City by the Sea: Fun Things to do near Wilmington NC

Wilmington NC is the eastern terminus of I-40, the place where the road runs out and sand meets the sea.

Only two hours east of Raleigh in the southeastern corner of North Carolina where the Cape Fear River moves towards the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington and its environs is an adventure for a lifetime. The area ihas a rich history from thousands of years of American Indian settlement to Colonial America to the present day.

With history, adventure and gorgeous natural beauty and ocean breezes Wilmington offers something for everyone.

One of my favorite spots in NC…

Growing up in Raleigh, Wilmington was a popular day trip on a pretty weekend in April or a summer day. Only a two hour drive on I-40 to Wrightsville Beach (adjoins Wilmington) it was the perfect quick beach day for sun and sand.

I still return to Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach several times a year, usually in the off season to avoid the summer spike in hotel costs. The weather is mostly mild throughout the year, although the Atlantic Ocean is only warm enough to swim in from late March/April to September/October (at the latest).

I’m a beach walker and love to wade in the water, but not swim in the ocean, so booking a stay in October-Christmas is enjoyable for me because I can enjoy the beach and Wilmington downtown scene without huge crowds.

As we get into summer and fall travel planning mode, I wanted to share a few of my favorite spots in the area around Wilmington.

Quick Facts about Wilmington

Wilmington is a major port city on the east coast with a diverse economy from tech to fishing, science, filmmaking and beyond. It is home to The University of North Carolina at Wilmington (The Seahawks). Wilmington was founded in 1730 and has a deep Colonial history as it was one of the first areas to be settled by European colonists.

Wilmington is a star attraction with major movies and television series filmed in Wilmington including Dawson’s Creek to One Tree Hill and recently several Hallmark movies. Wilmington is dubbed Hollywood East for the range of films shot in the area.

The city of Wilmington has around 117,000 souls – a large city for the NC coast! The city of Wilmington features lots of amenities from local restaurants to national chains and shopping centers.

The jewel of Wilmington’s shopping and dining scene is the historic Riverfront, where you can enjoy a delicious seafood meal while overlooking the Cape Fear River at sunset and stroll the banks of the River by lantern light.

Wilmington is surrounded by numerous beach communities and smaller towns, some of which I’ll feature on our list below.

The most popular week in Wilmington is The Azalea Festival in April. The festival features top performers, arts and crafts vendors, a parade and so much more.

Fun Things to do in Wilmington NC:

  1. Historic Downtown and Wilmington Riverwalk
    • Stroll along the banks of the scenic and historic Cape Fear River for nearly two miles from Nunn Street to the Isabella Holmes Bridge. Discover an assortment of markets, unique boutiques, art galleries and outdoor cafes.
    • The Riverwalk has over 200 shops and restaurants
    • You can fish on the Conlon Pier (only spot fishing is allowed)
    • One of my favorite restaurants in this district is Elijah’s – they have riverfront views and a great NC menu with fresh caught fish and other specialties.
  2. Cape Fear River Boat
    • Part of the Riverwalk district, one of the best things to do in Wilmington is to board The Cape Fear River Boat for a cruise. They have numerous options depending on your interest. Click here to plan your adventure
  3. Battleship North Carolina:
    • This refurbished World War II Battleship takes you back in time to the darkest days of World War II. This battleship serves as a memorial for the 11,000 North Carolinians who died in World War II.
    • It is interested to note that while we think of World War II happening mostly in Europe or the Pacific (combat wise), German Subs were off the coast of NC constantly and Germans even came into coastal towns in disguise during the war to grab drinks. This was not widely known as to avoid panic, but a massive war effort to protect the US from Germany and the Axis happened off NC’s coast.
    • Take a self-guided tour of nine levels of living spaces, mess decks, gun turrets, powder storage, sick bay and more.
    • I remember going as a kid and loving the experience and hope to return soon. My main tip – it is HOT underneath the deck so stay hydrated! Learn more here
  4. Fort Fisher State Historic Site: A MUST-SEE in NC. Fort Fisher is located near Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, this was an important Civil War Battle in the struggle against North and South.
    • Site of the Civil War’s largest Amphibious (Land and Water) Battle, today you can tour the remaining earthworks from Fort Fisher, while viewing stunning vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and nearby Cape Fear River
    • It was a Confederate held fort through much of the Civil War protecting vital trading routes with the port at Wilmington and assisting Blockade Runners until its capture by the Union in 1865.
    • A designated NC Historical Site, Fort Fisher has a wonderful museum on site
    • Also at Fort Fisher is one of the most popular public beaches in the area.
    • It is also home to our next Must See spot:
  5. NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher:
    • One of the most popular attractions in North Carolina, this interactive aquarium takes you ‘under the sea’ to learn about the NC Coast, environment and marshlands.
    • While there is a great outdoor garden and marsh area, this is a good spot to come on a rainy day at the beach.
  6. Enjoy a day at a Wilmington area beach…
    • Wilmington is surrounded by beaches and each NC native has their favorite Wilmington area beach haunt. I am a huge fan of Wrightsville Beach because it has the perfect blend of relaxing upscale resort with downhome surfer vibes. It is not uppity, but not cheap beach tacky either.
      • Wrightsville: I have stayed at most of the hotels in the small, but amazing beach community. I recommend:
        • Holiday Inn Sun Spree – they remodeled in the past two years (I actually preferred the more beachy vibe before the reno), but it is still my favorite hotel because: they have a restaurant overlooking the beach. They have a great indoor and outdoor pool, tons of beach access for sitting and enjoying the view.
        • Shell Island: Perfect beach condo vibes and stunning views (every room is beach front) – only call out is the restaurant – they need to step up their menu.
        • Sandpeddler: Condos with kitchens – not oceanfront, but you can see the ocean (right across the street) and I love the character here.
        • The Blockade Runner – vintage modern vibes, history and good beach access…
      • Best view and seafood in Wrightsville – The Oceanic!
      • Other beaches: Carolina Beach (tacky to me, but beloved by others – ocean view is beautiful either way), Kure Beach, Topsail (lots of private rentals) and Figure 8 (private access so I’m not super familar, but some friends swear by it)
  7. Tour a museum:
  8. Tour a historic home:
  9. See at show at historic Thalian Hall
  10. Stop and smell the flowers at Airlie Gardens
  11. Explore the American Revolution at Moore’s Creek Bridge (just west of Wilmington): Historic site for an important battle in the American Revolution.
  12. Explore Brunswick Town – one of the first capitals of North Carolina. This ‘ghost town’ used to be home to the most powerful of North Carolina settlers and a hub of trade before Wilmington took hold. I enjoyed learning about the area as I’m a descendant of some of the early settlers there. Off the beaten track (twenty-minutes from Wilmington), but worth the journey.
My pic of the historic buildings at Brunswick Town

13. Drive to Historic Southport…this gorgeous town of live oaks is filled with history, gorgeous architecture and good eats. It is also where you catch the ferry to nearby Bald Head Island, home of the Bald Head Lighthouse.

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