There is no shortage of amazing things to do in Wilmington, NC. We should know best since it is the closest thing we have to home as full-time travelers. Wilmington has something for everyone whether you stay on land or water.
After several years of experience, I wanted to share some the best things to do in Wilmington, NC.
Stroll Through Airlie Gardens
One of the best things to do in Wilmington, NC is stroll through thee beautiful Airlie Gardens. Airlie Gardens a 67-acre botanical garden on the way to Wrightsville Beach. If you want a day outside with your loved one, this is one of the most romantic things to do in Wilmington.
The gardens are filled with oaks, outdoor art, walking paths, and seasonal flowers. This makes it the perfect place to come on a beautiful sunny day for a picnic. Throughout the year, several events can be enjoyed on the grounds.
For many who come to the coastal town, they have one thing on their mind – fishing. There are many ways you can go fishing in the Wilmington area. However, before you start, make sure you have a fishing license to do so legally.
There are two exceptions to a fishing license that is if you’re fishing from a pier that charges a fee to fish or if you’re on a charter fishing boat (both carry special commercial licenses that cover you). There are many ways you can try your hand at fishing, some include:
- Surf Fishing from the beach.
- Fish in Snow’s Cut and from Carolina Beach State Park.
- Deep-sea fishing with a charter boat from Carolina Beach or Wrightsville Beach.
- Cast a line off of Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, or Johnny Mercer Pier.
- Hop on the Winner Gulf Stream Fishing cruise
- Take your own boat of course!
Enjoy a Live Event!
Being at the beach and having an excellent downtown area Wilmington plays host to several festivals year round. Most of the ones we love are in the spring and summer, but there is something to do almost every weekend.
A few of our favorites are the NC Azalea Festival, the Cucalorus Film Festival, and Wilmington Beer Week. If you’re looking for a weekly event, check out the farmers market at Tidal Creek Coop or catch a concert at Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre.
SUP at Wrightsville Beach
I love the beach. So stand up paddle is one of the most fun things to do in Wilmington. Wrightsville Beach was my favorite beach to go to as a college student. It has an entirely different vibe here than at Carolina Beach and Kure Beach. I find it to be a bit cleaner and less crowded than Carolina – especially during the summer months.
Of course, you can travel to Wrightsville and lounge around, but Wrightsville SUP offers everyone the chance to try to stand up paddleboarding! Wondering what to bring to the beach? Check out our ultimate beach packing list!
Disc Golf in Wilmington
Disc Golf is Cameron’s favorite thing to do in Wilmington when the weather is beautiful. The Wilmington area has four disc golf courses, and they’re all free to use, making it one of the best free things to do in Wilmington, NC. All you need is a disc which you can pick up for $10 at several shops around the area.
You can find them at Outdoor Provisions, surf shops (CB surf), Dicks Sporting Goods, and a bunch of other places.
Here are four disc golf courses around Wilmington:
- North Regional Park, Castle Hayne: This course is on the PDGA, and it’s the best course in the area. It has 18 holes and many challenging par 4 and 5 holes. It’s prone to mud when there is fresh rain, but it’s terrific on a chilly day.
- Joe Eakes Park, Kure Beach: This is my favorite course because it’s a full 18 holes and has a few challenging holes. What makes it the best for me is it’s all in a coastal forest with sand fairways. The weather is reliable with plenty of water close by, but it also gets windy!
- Arrowhead Park: 18 hole par three disc golf course. There are plenty of hills that make for fun elevation changes and it’s in a beautiful little park.
- Good Hops Brewing, Carolina Beach: This is the most straightforward course with all of the holes at par 3. It’s also on the breweries property so you can legally pick up a craft beer inside and play while drinking. AWESOME!
Run the Loop
If you’re in the mood a bit of exercise and like to run there is a great running trail around Wrightsville Beach area. The John Nesbitt Loop, or “The Loop” as referred to by locals is the perfect 2.5-mile running path around the beach. Don’t worry, it’s dog and kid friendly and isn’t all runners! If you’re big on running there are other great places to head in Wilmington.
Places like Hugh Macrae Park, Carolina Beach State Park, or the Cross City Trail are perfect. When training for a race, Cameron would take the trail from UNCW to the loop and back (that’s a half marathon all on a paved path) so even serious runners will plenty of room to stretch the legs.
Check out the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail map here!
