Last Updated on September 14, 2022
Last Updated on September 14, 2022
Wilmington is known not only for its incredible downtown along the Cape Fear River but also for the awesome beach towns nearby. There are so many fun things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina, on both the sea and shore.
While you most definitely can spend your time enjoying the beaches, we’ve listed some of the other fun attractions in Wilmington that you might want to explore!
Our guide covers all of the above (and more), from Wilmington to each of its neighboring beach towns.
With so many activities awaiting, planning a trip to Wilmington can be overwhelming. That’s why we’ve organized this guide into the following sections:
- Location Info (and Fun Facts)
- Where to Stay in Wilmington
- Things to Do throughout the Wilmington Area (Beaches, Tours, Indoor Activities, and More)
- Things to Do in Wilmington and Nearby
- Carolina Beach
- Wrightsville Beach
- Kure Beach
- Masonboro Island
- More Things to Do in Wilmington (Travel Guides)
You can continue reading about our Port City’s location or skip ahead to any of these sections that feature things to do in Wilmington and nearby!
Where is Wilmington, North Carolina?
Before sharing the best things to do in Wilmington, we think you should know a bit more about its location and a few fun facts about our Port City.
- Wilmington is located in New Hanover County, on the North Carolina coast.
- If you look at a map, you’ll notice that Wilmington is where I-40 ends and that the city lies along the Cape Fear River.
- Before it was Wilmington, Native Americans occupied much of the area for thousands of years.
- After the Tuscarora War between 1711 and 1715, more European settlers began arriving in North Carolina.
- In 1729, settlers established a town where Wilmington stands today, naming it “New Carthage.”
- Additional name changes to New Liverpool and New Town followed in the 1730s.
- In either 1739 or 1740, the town was given the name “Wilmington” in honor of Spencer Compton, who was the Earl of Wilmington.
- Wilmington grew into an important Port City because of its location along the Cape Fear River.
- Wilmington has been the scene of the first armed resistance against the British (1765), occupation by the British (1781) and the Union (1865), and a horrible coup attempt and riot (1898).
- The city’s history is recognized throughout Wilmington’s revitalized downtown and beyond. Visitors and residents alike view Wilmington as a thriving (and scenic) city and gateway to some of North Carolina’s most popular beach destinations.
- Today, Wilmington’s main industries include:
- Shipping (hence the nicknmame “Port City.”)
- Movie and tv production (hence the nickname “Wilmywood.”)
Read More: Important Facts About North Carolina
Where to Stay in Wilmington
You are definitely going to want to make it a weekend or more, so of course, we have some recommendations on where to stay in Wilmington!
- Hotels: If you want a beautiful hotel experience in the heart of downtown, here are two suggestions:
- Hotel Ballast in Wilmington. Right along the riverfront, the views of the Battleship North Carolina are stunning when the sun rises.
- Blockade Runner in Wrightsville Beach. Overlooking the channel and in a less populated area than downtown, it is easy to get to the beach and relax from one of their stunningly comfortable rooms.
- Rentals: There is also no shortage of beautiful oceanfront accommodations, whether you’re looking in Kure Beach, its neighbor Carolina Beach, or in Wrightsville Beach. Enjoy sunrise over the ocean waves and still be close to all of the wonderful things to do in Wilmington!
- Rental Companies: We’ve stayed in a couple of rentals managed by Palm Air Realty, in case you’re searching for a specific company. They offer a variety of properties, homes, and condos to help plan your trip to Wilmington!
Read More: Airbnbs in Wilmington
Annual Events in Wilmington (and Nearby)
No matter when you visit Wilmington, there’s something fun going on. Here are a few annual events we think you should keep an eye out for.
Note that these events could be postponed or canceled due to unforeseen circumstances.
- January: First Day Hikes at Carolina Beach State Park to kick off the new year!
- February: The North Carolina Jazz Festival ususally celebrates for three days at Hotel Ballast.
- April: The NC Azalea Festival is one of the biggest spring events in North Carolina, not just in Wilmington. A series of parades, festive galas, historic home tours, and lush gardens await.
