Wilmington, North Carolina, is your quintessential Southern town filled with oak tree-lined historic streets and a vibrant downtown. Not as well-known nationally as Savannah or Charleston, South Carolina, Wilmington has so much to offer with its many museums, historic sites, and gorgeous beaches. Here are some great local activities which will help you plan a fantastic weekend in beautiful Wilmington.
Thank you to Visit Wilmington N.C. River District and Island Beaches for hosting me on a press trip to this beautiful area. All opinions are my own.
Things To Do In Wilmington
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
The Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is the perfect day trip from Wilmington. Located at the tip of Pleasure Island, the site has 6 miles of pristine beach and trails through a salt marsh. There is limited development on this protected area which is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. It is a popular area for birders, photographers, surf fishermen, and four-wheel drive enthusiasts (seasonally and with permits). There is a visitor center with restrooms, beach access, a Civil War fort, the state aquarium, and a boat ramp. Plan a hike around the historic area, tour the aquarium and enjoy the afternoon at the beach.
North Carolina Aquarium At Fort Fisher
The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is located on the historic Fort Fisher property and a short stroll to the beach. The highlight of my visit was seeing the Asian small-clawed otters in their new, expansive habitat in the Aquarium’s conservatory. I could have watched these guys all day. There is so much to see and do during your visit. Exhibits include freshwater streams, coastline habitats, reefs, the open ocean, swamps, and even sea turtles. The habitats and animals are from North Carolina and around the world. Make sure to tour the outdoor exhibits which are a short hike on a boardwalk. There is an onsite café, and the gift shop has a variety of items for both adults and children.
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
Fort Fisher was controlled by the Confederacy until the last few months of the Civil War and kept the Port of Wilmington open to blockade runners. There is a museum at the visitor center you can tour. Outside, take some time to walk the trail by the fort and explore the 15 wayside exhibits which surround the remnants of the fort. It is a short drive to the boat ramp where the remains of Battery Buchanan can be seen.
Cameron Art Museum
The Cameron Art Museum (CAM) is a remarkably interesting site. Not only is it an art museum but it was the site of the Battle of Forks Road, a Civil War skirmish in which victory fell to 1,600 United States Black troops, many native to the area. This virtually unknown story will soon be a significant part of the museum narrative when the CAM unveils Boundless, a life-size bronze sculpture by Stephen Hays, a North Carolina artist. He used cast features of 11 African American men connected to the site and its story to create the sculpture. The 11 are descendants of the troops, reenactors, veterans, and community leaders. The sculpture will be unveiled in November 2021. In the meantime, you can explore the trail outside the museum which has interpretive signs about the battle.
Indoors the CAM has an eclectic collection and a variety of art on display in its galleries. Exhibitions change about every 6 months. In addition, the museum offers a variety of classes, workshops, and events throughout the year in a welcoming, community environment.
The lovely Airlie Gardens is a popular attraction in the area with more than 120,000 visitors each year. The historic property stretches over 67 acres which includes more than a dozen gardens. Some highlights include the Airlie Oak Lawn which surrounds the almost 500-year-old Airlie oak tree. This stately old tree is a Southern live oak draped with Spanish moss that dominates the scenery. The Pergola Garden and its iconic columns were created in 1904. It is a formal garden with jasmine covering the Pergola and is surrounded by azaleas and camellias. The Spring Garden is near a brick patio which is the last remnant of the original mansion.
Pro Tip: The Airlie Gardens are recognized as a coastal region site on the North Carolina Birding Trail. You can take an 8 a.m. tour with Wild Bird & Garden which allows you to bird watch and enjoy the gardens without the crowds or the heat.
Cape Fear Riverboats Scenic Cruises & Private Charters
Cape Fear Riverboats offer scenic and sunset cruises onboard the Henrietta. The cruise is just an hour long and I found it interesting to learn about the history and the local anecdotes. The cruise begins by heading upriver to see the forks of two major rivers. Once the riverboat turns and heads south you will pass by the battleship USS North Carolina. The captains give you a brief history of the riverfront from the days of early explorers to the modern ships that now come to the Port of Wilmington. With the cruise being just an hour long it is easy to fit it into a day of sightseeing.
Explore Downtown And The Riverwalk
Wilmington’s revitalized downtown and Riverwalk are the perfect locations to spend the day shopping, visiting museums, and dining. The Riverwalk is nearly 2 miles long and follows the bank of the Cape Fear River. It extends from downtown all the way to the Isabella Holmes Bridge with more than 200 shops, restaurants, and attractions nearby. I love the cute, little landscaped pocket parks. Views of the iconic WWII battleship USS North Carolina can be seen from the Riverwalk.
The horse-drawn carriage tours offered by Springbrook Farms are not your typical tours. The Percheron draft horses pulling your carriage are rescue horses. For more than 30 years, Springbrook Farms has committed to rescuing and caring for these beautiful horses. Tours will take you through elegant neighborhoods and the stately homes and historic mansions of the former elite who called this area home.
There are three gorgeous beach towns located just a short drive from downtown Wilmington. Plan to enjoy at least one beach day during your visit. Each one of these communities has its own distinct vibe, but all three towns have one thing in common: white, sandy beaches and lovely views of the Atlantic Ocean. Kure Beach is a quieter place and was popular with the retirees I met during my visit. This is the beach to visit to slow down and relax. Carolina Beach is famed for its vibrant boardwalk, shops, and rides. Wrightsville Beach is a bustling area with shops and restaurants nestled amidst beachside neighborhoods. The city’s been named one of the world’s best surf towns.
Best Hotels In Wilmington
There is such a variety of lodging in the area — everything from downtown hotels and historic properties — to chain hotels, beach houses, and full-service resorts. There is a range of options to fit your budget. Visit Wilmington and Beaches for more information and how to find your perfect place to stay in walkable downtown Wilmington or in one of the three beach towns. The following are where I stayed during my weekend visit.
The Front Street Inn
The Front Street Inn is a historic boutique hotel with the ideal location for exploring downtown Wilmington and the Riverwalk. This cute little inn consistently wins viewers’ choice awards for Wilmington’s Best Hotel/B&B. Peace and quiet abound but you are just a few steps away from the shops, pubs, restaurants, and galleries of the downtown historic district. Head out in another direction into a beautiful historic residential area which is the perfect destination for a stroll through the tree-lined streets. The rooms are clean and well-appointed and most have a queen bed and sleep two. There are a few rooms and larger suites that sleep three. Although the rooms are on the smaller side there are lovely common areas to spread out a bit. Breakfast is included with the package.
Hampton Inn Wilmington-University Area/Smith Creek Station
I moved to the Hampton Inn Wilmington-University Area/Smith Creek Station for one night’s accommodation and this is a great option for a chain hotel. The location is 4 miles from downtown and a 10-minute drive to Wrightsville beach. The rate includes breakfast in the morning and there is an onsite bar and restaurant open in the evenings. Smith Creek Station is an area with shopping and restaurants just a few steps from the hotel. A chain hotel often doesn’t have the charm of a historic property, but you know exactly what to expect based on the brand and that can be a comfortable feeling when visiting a new town.
I just love Wilmington and found it the perfect destination to have a fantastic weekend getaway. My visit was just a few days, but I could have easily spent a week as there is so much to see and do.
For more on eating well in Wilmington, read 7 Best Restaurants To Try In Wilmington, North Carolina.
If you want more North Carolina experiences, there are plenty to choose from: