A charming historic district, sandy beaches, gorgeous gardens, and more! Here are 15+ fun things to do in Wilmington, NC!
Wilmington, NC is a beautiful port city along the Cape Fear River that’s known for its sandy beaches, sunny weather, and quaint historic district. It’s a popular long weekend destination during the summer months, but you can just as easily spend a full week here if you plan on going surfing, hanging out at the beach, and touring the historic house museums in the area.
Although Wilmington, NC is by no means a small town, it has a certain small town charm to it — but with the amenities of a thriving southern city. Visitors to Wilmington will enjoy exploring the city at a slower pace and will have the chance to truly unwind during their stay.
In addition to its proximity to the beach, Wilmington is also known for being the “Hollywood of the East.” While walking around the charming historic district, you may recognize filming locations from your favorite films and TV shows, like One Tree Hill, Iron Man 3, and Sleeping with the Enemy!
Because my brother is stationed in the area, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting this charming city on multiple occasions. If you’re unsure what to see in Wilmington, check out the list of activities below for my top suggestions!
There are SO many fun things to do in Wilmington, NC that I can’t possibly fit them all into a single list. But this Wilmington attractions and activities should give you a good idea of where to start!
Table of Contents
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1. Explore the Historic District
Arguably the thing to do in downtown Wilmington is explore the historic district. This area is packed with boutiques, cafes, and restaurants — the majority of which are local operations that you won’t find anywhere else. That’s what makes it one of the best historic districts I’ve ever visited!
You can easily spend a full day meandering around the historic district simply window shopping and enjoying a leisurely lunch. However, you don’t want to miss any of the cool places to visit in Wilmington, NC!
I’ll go into more detail about the Wilmington attractions in the historic district, but the highlights I recommend include: The Cotton Exchange, the historic house museums, the mansions along 3rd and Front Streets, and the River Walk.
Wilmington Historic District: Visit the Cotton Exchange
No trip to Wilmington is complete without a visit to The Cotton Exchange. A series of eight interconnected buildings house 30 unique boutiques and restaurants — no chain stores here!
As the name suggests, The Cotton Exchange is housed in a 19th century building that was once used as city’s cotton exchange. One of the largest cotton export companies in the US was located in Wilmington, and this building was its main center of business.
The Cotton Exchange is much larger than it appears from the street, so be sure to explore the inner courtyards and brick walkways to discover all the stores.
Some of my favorite shops and restaurants in the Cotton Exchange include:
- Java Dog Coffee House — Friendly staff and excellent drinks. I highly recommend the iced chai latte.
- Elizabeth’s Ladies Boutique — Pricier, but truly special daywear.
- Port City Pottery & Fine Crafts — Locally made arts and crafts.
- The Olive Shoppe — Phenomenal olive oils and vinegars. You can sample the flavored olive oils before buying them!
If you’re unsure what to do in Wilmington, NC, start your trip here!
Wilmington Historic District: Window Shopping
The Cotton Exchange is the best known place to shop in Wilmington, but the entire historic district is lined with shops and restaurants. As I’ve said already, you’ve got a fun day of window shopping ahead of you!
The main shopping area in downtown Wilmington can be found on 3rd, 2nd, and Front Streets — these all run parallel to the Cape Fear River. Market Street runs perpendicular to the river and is the heart of the historic district.
Some of my favorite shops in Wilmington’s historic district included:
- Cape Fear Spice Merchants — Huge selection of spices, teas, and olive oils.
- Candles Etc. — Locally made candles with delightful scents.
- Desert Rose Boutique — Women’s wear with a Free People flair.
- Old Books — A used bookstore with a large selection.
- Antiques of Old Wilmington — I bought two lovely necklaces here. Don’t be afraid to barter with the owner if you’re buying multiple items!
Wilmington Historic District: Tour Bellamy Mansion
An absolute must-see Wilmington attraction is Bellamy Mansion. It’s a sprawling 22-room mansion that clocks in at a whopping 10,000 square feet. The mansion was completed in 1861 for physician and merchant Dr. John Bellamy. Part of what makes Bellamy Mansion so unique is its blend of architectural styles — it’s a mix of Greek Revival, Italianate and Neoclassical styles.
