Wilmington, North Carolina, offers a unique beachfront destination with a historic downtown, vibrant riverfront, and island beaches.
Wilmington, North Carolina, offers a unique beachfront destination with a historic downtown, vibrant riverfront, and the island beaches of Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach. Voted one of the top destinations by TripAdvisor, with award-winning restaurants, historic inns, scenic beauty, and miles of great beaches, there is something new to discover around every corner.
Wilmington has both an Atlantic coastline and a riverfront, with a picturesque historic downtown, making it an unexpected destination for first-time visitors. The Cape Fear Riverfront, a two-mile boardwalk, is lined with local shops and restaurants.
You can explore the downtown area, which is a National Register Historic District spanning more than 230 blocks featuring churches, classic architecture, antebellum homes, massive live oaks, and brick-lined streets, by horse-drawn carriage.
Live music is popular throughout the historic district and shopping is great fun in the 200-plus shops and restaurants. The Cotton Exchange is a series of eight restored buildings with open-air courtyards, specialty shops, and eateries.
There are plenty of great breweries that are part of the Wilmington Ale Trail, where you can create your own tasting experience. It's no wonder Wilmington was voted “Best Beer Town” in December 2017 by Carolina Brew Scene. Additionally, Wilmington Beer Week is held each October.
Wilmington's food scene ranges from casual to upscale, and coastal food is especially popular. Don't miss PinPoint Restaurant downtown, where the chef serves up what local farmers, fishermen, oystermen, and crabbers provide.
Explore Carolina Beach
About 30 minutes from Wilmington, Carolina Beach is home to both Carolina Beach State Park and a fun seaside boardwalk. The Carolina Beach Boardwalk has seaside amusement rides, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, outdoor movies, music, and tempting food. A favorite spot is Britt's Donut Shop, where you can watch them fry up doughnuts and grab one while it's still hot.
For a day in nature, head to Carolina Beach State Park, with excellent walking paths and a ranger-led tour. This is one of the only places in the world indigenous to the Venus flytrap, and you can get a look at it in its natural habitat.
Find Nature on Kure Beach
Kure Beach is a natural setting about a half-hour from downtown Wilmington and home to Fort Fisher State Historic Site and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, as well as a beautiful pier and sandy beaches.
At the southern tip of Kure Beach, the Fort Fisher State Historic Site has a quarter-mile trail and self-guided interpretive exhibits about this Civil War site. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a nice change from a day at the beach and is just the right size to explore for a couple of hours—be sure to find Luna, the albino alligator.
Regarding other animal encounters, sea turtle season starts May 1 and lasts for about three months each year. Volunteers mark and secure nests early in the season and baby turtles hatch each fall.
Tour Wrightsville Beach
Located on both the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, Wrightsville Beach is about 20 minutes from downtown Wilmington. Known for its walkable village, Wrightsville Beach is the birthplace of surfing in North Carolina and continues to be a hot spot for the sport.
Escape to nearby Airlie Gardens, where you can stroll the paths and take in the outdoors. Azaleas bloom in the spring, swans glide across the lakes, and there are bird sightings all year. Sit for a bit and admire the massive live oak trees.
Enjoy lunch and the afternoon at Dockside Restaurant on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. A tradition for 25 years, Dockside is a prime spot to relax with a glass of wine while watching the boats.
Or, go on a boat yourself. A fabulous way to see more of Wrightsville Beach is to book a Harbor Tour with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours. The one-hour boat ride takes a slow tour of the Intracoastal Waterway, giving you a chance to see the area and learn a bit about its wildlife and history in a relaxing setting.
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Plan Your Trip to Wilmington, NC
For the most convenient stay, with easy access to both the Atlantic and the Intracoastal Waterway, book a premier Atlantic oceanfront stateroom at Blockade Runner, a boutique resort in Wrightsville Beach. Try supper by the seaside at EAST Oceanfront Dining and let Executive Chef Jessica Cabo, who made it to the final three on the first season of Hell's Kitchen, whip you up something fresh and local.
Getting to Wilmington from Phoenix is easy with flights via Charlotte and Chicago O'Hare year-round. Wilmington is an unexpected blend of history, food, and culture, where the water—whether ocean or river—paints a picturesque backdrop for an idyllic getaway. Learn more at www.wilmingtonandbeaches.com. Be sure to explore Wander for more things to see and do when you visit North Carolina.
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of So Scottsdale! magazine.