Enjoy a Trolley Tour Downtown
Downtown Wilmington, with its historic building and homes, fully deserves to be appreciated. I love our historic waterfront. If it’s your first time, consider hopping on a trolley, it’s one of the best things you can do in Wilmington. That’s right – downtown Wilmington still runs modified trolleys through town. Tours run for 45 minutes and cost $12 for adults.
Another great thing to do in Wilmington is eat amazing fondue. If you’re looking for a place to have a nice dinner heading to Historic Downtown Wilmington will provide the most options. They have a number of riverside dining options, which is excellent in the summertime.
One of my favorite restaurants to go to is Little Dipper. Little Dipper is a locally owned fondue restaurant with an intimate setting. They have great specials every day of the week, so make sure to check em out online first.
Bar Hop Downtown
If you’re looking for a night out on the town with your friends you have three places around Wilmington. The Wrightsville Beach Bars, Downtown Wilmington, and Carolina Beach. I always found Wrightsville Beach bars to be where the frat guys hung out so didn’t bother going there often, while Carolina Beach is a bit far from Wilmington to go drinking.
I wish I knew the number of bars downtown, but trust me when I say there are enough to have a good time. Most of the bars are lined up on Front Street, but they go as far back as 3rd. There’s a bar for just about any type of crowd downtown. There are rooftop bars, clubs, dive bars, breweries, beer halls, country bars, chill bars, and more.
There even used to be a Dueling Piano Bar, but unfortunately, that’s gone now. It may seem a little “younger” downtown, but remember that Wilmington isn’t just a vacation town, but a college town too.
Our favorite bars in downtown Wilmington are Blue Post (dive bar), The Husk, Cape Fear Beer & Wine, Satellite, Duck & Dive, and Barbary Coast. There are a ton, and that’s not even getting into the breweries!
Listen to Music at the Downtown Sundown
If you’re lucky enough to be in Wilmington on a Friday night during the summer, make sure to experience the Downtown Sundown Concerts. It’s one of the best free things to do in Wilmington in the summer.
Every Friday during the summertime, local bands and musicians perform on the riverfront while the sun goes down. It’s almost always cover bands, so you know what you’re getting into ahead of time. Downtown Sundowns are free and family friendly, but it’s possible to drink beer and wine there.
Shop at the Cotton Exchange
The Cotton Exchange is where you can find many boutique shops in Wilmington. It’s located in the historic downtown area and is best visited on the weekends when you can see the place come alive. The vendors sell a ton of antiques, locally made products, and art. If you like shopping for unique finds this is one of the best things to do in Wilmington!
Dinner and Movie Night
One of my absolute favorite things to do when I was in college (and now) was hit up dinner and a movie at Mayfaire Town Center. I know you can do this just about anywhere in the United States, but to me, there is just something extraordinary and nostalgic feeling about going to Mayfaire Town Center, plus it’s perfect for when the weather is crap.
Mayfaire is the upscale shopping center in Wilmington. It’s got your upper-class staple shops like Williams Sonoma and Pottery Barn, but it’s also got your everyday places to shop like Michaels. Also, they have one of the few H&Ms in the state of North Carolina. To me it’s not about the shops it’s about having a drink at the Fox & Hound before catching the latest movie in a lovely theatre. The cinema now features reclining chairs and couches.
Want to cool off without getting sandy at the beach? Jungle Rapids is an outdoor waterpark great for families looking for a fun time in Wilmington. They have Two Body Water Slides, a Lazy River and Wave-pool, and a few other fun rides. They also have bowling, golf, go-karts, mini golf, and a rock climbing wall!
Play Some Volleyball
I’ve been playing volleyball since I was 11 years old so you can bet the first thing I searched for when I moved to Wilmington was a volleyball court. There are two places to play organized beach volleyball in Wilmington. Capt’n Bill’s and Dig & Dive both located close to Market Street.
I played on teams, and even worked part-time as a referee, at Capt’n Bill’s for four years in Wilmington, and I love the vibe there. Teams from all levels play in leagues, and the place can get pretty competitive on the nights with higher league play. There is also a fun bar with food in case you want to watch.
Dig’N Dive is the newer establishment, and while organized team leagues also play here, the feeling on the courts is much more laid back. A place where people from all over can come and play free of charge (of course ordering beer and food is recommended).
Tour the USS North Carolina
One of the most unique things to do in Wilmington is tour a battleship! USS North Carolina (BB-55) is the lead ship of the pair of North Carolina-class battleships and docked right in Wilmington, NC. The Battleship is open every day of the year for visitors to come and visit and learn all about the ship that participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific area of operations during WWII.