The mansion was lived in by Bellamy’s daughter until 1946, after which it fell into a state of disrepair. Then, it was set on fire in 1972. Following the fire, the Bellamy grandchildren established a fund to restore the property.
Today, the mansion is operated as a house museum. In addition to touring the mansion itself, you can (and should!) visit the slave quarters. It’s thought that nine slaves worked on the property.
Note that you aren’t required to take a guided tour of the mansion. You still need to pay an entry fee, but you’re able to walk around the house at your own leisure. For those of you who hate guided tours, this option might sound enticing. I, however, would strongly recommend taking the hour-long guided tour, as the guides are engaging and you’ll learn more about the mansion and the family who lived there than through the audio guide. Note that the guided tour costs extra and only runs at 10am, noon, and 2pm.
Wilmington Historic District: Tour the Burgwin-Wright House
Another one of the best things to do in Wilmington, NC is tour the historic Burgwin-Wright House. Built in 1770 atop the ballast stones of the former city jail, the Burgwin-Wright House is the only Colonial era structure in Wilmington that’s still open to the public.
The Burgwin-Wright House was occupied until 1930. Soon after, Standard Oil tried to purchase the lot with plans to demolish it and install a new gas station. Thankfully, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (say that twice!) were able to raise the funds required to purchase and restore the building in the late 1930s.
In the Burgwin-Wright House you’ll find an array of 18th- and 19th-century furniture, most of which are original to the families that lived in the home. Again, I recommend taking a guided tour of the property. It lasts about an hour, and if you take one of the earlier tours you may wind up having a guide all to yourself!
I should also note that the garden surrounding the house is stunning, albeit small. Be sure to thoroughly explore and take photos!
Tip: Night tours are also offered of the Burgwin-Wright House. This would be a really cool place to visit in Wilmington after dark!
Wilmington Historic District: Tour the Latimer House
The final house museum on this list of fun things to do in Wilmington, NC, the Latimer House was built in 1852 and is a history lover’s paradise. Three generations of the Latimer family lived in the home, and over 600 original objects are displayed today through 14 rooms. The home is furnished in the Victorian style, distinguishing it from the Colonial Burgwin-Wright house nearby.
The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society is also headquartered in the Latimer House, and they offer guided tours of the home every hour, on the hour.
Tip: If you take the ghost tour mentioned later in this post, you’ll learn all about the spirit that’s thought to haunt the upper floor of the Latimer House!
Wilmington Historic District: Admire the Historic Homes
In addition to the house museums I’ve listed above (Bellamy Mansion, Burgwin-Wright House, and Latimer House), I also recommend walking along 3rd and Front Streets to admire the historic homes of downtown Wilmington. These houses are currently occupied, so you can’t go inside or trespass on the lawns.
However, most of the houses have plaques detailing their history and year of construction. If you’re traveling on a budget or don’t have time to tour one of the house museums, a stroll past the historic homes of Wilmington is a wonderful way to fill your time!
Wilmington Historic District: Meander Along the Riverwalk
Another must-see Wilmington attraction is the River Walk. At nearly two miles long, this gorgeous stretch of boardwalk along the Cape Fear River is the perfect place to stretch your legs, admire the view, and snap some photos (especially at sunset!).
There are many restaurants along the waterfront, and although they’re pricier the view is unbeatable! This is a peaceful place to walk in the evening, so be sure to enjoy the night air after you’ve finished eating.
Wilmington Historic District: Treat Yourself to Ice Cream at Kilwins
I have an entire section on where to eat in downtown Wilmington, NC at the bottom of this post, but Kilwins deserves its own spot in this post! Kilwins is a beloved ice Midwestern chain that sells handmade ice cream, chocolates, and fudge (you can actually watch them make the fudge and other candies in the front windows of their store!).
If you’re wondering what to do in Wilmington, NC on a hot day — or any day, really! — you absolutely need to hit up Kilwins for a scoop of ice cream or their famous fudge. Take your treat down to the River Walk for dessert with a view!
2. Take a Ghost Tour
I won’t lie — I scoffed at the ghost tour when I first saw it advertised in Wilmington. However, the friend I was traveling with loves ghost tours so I agreed to go on it. I’m SO glad we did the ghost tour, because it wound up being one of the most fun things we did in Wilmington!
