Planning a trip to North Carolina? With its beautiful beaches, deep historical roots, and vibrant cultural life, the port city of Wilmington is a must-see. The best things to do in Wilmington, NC, include everything from strolling through botanical gardens to wandering along miles of Atlantic beachfront.
Nestled between the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, Wilmington offers a lively atmosphere. Impressive architectural legacies lie here, dating back to colonial times through years of slavery and the Civil War. From the Riverwalk in the Historic District to the more out-of-the-way parks and farms, entertainment is guaranteed while exploring the top tourist attractions in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Can’t decide what to do? Start planning your trip with this complete guide to the best things to do in Wilmington, NC.
Best places to visit in Wilmington, NC
Longing to clear your mind with a leisurely walk? Start your tour of the North Carolina port city in the heart of downtown: Wilmington Riverwalk. Named the top riverfront in the United States by USA Today in 2015, the Riverwalk is the pride of locals. It’s taken the city thirty years and more than thirty million dollars to complete the lovely riverside promenade.
Stroll along the 1.75 miles of boardwalk at the Wilmington Riverwalk and let your mind sway to the tidal rhythm of Cape Fear River. Along the coast, you’ll see all kinds of boats, from small fishing boats to huge ships capable of facing the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Finish your day at the Wilmington Riverwalk by hopping on a riverboat during sunset. Admire the picturesque lights of the city center’s waterfront venues while savoring a refreshing drink.
No visit to Wilmington would be complete without touring Airlie Gardens. This 67-acre fairytale botanical garden is home to the ancient Airlie Oak, dating back to 1545. For nature lovers, it’s one of the most impressive places to see in Wilmington, NC.
Take the self-guided tour of Airlie Gardens and be dazzled by the beauty of this lush garden. You’ll tour more than a dozen gardens, including the Butterfly House and the Pollinator Garden. Appreciate nature and the wonderful design that contributes to the ecosystem.
If you come to Airlie Gardens during summer, save tickets for the Butterfly Release held every Thursday. It’s an experience that adults and children alike will love.
Visiting Wilmington in winter? Take part in Enchanted Airlie, and watch as the gardens are lit up at night with twinkling lights and festive tunes to set the mood.
Fun fact: Wilmington, North Carolina, is known to some movie buffs as Hollywood East. Airlie Gardens has been the setting for numerous movie scenes and TV shows, including Bradley Creek.
For more family-friendly activities head to Wrightsville Beach. Chosen by National Geographic as one of the best surf spots in the world, the North Carolina beach town is one of the most popular places to go in Wilmington to experience its coastal charms. Whether you want to enjoy an adventurous day or relax in the sun, Wrightsville Beach is the ideal destination.
Feeling energetic? Ride the waves by taking a surf lesson, test your balance on a standup paddleboarding excursion, or scuba dive under live marine life.
Visiting with a sense of calm? Take a scenic cruise along the coast, or rent some fishing gear to cast in a line instead. Or visit the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, located in an old cottage from the 1940s. Peruse the exhibits, telling of the area’s compelling history.
Delight yourself during the sunset with a cocktail on the dock or on a cruise ship near Wrightsville Beach. Get ready for the vibrant night, dancing to live music, between coastal bars and restaurants.
Carolina Beach State Park
Longing for an outdoor getaway on your North Carolina trip? Drive down Carolina Beach Roadway, 20 minutes south of Wilmington, to reach Carolina Beach State Park. Ideal for nature lovers, the beautiful North Carolina state park is one of the top points of interest in Wilmington.
Honored as Regional State Park of the Year in 2015, Carolina Beach State Park features nearly 9 miles of trails. Hike to explore the area’s various habitats. In the park, you’ll be able to witness one of the world’s most distinctive and sought-after carnivorous plants: the Venus flytrap.
To absolutely disconnect from the noise of Wilmington, bring your tent and camping gear. The park has camping accommodation immersed in the forest.
Children will love discovering the varied aquatic ecosystems: swamps, bogs, and ponds. If you’re a lover of water activities, kayak, fish, sail in a boat, or just splash around for a fun afternoon.
Battleship North Carolina
Want to immerse yourself in marine war history? Take a self-guided tour of the majestic Battleship North Carolina. Built in the 1940s, it’s the most prominent of the USS North Carolina class of fast battleships. Today, the decommissioned ship stands as an impressive naval museum.
The kids will love the full access to almost all areas of the Battleship North Carolina. Take them to see the sailors’ cabins, check the status of machinery in the giant engine room, plan war strategy in the Combat Information Center, and much more.
After touring the naval museum, visit Battleship Park, where you can see the River Court from the One Tree Hill TV show.
Take the water taxi floating down the Cape Fear River towards Chandler’s Wharf or Market Street. There are many tasty restaurants and shops in these two destinations to end your journey with an appetizing meal.
