Considering that Wilmington is home to the renowned University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), it should come as no surprise that the city is packed with educational activities of all varieties.
From historic antebellum homes to local museums where the regional history comes to life through a variety of intricate displays, there’s always an engaging activity – as well as a learning opportunity – to be uncovered with every visit to Wilmington, NC.
USS North Carolina Battleship
The historic USS North Carolina Battleship - which was launched in 1940, won 14 battle stars during World War II, and which found its permanent Wilmington home in the latter 20th Century - is now a living history museum that visitors can explore from top to bottom. From the sunny decks that overlook the downtown region to the galleys and engine rooms below, the military history of America comes alive at this fully immersive site.
Renowned as the oldest museum in the state, (and initially established in 1898), the Cape Fear Museum features two stories of exhibits which highlight the rich history, ecosystems, and culture of the Cape Fear region. Explore the depths of Wilmington through a 19th century model of the town, a replicated historic classroom, a series of displays on the local ecology, and Civil War exhibits that outline the importance of Fort Fisher with a single visit to this all-encompassing and thorough museum.
The Wilmington Historic District is one of the largest historic districts in the state, and includes 875 contributing buildings that are scattered throughout the New Hanover region. With buildings that date back to the 1700s, (like the Smith-Anderson House and the Burgwin-Wright House), as well as pre-Civil War mansions and unique sites of distinction, (like the Victoria Theatre and Cape Fear Hotel), Wilmington is a stunning sight throughout for history buffs of all varieties. Expand an education by embarking on a city-wide tour that will uncover the stories behind the downtown region’s most famous structures.
Visitors can enjoy a day of shopping while soaking up the local history at The Cotton Exchange – a collection of 8 meticulously restored brick buildings that were once the hotbed of commerce during Wilmington’s heyday as a port town. Formerly a warehouse of sorts for traded goods, today the site hosts 33 unique shops and attractions which includes a collection of art galleries, as well as the on-site “walk of fame” that honors local legends such as David Brinkley, Charlie Daniels, Althea Gibson, and Roman Gabriel.
The extensive Cameron Art Museum is a regional Mecca for art lovers, with a number of rooms and exhibits that are home to a rotating showcase of regional artists. The 42,000’ square foot space that was designed in 2002 features a 9.3 acre Pyramid Park, a historic Civil War site, a collection of on-site nature trails, and of course, the interior exhibits themselves that rotate every 10 months or so. The museum is also home to the on-site Cameron School, which offers a variety of art programs and classes for students of all ages and interests.
Constructed in 1852 by a wealthy local merchant named Zebulon Latimer, the Latimer House Museum and Gardens has been the standing home of the local Historical Society since 1962, and currently serves as a fine replica of the Victorian upper class lifestyle. Boasting more than 600 historical antiques and objects, which range from furnishings and décor to jewelry and tools, visitors can garner an inside peek into Wilmington’s original elite with a visit to this stately and altogether enthralling historical home.
Bellamy Mansion Museum & Gardens
Completed just as the Civil War began in 1861, this stately city residence of a plantation owner remains remarkably intact, with beautifully restored rooms that are stuffed with period antiques and which paint a complete portrait of the wealthy southern lifestyle, just before the Civil War. The 10,000’ square foot residence is open for tours Tuesday through Sunday, and when coupled with the recreated period gardens and original restored slave quarters, visitors can enjoy an in-depth perspective on what Wilmington life was like more than 150 years ago.
Burgwin-Wright Museum House & Gardens
Known as one of Wilmington’s oldest residences, this 1770 mansion is a fine example of Georgian architecture that has been perfectly restored. From the gracious Colonial style gardens to the two tiers of columned porches, visitors can enjoy an in-depth look into local history, which includes interior rooms that are outfitted with 18th and 19th century antiques. With guided tours available hourly in the late-morning / early afternoon, visitors can learn all about this home and Wilmington’s significance while touring an architectural wonder.