The Haunted Wilmington Ghost Tour is a spooky two-hour walking tour that blends Wilmington’s history with local tales about the spirits and ghosts that inhabit the city’s best-known sites. I immediately knew the tour was going to be special when our guide showed up on the rainy night of our scheduled tour wearing full black Victorian hoop skirts and a top hat. Oh yes, she went all out!
My friend and I were initially worried that the ghost tour would be scare-your-pants-off scary, but in the end we thought it was the perfect level of spooky to enjoy the tour without wanting to run off screaming. I loved that the tour was part history and part plain good storytelling.
Some of the top Wilmington attractions I’ve mentioned in this post are discussed along the ghost tour, including the Latimer House and the Burgwin-Wright House. I won’t tell you what spirits haunt those walls though … you’ll have to go on the ghost tour to find out for yourself!
Tip: A group of middle schoolers did the tour ahead of us, so know that this is a family-friendly tour. Also, be sure to have cash on you to tip your talented guide!
3. Explore Airlie Gardens
If you find yourself in Wilmington on a day when it’s gloriously sunny, then you absolutely must make a visit to the Airlie Gardens. There’s a bit of everything in the gardens; freshwater lakes, an azalea garden, an old churchyard with a beautiful cemetery, and so many turtles piled up on logs it’s amazing the wood doesn’t break in two. I particularly loved the grotto that jutted out into one of the lakes. There were swans swimming by and Spanish moss covering the trees. Like so much of Wilmington, the Airlie Gardens just exude the Deep South vibe!
This is one of the most fun things to do in Wilmington, NC, as you can bring your own picnic with you to enjoy on the grounds. (Just be sure to sit on the designated lawns and don’t feed the wildlife!). And if you’re traveling solo, bring a book and grab a seat underneath one of the many moss-covered oak trees.
Tip: Airlie Gardens boasts over 67 acres to explore, so you can easily spend half a day here.
4. Discover the USS North Carolina
If you’re looking for cool places to visit in Wilmington, NC, look no further than the USS North Carolina. The USS North Carolina is a WWII battleship that participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific. During the war, the battleship detroyed 24 enemy aircraft and protected many US carriers.
In the 1960’s, the battleship was saved from the scrap heap by the citizens of North Carolina. It’s now permanently docked in Wilmington and acts as a memorial to the 11,000 North Carolinians who fought during WWII.
When visiting the battleship, you can tour the whole thing. And let me tell you, it’s HUGE. You’ll need at least two hours to explore above and below decks. Highlights of the USS North Carolina include the 1940’s on-ship barbershop, the mess halls and kitchens where the sailors dined, and the on-ship post office. (And, you know, all the other official battleship stuff I don’t know the names of!)
5. Take a Walking Tour
Another of my favorite Wilmington, NC activities is taking a classic walking tour. No ghosts or spirits on this one!
There are a few different walking tour companies you can choose from, but I recommend going on one of the 90-minute tours offered by the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. You can choose between their Colonial History Walking Tour or their Walking Tour of the Historic District. Many of the city’s original buildings no longer exist, so a walking tour is a great way to envision the Wilmington of old!
Tip: Walking tours fill up fast, especially during the summer. Book your tour in advance to save your spot!
6. Hit the Beach
The closest beaches to Wilmington are Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach. You can easily spend an entire day or more relaxing at the beaches near Wilmington, so plan your trip accordingly.
Here are the basics about each of the beaches closest to Wilmington, NC:
- Carolina Beach — is the most popular. Has a lovely boardwalk with lots of eateries.
- Kure Beach — has the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic Coast. It’s much less crowded than Carolina Beach. Also note that the Fort Fisher Historic Site and the Aquarium are located here (more on those in the next sections of this post!).
- Wrightsville Beach — is especially popular for surfing and fishing, but it’s also busier with lots of restaurants and shops.
7. Explore Fort Fisher
Fort Fisher was a Confederate fort during the Civil War that was captured by the Union in 1865. Much of the fort no longer exists, but you can tour the remains for free using a self-guided tour. Simply follow the ¼-mile loop around the site of the fort and read the signs that are dotted along the path.
Tip: Costumed guided tours are also available at Fort Fisher during certain times of the year. Check their website to see if tours are running during your visit.
