Wilmington, North Carolina is your quintessential southern city, filled with historic oak-lined streets and a bustling downtown area. Less nationally known than Savannah or Charleston, South Carolina, Wilmington has so much to offer with its many museums, historic sites and beautiful beaches. Here are some great local activities that will help you plan a fantastic weekend in beautiful Wilmington.
Thanks to Visit Wilmington NC River District and Island Beaches for welcoming me on a press trip to this beautiful region. All opinions are mine.
Activities 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 boasts 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 bird watchers, photographers, surf fishermen, and four-wheel drive enthusiasts (seasonal and with a permit). There is a visitor center with restrooms, beach access, a Civil War fort, the State Aquarium, and a boat launch. Plan a hike in the historic district, visit 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 just steps from the beach. The highlight of my visit was seeing the Asian Small-clawed Otters in their new and sprawling habitat in the Aquarium Conservatory. I could have watched these guys all day. There is so much to see and do when you visit. Exhibits include freshwater streams, coastal habitats, reefs, the open ocean, swamps, and even sea turtles. Habitats and animals come from North Carolina and around the world. Make sure to visit the outdoor exhibits which are a short hike on a stroll. There is an on-site cafe and the souvenir shop offers a variety of items for adults and children.
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
Fort Fisher was controlled by the Confederacy until the last months of the Civil War and kept the port of Wilmington open to blockade runners. There is a museum at the Visitor Center that you can visit. Outside, take time to hike the trail near the fort and explore the 15 roadside exhibits that surround the remains of the fort. It is a short drive to the boat launch where the remains of the Buchanan Battery 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’s also the site of the Battle of Forks Road, a Civil War skirmish in which victory fell to 1,600 black American soldiers, many of whom are from of the region. This virtually unknown story will soon be an important part of the museum’s narrative when CAM unveils Without Borders, a life-size bronze sculpture by Stephen Hays, an artist from North Carolina. He used the cast characteristics of 11 African-American men linked to the site and its history to create the sculpture. The 11 are descendants of 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 panels on the battle.
Inside, CAM has an eclectic collection and a variety of works of art on display in its galleries. Exposures change approximately every 6 months. In addition, the museum offers a variety of classes, workshops and events throughout the year in a welcoming community environment.
The beautiful Airlie Gardens are a popular attraction in the region with over 120,000 visitors each year. The historic property spans 67 acres which includes over a dozen gardens. Highlights include the Airlie Oak Lawn that surrounds the nearly 500-year-old Airlie Oak. This majestic old tree is a living southern oak draped in Spanish moss that dominates the landscape. The pergola garden and its iconic columns were created in 1904. It is a French garden with jasmine covering the pergola and surrounded by azaleas and camellias. The Spring Garden sits by a brick patio which is the last vestige of the original mansion.
Pro tip: Airlie Gardens is recognized as a Coastal Region site on the North Carolina Birding Trail. You can take an 8am 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 and Private Charters
Cape Fear Riverboats offers scenic and sunset cruises aboard the Henrietta. The cruise is only one hour long and I found it interesting to learn more about the local history and anecdotes. The cruise begins by going up the river to see the forks of two large rivers. Once the boat has turned and is heading south, you will pass the battleship North Carolina. The Captains give you a brief history of the riverside from the days of the earliest explorers to the modern ships that now arrive in Wilmington Harbor. Since the cruise lasts only one hour, it is easy to integrate it into a day of sightseeing.
Explore downtown and the Riverwalk
Wilmington’s revitalized downtown and Riverwalk are the perfect places to spend the day shopping, visiting museums and dining. The Riverwalk is almost 2 miles long and follows the shore of the Cape Fear River. It stretches from downtown to the Isabella Holmes Bridge with over 200 shops, restaurants and attractions nearby. I love the pretty little landscaped pocket parks. Views of the iconic WWII battleship North Carolina can be seen from the Riverwalk.
The horse-drawn carriage tours offered by Springbrook Farms are not your usual tours. The Percheron draft horses pulling your team are rescue horses. For over 30 years, Springbrook Farms has been committed to saving and caring for these magnificent horses. Tours will take you through elegant neighborhoods and stately homes and historic homes of the ancient elite who made their home in this region.
There are three beautiful seaside towns located within a short drive of downtown Wilmington. Plan to enjoy at least one day at the beach during your visit. Each of these communities has its own vibe, but all three cities have one thing in common: white sand beaches and beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean. Kure Beach is a quieter place and was popular with retirees I met when I visited. This is the beach to visit to slow down and relax. Carolina Beach is famous for its lively boardwalk, shops, and rides. Wrightsville Beach is a vibrant area with shops and restaurants tucked away in the middle of the seaside neighborhoods. The city has been named one of the best surfing cities in the world.
Best hotels in Wilmington
There is such a variety of accommodation in the area – from downtown hotels and historic properties – to hotel chains, beach houses and full-service resorts. There are a range of options to suit your budget. Visit Wilmington and Beaches for more information and how to find your perfect place to stay in downtown Wilmington within walking distance or in one of the three seaside towns. Here’s where I stayed on my weekend visit.
The Front Street Inn
The Front Street Inn is a historic boutique hotel ideally located for exploring downtown Wilmington and the Riverwalk. This cute little inn regularly wins Viewers’ Choice awards for Wilmington’s Best Hotel / B & B. Peace and quiet await you, but you are only a short walk from the shops, pubs, restaurants and galleries of the historic downtown district. Head in a different direction to a beautiful, historic residential area that is the perfect destination for a stroll through the tree-lined streets. The bedrooms are clean and well appointed and most have a queen-size bed and can sleep two people. There are a few larger rooms and suites that can accommodate three people. Although the rooms are on the smaller side, there are some nice common areas to stretch out a bit. Breakfast is included in 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 on-site restaurant and bar open in the evening. Smith Creek Station is an area with shops and restaurants a short walk from the hotel. A chain hotel often doesn’t have the charm of a historic property, but you know exactly what to expect depending on the brand and it can be a cozy feeling when visiting a new city.
I love Wilmington and found it to be the perfect destination for a fantastic weekend. My visit only lasted a few days, but I could easily have spent a week there as there is so much to see and do.
For more on great food in Wilmington, read 7 Best Restaurants To Try In Wilmington, NC.
If you want more North Carolina experiences, you have a choice: