Updated: 2 days ago
This revitalized port city has everything needed for a great time! An abundance of delicious food places, riverfront scenic views, and enough art and history to satisfy the adventurous traveler needing to see something new (or old). I am so glad I spent a week discovering all of the best spots and appreciate my friend Cynthia for sharing her hometown with me in the way only a local can! I'm happy to share my experiences and itinerary ideas for anyone headed that way who wants to be ready!
I was being sent to Wilmington on a work assignment. I'm blessed with a friend who lives in the heart of Wilmington, and I couldn’t wait to see this city through a set of local eyes! When I shared my trip plans with my family, they knew all about Wilmington (to my surprise) as many of their favorite shows have been filmed here in this pretty little city! They sent me links of all the places not to miss from One Tree Hill or Dawson’s Creek. I wasn’t so sure about all of that but then I arrived.
First let me say I’ve never been greeted by an airport that is so quaint! The bricked walkway gave me a very welcome feeling. That’s one thing about my entire visit, it was all welcoming. But then I realized why this is a fabulous place to shoot a show, this picturesque city has all the boxes checked for how to do it right. You can't take a bad photo here!
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Located in the South of North Carolina, along the East Coast, and right on the ridge known as Cape Fear, Wilmington is shaped like a triangle with the point facing the bottom where the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River meet. The Cape Fear River runs 191 miles from north of Greensboro to arrive here where it widens and gets ready to dump out into the Atlantic Ocean. This creates a unique area that has been used through history in a myriad of opposing ways to stand today as something of a collection of time, as a survivor.
USA Today ranked the top10 best riverwalks in the US, and Wilmington grabbed the number 2 slot! I imagined only Savannah could be number 1, however the first place went to Detroit International. Check out the list for yourself here: The best riverwalks in the US, according to readers: Detroit (usatoday.com). I have friends claiming San Antonio Texas is the real #1.
In any event, I marked it second on my list of favorites as well! I love a good walk in a scenic place and Wilmington is a walker’s dream. Cobblestone streets, tons of places to wander and explore, artwork, gorgeous trees and native foliage. Certain times of year different trees and shrubs are blooming, and I just loved how colorful the whole city was.
Hollywood East - Wilmington’s filming studio produced of some popular TV shows and films, including "Dawson's Creek" and "One Tree Hill." You can view a full list of filming locations here if that’s your thing. I can see why film here. It holds the old world feel while not sacrificing the fresh feeling of clean slate. A city built with some designing and ingenuity feels warm and welcoming, and I will also say there wasn’t the dinginess of Atlanta or the Modern feeling of Wast Palm.
Some Facts: Wilmington is between 90 minutes and 2 hours East of I-95, making a great stop off on a road trip. It is where I-40 ends and occupies nearly 53 square miles, much of it runs along the water. It has three beaches and is known for some great surfing on the East Coast.
According to the 2020 census, the Wilmington NC population is over 115,000. It’s the 8th-most populous city in North Carolina. It is still the state’s chief seaport and lies on the Cape Fear River.
Wilmington is home to the USS North Carolina Battleship, which can be seen from any spot along the river and has daily tours from 8 – 5pm. Quite the attraction, many of the residents share stories of family who served on this ship.
Native Americans had a strong presence here, with eight tribes still associating NC with home. Today, arrow heads can still be found along its shores! Natives aren't the only ones who have a jaded history in this state. In November of 1898, a riot and insurrection were carried out by white supremacists in Wilmington. An estimate of 300 people were killed. Black-owned property was destroyed throughout the city, and opposition White and Black politicians were expelled from Wilmington. This left a terrible stain on the coastal city.
