Last Updated on June 30, 2021
Last Updated on June 30, 2021
If you plan to visit Western NC, please check beforehand to see if the area is safe following the recent flooding. Officials have closed some sections of Pisgah National Forest (including Forest Heritage Scenic Byway and Blue Ridge Parkway stops) to keep visitors out of danger. Please respect signage and local guidance.
Wilson is just a hop, skip, and jump away from Raleigh and full of fun throughout the year. While the Whirligig Park brings a lot of visitors, there are many more fun things to do in Wilson beyond that NC Bucket List-worthy place.
We’ve visited a few times and want to share with you exactly where to eat and drink, learn some history and culture, and more when hanging out in this awesome small town.
This post is also part of our series on awesome places to visit in Eastern North Carolina, especially if you’re driving along I-95. We’ve also included Wilson among our favorite day trips from Raleigh and Durham in the Research Triangle and also, from Greensboro!
Things to Do in Wilson NC
Understand Wilson Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Not much is known yet about Wilson County’s earliest inhabitants, though the Tuscarora Indians are credited as one of them.
With soils ideal for cotton and tobacco, Europeans eventually settled here and many African slaves were brought to work the land for them as early as 1740.
The railroad’s coming in the 19th century transformed Wilson even further and more people continued to move here. As demand for tobacco diminished in the 20th century, Wilson has worked to diversify its industrial base through today.
Like many small towns in Eastern North Carolina, Wilson’s recent story is characterized by “resurgence.” It’s home to a hardworking community that’s worked hard to transform downtown and the rest of Wilson County.
Stay Somewhere Cozy
There are quite a few hotels in Wilson, especially off I-95 (Exit 121). We stayed at Comfort Suites, which is next to Country Inn & Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites. Just across Raleigh Road Parkway, we noticed a Hampton Inn, too.
Now that we’ve covered where to stay, let’s get to the most popular thing to do in Wilson.
The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park
As we mentioned, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is a bucket-list-worthy place to visit in North Carolina, and for good reason. The two-acre park features 30 kinetic sculptures created by local farm machinery repairman, Vollis Simpson.
He started making these sculptures when he was close to retirement and continued building them until he passed away in 2013. The whirligigs were named North Carolina’s official folk art the same year and are a wonderful thing to see in downtown Wilson!
Simpson used milkshake mixers, ceiling fans, bicycles and more to depict farm animals and people. To make the whirligigs even more beautiful at night, Simpson cut the reflective portions of discarded road signs into one-inch squares and applied them to the structures.
Today’s Whirligig Park
With the looming threat of losing these whirligigs, Wilson’s community saved and moved the whirligigs to their current resting place.
A group of local citizens got involved and moved, refurbished, and installed 30 of the whirligigs, with some as high as 50 feet! The City helped complete the park and its grounds, but that group of locals still maintains it under the nonprofit moniker “Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum.”
Along with those 30 whirligigs, there’s a large grass amphitheater and a pavilion for community events. And with special lighting to emphasize the reflectors on the materials, the Whirligig Park is also a sight to see at night!
Bonus: the Whirligig Festival
Celebrating Historic Downtown Wilson and Vollis Simpson’s creations each November is the family-friendly NC Whirligig Festival. From live music, delicious food vendors, and even a live painting from an Artist in Residence, this event is fun all day long!
Pack your running shoes for the Whirlirun and catch some air watching the King BMX Show. Test your strength and stamina at the Whirligig Warrior Course. You can also flex your creative side and enter the Chalk Art contest!
And the best part? It’s free! From the bounce houses to the American Ninja Warrior Course, all of the family- and kid-friendly events are free to attend and enjoy!
The Whirligig Festival was also included in our guides covering things to do in November!
Drink Local Beer in Wilson
217 Brew Works
They’ve been tapping kegs since 2016, using local ingredients to craft their delicious beers. You can find a wide selection of darks, reds, and our favorite: IPAs.
Not big into beer? 217 Brew Works also makes their own sodas including a lemon-lime ginger soda and a smooth root beer.
If you’re looking for great food and a massive selection beer, check out Brewmasters! Combining a bottle shop/draft house with quick-order pub food, Brewmasters is the perfect place to catch up with friends or watch the big game!
