You can also enjoy a seasonal Summer Concert Series and the holiday favorite Enchanted Airlie.
Brooklyn Arts District
Located on the historic north side of downtown Wilmington, the Brooklyn Arts District is anchored by the Brooklyn Arts Center + The Annex. Our local friend who lives in nearby Carolina beach took us for a quick tour of this neighborhood and we’d love to explore more.
Originally constructed in 1888 as St. Andrews Church, the Brooklyn Arts Center was the center of Wilmington’s Brooklyn neighborhood for nearly a century and St. Andrews school building was completed in 1910.
Today, both buildings have been restored and refurbished as an event venue that plays host to live music and concerts, weddings, art shows and vintage flea markets.
Whilst here, be sure to pop into Edward Teach Brewing for a pint of beer. Housed in an historic building that was originally built as a fire engine house, and has also been used as a boxing gym and a police station – there’s a nice outdoor patio area too.
And, just up the road is the local’s favorite ice cream joint, Boombalatti’s Homemade Ice Cream which was a hit with our kids!
This is a cool and evolving area and Wilmington’s newest neighborhood. It gets its name due to the business being housed inside reused shipping containers and they’ve done a very creative job with the design.
Explore a variety of shopping and dining establishments including End of Days Distillery, Wilmington’s very first craft distillery. Take a seat – inside or out – in the communal dining courtyard and choose from eight rotating taps at Alcove Beer Garden.
Sunset on the River
One of the best things to do in Wilmington is watch the sunset down by the Wilmington riverfront, an activity we’ve been doing as a family for years.
You have a few options, one free and two paid. Either stroll along the boardwalk and find a spot to watch the sun go down over the river, eat at any of the Wilmington restaurants along the riverfront, or take a sunset cruise.
Be sure to book ahead for one of the restaurants, especially on a weekend or holiday period as they do get busy and some won’t take you in unless you are eating.
One place we have eaten at many times is Elijah’s Restaurant and they have an affordable kids menu.
We did, however, manage to get a small cocktail table on the deck of the beautifully restored Pilot House to enjoy a sunset drink. Although we had to get our own drinks from the bar, a minor inconvenience to watch the beautiful sunset.
Restaurants in Wilmington NC
There are plenty of Wilmington restaurants to satisfy all food tastes whether you desire traditional Southern cuisine, seafood, Mexican, pub style burgers you name it.
There are over 40 locally owned places to eat in Wilmington in the River District alone lining the Riverwalk, Front Street, and beyond.
Brunch at The Basics
If you visit Wilmington on the weekend and crave brunch, one of the most popular brunch spots in Wilmington is The Basics on N Front Street.
Here you’ll find a wide variety of Southern inspired breakfast dishes including crab cake benedict, and cajun shrimp and grits, but other breakfast favorites like Mediterranean scrambled eggs, and blueberry pancakes. And, brunch always pairs nicely with a delicious dragon fruit mimosa or Irish coffee!
Booking your table ahead is recommended, or arrive a few minutes before the 10am opening time as this place gets busy.
Gourmet Burgers at Platypus & Gnome
As an Australian, how can I pass up the opportunity to dine at a restaurant named after one of our favorite native animals, and what makes this a worthy place to eat in Wilmington is its unique focus on exotic game meats and burgers!
Menu favorites include wild boar, elk and bison. We ordered the two most popular items on the menu: the elk burger and the ostrich sandwich, and our teen enjoyed her juicy Bacon Bacon burger.
And, the smoky wild boar soup was delicious, choose to have a bowl for an appetizer or sub it in as your main meal’s side for an extra price.
They even have our favorite Aussie meat, kangaroo on the menu occasionally – we missed it by a week.
NOTE: they have extensive gluten free options, almost every item on the menu could be adapted, even with gluten free chicken tenders for the kids!
The fact that we couldn’t get a table at Seabird tells you that this is one of the best restaurants in Wilmington, and came highly recommended by our Instagram followers when we put the call out for recommendations.
This historic downtown Wilmington restaurant has a focus on a seasonal seafood menu with ingredients found in North Carolina. Tastefully decorated and a modern space with full-length subway tiles, blue toned aquatic artwork on the walls, porthole windows on the swinging doors into the kitchen, and blue upholstered chairs.
While we didn’t eat here, we did find a way to experience Seabird – we were thrilled to discover that they’re another great coffee option in Wilmington with baristas who know how to make a proper latte, so snuck back one morning. And, they use Counter Culture Coffee from Durham.
Seabird has a limited breakfast menu plus grab-and-go biscuits and pastries. Book ahead for dining in.
Tacos at Beer Barrio
If you love tacos and margaritas, grab a seat at one of the colorful tables on the sidewalk (or indoors) and enjoy this craft-beer infused Mexican restaurant.
With choices like a catfish po’boy and beer braised beef tacos and pulled pork on your nachos, bowls and burritos, there’s a Southern flair. And the food is colorful, affordable, and unusually large for a taco!
Beer is the other focus of this restaurant with a local brew finding its way into almost every dish!
And, they even had a delicious French toast dish on the brunch menu which our exceptionally fussy tween eater devoured. Note: Sundays has an all-day brunch menu.
Speaking of popular restaurants, you won’t find a more in-demand Wilmington restaurant than Indochine, a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant located a 10-minute drive from historic downtown.
We’ve attempted to eat here twice now, with no booking, and the wait time was estimated at 2-3 hours each time. As we were driving back to Raleigh both evenings, that was too long so opted for takeout.