8. Visit the Aquarium at Fort Fisher
The Aquarium at Fort Fisher is just down the road from the Fort Fisher Historic site. It’s quite small, so I’d say you could only spend half a day here maximum. However, the exhibits are phenomenal. The first room you walk into is like its own little ecosystem with free range box turtles and ground birds. There’s even a rescued bald eagle there, oddly enough, and an albino alligator. In the next room you’re able to pet horseshoe crabs and stingrays, which love jumping up out of the water to say hello!
Tip: The staff at the aquarium is mainly volunteer-based, but they’re all very knowledgeable and love chatting with you about sea life.
9. Day Trips From Wilmington, NC
Looking for even more fun things to do in Wilmington? Take a day trip!
There’s so much to see and do in downtown Wilmington and at the nearby beaches, but day trips are fun if you need a change of scenery or have visited the area before. I haven’t explored the area outside of Wilmington much, but two day trips I can highly recommend are the quaint coastal town of Beaufort, NC and the beaches on Topsail Island.
Tip: Note that the city’s public transportation is pretty much non-existent, so you’ll need a car for any of the day trips from Wilmington listed below.
Distance from Wilmington: 2 hours
Just two hours from downtown Wilmington is the quaint coastal town of Beaufort, NC. Highlights of a day trip to Beaufort include window shopping in the local boutiques along Front Street, visiting the free North Carolina Maritime Museum, and admiring the wild horses across the river on Carrot Island.
While walking down Front Street, be sure to pop into the Beaufort Linen Co. to see some gorgeous women’s wear and home decor, and grab a scoop of ice cream from the Beaufort Creamery!
Distance from Wilmington: 1 hour
Pronounced “Top-Sil” in the local dialect, this 26-mile island is one of the best beach destinations in the area. You won’t find a swanky boardwalk on Topsail Island, nor will you see many tourists. This is a favorite spot with the locals, and I loved my visit to the island!
I recommend spending your day on Serenity Point if you’re looking for a quieter stretch of sand. There are no restaurants in the immediate area, so bring plenty of water and snacks with you. Also, the current along this beach can be strong so stick to the shallows and don’t swim far from shore!
Best Places to Eat in Downtown Wilmington, NC
This wouldn’t be a good post about what to do in Wilmington, NC if I didn’t mention the all-important vacation activity — eating! There are too many restaurants in downtown Wilmington to share in a single list, but here are some that I love:
- The Copper Penny — Classic American fare in a laid back saloon setting. The Reuben sandwich was divine!
- Slice of Life Pizzeria & Pub — The pizza here is phenomenal. Grab a slice or a whole pie.
- Anne Bonny’s Bar & Grill — A barge docked along the River Walk dishing up local seafood and beer. (It’s better than it looks!)
- The Basics — Southern food with a twist. Great for a casual lunch break during a day of window shopping.
- Java Dog Coffee House — Lovely local coffee house in the Cotton Exchange with good bagels and a friendly staff.
FAQs About Visiting Wilmington, NC
Is Wilmington, NC worth visiting?
Um, HECK YES. Please peep my list of fun things to do in Wilmington in the post above if you need convincing.
How many days are needed to see Wilmington, NC?
At least three days, although you could spend more days here if you plan on relaxing at the beach, surfing, taking day trips, etc.
Is 1 day enough to see Wilmington, NC?
Nope! But if you have just one day to see Wilmington, I recommend spending it in the Historic District. You could visit the Cotton Exchange, window shop, see the historic mansions along 3rd Street, and walk along the River Walk.
How far is Wilmington, NC from the beach?
It’s just 20 to 30 minutes to the nearest beaches. You’ll need a car to get to them, though!
What is there to do in Wilmington, NC?
Read the full post above for the Wilmington, NC attractions that I recommend.
Is Wilmington, NC safe for solo travelers?
Yes, most definitely! The only area I don’t recommend exploring solo is the River Walk, and that’s only at night. Otherwise it’s a safe city to visit by yourself!
Until Next Time, Wilmington!
Though small, Wilmington has so many things to do and is the perfect place to stay for a weekend getaway. If you’re in Wilmington during the summer, you’ll probably spend most of your time at the beach, but I encourage you to explore the town a bit too and see what all it has to offer!
If you found this post helpful, drop me a comment below and be sure to follow along on my adventures on Instagram as well.