Eat at These Restaurants in Wilson
Parker’s Barbecue (and Fried Chicken)
Parker’s Barbecue has been serving pork since 1946 and smokes about 150 whole hogs a week. The food has stayed consistent since opening day, meaning that it’s chopped, sauced, and delicious. And to keep the nostalgia factor up, the wait staff still wears 1950s style paper hats.
While pork is king in Eastern North Carolina, we can’t disagree that Parker’s fried chicken is just as incredible. It’s worth getting a combination plate or sharing, only if your dining partner is generous enough to give you a bite or two!
Parker’s also has locations in Greenville, which are among the best places to eat there!
Tailgate for the Best Steak of Your Life
Yes, that’s right. The Beefmastor Inn is an incredibly popular must-eat restaurant in Wilson and you tailgate while waiting to get in. There’s no menu, no reservations, and only 10 tables available.
That’s why you’ve got to make the wait as fun as the experience inside. People queue up at least 30 minutes before the doors open, so get over there before they open, grab your spot, and enjoy!
As soon as you sit down at the table you’re greeted with a giant slab of raw rib eye to make your selection and temperature. People come far and wide to eat at this iconic steakhouse and we can see why!
Tip: Don’t you dare ask for substitutions.
We’re always on the hunt for new and fun places to eat. If you know of somewhere else to grab food in Wilson, let us know about it!
Explore Culture and History in and Around Wilson
North Carolina Baseball Museum
With over 3,300 square feet of memorabilia, the North Carolina Baseball Museum is a dream! The museum showcases native North Carolina players like Luke Appling, Rick Ferrell, Hoyt Wilheim, and the other four Hall of Famers.
It also features 400-plus major league players born in North Carolina. Volunteers run this museum, which is located inside of the historic Fleming Stadium.
Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House
Oliver Nestus Freeman was an architectural trailblazer and helped Wilson solve a housing crisis after World War II. The Round House Museum serves as a place to preserve and support African-American history, art, and culture.
As Freeman was a huge contributor to Wilson, the museum not only honors his work but also African American history in Wilson and Eastern North Carolina.
We think the Round House Museum is one of the most important places to learn about Black history in North Carolina, too!
Imagination Station Science Museum
Downtown’s Imagination Station is a science, technology, and history museum geared towards children of all ages. Check out the Earth and Body exhibits on the first floor and don’t miss the amphibians on the second!
With a Curiosity Corner for toddlers all the way up to an exhibit on past and present tools, there is something for everyone to explore!
Country Doctor Museum
The Country Doctor Museum is the oldest in the United States that depicts rural health care. It was created in 1967 by a group of women wanting to preserve the area’s history.
The museum holds over 5,000 medical artifacts, historic texts, and includes information on nursing, pharmaceutical, and home remedies.
Note: The museum offers guided tours with a docent at the top of each hour and takes 45-60 minutes.
Enjoy These Outdoor Things to Do in Wilson
Wilson Rose Garden
Slowly browse the 1,200 rose plants that are inside the Wilson Rose Garden, one of Eastern North Carolina’s most beautiful locations. Here, you’ll find 100 varieties, including historic old garden roses and modern hybrids.
Seasonal Note: The roses typically bloom from May to October, so stop by and take it all in if you’re in the area during these months!
Wilson Botanical Gardens
The Wilson Botanical Gardens’ beautiful fountain, lush plants, and an herb garden are open to the public. It features various native plants as well as a beautiful Children’s Secret Garden.
It’s a peaceful, beautiful slice of nature and great any time of year for all ages!
Note: Pets are not allowed in the gardens.
Winding around the beautiful lake and past beautiful homes, Lake Wilson is the perfect spot for a walk and some fishing. The two-mile scenic trail is a popular spot to watch the boats fishing out on the water!
Why We’ll Be Back
And it’s not just one thing above them all. Sure, the kind folks we chatted with along the way, that epic fried chicken and barbecue at Parker’s, and the amazing whirligigs come to mind, but I can’t just sum it all up in one sentence or even a paragraph.
I think you need to come and see it for yourself. Explore some of these fun things to do in Wilson and you’ll get a sense of why we’ll be back.
Special thanks to the City of Wilson for hosting us during our stay. All opinions within this article are our own.