Wilmington is a city that’s brimming with activity. From a vibrant arts and theater scene to a collection of acclaimed museums, there’s no shortage of things to do in this popular port town.
So brighten your vacation by ensuring that the following things to do are a part of your Wilmington agenda. With a world of entertainment, arts, history, and all-around fun waiting, it’s no wonder that Wilmington is a vacation destination that visitors return to again and again.
Step Aboard a Battleship
It’s hard to miss the USS North Carolina Battleship – a popular attraction with a place of honor along the picturesque downtown waterfront. This historic battleship that was built in 1937-1940 and which earned 15 battle stars during WWII has been converted to a living history museum, where visitors can explore the entirety of the vessel from the towering decks to the engine rooms below. Along the way, museum visitors will be able to see perfectly preserved equipment and fixtures, as well as amazing vistas of the surrounding Cape Fear River. Open year-round, the massive vessel is also a popular destination for regular special events, such as a springtime Easter egg hunt onboard the battleship, or weekly movie nights on the star-lit decks. With an amazing interior that will fascinate visitors of all interests, the USS North Carolina Battleship is an impressive attraction that’s impossible to ignore.
Shop in the Downtown Area
While the greater Wilmington area boasts a number of malls, grocery stores, and shopping plazas, Wilmington’s downtown region is the place to go for more unique treasures that can’t be found anywhere else. Chic boutiques that are popular with the college crowds, fascinating art galleries, and acclaimed antique stores all compete for a sightseer’s attention, with a cool collection of goodies that highlight the diverse Wilmington scene. Pop into a local food stroe or wine & beer shop for a little flavor, or pick up some vintage threads at one of the downtown area’s apparel stores. For a little bit of everything, head to The Cotton Exchange, which is a converted former mill house from the late 1800s which has been resurrected to a shopping center with more than 30 stores and restaurants spread out across 8 buildings. No matter where your tastes lie, the diversity of the downtown scene will entice shoppers of all style.
Soak up the Local History
History is alive and well throughout Downtown Wilmington. First established in the 1720s with the initial arrival of the English colonists, this city has been a prosperous port town ever since, and was well-known as a popular spot for Confederate Blockade runners during the height of the Civil War. Today, visitors can dive into Wilmington’s story in a myriad of ways, starting with a downtown walking, biking, trolley, or even Segway tour. On these excursions, tour-goers will learn all about Wilmington’s centuries of stories while enjoying a picturesque stroll (or ride) throughout the heart of the scenic downtown area. In addition, a number of historic homes and residences - like the Latimer House Museum and Gardens and the Burgwin Wright House – have been transformed into museums that are stuffed with period antiques and which exude refined antebellum style. With a far-reaching range of options for discovering Wilmington’s past that can include an in-depth tour of the city, a historic house tour, or a combination of the two, discovering the city’s local history is simply an all-encompassing and enchanting experience.
Take in a Show
With deep ties to history and a legacy of theater and live performances that spans more than a century, it should come as no surprise that the theater scene in Wilmington is nothing short of exceptional. Roughly a half dozen stages, venues, and / or theater companies can be found in the downtown area, and visitors will find that there’s a myriad of possibilities when it comes to catching a show. Start your search by checking out the upcoming calendar of events for the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts. This impressive mid-1800s theater was constructed as a premier “opera house” for the area, and the structure now hosts a far-reaching range of performances, from visiting celebrities and musicians, to local plays and events. For a more intimate experience, check out the collection of other live theater venues including the Red Barn Studio Theater, the Cape Fear Playhouse, Level 5 at City Stage, and the Opera House Theater Company, just to name a few. With so many options, it’s possible to spend a full vacation enjoying the diverse live shows and performances that have helped shaped this city’s reputation as the “Hollywood of the South.”
Explore the Area Museums
Spend a rainy afternoon furthering an education by paying a visit to one of the city’s many acclaimed and distinctive museums. Wilmington has a roster of eclectic sites that makes learning a joy, and which can include everything from exhibits on the region’s rich ecosystems to its exceptional arts community. Must-see museums include the Cape Fear Museum, which is a two-story collection of exhibits that outline the region in detail, the Wilmington Railroad Museum, and the Children’s Museum of Wilmington – which is designed to delight the area’s youngest visitors. Visitors will also want to pay a visit to the impressive Cameron Art Museum, which highlights a regularly-rotating series of southeastern United State talents, as well as the Latimer House Museum and Gardens and other historic residences, which are living examples of the Wilmington landscape on the eve of the Civil War. For a truly unique adventure, check out the Museum of the Bizarre, or the Cape Fear Serpentarium – a creepy destination where hundreds of reptiles can be viewed up-close via 54 chilling displays. Regardless of your party’s interests, there’s always something new and surprising to discover with a visit to Wilmington’s impressive roster of area museums.
