Last Updated on March 27, 2023
Last Updated on March 27, 2023
There really is almost too much to explore around North Carolina‘s Port City, especially when you start thinking about all the beaches near Wilmington. Many of them are home to the Hollywood magic, rich history, and great restaurants that Wilmington is known for, which is another reason to love them all.
After all, this area hosts some of the best beaches in North Carolina and we’re here to dig into each one. Thanks to family-friendly activities and things to do for everyone, these beach communities are more than just beautiful sand and surf!
Let’s dig into our favorite beaches within an hour’s drive of Wilmington and things to do in each town! At the end, we’ll explain which one is best based on our personal experiences.
New Hanover County Beaches Near Wilmington
12 miles | 18 minutes
Many of the events and activities in Wilmington will likely be found around the boardwalk. Here are a few things to do around that popular landmark:
- The Boardwalk at Carolina Beach is home to endless food stands, including North Carolina institution Britt’s Donuts.
- Dozens of music events and festivals use the Boardwalk as a backdrop each year, drawing in large crowds to the busiest beach in North Carolina.
- Get outdoors at Carolina Beach by taking surfing lessons and biking along the Greenway.
- Lake Park isn’t far from the Boardwalk and is a wonderful place to stretch your legs and enjoy beautiful scenery away from the beach.
- Also, there are 761 acres at Carolina Beach State Park, one of our favorite parks and places to go hiking in North Carolina!
15 miles | 22 minutes
On the other hand, Kure Beach (pronounced cure-ee) maintains a much slower pace compared to Carolina Beach. The emphasis in the Kure community is to escape back to nature.
Regardless, there are still some pretty fun things to do here, including the following:
- In addition to less crowded beaches, you’ll also find the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic Coast in Kure.
- The Civil War-era Fort Fisher State Historic Site includes a six-mile protected shoreline and is where the Civil War’s largest Amphibious Battle occurred. The Visitor Center features an accessible museum and leads to a scenic trail around the remains of the original fort.
- Diving from Fort Fisher is another popular endeavor at Kure Beach. Just 700 yards off the coast are the remains of the blockade runner, Condor. The Condor was said to be one of the fastest ships but is now one of the best-preserved Civil War blockade runners in the world.
- Families vacationing in Kure Beach can enjoy sharks, otters, and stingrays at the nearby North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. With both freshwater and saltwater exhibits and a touch tank, the Aquarium is one of our favorite kid-friendly things to do in Wilmington’s surroundings.
6 miles | 11 minutes from Wilmington
Known for its higher-end beach houses and accommodations, Wrightsville Beach was named one of the world’s best surf towns. Here, you’ll find many more boutiques, fresh seafood restaurants, and water sports, as well as five miles of wide, sandy beaches and beautiful views.
- Because it’s so well known for surfing, our number one recommendation on what to do in Wrightsville is to surf, of course!
- For those who have never surfed before, try paddle-boarding on the Intracoastal Waterway.
- Fishing is also a popular activity in Wrightsville Beach. Cast a reel off Johnnie Mercer’s Pier, the only concrete fishing pier in North Carolina. It’s also an excellent location to just kick back and enjoy a view of the water.
- From Wrightsville Beach, travelers can take a day trip to Masonboro Island Reserve, an isolated and protected beach, via a local boat company like Wrightsville Scenic Beach Tours. We were hosted for a ride and had a wonderful time.
- On Masonboro Island, more than 5,600 acres of unspoiled beaches, salt marshes, and tidal flats await. The shelling and birdwatching at Masonboro are extraordinary, and don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for dolphins!
- If you’re looking to tug on your heartstrings, then you must visit the Wrightsville Beach Mailbox. The Mailbox is located on the beach in front of Shell Island Resort and contains letters, notes, and words of encouragement left by strangers. Stop by and leave a note for a loved one, or enjoy some of the stories left by lovers prior.
- Wrightsville Beach Brewery is here, too. It’s one of our favorite breweries in Wilmington if not all of North Carolina!
Brunswick County Beaches near Wilmington
Brunswick County is the next county to the south of Wilmington and New Hanover County. It’s home to some of our favorite beaches, weekend getaways, and week-long vacation spots.
38 miles | 50 minutes
Oak Island is home to some of the best beaches near Wilmington, including Caswell Beach at the east end of the island. Here are some things to do:
- One of the most beautiful places to watch a sunset is from the Point, at the far western end of Oak Island. You can see the sun go down behind Holden Beach just across the water.
- If you feel the need for more seclusion, head over to Caswell Beach.
- Oak Island Lighthouse and its surroundings offer views of the water, Bald Head Island, and Old Baldy Lighthouse across the way.
- We also love eating in Oak Island, especially the seafood at Tranquil Harbour Restaurant and Bar and the burritos at Kai Joe’s. This town is certainly in the running for our favorite beach getaway.
39 miles | 48 minutes
No spoilers but we’ve been saying that Holden Beach is one of our favorites for a while.
It sits between Bald Head Island and Oak Island to the east and Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach to the west. Holden is known as the “family beach of North Carolina,” largely because it’s among the least commercial and mostly a collection of homes.
