With its collegiate prestige and unique roots that extend from the Antebellum era to modern day Hollywood, it should come as no surprise that the museums that are found in and around Wilmington are as diverse as the vibrant cityscape itself.
Expand your knowledge on everything from military history to scaly and scary reptiles by paying a visit to these acclaimed museums that call the Wilmington region home.
Battleship North Carolina
Easily one of Wilmington’s best known and most visible attractions, the Battleship North Carolina encompasses a wealth of exhibits that are best enjoyed through a tour of the ship’s seemingly endless depths. Housed within a 1942 battleship that fought in every major Pacific offensive and won 15 battle stars, visitors will be able to explore everything from the engine rooms to the topside decks at this sprawling naval exhibit where history comes to life. Watch for special events which can include weekly summertime movie nights on the ship’s decks, and incredible Independence Day celebrations.
Bellamy Mansion Museum & Gardens
Well known as one of North Carolina’s most perfectly preserved examples of antebellum architecture, the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History & Design Arts is a fine destination for history buffs of all varieties. Built on the eve of the Civil War, (1859-1861), this site features lush gardens, period antiques, and stunning architectural details that span from the grand exterior columns to the wrap-around porches. Inside and out, the Bellamy Mansion Museum & Gardens is a popular destination for guided historical tours, as well as special and undeniably romantic private events.
Burgwin-Wright Museum House & Gardens
This circa 1770 residence in the heart of Wilmington on Market Street is a prime example of Georgian architecture at its best. All of the rooms within the grand home are outfitted with furnishings from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the property also boasts a freestanding kitchen house and nicely manicured outside grounds. Guided tours are available on the house from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. for visitors who want to dive into local history from the inside out.
Visitors who love puzzles will find themselves in a tricky heaven at the Cape Fear Escape Room – a destination that’s designed for folks who want to expand their imaginations, as well as their critical thinking abilities. Once at the site, visitors must “find a way out” by uncovering clues, locating hidden keys, and solving puzzles – all while embarking on a high octane 60-minute adventure that will test anyone’s intellectual limits. A fun destination for problem solves of all ages and varieties, the Cape Fear Escape Room is a relatively new attraction that will engage the intellect from the get go.
The Cape Fear Museum is one of the most popular museums in the region, and features centuries of local history through a series of intricate exhibits. Visitors can peruse a scale model of the original 1863 Wilmington waterfront, watch as the Civil War Battle of Fort Fisher unfolds, and even investigate local ecology in this coastal region at the interactive Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery. Seasonal special exhibits ensures that every visit will be fascinating, and regular special programs geared towards kids and adults alike are frequently offered.
Test your bravery at the Cape Fear Serpentarium – a 10,000’ square foot space where hundreds of varying snakes and reptiles can be admired, up close and personal. The creatures in this creepy museum are housed within 54 different displays, and stand-outs include more than 40 venomous snakes from around the globe, such as the Black Mamba and the King Cobra, as well as massive residents like the on-site giant constructors of the anaconda, python, and boa varieties. Simply put, enter if you dare.
Ideal for Wilmington’s youngest visitors, the downtown Children's Museum of Wilmington caters to the 1 to 10-year-old crowd with a series of exhibits that are designed for interactive and educational play. Favorite components of the museum include the "Ahoy Wilmington” pirate ship that is open for climbers, the on-site art studio for creative minds, the Magnetic Minds Science Center, the Imagination Circus Exhibit, and the Teddy Bear hospital. With such a diverse array, young patrons of all ages can flex their intellectual muscles while having a ball at this favorite kid-friendly destination.
One of Wilmington’s newest attractions is the Expo 216 – a two-story art space that’s found along Front Street, and which features more than 5,000’ square feet of gallery space. The interior of the museum features commissioned artworks, media loops, and informational panels which outline the various environmental and social issues that are distinctly highlighted every 10 months or so. The end result is a cumulative experience, where global issues and regional artistic talents are effortlessly intertwined.
Built in 1852, the Latimer House Museum and Gardens presents an introduction to the opulent lifestyle of the antebellum and Victorian-era elite though a series of 14 total rooms that are furnished with more than 600 period antiques. Flanked by exterior gardens that are stocked with Victorian period herbs and flowers, as well as additional servants’ quarters, a visit to this historic downtown residence is a step back in time for visitors who want to uncover the roots of early Wilmington history.
As the name would suggest, the Museum of the Bizarre is an ideal destination for curious visitors who want to peruse a miss-matched collection of oddities in the heart of Wilmington. The unique museum features a head-turning sideshow exhibit, a Wacky Hall of Fame, and an ensuing series of odd relics such as the Fort Fisher mermaid, the Crystal Skull of Knowledge, and Alexander Hamilton’s Hair, as well as numerous move props that were used in Wilmington throughout the years.
The expansive 42,000’ square foot Cameron Art Museum is a favorite destination for arts and culture lovers of all tastes, thanks to a rotating series of 6-8 exhibits which changes annually, as well as site-specific projects which includes a nod to the region’s role in the Civil War. Two centuries of artworks from both the state and all across the country can be admired on a continual basis, and the museum also hosts a myriad of events including regular artists’ receptions, classes for the public at the in-house museum school, and everything in between.
Discover a unique component of Wilmington’s story with a visit to the Wilmington Railroad Museum. Located within an original 1883 railroad freight warehouse, this museum boasts hundreds of artifacts that stem from Wilmington’s longstanding reputation as one of the most important port cities on the North Carolina coastline. Unique exhibits within the museum include the 1,500’ square foot model hall, a Children's Hall with kid-friendly exhibits, and an original ACL locomotive, boxcar, and caboose, which are all located just outside the museum’s entrance.
Tips and Tricks for Exploring Wilmington Museums
- Frequent visitors and residents may want to look into annual pass options. A number of popular museums and attractions, like the Children’s Museum of Wilmington and the Cameron Art Museum, offer budget-friendly annual memberships which allows visitors to pop in whenever they’d like to see what’s new.
- Area museums may also offer discounts for local UNCW students, seniors, children, veterans, and / or all of the above. Check ahead to see if any special savings may apply to your admission ticket(s.)
- Wilmington’s “museums” aren’t always indoors. Several unique attractions like the Airlie Gardens, the Bluethenthal Wildflower Preserve, and the New Hanover County Arboretum have a wealth of natural exhibits and a stunning landscape, all rolled into one destination.
- Expand your museum trips by checking out neighboring communities like Wrightsville Beach or Kure Beach, where popular attractions such as the Fort Fisher Historic Site and the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History can be found.
- Want to learn more about the roots of Wilmington? Embark on a tour! The city offers a far-reaching range of walking, biking, and even Segway tours that uncover the stories behind some of Wilmington’s most famous and infamous spots.
- Visitors who want to beat the crowds should plan a visit in the off season. Because Wilmington attractions are traditionally open year round, a museum expedition in the winter months is a great way to beat the cold while avoiding the busy summer tourist season.
- Be sure and check out the individual events calendars at your favorite museums. Many attractions in town host special classes, programs, and / or even performances that can make a museum experience even more immersive.
Regardless of whether you check out the kid-friendly exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Wilmington and the spill-tingling Cape Fear Serpentarium, or spend lazy days perusing the historic homes-turned-landmarks in the downtown area, Wilmington is filled with educational sites that will engage visitors of all tastes.
Spend your time exploring the town’s impressive roster of museums, and discover all the ways this coastal city is one of the most popular, and undeniably distinctive destinations, in the Cape Fear region.