Plan a Beach Day
Wilmington is just a short drive away from miles of southern North Carolina beaches, and no visit is complete without reserving a sunny day or two to check out the local beach scene. Head to the 287-acre Fort Fisher State Recreation Area to enjoy miles of sand and sun, and reserve a little time to check out the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, (which is home to the remnants of a Civil War-era fort), as well as the nearby North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher – one of the most popular attractions along the coastline. The nearby towns of Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach also have their own allures, including a host of beach bars and restaurants as well as fun day-trip destinations, like the Carolina Beach Fishing Pier, and multiple beach access points and public parking areas can be found en route to enjoy the nice wide oceanfront shorelines. Visitors who want to spend some time on the shore will just want to plan ahead and leave early. On popular summertime weekends, the beach crowds can be thick with area parking filling up fast, so ensure easy access to the sand by being an early bird, and discover the exceptional fishing, beachcombing, surfing, and all-around fun that the Cape Fear beach scene is known for.
Linger in the Gardens
Lush gardens thrive in Wilmington’s warm and sunny climate, and the region is well known for its stunning landscape that includes seasonal blooms, towering live oaks that are dripping with Spanish moss, and acres of area gardens that thrive in the southern environment. Enjoy a sample of Wilmington’s longstanding love of gardens by visiting one of the area’s many sites where the vibrant foliage is on full display. The Arlie Gardens is a sprawling attraction that features 67 acres of formal gardens, walking trails, a wealth of historic sites, and more than 100,000 azaleas which bloom in the spring and summer months. The Bluethenthal Wildflower Preserve is a quieter destination, with 10 acres of wild terrain that’s adjacent to the UNCW campus, and which is dotted with seasonal-blooming wildflowers, while the New Hanover County Arboretum features an array of colorful exhibits, thanks to a gracious outdoor landscape that features 33 unique gardens and features. Regardless of where you go first, (or regardless of the time of year for that matter), the enchantment of the local outdoor gardens and exhibits will take any sightseer’s breath away, and will be an unforgettable aspect of any Wilmington vacation.
Dedicate Ample Time for Dining
Vacationers with an appetite will find endless options for dining out in Wilmington. Home to literally hundreds of restaurants, the dining scene in the Port City is renowned for its exceptional possibilities which can range from budget-friendly and trendy eateries for the college crowd, to fine dining destinations with exceptional water views. Start your culinary explorations in the downtown area, which is home to a wide array of specialty restaurants that feature French cuisine, upscale Southern fare, Indian fare, Mexican, Japanese, and old school pub grub. For a little local flavor, check out the area breweries and coffee houses for downhome beverages and food, or pop into one of the area’s many barbecue joints that serve up huge platters of deeply satisfying southern home cooking. Above all else, seafood fans will want to make sure they enjoy a fresh catch or two on their dining adventures. With close proximity to the Cape Fear River as well as the Atlantic Ocean, the coastal fare in Wilmington is simply out of this world. Regardless of what a visitor is craving, Wilmington has ample options to satisfy an appetite while discovering a delicious new take on this famed coastal region.
Stay up Late for the Nightlife
Wilmington is a prime destination for night owls, thanks to a big college crowd that stems from the local University of North Carolina Wilmington, a fantastic arts scene, and a number of young professionals who flock to the city. As a result, visitors who want to let loose after hours will find tons of options which can range from dive bars and dance clubs, to laid-back pubs and breweries. Start an after-hours tour along the downtown streets, where dozens of local hot spots can be found. The live music scene is equally distinct, and it’s not unusual to find plenty of bands, karaoke nights, DJs, performers, and other after-hours entertainment throughout the city on a Friday or Saturday night. With most bars and clubs open until 2:00 a.m. at the latest, (per North Carolina state law), visitors will have an easy time finding ways to stay entertained well after the sun goes down.
Celebrate with a Festival
One of Wilmington’s biggest claims to fame, (literally), is its roster of annual festivals, and visitors who want to make the most out of their Wilmington visit can coincide a vacation with one of the region’s many multi-day and star-studded celebrations. The annual Azalea Festival which is held in the spring attracts roughly 200,000 – 300,000 people every year, thanks to a huge street fair, a series of corresponding events at top attractions, and nightly concerts with A-list performers. Wilmington’s Riverfest will attract fall visitors thanks to its city-wide celebration and state fair-like list of activities, while the Wilmington Seafood Festival, (also held in the fall), will attract visitors with taste thanks to a wide range of fresh NC-caught seafood up for grabs. With smaller but no-less distinctive festivals held throughout the year, like the annual Restaurant Week or Independence Day celebration, virtually any visit can be transformed to a true celebration simply by joining the on-going party.
From city-wide celebrations to delicious restaurants and cool after-hours destinations, there’s no shortage of things to do in the thriving city of Wilmington. Plan a vacation that’s filled with area activities and attractions, and discover everything there is to love about this coveted Cape Fear community.