During the Civil War, the network of defenses at Fort Fisher protected the Cape Fear River. Because of how efficient this Fort was, Wilmington was the last Atlantic Coast port of the Confederacy open to trade. Fort Fisher fell to Federal troops during the largest naval bombardment of the 19th century on Jan. 15, 1865, and the city soon filled with troops in occupation. In February of 1865, the United States Colored Troops (USCT) fought against the Confederate Army in the Battle of Forks Road, which took place on the grounds where Cameron Art Museum sits today. The museum's USCT Park is located on the battlegrounds and is the nation's first park honoring the USCT and their fight for freedom. After the war and a brief period of economic depression, Wilmington regained its prominence as a center of commerce and culture. Cotton became a major export, and the city enjoyed a great building boom. There have been several redevelopment projects and the result now is a thriving economy attracting local businesses and major well-known names as well.
How to get there?
Fly into Wilmington International Airport (ILM), which is located just 5 miles north of downtown Wilmington. The only way to describe this airport is quaint. Well laid out and easy to navigate, this pretty bricked out airport only serves the east coast, so coming from other areas you may need to switch over in Charlotte or Atlanta. Renting a car from Wilmington is also a seamless process. As this is an area spread out, you will need to have a vehicle or rely heavily on Uber or Lyft. All of the drivers we met on our trip were friendly and helpful. For reference, Wrightsville Beach is apx. a 10-mile drive.
Take a day and explore the city's Historic District, which spans 230-plus blocks of churches, classic architecture, moss-draped live oaks, brick-lined streets and historic homes. This is an extremely large National Registry, with many of the sites marked by a plaque that shares information. The extensive history of this town is best learned through a walking tour, as there is so much to learn about how this area changed over time. During different times of the year many events take place, enjoy live music, performing arts, and museum exhibitions.
Museums, Arts and Mansions –
Bonus stop: The Ivy Cottage Antique shop - This is three buildings worth of treasures from gilded estates and some interesting pieces! There are other consignment shops, and a wealth of treasures to be found, but I've never seen the Ivy Cottage scale before.
Eating: There is LOTS of eating to do!
Indochine - Our first stop. Excellent food, very well priced (especially for their lunch). Filled up quickly, as soon as they opened! Eat outside if weather permits. You are eating in gardens with green foliage, coy fish, Budha statues and intricate detail to give you the full experience of a Thai and Vietnamese flavor.
If you have a few minutes after, go next door to the Ivy Cottage and browse the three buildings of consignment shop heaven.
Eat in a hut, enjoy the gardens and vibe at Indochine
Rum Cow - Excellent food. Excellent service. Of all the places we ate the most upbeat and comfortable vibe, this is good eating! Small cozy and high-quality dining. The sign on the door said, "American Dishes with a Global flair" and as we were reading the menu, the people inside the window eating gave a thumbs up, and that was all we needed to venture in. Some of the people in my group ate there multiple nights.
Elijahs – Riverfront dining, and you'll want the view! While all of our food was GREAT this is a busy place, service was just okay, and the food took quite a while to arrive. If you are enjoying that view it may not be an issue, I recommend coming before you get hungry!
Free Trolley!! - Port City Trolley Route & Schedule
Take a leisurely ride through downtown Wilmington on the FREE Port City Trolley (PCT)! Catch the PCT at one of 25 designated stops and exit anywhere along the route. You can also track the PCT on their website or through our app. Click here for App download instructions!
AND MUCH MORE....Things not to miss!
Airlie Gardens - (Plan 2 - 3 hours)
Who doesn't live a well-designed botanical garden? I seem to be on a kick lately of finding beautiful places to walk. Part of the reason I wanted to visit Wilmington was this garden, when Cynthia and I were in Atlanta together exploring the Piedmont Botanical Garden she had reciprocity as a member of Airlie, and the idea was born that I come to visit! I didn't know then that in a few months I'd be able to make this tip, so grateful.
What I really liked here was the way the day worked out. There were a few places I wanted to catch before the threatening rain showed up (it never did show up) and each of the stops on my wish list were spread out. As we started down the main walkway, a tram/ shuttle pulled up with a volunteer offering us to drive down to wherever we wished. I opted to be dropped off at the farthest point, as I figured that would allow us to make the best use of our time. Along the ride she offered some of the history of the vision of Sarah and Pembroke Jones. Jones purchased the property in 1884 and transformed it into a picturesque garden, which has become a work of art and love in the community.