We lived in Bangkok for 6 months teaching English and LOVE Thai food and were excited to put Indochine to the test, and while waiting for our order did a walk through of the interior and exterior and the exotic, art-filled setting with a gorgeous outdoor garden and gazebo area it took us back to our days in Thailand.
Let us know if you’ve dined at Indochine in the comments? Next time we’ll make a booking well ahead of time, and recommend you do too!
Rooster & The Crow
Located in an industrial brick building, this restaurant and bar focuses on hearty Southern staples with their fried chicken being a stand out (huge portions), and the mashed potato is incredible.
Other popular dishes include the Loaded Cheese Fries, Cheesy grits, Shrimp or catfish Poorboys, fried green tomato BLT, fried cabbage, and the burger!
Sit on the sidewalk, indoors, at the bar, or in their nice courtyard space. Variety of cocktails and beer on offer!
Front Street Brewery
Opened since 1995, this downtown Wilmington restaurant and microbrewery offers upgraded pub grub, house beers and daily tours of the brewery.
Front Street Brewery is North Carolina’s 7th brewery to open and Wilmington’s longest operating brewery. With nearly 20 breweries now in the area, FSB is still the Original!
Enjoy made from scratch food and craft beer pairings in a historic building on, you guessed it, Front Street.
Ice Cream at Kilwins
Besides the aforementioned Boombalatti’s, the other local favorite ice cream shop is Kilwins and you can’t escape the irresistible smell as you wander past on Market St towards the riverfront, your kids will drag you in there in an instant.
We’ve been taking our 14 year old to Kilwins since she was two, so it’s a very nostalgic place for us to revisit with each trip to Wilmington.
And it’s not just ice cream here, there’s a very tempting selection of chocolates and dozens of fresh confections and treats on display – you’ve been warned!
Wake n’ Bake Donuts
For another treat, take your kids to Wake n’ Bake Donuts in downtown Wilmington. They make Voodoo Doughnut style with gourmet fillings and unusual flavors. They also bake a gluten-free donut for those who are intolerant like Caroline, which wasn’t too bad.
Other places to eat in Wilmington
We haven’t personally dined at the below listed restaurants, but they come recommended from our online community. On our list for next time:
- Cape Fear Seafood Company
- The Copper Penny
- Dock Street Oyster Bar
- Slice of Life Pizzeria & Pub
- Taqueria Los Portales
Breweries in Wilmington
With 20+ breweries in the Wilmington area, beer lovers are not short of a spot for a good pint.
A short walk from the Bellamy House brings you to this family-friendly brewery with a large outdoor beer garden and a lovely spot to rest with an ice cold local brew.
Flytrap is a popular neighborhood brewery in the booming Brooklyn Arts District – you’ll find some local art hanging on the walls!
They specialize in American and Belgian style ales, and I thoroughly enjoyed their light and refreshing Belgian Blonde.They also have unique natural wines and flavored sparkling waters for the kids.
Front Street Brewery also serves up quality craft beers, as does the aforementioned Edward Teach Brewing (you can walk here from Flytrap). Flying Machine Brewing and Wilmington Brewing Company are on my list for when we return. For a full list of breweries go here.
Wilmington is near three great North Carolina beaches and once you’re done with the riverfront, one of the most popular things to do in Wilmington is hit up the nearby beaches.
Our favorite is Wrightsville Beach, but Carolina Beach to the south is also colorful and very family-friendly. So is Kure Beach.
Each beach location has great options for food, and various beach activities you can do like paddle boarding and surfing lessons.
The closest beach to Raleigh and just 12-miles from downtown Wilmington, Wrightsville is our favorite beach that reminds us so much of back home in Australia.
Known for its laid back coastal living, this is a barrier island (4-miles long) and offers all your beach activities plus watersports on the intracoastal waterway, not to mention some excellent restaurants and bars.
Read More – 1 day itinerary for Wrightsville Beach
Carolina Beach is one of the best family beaches in North Carolina with its famous wooden beach-side boardwalk, restaurants and amusement rides, craft coffees, tiki bars and summer concerts.
This Carolina beach town pops with color and is a fun-loving and free-spirited family destination just 20-minutes from downtown Wilmington.
Read More – What to do in Carolina Beach
Video on things to do in Wilmington
Watch our video below then continue down to read more about where to stay in Wilmington:
Hotels in Wilmington
If you are looking for accommodation in Wilmington, our hotel of choice is typically the Embassy Suites by Hilton Riverfront. It’s possibly the nicest of the Embassy Suites we’ve stayed in, modern and stylishly decorated.
The location is great, an easy 10-minute walk to downtown along the riverfront, and your stay comes with a buffet breakfast that has a decent array of offerings including omelet’s made to order, pancakes, grits and pastries.
Their suites are spacious and great for families like ours, and if you work remotely you’ll appreciate the living room/office space.
They also have afternoon happy hours, where you can get two drinks, including standard well drinks, and the Cloud 9 Rooftop bar is a top spot for sunset drinks and panoramic views over the river. See current rates here.
For other hotels in Wilmington, we liked the look of The Ballast Hotel a block up the river and a little more expensive. The Aloft and Best Western were also next door to the Embassy and looked good – location wise at least!
And, if you want to stay in Wrightsville Beach and drive into Wilmington, you can’t beat the Blockade Runner Beach Resort for the ultimate beach vacation!
I hope this guide on what to do in Wilmington helps you plan your own trip. If you have any questions, please leave a comment down below. And if you’ve already been, share with us your suggestion on things to do in Wilmington NC?