Wilmington Historic District
No appreciator of architecture and history should leave the seaside town without visiting Wilmington Historic District. Listed as one of Wilmington’s seven historic neighborhoods by the National Register Historic District, it maintains strict oversight of the facades and appearance of buildings. Nothing can be repaired or restored without a permit and architectural design.
Take a stroll through the lively atmospheric alleyways in the Wilmington Historic District. Watch local artists painting pictures on the street or browse the artisan stores, boutiques, and specialty shops. Take home an antique as a unique souvenir of this charming historic downtown district.
If you’re visiting Wilmington with children, take the carriage tour when they’re tired from walking under the hot North Carolina summer sun. On the tour, you’ll see the historic homes and mansions, as the guide spills interesting facts about Wilmington’s past.
Built up an appetite? There are many quality restaurants in the Wilmington Historic District. Shuck oysters at Bourbon Street on North Front Street or enjoy fresh seafood at The George on the Riverwalk on South Water Street.
Bellamy Mansion Museum
Continuing with the marriage of history and architecture, a few blocks from the center of town stands the Bellamy Mansion Museum. A fine example of antebellum architecture, the historic property is one of the top Wilmington tourist attractions for history buffs.
Located on Market Street, Bellamy House was built by both freed and enslaved laborers between 1859 and 1861. The historic home reflects a mixture of architectural styles including Neoclassical, Greek Revival, and Italianate.
Take the self-guided tour of the 10,000-square-foot mansion to see one of North Carolina’s most exquisite examples of period architecture. Be sure to also save time to stroll through the Victorian gardens and visit the property’s slave quarters to round out your experience.
Wilmington Railroad Museum
Still haven’t quenched your thirst for Southeastern American history? Visit the Wilmington Railroad Museum to introduce yourself to the world of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Established in 1979, the museum features a variety of exhibits on diesel locomotives from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Visit the Wilmington Railroad Museum to witness the fine work of its curators, assembling unique artifacts and explaining their history.
At the museum, you’ll learn how transportation communication worked in the days of the telegraph and what was it like to be a guard on the rails. You’ll get a firsthand look at the experience of working and riding on locomotives. Among its exhibits, you’ll also get a chance to see unique artifacts, including elegant dinnerware for fancy dinners, typewriters, handcuffs, and uniforms.
Visiting Wilmington with kids? Children will be captivated by the giant model railroad layout, featuring train stations from neighboring towns.
Museum of the Bizarre
From the Wilmington Railroad Museum walk a few blocks south along the Riverwalk to the Museum of the Bizarre. The interactive exhibits at this top Wilmington attraction will keep both young and old enthralled.
From a creepy Annabelle Doll and Unicorn Horn to the Chupacabra’s Hand and a Fort Fisher Mermaid, you’ll see a whole range of abnormalities at the Museum of the Bizarre. The display of horror movie artifacts, including Harry Houdini’s Ouija board, will send shivers down your spine.
Enter the Laser Vault Maze to test your skills in the best Mission Impossible-style. Cross the room without touching a single laser beam in record time.
The Museum of the Bizarre also hosts special events for the whole family throughout the year, like the Spooky Haunted House. Check the event calendar to see if there are any interesting things happening during your trip!
Cameron Art Museum
Thinking it’s time to dive into fine art? One of the best things to do in Wilmington is to visit the Cameron Art Museum. Founded in 1962 in historic Downtown Wilmington, the art museum soon outgrew its old space and moved to its current site. Today, it’s set on a historic battleground where the Battle of Forks Road was fought.
At the Cameron Art Museum, you can peruse the exhibitions of local and international artists. See for yourself the renowned reputation of the museum’s curators for their refined taste. Stroll the walkways outside to marvel at the sculptures on display.
Dine creatively at CAM Café, an art-inspired restaurant in the middle of the museum. The atmosphere complements the enriching experience of a visit. Try their eclectic menu, covering brunch, lunch, and dinner, along with many inspired cocktails.
Cameron Art Museum also hosts special seasonal activities, including yoga classes, visual arts classes, and other workshops. Check out their official event calendar to see if there’s something exciting coming up during your Wilmington trip itinerary.
Poplar Grove Plantation
Longing to escape the hustle and bustle of the city? Drive less than 20 minutes on Route 17 to one of North Carolina’s oldest peanut plantations: Poplar Grove Plantation.
Visit the farm to experience firsthand what life was like at the Poplar Grove Plantation during the second half of the 19th century. The plantation house is fully-furnished and preserves the furniture, fabrics, and utensils of the time.
Take a tour of the gardens, extending over more than 800 acres of land. Kids will love petting farm animals, like goats and horses, and watching blacksmiths forge tools.
Looking to add a dash of eerie excitement to your visit? Join in on a Paranormal Ghost Tour—if you dare. Guides will lead you through the corridors, telling you stories of ghosts haunting the house and gardens. You might even experience your own close encounter. (Yikes!)