We walked down the bridal walk to the fountain and pergola which lands you along the lake. This is a breathtakingly beautiful spot. Turtles greeted us as well as herons and egrets. We admired the stone and workmanship of this lavishly designed garden that feels luxurious. There have been weddings in this spot. The pergola is quite the eye-catching structure and can be seen from many viewpoints around the lake. We meandered around taking it all in, sitting in the benches and talking about how it would have been to live here when we saw our friend driving the tram again, she stopped and asked if we’d like to ride back to any of the other stops. We took her up on it again as it was beginning to drizzle.
We stopped off at the chapel made of colorful glass bottles. There are an old church and cemetery in the property; and a camelia garden with southern camelia varieties of different colors and shapes. The butterfly house has a release every Tuesday morning and because we were visiting on a Tuesday it was filled with a variety of butterflies just dancing all around the garden. We enjoyed all of this in a much quicker time than we’d imagined and then decided it would be best to get checked into the hotel, still expecting rain! (It never really rained).
Wilmington is home to three different beaches each with a different style. All a few miles apart from each other but like a different world!
Carolina Beach - has the beachside boardwalk, a state park, art murals, live music and events, miles of alluring beach and world-class fishing sets. This is the original seaside family destination. Lots of options for fun including the arcade, amusements, and of course, cotton candy.
Kure Beach - the unspoiled option where the beach is left to nature. This is where you will find Historic Fort Fisher Historic Site and Recreation Area. If you like to see the old cannons and peek into how life worked at the Fort this is a fun adventure. The Aquarium is also here. If you are traveling with a family, this could be a full day of exploring all these cool places. The oldest fishing pier on the East Coast is also here!
Wrightsville Beach and eating at Oceanic –
Five miles of soft sandy beach and crystal-clear Atlantic Ocean on the east side of the barrier island. The easiest of the beaches to get to, can be Identified by the pier. The Wrightsville Beach Pier was constructed in 1937 and originally called the Ocean View. Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier is a popular tourist attraction. All of that to say this beach is just exactly what a beach should be. A great place to play, relax, or eat - this is a must see on your trip. Options for water sports like paddle boards, surfing, and kayaks.
Oceanic is the restaurant on the pier.
My tip is to get there, park (this can be tricky) you will check in and see how long your wait is for a table (ours was an said to be 60 - 90 minutes, but was only about 45 minutes) and then go down to the water while you wait. Walk the shoreline, take in the sights, or sit and watch the tides wash up and away. Then when your text comes through for your table, don't be too far away!
The food is DELICIOUS. The service is GREAT. The view is PRICELESS.
At the Wrightsville Beach Visitor Center, you will find several parks for children and adults in which to play and relax that include tennis courts, soccer fields, playgrounds, basketball courts, and trails. Native plants and flowers showcase some of the natural beauty at Harbor Way Gardens and Children’s Fountain. For an enjoyable walk (or jog), check out the 2.45-mile continuous Loop “The Loop” located on the interior of the island.
Riverside walking and wandering –
1.75 miles of boardwalk along the bank of Cape Fear River in historic downtown Wilmington, running from the foot of Nun Street on the South to the Isabel Holmes bridge on the North. Connecting the River to the Sea Bikeway, East Coast Greenway and Cape Fear Historic (Scenic) Byway, Wilmington has done a great job of redeveloping this area with wide sidewalks and street lighting. Many upscale restaurants and locally owned eateries are right on the waterfront, and there are many other shops and specialty stores to enjoy. Veterans Memorial is in the center of it all and promotes homage in a meaningful way. This is really a place where businesses live and breathe. US National Parks Service has designated Riverwalk’s Orange Street Landing as part of its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. For me, I just like exploring. If you like the shopping and eating, this could be a full day!
The City Park and Rec Department must work overtime to keep up with so many beautiful parks, with gardens, gazebos, and lakes everywhere. One we enjoyed and walked around a nice trail was: Long Leaf Park. This park has a veteran's memorial and uplifting artwork. There is no shortage of parks and lovely trails to explore.