- May: Battleship North Carolina hosts its Memorial Day Observance, honoring those who gave their all for this country.
- July: The City of Wilmington’s Fourth of July Celebration lights up the city over the Cape Fear River.
- October: Riverfest is a huge event, with craft vendors, a kid’s play area, music on multiple stages, and Saturday night fireworks.
- November and December: One of the most festive collections of Christmas lights in North Carolina is Enchanted Airlie, here in Wilmington!
- November to March: College basketball is king and queen in North Carolina. The UNC-Wilmington Basketball Men and Women get started in late fall with their out-of-conference opponents before conference play begins.
Things to Do in Wilmington (Throughout the Area)
Those events certainly deserve a spot on your calendar. These are things to do in Wilmington (and its surroundings) throughout much of the year!
Wilmington is the perfect gateway to amazing beaches, which we’ll cover in more detail below. There are more than a few that you can reach by boat (like Masonboro Island), which we’ll mention shortly.
In the meantime, here’s a quick list of beaches you can reach by car, all within an hour of Wilmington:
- New Hanover County (east)
- Carolina Beach
- Kure Beach
- Wrightsville Beach
- Onslow and Pender Counties (north)
- Topsail Island (Surf City, Topsail Beach, and North Topsail)
- Brunswick County (south)
You can take a boat tour from just about anywhere in the Wilmington area. Several different types of excursions await, including romantic sunset cruises, eco-history tours, and Full Moon rides.
We’ve done a few of these and highly recommend a boat tour in Wilmington.
Here are a few boat tour companies in Wilmington and nearby:
- Island Cruises (Carolina Beach)
- Island Time Water Tours (Carolina Beach)
- Sea Gate Boating (Wrightsville Beach)
- Wilmington Water Tours (Wilmington)
- Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours & Water Taxi (Wrightsville Beach)
The Wilmington area’s waters teem with fishing opportunities, from inshore and surf fishing to offshore charters. We will cover the piers you can fish from in each individual beach town shortly.
In the meantime, here are Wilmington-area fishing charters and their departure points:
- Batson Charter Boats (Carolina Beach)
- Blackbird Guide Services (Multiple Locations)
- Cape Fear Guide (Wrightsville Beach and More Locations)
- Carolina Beach Fishing Charters (Carolina Beach)
- Carolina Beach Headboats (Carolina Beach)
- Circle H Charters (Wrightsville Beach)
- Deep Sea Express Charters (Wrightsville Beach)
- Feel Good Fishing Charters (Multiple Locations)
- Fish Witch Charters (Carolina Beach)
- Fortune Hunter (Wrightsville Beach)
- Gone Coastal Charters (Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and More)
- Hook, Line, and Paddle (Wilmington)
- Hot Ticket Fishing Charters (Wrightsville Beach)
- Liveline Charters (Wilmington)
- Musicman Charters (Carolina Beach)
- No Excuses Fishing Charters (Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and More)
- ProFishNC Charters (Multiple Locations)
- Sea Gate Boating (Wrightsville Beach)
- Seagate Charters (Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Wilmington)
- Second Sport Charters (Carolina Beach)
- Southern Sportfishing (Carolina Beach)
- WB Diving (Wrightsville Beach)
- Wet-N-Wild Sportfishing (Carolina Beach)
- Whipsaw Charters (Wrightsville Beach)
Indoor Games and Entertainment
While we always cross our fingers for great weather, some days just aren’t meant for outdoor adventures.
Luckily, Wilmington and its surroundings have a great lineup of arcades, bowling alleys, trampoline parks, and escape rooms to keep you entertained.
- BreakTime Billiards Bar & Grill- Family Fun Center (127 S College Rd, Wilmington)
- Cardinal Lanes Shipyard (3907 Shipyard Blvd #6152, Wilmington)
- Cardinal Lanes North/Beach Bowl (7026 Market St, Wilmington)
- Carolina Beach Arcade (103 Carolina Beach Ave N, Carolina Beach)
- Defy Wilmington Trampoline Park (6431 Market St, Wilmington)
- The Exit Games (2 N Front St, 2nd Floor, Wilmington)
- Flip N Fly Indoor Entertainment Park (830 Inspiration Drive, Wilmington)
- Green Light Escape Rooms (130 N Front St, Suite 202 Wilmington)
- Hi-Tech Arcade (111 K Avenue, Kure Beach)
- iEscape Rooms (100 N Lake Park Blvd, 2nd Floor, Carolina Beach)
- Ten Pin Alley- Family Fun Center (127 S College Rd. Wilmington)
Paddling (via kayak or SUP) is one of the most fun ways to get out on the water, especially in the Wilmington area.