If you happen to be in town over the Halloween festivities, make sure to check out their spooky haunted ghost ship!
These days Wilmington is very much a vacation destination, but that wasn’t always the case. Wilmington was, and still very much is a port town. The city was settled by European Americans along the Cape Fear River back in the 16th century.
A lot of action happened in Wilmington in those years, particularly in the downtown area near the river. If you feel like stepping back in time. You can get spooked on a Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington. It’s one of the best things to do in Wilmington, NC at night. , and perfect for anyone!
Kayak Around Zeke’s Island
One of Cameron’s favorite activities in Wilmington, NC is to kayak around Zeke’s Island. Zeke’s Island is an NC Coastal Reserve only accessible by shallow water boats.
Once there you will be able to enjoy the peace and quiet of the coastal marshlands. It’s a great opportunity to see all the biodiversity of Wilmington. There is a boat ramp at Federal Point – adjacent to the Zeke’s Island site to launch from.
I would recommend taking a cooler and some chairs for relaxation once there. I wouldn’t recommend crossing the old civil war wall that leads out to the island. Cameron once got caught out there during high tide and it wasn’t a good day – his sister hopped away with 26 stitches in her knee from oyster shells.
Go to the Aquarium
One of the most fun things to do in Wilmington, NC for families is head to the aquarium. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a place where kids and adults alike can visit and learn about marine life. It’s one of our favorite things to do in Wilmington, NC.
Unlike some of the mega aquariums around the United States, the Fort Fisher aquarium is a real research center and not a cash cow. The N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a member of the 230 accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
They have a number of exhibits and shows open every day of the year, so no matter what day you visit you’ll be sure to have a good time. It’s here that you can also meet the rare albino alligator named Luna and a rescued bald eagle named Maverick. They also have an awesome butterfly garden in the Spring and Summer.
Head to the Beach Bars
While there are beach bars at both Carolina Beach, Wrightsville, and Kure my absolute favorite place to enjoy the beach nightlife is at Carolina Beach. During the summer a vivacious crowd can be found at the numerous bars around the island.
The beach bars at Carolina Beach feel much more “beachy” to me than at Wrightsville where the college crowd hangs out. Kure Beach is also lovely, but it is much quieter than Carolina. We’re Carolina Beach regulars so here are our favorite bars in Carolina Beach.
- Fat Pelican: This doesn’t only make our list of favorite bars in Wilmington, but the world. It’s eclectic, packed with character, and just crusty enough to make it the perfect dive bar. We love the crowd as there is no age limit here (21+ mind you) and you’ll find every walk of life.
- Crush & Grind: We love the atmosphere here as its all about craft beer and wine in a modern atmosphere. The owner also makes some fantastic coffee – try out the cold brew! ***Update: Post Hurricane Florence the location was destroyed. We will update if the owner reopens.
- Tiki Bar & Grill: On a beautiful day it’s impossible to beat sitting on the remains of a pier and enjoying a cold drink. The only negative for us is the price with $5 beer cans and $12 cocktails (We’re not in NYC!).
- Sea Witch: Live music on the weekends and awesome tiki bar feel. They have a large open courtyard and often draw a crowd in the summer.
- The Last Resort: This little bar sits right on Carolina Beach Ave, and you can’t miss it!
- Nollies Taco Joint: There probably isn’t a better bar food than tacos.
Hunt for a Venus Flytrap at Carolina Beach State Park
One of the great Wilmington, NC Attractions is Carolina Beach State Park. Carolina Beach State Park is one of my favorite places in Wilmington to watch the sunset every day. We spent a month here in 2018 and spent almost every evening in the park. Besides sunsets, it also provides a good platform to fish from and launch your boat into the Cape Fear River.
Besides that, we like to come here and enjoy a hike through the woods beneath the fantastic trees.
They have beautiful shaded campsites here for campers and RVs. Carolina Beach is also home to the Venus flytrap! That’s right it is home to one of the most famous carnivorous plants in the world and one of the only places you can find it in the wild.
Yoga on the Beach
If you like to do yoga and you like to go to the beach, Wilmington is perfect for you. You can easily bring your own mat to the beach to practice yoga with the sound of the ocean waves. Or if you prefer an instructor and a class there are plenty of those too.
Wilmington Yoga Studios and Longwave Yoga both offer yoga retreats, beach yoga, and SUP yoga. If you head to Wilmington Yoga Studios be sure to check out Tidal Creek Coop on the floor below for healthy food.