Where to stay?
There is an abundance of hotels in this area, and we were attending a conference held at the Ballast. This is quite the fancy option! I was a part of a room block at the Hampton Inn, Wilmington Downtown. I enjoyed this location, and my room met my needs. The two-block walk between hotels was refreshing to me as the weather was perfect while we were there, and the neighborhood was pleasant for strolling through. Either Hotel will offer guests a clean comfy stay close to everything, as well as others nearby. I’d have to also mention there are some very reasonably prices home rentals as well. Condos, apartments, beachside and riverside, a bunch of places show as available.
A few items I bring everywhere:
*My electric kettle, this one is collapsible and travel friendly.
*I bring an assortment of tea and oatmeal, so I don't have to leave my room first thing in the morning.
*Comfy walking shoes - I know I'm exploring.
*A sweater, even in the middle of July the air conditioning in those buildings had me chilly!
*Umbrella - weather I need it or not is another story, I like to keep one so that I am not deterred by rain!
*My favorite beauty products - when I am on vacation, I really focus on the self-care time more. (It's easier away from home with less distractions)
*I travel a lot for work, so I keep a refillable bag of samples of my favorite soaps and oils to make it easy going through airport security.
I typically have a bunch of free recommendations. I don't have a ton of free quality options here, many of the museums and sites have entry fees. Parking is also a consideration.
Day 1: Eat at Indochine, Visit Airlie Gardens, walk the Riverfront and if you'd like to tour the 9 stories of battleship turned museum at USS North Carolina at 1 Battleship Rd in Wilmington. Drive to the ship via either the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (from downtown) or via US-421.
Day 2: Explore some of the historical buildings, by tour or self-guided walking exploration. Eat lunch at The Fork n Cork. Head over to Wrightsville Beach, walk, wander, and eat dinner at Oceanic.
Day 3: Kure Beach, Fort Fisher, Aquarium.
Day 4: Carolina Beach in the morning, then Riverwalk, Water Street, eat at Elijahs.
Day 5: Explore the downtown area more, walk some trails, wrap it up!
North Carolina has become a place that holds many great memories for me. My family has enjoyed several summer trips to Lake Lure, and if you've never visited this unique location of mountain lake and adventure, check out what you are missing here:
~Wherever your travels take you, be sure to keep your presence in the moment.
~Nature is healing, grounding and living. Tune in.
~Enjoy where you are at. Be a little flexible with people and their navigation of time.
~Let go of things you can't control.
~Remember to put your people above things, and cherish the memories.
~Do things that will make you proud of yourself when you remember the scenario.
~Live more, in abundance and walk in your own footsteps.
~Breathe fresh air, feel the flow of water, and find your own level.
I specialize in helping families spend more time enjoying their quality time together and less time having to figure it all out. My four children have been my test subjects of how to plan a great family adventure for many years and now that my youngest is 18, many of my travels are work related, or grandma related! As time has changed, I've evolved but I still LOVE TO TRAVEL, explore, wander, visit, discover, learn and love. If nature is there, I can find my happy place. I use the term single not to emphasize my status but to signify that if I can manage some family fun on a limited teacher's salary with four children, anyone can do it. I am just very intentional in how I spend my time and earnings. I typically seek out budget friendly ways to enjoy my time, but will occasionally splurge for the right reasons :-)
God Bless every road you travel on. xo
A note from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.
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My goal is to make traveling easier for families and cut down on the planning process. 💜
If you are looking for another great riverfront, you may want to check out Savannah while you are in proximity!! This is apx. a 4 hour drive up or down I-95. If you are road tripping, these both make awesome places to get out, stretch your legs and walk along the river for an hour. They also both make a great overnight stop as there are a variety of hotels in a busy downtown with tons of choices for food and yummy gourmet deliciousness.
Another amazing East Coast stop along the journey filled with history and art is Saint Augustine. If you like Forts or places with a story, this scenic city will fill your bucket!