A few of these outfitters offer tours, but that could change due to staffing and any other unforeseen circumstances.
- Cape Fear Paddleboarding (Wrightsville Beach)
- Cape Fear River Adventures (Multiple Locations)
- Hook, Line, and Paddle (Wilmington)
- Kayak Carolina (Kure Beach)
- Mahanaim Adventures (Multiple Locations)
- Paddle NC (Carolina Beach and also, Topsail and Hammocks Beach State Park)
- Pleasure Island Rentals (Carolina Beach)
- Wrightsville Kayak Company (Wrightsville Beach and Figure Eight Island)
- Wrightsville SUP (Wrightsville Beach)
We suggest you call in advance and be patient, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate on the day of your planned adventure.
Things to Do in Wilmington
We now focus on things to do in Wilmington, starting with one of our favorite outdoor attractions!
300 Airlie Rd, Wilmington
Airlie Gardens is one of the best outdoor things to do in Wilmington, no matter when you visit!
The 67-acres of historic gardens make for a beautiful experience all year long with the huge oak trees with romantic Spanish moss serving as stunning backdrops for your photos.
Walk the paths through the different gardens, check out the bug zoo, or attend one of their seasonal events like the Airlie Oyster Roast! And don’t forget to come back at night in December for the holiday tradition of Enchanted Airlie.
More New Hanover County Parks
Airlie Gardens is managed by New Hanover County, which also maintains a few other parks:
- Arrowhead Park (300 Airlie Rd, Wilmington)
- Cape Fear Museum Park (814 Market St, Wilmington)
- Long Leaf Park (314 Pine Grove Dr, Wilmington)
Battleship North Carolina
1 Battleship Rd NE, Wilmington
Sitting across from the Riverwalk is the Battleship North Carolina, a memorial to all of the North Carolina ships and Carolinians who served during World War II. Attend the monthly Battleship 101 for an education and interactive experience or go on a self-guided tour of the ship.
503 Market St, Wilmington
Home to the only preserved slave quarters in the United States, Bellamy Mansion is a required visit for your inner history enthusiast.
Learn about the Bellamy family, the enslaved people at the mansion, and tour the 10,000 square-foot home and gardens, which were constructed in 1861.
Cameron Art Museum
3201 S 17th St, Wilmington
Looking for some indoor fun while at the beach? The Cameron Art Museum offers both indoor and outdoor exhibits to engage your mind.
With visiting and permanent exhibitions, there is always something interesting to see here!
The Cape Fear Museum of History and Science
814 Market St, Wilmington
Learn all about the region that surrounds Wilmington at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science! In addition to local history, you’ll find exhibits on space, music, and even rare memorabilia from local celebrity Michael Jordan!
Children’s Museum of Wilmington
116 Orange St, Wilmington
Head on over to the Children’s Museum of Wilmington for hours of hands-on fun! Walking in, you’ll first be greeted by the giant boat structure where children are encouraged to interact and learn about the ocean.
There are exhibits for all age groups, even toddlers. Don’t forget to check out the outdoor garden, and, if you hear some barking, it’s probably coming from the veterinarian’s office!
Read More: Amazing Children’s Museums in North Carolina
Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park
5320 Oleander Dr
Most people come for the water park, but you can also play laster tag, bowl, play arcade games, enjoy rock climbing, and enjoy much more!
Movie Location Tour
Wilmington’s second name is Wilmywood.
Film lovers can take a self-guided tour to where these shows were filmed and experience their favorite shows for themselves!
