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Best Things To Do in Wilmington, NC

The best things to do in Wilmington tend to revolve around the city's history and its waterways. For instance, this region – which was discovered by

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The best things to do in Wilmington tend to revolve around the city's history and its waterways. For instance, this region – which was discovered by Giovanni da Verrazzano back in 1524 – boasts enough historical attractions to fill an entire vacation: from the 200-some block Historic District, which contains treasures like the Bellamy House, to the Battleship North Carolina, which was deployed during World War II. But the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River are worth exploring too, and these are best enjoyed at Wrightsville Beach or via a leisurely stroll along the Riverwalk

How we rank Things to Do

Updated September 23, 2020

  • #1
    Things to do in Wilmington, NC
    View all Photos
    #1 in Wilmington, NC
    Free, Neighborhood/Area, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Neighborhood/Area, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    No trip to Wilmington is complete without a stroll along its mile-long Riverwalk. This wooden boardwalk that borders Cape Fear River is lined with popular restaurants and bars – and punctuated by stools and benches that are perfect for taking a break and taking in the scene. 

    One traveler who praised the Riverwalk's views also recommended taking a water taxi to the Battleship North Carolina. Another traveler said the Riverwalk encapsulates the local culture, from the smell of the salty sea air to the surrounding history to the buzzy nightlife. 

  • #2
    View all Photos
    #2 in Wilmington, NC
    Free, Historic Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Historic Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The 230-plus blocks that comprise Wilmington's historic district are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and they contain everything from mansions to museums, as well as a host of restaurants and shops. One of the best ways to see the district's highlights is via a guided tour. Some traveler-approved operators include Haunted Wilmington and Wilmington Trolley Company. But you can also download the Wilmington.tours app to your smartphone, which includes four tours, including one with a pub crawl theme and another with a Civil War slant, if you'd rather take a self-guided tour. 

    One visitor says it well when describing Wilmington as a "fascinating" but "under-appreciated" Southern city, citing the history that occurred on the port city's cobbled streets. Others say the historic district is charming and quaint, yet still feels cosmopolitan. 

  • #3
    View all Photos
    #3 in Wilmington, NC
    Beaches, Free, Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Free, Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Wrightsville Beach is located just 10 miles east of the Historic District, and it receives high praise for its wide ribbon of sand, which is easily accessible and lined by hotels, vacation homes, restaurants, bars and shops. There are even restrooms and showers at several beach-access points. Since the beach is situated several dozen miles from the Gulf Stream, it offers travelers warmer, almost transparent waters. 

    Recent travelers hail Wrightsville Beach for its clean sands and peaceful ambiance. They also appreciated the lifeguards, though some warn the surf can be rough, especially in the hours after a storm. 

  • #4
    View all Photos
    #4 in Wilmington, NC
    Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Wilmington's 67-acre Airlie Gardens are enchanting. Not only do the gardens feature the flora and fauna native to this corner of North Carolina, they also contain a butterfly house and a tangle of footpaths ideal for a walk through the woods. Plus, a roster of special events further adds to Airlie's allure: For instance, in December, the gardens host a monthlong festival of lights; in the summer, there are concerts every other Friday. 

    A recent visitor to Airlie Gardens says that its oak trees are among the most beautiful she's ever seen. Many travelers also highly recommend visiting when the gardens are hung with twinkle lights at Christmastime. Another great time to visit is during the spring, when the garden's many flowers are in bloom. 

  • #5
    View all Photos
    #5 in Wilmington, NC
    Museums, Tours
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Tours
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Back when Battleship North Carolina was commissioned in 1941, the ship was thought of as "the world's greatest sea weapon," and it turned out to be just that by participating in more than a dozen offensives in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. The ship was decommissioned in 1947 and was going to be sent for scrap metal but North Carolinians petitioned for the ship to be preserved as a museum – and in 1962, it was dedicated as just that. Today, visitors can tour the ship, all the while learning about the history of its veterans. 

    Recent travelers call Battleship North Carolina a must-see for travelers of all ages. But it's important to note that the ship decks can get pretty hot, especially in the summer, and there are lots of stairs to traverse. Recent visitors also recommended arriving early in the day to avoid the midday heat and heaviest crowds. 

  • #6
    View all Photos
    #6 in Wilmington, NC
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Tours, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Tours, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    From the mid-19th century until the mid-20th century, one of the largest slaveholders in the state – Dr. John Bellamy – his wife and 10 children lived in this stately 1800s-era Greek Revival mansion. The property contains 22 rooms, lush gardens and restored slave quarters – and today, knowledgeable tour guides give visitors a history of the family, the architecture and the enslaved people that worked on the property. Of the approximately 115 enslaved men, women and children that Bellamy owned, nine resided and worked at the property, according to historical documents.

    Along with the entire mansion, travelers can tour the two-story brick slave quarters. Designed to complement the main house, the area includes four sleeping chambers, a laundry room and two five-seat privies. This style of housing for enslaved workers was once quite common in cities where slavery was legal. The structure that stands today – considered one of the best-preserved examples in the country – provides an interesting contrast to the small, rudimentary huts often seen on plantations.

  • #7
    View all Photos
    #7 in Wilmington, NC
    Museums, Historic Homes/Mansions, Tours, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Historic Homes/Mansions, Tours, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Poplar Grove Plantation is part of the National Park Service's Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which runs from Wilmington in the north to Jacksonville, Florida, in the south. The Gullah Geechee are the descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. Along with their unique Creole language, the Gullah Geechee are known for their distinct arts, crafts, music, food and religious practices. You'll learn about the Gullah Geechee with a visit to Poplar Grove Plantation, formerly a sweet potato and peanut plantation.

    Thanks to the agricultural skills of the Gullah Geechee, who worked on the plantation, the sweet potatoes and peanuts harvested were sold locally to planter families to supplement the diet of the enslaved. Aside from their agricultural contributions, the enslaved people that worked on the plantation also constructed the manor house that visitors see today. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the three-story manor house dates back to 1850. Also on-site are two heritage art studios (a basket gallery and a blacksmith shop), as well as an agriculture exhibit that displays a peanut thrasher and information on the production of peanuts. Families with kids may also be pleased to know that the on-site stables are home to a variety of pigs, goats, ducks, horses, sheep, cats, hens and roosters, representative of 19th-century farm life.

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