The 67-acre Airlie Gardens is an educational treasure for visitors of all interests, due to its historical exhibits which includes a unique 1835 chapel, a roughly 500+ year-old live oak, a wealth of historic and modern artistic sculptures, and a vibrant diversity of gardens. With more than 100,000 azaleas, a 150-year old rose trellis, and an assortment of spring bulbs and fall mums, a visit to the Airlie Gardens is an educational introduction to the natural beauty of the Cape Fear region.
Located just off of Oleander Drive, the New Hanover County Arboretum is a scenic destination to further a local ecology education through seven acres of picturesque gardens and different landscapes that change throughout the seasons. Currently, the Arboretum is home to roughly 30 distinctive gardens that are stocked with species that are native to the Cape Fear region, as well as more unusual species that thrive in the coastal area. With regular educational programs and plant sales hosted by local garden clubs, the Arboretum is a great place to get up and grow.
The Bluethenthal Wildflower Preserve is a slice of natural terrain that’s located on roughly 10 acres of land adjacent to the UNCW campus. Utilized as an outdoor classroom for UNCW faculty as well as a public attraction, the preserve features dense forests that can be accessed and explored via a wide pine-covered trail. As the name would suggest, the site is loaded with seasonal local wildflowers and small ponds, which makes it an attractive birdwatching destination in the warm weather months. The Bluethenthal Wildflower Preserve is open daily from sunrise to sunset, and can be fully explored within just an hour or so.
Kids ages 1-10 will find all sorts of ways to learn while having a ball at the sprawling Children's Museum of Wilmington in the heart of Downtown Wilmington, NC. Exhibits which are spread out over multiple levels include an art studio, a science center, a Teddy Bear Hospital, a towering pirate ship, an "Imagination Station,” and even an outdoor fossil pit. Best of all, regular classes and special programs are also frequently held to engage young imaginations. Open year-round, the Children’s Museum is a great place for young minds to run wild.
Famed as one of the most stunning and oldest theaters in the country, the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts has been a home for local theater and stellar performances since first opening its doors in 1858. Modern day visitors can soak up the local culture through a full calendar of special performances, including plays and dramas, guest speakers or comedians, and live concerts from a wide array of artists. In addition, Wilmington is home to several other theater venues, like the City Stage Theater in the heart of the downtown area, which makes it a simple venture to take in a show and expand your cultural horizons.
The Wilmington Railroad Museum pays homage to the city’s deep roots as a busy port town, and is home to a wealth of exhibits that explore this railroad history from the ground up. Popular attractions within the museum include a special children’s center where regular story hours are hosted, a 1,500’ square foot train model hall, and a real ACL caboose, boxcar, and a locomotive that is stationed just outside the museum entrance. Fascinating for all ages, this site takes a magnifying glass to one of Wilmington’s most prominent yet lesser known chapters in regional history.
Tips and Tricks for making the Most out of Wilmington’s Educational Activities
- To further an education on the significance and stories of the downtown area, sign up for a tour. Wilmington has a wide range of tours that explore the downtown area in-depth, which includes walking tours, spooky ghost tours, trolley tours, bike tours, and even Segway tours. With centuries of history to uncover, an area tour is a great way to get to know the city, past and present.
- Your educational expeditions don’t have to be confined to the land. Several local companies in the Cape Fear region offer eco-tours via a skiff, paddle board, or kayak, which explores some of the most scenic on-the-water areas while presenting an exceptional opportunity to learn more about the local wildlife.
- Don’t forget to check out local events calendars! Destinations like the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts and the Children’s Museum of Wilmington are always hosting special performances and programs, which can make a visit even more special.
- Visitors who love local history and architecture will want to plan a visit to Wilmington that coincides with a local home tour. Several times per year, (generally in the spring and around the holidays), a number of historic private residences open their doors to visitors, allowing tour-goers to explore even more of the famed residences that the downtown area is renowned for.
- There’s even more to discover during one of Wilmington’s many festivals. The town is home to a wealth of acclaimed events, like the annual Riverfest and the Azalea Festival, where learning and celebrating seamlessly go hand in hand.
From centuries of history to present day local landscapes, there’s something new to discover in Wilmington around every corner. Discover a unique slice of life in the Cape Fear region, and add a little education to your explorations for an engaging and fascinating vacation experience you’ll never forget.