Read More: Movies Filmed in North Carolina
Museum of the Bizarre
201 South Water St
Museum of the Bizarre is a great place, especially if you love science and oddities. Check out the Crystal Skull of Knowledge and Fort Fisher Mermaid, but there’s even more that awaits inside.
You can stick to the museum side or challenge yourself with a walk through the Lazer Vault Maze. Either way, we think you should add this to your list of things to do in Wilmington.
Read More: 100+ Unique Things to Do in North Carolina
New Hanover County Arboretum
6206 Oleander Dr
The New Hanover County Arboretum is one of our favorite free things to do in Wilmington. Enjoy the seven acres of gardens here, which are lovely for a walk throughout the year.
If you’re traveling with kids, the Arboretum has an adorable garden with a playhouse, pipe organ, and sandbox.
Before you visit, don’t forget to check the Arboretum’s website to see exactly what flowers are in bloom!
10200 US-17, Wilmington
Poplar Grove is among the last remaining peanut plantations in the United States and one of the most memorable things to do in Wilmington. Its caretakers do a wonderful job of highlighting the entire history of the plantation, including the stories of its enslaved people.
Join Poplar Grove for a tour of the Manor House to learn about life on a coastal plantation or come out for a special event, like their Paranormal Tours!
The Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden
3800 Canterbury Rd, Wilmington
Did you know that Venus flytraps only grow natively in Wilmington and the 60-mile radius around it? There are some pretty interesting reasons behind this, all of which you can learn at The Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden!
See their Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, and more while learning about the microclimate of Wilmington!
The park is also ADA accessible and sits on 39 acres of land protected by the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust and the landowners, the Oleander Company. The garden itself is less than an acre and visitors are encouraged to visit during the daytime.
More Wilmington Parks & Greenways
The City of Wilmington manages the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden and many more parks. Here are a few more you should know about:
- Arrowhead Park (720 Arnold Rd, Wilmington)
- Gary Shell Cross City Trail (City Wide, 15 Miles)
- Greenfield Park (1739 Burnett Blvd, Wilmington)
- Halyburton Park (4099 S. 17th St, Wilmington)
- Long Leaf Park (314 Pine Grove Dr, Wilmington)
- Ogden Park (615 Ogden Park Dr, Wilmington)
- Riverfront Park (10 Cowan St, Wilmington)
Wilmington Railroad Museum
505 Nutt St, Wilmington
The Wilmington Railroad Museum is one of our favorite places to go to see model trains in person. With a children’s play area, huge model railroad displays, and a real steam engine and caboose, this is heaven on Earth for our little one.
Wilmington Railroad Museum Fun Fact: they actually broke the Guinness World Record in 2011 for the world’s longest model train!
At the heart of Wilmington is the Riverwalk, where the city meets the water. Here, you’ll find restaurants, shops, and beautiful views of the Cape Fear River.
Spanning 1.75 miles, the walking is easy, scenic, and one of the first things to do in Wilmington for visitors and residents alike!
Wilmington Sharks Baseball
2149 Carolina Beach Rd, Wilmington
The Wilmington Sharks are the city’s summer collegiate baseball team that plays in the Coastal Plain League. If you’re like us, you’ll find Minor League Baseball more fun to watch than the big leagues.
That’s partly because the players seem more approachable and down to earth.
Also, games are also more affordable, especially for Sharks games, which kick off in May!
Things to Do in Wilmington’s Surroundings (Carolina Beach)
We mentioned above that Wilmington is home to some fantastic beaches, but there are also so many wonderful things to do after you’ve had some fun in the sun.
Below, we are going to outline all of the fun things to do in Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach beyond the sand!
Walk the Boardwalk
If you go to Carolina Beach and you don’t walk the boardwalk, were you even there? The oceanfront boardwalk is beautiful all year round and is the perfect spot to make memories.
With restaurants, shopping, and amusement rides there is plenty of fun to be had on the Boardwalk. And yes, waiting in line at Britt’s Donuts when it’s open during the busy season is a must; you won’t regret it!
Carolina Beach State Park
1010 State Park Rd, Carolina Beach
With nearly nine miles of trails that snake through different habitats, Carolina Beach State Park is definitely a fun thing to do while here! The trails are flat and easy and give a great representative look at the diverse ecosystems found in the Cape Fear region.