Have a Coffee at Bitty and Beau
Bitty and Beau was not around while we were in college, but has become a well known national sensation and for a good reason! The coffee shop was opened by a local couple who have two children (Bitty and Beau) with Down Syndrome.
To combat the high employment rate for individuals with IDD and other disabilities, the Wrights opened up the first Bitty and Beau in Wilmington and employed people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
They now have two locations and employ over 60 people between the two coffee shops. Oh, Amy Wright may or may not have won CNN’s Hero of the Year. She did win!
Catch a Baseball Game
While the Carolinas have no Major League Baseball team, there is still a collegiate summer baseball league here. The Wilmington Sharks play at Legion Stadium during the summer. It makes for a great evening because! Thirsty Thursdays are the best time to watch. $1 draft beers – no joke.
Experience Hollywood East
Did you know Wilmington was once dubbed the “Hollywood of the East” or”Wilmywood”? That’s right; little old Wilmington is home to a considerable amount of film productions over the years. It’s why I chose to get my Film Degree at UNCW. One Tree Hill, Iron Man, The Conjuring, and a ton of Nicholas Sparks’ books turned movies were all filmed in Wilmington.
Many movies are shot on location, but EUE Screen Gems Studios also plays a massive role in film production in Wilmington. Movie making in North Carolina was much larger while we lived in Wilmington. However, the state legislature voted to end film incentive tax credits after 2014 film production in North Carolina has almost come to a standstill. With nearly all movies and TV shows heading to Atlanta these days.
Guided tours don’t run here as much as they used to, but for true fans, you can do a self-guided tour around filming locations.
Lewis Nursery and Farms is a family run business growing all the good stuff on their land – strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries! During the spring season, they allow visitors to pick their own strawberries, which is a fun day out. Don’t worry, if you’re feeling a little lazy you can buy the pre-picked fresh berries still.
This is state protected land and the entire island is undeveloped. It’s an amazingly beautiful area and one of the last places you can truly experience an untouched coast. Believe it or not, but the mouth of the Cape Fear River and Wilmington is one of the most biodiverse spots in the continental United States – and highest on the East Coast!
Try Britts Donut
Everyone and I mean everyone who lives in Wilmington raves about Britt’s Donuts in Carolina Beach. Now I’ve never really been much of a donut fanatic, but I can confirm that Britt’s Donuts are delicious. They’ve perfected the glazed donut, and besides coffee and milk, it is the only thing they sell. Come in the summertime and you’ll likely be waiting in line to try one. Don’t expect to pay with a credit card here. If you feel like mixing it up, head to Wake N’ Bake donuts for some amazing original creations.
If you’re wondering what to do in Wilmington when it rains hit up Defy Gravity Trampoline Park. The “park” is a 23,000 square foot facility with wall-to-wall steel-frame trampolines, slack lines, foam pits, and dodgeball arena.
If you have a group and looking to bounce around Defy Gravity is your place. This is one of the great things to do in Wilmington for kids.
Eat, Drink, and Be Happy
This is all our opinion, but these are the best places to eat and drink in Wilmington:
- Indochine: Whenever there’s a special occasion, we head to Indochine. Indochine is a Thai infusion restaurant, and it’s downright amazing and reasonably priced. I’ve never been to Indochine, no matter the day or time of year when there isn’t a line. So be prepared for that – but you won’t regret waiting. It is an institution in Wilmington, and a must try.
- Satellite: An impressive bar that often hosts events, live music on the weekend, and draws a hip crowd.
- Hibachi Bistro: My favorite “cheap eats” spot in Wilmington. Hibachi Bistro serves up cheap and quick hibachi meals, and on Wednesday they have half priced sushi.
- Dock Street Oyster Bar: If you’re a shellfish fan then this is the place to head. They offer steamed and raw oysters in a relaxed bar atmosphere.
- Flaming Amys: This colorful restaurant is another Wilmington institution known for its awesome burritos.
- The Copper Penny: Awesome cheap eats and bar food downtown.
- Little Dipper: As mentioned before, Little Dipper, is great for a date night or Ladies’ night.
- Taqueria Los Portales: For authentic, no frills, not “American” Mexican, this place is fantastic.
- Front Street Brewery: Front Street Brewery is…well…A brewery located right on Front Street. They have tasty beers and good food which you can enjoy inside or on the patio when the weather is good. Prices are very reasonable. You’ll probably end up waiting in a line if you come during a nice summer weekend day.
- Cape Fear Seafood Company: It doesn’t look like much on the outside, and it’s not ocean front, but Cape Fear Seafood Company serves fresh local reliable seafood.