If you’re in Wilmington during the week, try to visit Poplar Grove Plantation on a Wednesday morning to enjoy the farmers’ market held on the museum premises.
Noni Bacca Winery
Ready to sweeten your palate with the drink of the gods? Fruit wine, white wine, delectable dessert Wine: Noni Bacca Winery produces more than 60 varieties of wine and has won 179 International Medals since 2009.
Established in 2007, Noni Bacca Winery has quickly become one of North Carolina’s favorite wineries. It’s one of the best places to visit in Wilmington, NC, to delight your senses. It embodies a strong family tradition of European immigrants, from both Sicily and Bulgaria.
Visit Noni Bacca Winery and learn about its award-winning wine production. Experience its superb daily wine tasting, choosing between 50 internationally-awarded varieties.
Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park
Got kids in tow on your Wilmington, NC, trip? For a day of entertainment, get tickets to Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park. For families, this popular amusement park is one of the top-rated Wilmington points of interest.
Take to the sky in the Sky Tower for a breathtaking panoramic view or challenge your friends in a furious race in the Quarter Mile Kart Chart. Get into the arena to compete in the ultimate Laser Tag experience, where you can choose between exclusive games like Gladiator or Shadows.
If you’re visiting Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park with young children, take them to the Kids Jungle indoor playground. If they’re a bit older, encourage them to train their physical skills on the Rock Climbing Wall.
Hot day? Dive into the water park. Jump on the Two-Body Water Slides or take a leisurely dip in the Lazy River and wave pool. Take the little ones to the Kids Splash to make sure they have fun safely.
Need to disconnect? Head to the naturally beautiful Kure Beach on Pleasure Island. Its 6-mile protected shoreline and small-town beach vibes set the stage for a serene family day.
Kure Beach offers white sands, a laid-back atmosphere, and access to great sites. Tour Kure Beach Fishing Pier, one of the oldest fishing piers on the Atlantic Coast. Go on a fishing excursion, or take a scenic boat ride.
If you’re traveling with children (or marine life enthusiasts of any age), visit the North Carolina Aquarium. Located at nearby Fort Fisher, it’s one of the best aquariums in the United States, according to Travel Channel. Walk through the blue canals, spotting sea turtles, sharks, and other aquatic creatures.
Within walking distance from Kure Beach, you can also visit one of the most captivating historical sites in North Carolina: Fort Fisher.
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
It seems strange today that beautiful Pleasure Island was once a battlefield. But not far from its white sands are the ruins of a Confederate fort from the American Civil War: the Fort Fisher Historic Site.
Visit the small museum and take a guided tour of Fort Fisher. You’ll see exhibits of artifacts recovered from sunken ships, a massive seacoast gun, and more.
The largest amphibious battle of the Civil War was fought here. Due to this conflict, Fort Fisher fell in 1865, contributing to the fate of the Confederacy.
Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens
In the heart of the Historic District, two blocks from the Bellamy Mansion on Market Street, lies one of the city’s most iconic house museums: Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens. Built in 1770, the historic home is the only colonial-era structure open to the public.
Book a ticket for a guided tour of Burgwin-Wright House. Discover the gardens divided into seven areas, including the vegetable garden, an orchard, and a rose garden.
Step inside the house to admire its old Georgian architecture. All its rooms are furnished with antiques and a myriad of artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Visit the kitchen where the servants worked, next to the slave cells, to get an idea of the life they led here.
At Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens, you can also catch exciting events, workshops, and more. If you’re a yoga lover, classes are often held in the gardens. The venue is so beautiful that locals often hold weddings and other private events here, too.
Cape Fear Museum of History and Science
Covering a broad spectrum of history and science, the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science is a feast for the whole family. Located in the city center on Market Street, this popular museum is easily accessible from other top Wilmington attractions.
Kids will go wild with the interactive exhibits at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science. They can build their own space station, complete circuits to light a light bulb, make crafts and puppets, and touch hundreds of buttons that open the doors to history.
While the Cape Fear Museum began as a collection of Confederate relics, over time it’s expanded its range of collectibles. Today, you can see more than 57,000 items from the Archaic period to the present day, concentrating primarily on the 20th century.
Masonboro Island Reserve
Still have time for a wildlife getaway? Hop on a cruise ship at the Cape Fear River pier and head to Masonboro Island Reserve, the largest protected barrier island on North Carolina’s south coast.
Since 1991, Masonboro Island Reserve has been a National Estuarine Research Reserve, dedicated to research, innovation, and education. With fine sand, clean and wide landscapes, and the rocking sound of the tide, it’s one of the top choices for where to go in Wilmington, NC, for nature lovers.
Spreading across more than 5,600 acres, Masonboro Island showcases a variety of ecosystems. Windswept sand dunes, grassland, shrub thickets, salt marshes, and tidal flats are among the park’s highlights. Discover its natural habitat, home to wild animals and distinctive flora.