Also, Carolina Beach State Park is one of the best places for water access in Wilmington! Fish, kayak, rent a boat, or just enjoy the slapping sounds of the water from nearly anywhere.
This is definitely a unique feature that many of the state parks in North Carolina can’t claim!
Freeman Park Recreation Area
1800 Canal Dr, Carolina Beach
Only accessible via a four-wheel-drive vehicle, Freeman Park is a more adventurous thing to do in Carolina Beach. Make sure to apply for a day pass and enjoy a more natural setting for fishing, swimming, and searching for shells!
Freeman Park is also an excellent place to camp at Carolina Beach, so come with your tent and smores!
More Carolina Beach Parks
Freeman Recreation Area is a great spot on the sand, but here are a few more Carolina Beach Parks you should also know about:
- Carolina Beach Lake Park (400 S Lake Park Blvd, Carolina Beach)
- Island Greenway (Mike Chappell Park, 501 Dow Road South, Carolina Beach)
- Joseph Ryder Lewis Jr. Park (1018 N Lake Park Blvd Carolina Beach)
- Mike Chappell Park (501 Dow Rd S, Carolina Beach)
More Things to Do in Wilmington’s Surroundings (Kure Beach)
Staying in Kure Beach is one of our favorite things to do in Wilmington. Does that count?
The vibe here is chill compared to Carolina Beach next door. Don’t sleep on Kure, though, because it’s also a gateway to some really interesting places.
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
The largest amphibious assault of the Civil War took place at Fort Fisher, which is a big reason why everyone should visit this historic site. The Visitor’s Center has incredible exhibits detailing the two Civil War battles that happened here.
It’s also a great starting point to learn about Wilmington’s place in history beyond the war.
Fort Fisher also serves as a wonderful outdoor recreational spot! There are six miles of beaches and walking trails that attract many divers who wish to explore many of the shipwrecks just off the coast.
A popular locale for birders and wildlife lovers as well, there are so many ways to explore Fort Fisher, and we rank it as one of our top things to do in Wilmington!
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
1000 Loggerhead Rd, Kure Beach
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is an amazing State Parks site, home to five miles of beach, a mile-long trail, fishing, and off-roading. It’s also a great spot for a picnic, with more than 20 tables available on a first-come, first-served basis.
North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
One of the best things to do in Wilmington with kids is the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher! This location highlights the ecosystem of North Carolina, has a fun touch tank with horseshoe crabs and starfish, and a giant shark tank.
Our little one loves exploring both the indoor and outdoor activities at the NC Aquarium and asks to go every time we are in Wilmington.
Kure Beach Oceanfront Park
Home to Kure Beach’s largest public green space, the Kure Beach Oceanfront Park is a great place to enjoy the ocean away from the beach!
Located next to the Kure Beach Fishing Pier, there is an open-air pavilion that sets the stage for concerts and events, a walking path, and even a play space for children!
Kure Beach Fishing Pier
Speaking of the 711-foot pier, it is definitely one of the best attractions in Kure Beach! Whether you are looking to fish all day, charter a fishing excursion, or just check out what the catch of the day is, it’s a fun experience for all.
Just make sure you have a North Carolina fishing license before casting your reel!
Even More Things to Do in Wilmington’s Surroundings (Wrightsville Beach)
Wrightsville Beach sits north of the other beach towns, also north of Masonboro Island. You’ll find more upscale places to stay, but that doesn’t mean this place isn’t approachable.
Here are our favorite things to do in Wrightsville Beach.
Blockade Runner Sailing School
275 Waynick Blvd, Wrightsville Beach
The Blockade Runner Sailing School is an excellent option for sailing lessons, because why wouldn’t you want to sign up for that? Ages 13 and up are welcome to try sailing and no previous experience is required!
Try for an hour or go all-in with a two-day basic keelboat sailing certification course.
703 S Lumina Ave, Wrightsville Beach
Wrightsville Beach’s Crystal Pier stretches 475 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. The Oceanic Restaurant is here and you can also walk or fish from the pier for free.