- Slice of Life: Hands down the best pizza in Wilmington.
- Crush & Grind: This is our favorite coffee shop in Wilmington, although really it is in Carolina Beach. They serve great coffee and then the place turns into a wine bar at night. I also love that they use eco-friendly products and paper straws keeping the oceans clean here! (*Hurricane Florence wiped out Crush & Grind we hope it returns!)
Where To Stay in Wilmington?
Hilton Garden Inn Wilmington Mayfaire Town Center
Everyone in Wilmington knows Mayfaire as the nice shopping center with a great movie theatre, restaurants, and name brand shops. The Hilton here has great reviews and is only a few minutes from Wrightsville Beach.
Hampton Inn & Suites Carolina Beach Oceanfront
This is the newest hotel on Carolina Beach and has a modern interior. We haven’t stayed here, but have popped in to grab a coffee and have a drink on their back deck. Looks nice and they have great reviews. The hotel is located right on the boardwalk so your steps away from the beach.
The vast majority of people head to the coast here and use a vacation rental service – if resorts are your thing this isn’t the place for your vacation.
Cameron’s family runs a few Airbnb’s in Carolina Beach. They are amazing, a good value, and his mom even has the Superhost status. Check them both out here and here. After Hurricane Florence the beach condo received extensive flooding, it’s still standing but needs a renovation – should be open for 2019 summer.
We know Wilmington!
I made a move from Michigan to Wilmington, NC, when I was 19 years old. In search of a different lifestyle in the South and a college degree. Wilmington became my home while I attended the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
People often asked me why I moved to Wilmington, and the truth is I was searching for an “out” of the harsh Michigan winters. I Googled “Universities on the beach,” and the rest was history. It took me one day in the city to realize I picked an excellent school and home and that I was living where other people vacation.
I think the decision to move to North Carolina completely changed the path of my life as well. I got involved in some great programs while in college, used my schools study abroad program to venture out to Australia, fell in love with travel, and now I run a travel blog for a living and have traveled to over 65 countries.
Cameron and I also met in Wilmington, and now travel back here every year when we want to slow down for a bit since Cameron’s family has a home here. We both very much consider ourselves locals, and that’s why it pains me to see vacationers here doing the same few things day after day. (Oh, and Cameron has even been on the local news… We get this place.) So hopefully these 30 unique and different things to do in Wilmington, NC will help you discover something new and convince you what to do in Wilmington, NC.
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Plan and Pack for Wilmington
Book a Tour
Sometimes it’s nice to let someone else do the work!
For any day trip to the Wilmington beaches, you’re going to want some cold drinks. After we throw our bathing suits on it’s the first thing we pack up. Traditional coolers are heavy and pain on the beach so we use a portable travel cooler like the Hopper Flip when we’re on the beach.
It claims to keep your drinks fresh for up to three days, while we’ve never tested that feature out – one day at the beach and drinks are always frosty cold. If you want to pack a more while still being portable, the Hopper Flip is an excellent investment. Yeti products are great for the beach since they are leakproof, resistant to mildew and punctures, durable, and are entirely portable. Many of their coolers have closed cell rubber insulation and robust zippers. If you want to check out some other great coolers, you can view them here.
This all depends on where you’re heading to the beach, but a portable Bluetooth speaker is great to have when you’re in a group. We travel with a small BOOM speaker and take it with us when it feels appropriate. We say this because it’s often best to leave it at home on small secluded beaches so not to annoy anyone else with your music — no one’s that good of a DJ.
Of course, what you wear all depends on where you live! For those heading to Wilmington in the Spring or Fall, you may want something a little warmer. For those days we always reach for a warm fleece jacket.
Patagonia’s Synchilla Snap T Pullover fleece is the best fleeces for the beach in our opinion. The fleece has a classic relaxed cut that has a timeless look for a walk on the beach or evening bonfire. It’s a double-sided fleece that provides plenty of warmth while remaining soft and comfortable.
No matter what you will need a beach bag when heading to the beach. This is to throw in anything like towels, a book, a speaker, sunglasses, snacks, and sunscreen. As full-time travelers, we often use our daypacks for trips to the beach since a tote is unnecessary.
However, a classic tote that everyone has in their closet is a great option for those on short trips or live close to the beach. They also travel well as they can fold flat and lie in your luggage. For family beach goers I recommend a large yet durable beach tote like this one.
Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Wilmington. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.
We highly recommend getting an eco-friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
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