Of course, there are still plenty of things to do here for everyone:
- No matter where you stay, you’ll be within a walk from the beach and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other side.
- You’ll see many people (including us!) starting days with bike rides along with the “Olden Holden” Trail before heading to the closest beach access.
- During the season (typically March to October), you can grab food at a few restaurants near the bridge. Surfer’s Cafe (great burgers!) is next to the Food Lion over the bridge and is open throughout the year, in case you visit during the offseason.
Ocean Isle Beach
46 miles | 55 minutes
Ocean Isle Beach is usually the first beach that people will claim is the best beach in North Carolina. We agree with them on many fronts.
Here are a few reasons to love this place:
- The canals that you see while driving over the bridge are enough to keep you hooked on this place.
- Along with an excellent beach strand, there are great parks at OIB. They include the adventure-friendly Swamp Park and the playgrounds at Ocean Isle Beach Park and Town Center Park.
- Endangered sea turtles also call this place “home,” and the OIB Sea Turtle Protection Organization watches over the nesting and hatching seasons.
50 miles | 1 hour
Of our barrier islands, Sunset Beach is the southernmost beach in North Carolina. You can spend all day (or year) relaxing on the beach, of course, but a walk on the Sunset Beach Pier is worth moving for.
- The salt marsh and tidal creeks of Bird Island are a beautiful reason to visit Sunset Beach. Educational walks are offered throughout the summer, and there’s also the Kindred Spirit Mailbox—similar to the one found on Wrightsville Beach.
- The Ingram Planetarium is another thing that makes Sunset Beach stand out, with exhibits and programs awaiting.
- You can also learn about the history of Sunset Beach (and its future) at the Swing Bridge & Museum. This place honors the swing bridge that previously linked the barrier island to the mainland from 1958 to 2011.
- On the mainland side, there are some great golf courses to play, and we also enjoy Sunset Beach Park.
- Sunset Beach is also close to Calabash. If you know about the amazing seafood that awaits there, you’ll agree that it’s worth a trip from any of these beaches in North Carolina’s southeast corner.
Topsail Island Beaches near Wilmington
Topsail Island’s 26 miles of shoreline is a turtle sanctuary and is also a popular spot for shelling and shark teeth.
32 miles | 41 minutes
Surf City is the largest town on the island and is the geographic center of the island. Here are a few things to do here and just over the bridge:
- The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is one of the best things to do in North Carolina, not just in Surf City. Open from June through December, this volunteer-run non-profit rescues and cares for sea turtles of North Carolina.
- The Surf City Ocean Pier offers a nice view of the beach and plenty of anglers to watch. After a “busy” day on the beach, visit the Salty Turtle Beer Company for high-quality, innovative brews.
- If you are looking for something fun and unique to do while in Surf City, check out Board and Brush! It’s great for families and even date nights, as this is where you can pick a project and create together.
- Sears Landing and Daddy Mac’s Beach Grille are a couple of our favorite places to eat in Surf City, but we think you’ll find even more deliciousness here.
39 miles | 51 minutes
Topsail Beach is south of Surf City and is a bit more laid back than the already relaxed center of the island. Here are some things to do at the southern end of Topsail Island:
- The Jolly Roger Pier is an excellent introduction to Topsail Beach. You can cast a reel here or just enjoy beautiful views of the green water as we do.
- Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can even see dolphins and sea turtles from the end of the pier.
- Serenity Point at the far southern tip of Topsail Island is an undeveloped area and perfect for beachgoers. There is limited FREE parking, which adds to the privacy you’ll get.
- Another interesting fact about Topsail Beach is that it could’ve become our very own Cape Canaveral! During the 1940s, the then-uninhabited island was the site of a top-secret rocket launch mission (Operation Bumblebee).
- The Missiles and More Museum in Topsail Beach shares more of this unique history, along with exhibits covering local history, Pirates, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) that was developed in response to World War II.
Read More: 40+ Amazing Museums in North Carolina
North Topsail Beach
43 miles | 51 minutes
North Topsail Beach is on the Onslow County side of Topsail Island, and has a more secluded vibe than the rest. Here are some things to do that’ll keep you coming back:
- If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can drive on the northern end of Topsail Island off River Road.
- During summer, the Ocean City Jazz Festival celebrates the Ocean City Community, which was the first area developed specifically for African-Americans to buy and own coastal property in NC.
- Look out at the ocean and back on one of the most beautiful beaches near Wilmington via the Seaview Fishing Pier. There’s also a bait and tackle shop if you forgot something, and a restaurant attached to the pier.
Which of these Beaches Near Wilmington is the Best?
We hope you get to explore these amazing beaches near Wilmington! Our personal favorite is always changing, but based on recent travels, I think Oak Island is our current favorite.
However, we love popping over to Holden Beach and Topsail Beach for equally amazing experiences. Of course, we need Carolina Beach for Britt’s, strolls on the boardwalk, and access to Kure Beach and Fort Fisher.
As you’ll see, each of these beach towns has a uniquely different vibe. If you’re familiar with the area, which is your favorite and why?
In case you’re looking for a place to stay, we’ve got you covered with some great Airbnbs in Wilmington, too!