Unless it’s closed for a private event, the Crystal Pier is open from 6:00 am to 9:00 pm.
Walk the John Nesbit Loop
The 2.5-mile John Nesbit Loop (known as “The Loop”) is one of the most popular things to do in Wrightsville Beach for locals and tourists alike! This paved path circles the Intracoastal Waterway and even passes by Wrightsville Beach Park.
If you are a runner or just looking to stay active on vacation, this is the perfect spot for you!
Johnnie Mercer’s Pier
23 E Salisbury St, Wrightsville Beach
Johnnie Mercer’s is North Carolina’s only concrete fishing pier. It’s also one of the longest fishing piers in the Cape Fear region.
First constructed in the 1930s, Johnnie Mercer’s has been rebuilt several times due to the devastating hurricanes that have hit the area. Today, the pier is filled with plenty of anglers and is open for the public to walk and enjoy.
Admission to the pier costs $2/adult and $1/child.
Wrightsville Beach Museum of History
Really want to dive deep into the history of the area?
The Wrightsville Beach Museum of History details the 100-year history of Wrightsville, including hurricanes and the rise of tourism in the 1920s and 30s, as well as detailed history and artifacts on the area’s surfing scene.
North Wrightsville & Shell Island
Looking for a more isolated beach experience? Lean in a little closer and we’ll tell you a secret.
On the northern end of Wrightsville Beach are Shell Island and a stretch of undisturbed shoreline. You can find this remote scenic space stretching from Shell Island Resort to the northern Wrightsville Inlet.
You may also have heard of the Wrightsville Beach Mailbox, where you can drop off a love letter!
Taking a boat tour to Masonboro Island Coastal Estuarine Reserve should definitely be at the top of your list of things to do in Wilmington! Completely undeveloped with more than 5,600 acres of beach, salt marsh, and tidal flats, the wildlife viewing opportunities here are absolutely incredible.
Go shelling, search for dolphins and ghost crabs, or just enjoy the 8.4 miles of empty shoreline. This isolated beach is the perfect way to reconnect with the outdoors and what North Carolina must have looked like at one time in history.
Take the Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours Masonboro Shuttle to reach the island. Captain Joe will provide you with some history and interesting tidbits that you won’t find anywhere else!
WBST also has a ton of other options, including some fantastic educational tours for kids!
Restaurants in Wilmington
Since you are on North Carolina‘s coast, you are going to want to dig into some fresh seafood! From the famous seafood chowder at Michael’s to the Calabash-style fried fish at Jack Mackerel’s (pictured above left), there are plenty of delicious restaurants in Wilmington and all the nearby beach towns.
Here’s a quick breakdown of where we like to go:
- If you are looking for delicious eats in downtown Wilmington, you can’t go wrong with Front Street Brewery and Wake ‘N Bake donuts.
- Carolina Beach has the amazing Michael’s Seafood and the waterside Stoked Restaurant.
- Our go-tos in Wrightsville Beach are Poe’s Tavern and the Oceanic Restaurant.
- Of course, we can’t leave out Flaming Amy’s (pictured above right), with locations in Wilmington and Carolina Beach.
Breweries in Wilmington
If you’re parched and looking for a pint, don’t forget to check out some of our favorite Wilmington-area breweries!
Here are a few more breweries that we enjoy:
- Flytrap Brewing (319 Walnut St, Wilmington)
- Front Street Brewing (9 N Front St, Wilmington)
- Good Hops Brewing (811 Harper Ave, Carolina Beach)
- Wilmington Brewing Company (824 S Kerr Ave, Wilmington)
Read More: The Best North Carolina Breweries
Ready for These Fun Things to Do in Wilmington?
You might first think of Wilmington as the gateway to beautiful beaches and delicious restaurants. While it definitely is both, we think you’ll find that there is also a lot of other stuff to do!
Whether you are looking to learn more about history, spend time outdoors, fish, or find kid-friendly attractions, Wilmington is the perfect vacation spot all year long!
We’ve laid out more than 50 things to do in Wilmington but would love to hear from you. What do you like doing in this area? Is there something that we should add?