Selecting your next vacation destination can be a difficult task when faced with choosing between a trip to experience the excitement of city life or more laid-back beach vibes, especially when traveling with family or friends and trying to appease multiple vacation wish lists. So why choose just one? Wilmington and its island beaches offers a two-for-one experience that combines everything to see and do in Wilmington – which was just selected as one of “The South’s Best Cities” by the readers of Southern Living magazine – with three unique nearby island beaches, Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville.
From downtown speakeasies to eco-tours of barrier islands, extraordinary cuisine and beachside activities, here are a few ways to get the most out of your two-for-one experience in Wilmington and its Island Beaches:
Kick off your vacation with a taste of city life in Wilmington. Though it’s known as a coastal city, Wilmington is much more than a city by the sea. Start your day with a stroll along Wilmington’s picturesque Riverwalk, featuring nearly two miles of scenic walkway along the Cape Fear River. Lined with restaurants offering river views, markets, art galleries, unique boutiques and more, the Riverwalk has something for visitors of all ages.
Blast to the past with a visit to one of the area’s museums. The Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, a Smithsonian affiliate, is North Carolina’s first history museum. Get your creative fix at Cameron Art Museum or Art in Bloom Gallery, where you can view both global and local pieces. Or, head across river and take a self-guided tour of the legendary Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, a WWII battleship and memorial honoring those who served in the war.
Downtown Eats and Drinks
Wilmington is no stranger to unique eats and tasty drinks. You won’t have to look far to find fresh, local ingredients, coastal creations and sophisticated atmospheres that give that big-city feel for visitors eager to indulge in style. Try out Pinpoint Restaurant’s famous cornmeal-crusted catfish dish, featured on the Cooking Channel’s “Best Things I Ever Ate,” or indulge in James Doss’ ingredient-driven Southern cuisine at Rx Restaurant & Bar, named one of the “50 Best Southern Restaurants in America” by Parade. For a cozy, casual meal, Fork n Cork, featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” provides delicious comfort food like its Confit Duck Wings and Beef Wellington Bites. Wilmington’s only AAA Four Diamond award-winning restaurant, manna ave. 123 is a perfect place for both upscale dining and cocktails crafted by one of Encore Magazine’s “Best Mixologists,” Luke Carnevale.
For after-dinner drinks, head to Tails Piano Bar and Lounge to try out its unbeatable list of beautifully crafted cocktails, or Blind Elephant, a 1920s Prohibition-style speakeasy that serves timeless cocktails and signature elixirs.
Music and More
Fans of the arts can become captivated by a musical at Thalian Hall, one of the oldest theaters in the country, or take in a show at the Wilson Center, a state-of-the-art performance venue unparalleled in Eastern North Carolina. For a relaxing musical experience, attend a jazz concert on the lawn of Bellamy Mansion, one of North Carolina’s most spectacular examples of antebellum architecture.
Alternatively, snag a ticket to one of the many performances by top, modern bands and hit artists at Hugh Morton Amphitheater at Greenfield Lake Park or Pier 33 Entertainment Venue, a waterfront outdoor venue located at the North End of the Riverwalk in Historic Downtown at Port City Marina. The Downtown Sundown Concert Series also takes place each Friday night from May through August and features both local performers and touring bands – a perfect event for the whole family.
Rest Your Head
After a day filled with activities, attractions and more, check into the new Embassy Suites or newly renovated Hotel Ballast, both of which are located on the river, for a comfortable stay downtown. ARRIVE Wilmington, downtown’s newest boutique hotel located in the former Wilmingtonian Inn building, features cozy amenities, a restaurant and a bar. Experience the historic charm of Between the Covers, a literary B&B, or the elegance of Graystone Inn, a AAA Four Diamond award winner.
Beachfront Adventures and Watersports
After exploring all Wilmington has to offer, make the short drive to explore Carolina, Kure or Wrightsville Beach. Adventure-lovers can take lessons with professional surfer and Olympic Gold Medalist Tony Silvagni at Tony Silvagni Surf School in his hometown of Carolina Beach. Or try stand-up paddleboarding with Epic Excursions or Wrightsville SUP in Wrightsville Beach.
If you’re looking to explore on foot, hike through Carolina Beach State Park, home to miles of hiking trails and the Venus flytrap, which is native only within a 90-mile radius of the park. Or, explore Fort Fisher State Recreation Area’s Basin Trail in Kure Beach, where you’ll find Loggerhead sea turtles, piping plovers and other rare, protected species along the six miles of sandy shore. Airlie Gardens – just across the bridge from Wrightsville Beach – features 67 acres of greenery, blooming flowers and lakes. It’s the perfect spot for a lunchtime picnic or afternoon stroll.
Blend history and food during a Tasting History Tour of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach that takes you to different sites throughout the island for tastings from some of the best restaurants, served with a side of history. Alternatively, take a different route and try eco-touring. Cruise the waterways to Masonboro Island, the longest undisturbed barrier island in southern North Carolina, with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours or take a guided kayak tour with Paddle NC to Zeke’s Island Reserve, one of the most important shorebird feeding habitats on the East Coast, to learn about the unique ecosystems and its inhabitants.
Coastal Bites & Beverages
Prep for a day filled with activities at Kure Beach’s Happy Hippies Java Hut, located right by Kure Beach's Ocean Front Park and Pavilion and the Kure Beach Fishing Pier. Take your coffee or smoothie to-go and cast a line from the pier for a peaceful morning of fishing and relaxation.
Wrightsville and Carolina Beaches take oceanfront views and delicious food to new levels. Oceanic Restaurant offers a stunning experience indoors or outdoors from the Crystal Pier at Wrightsville Beach, while EAST Oceanfront Dining offers a view of the beach from a stunning outdoor garden setting. For a casual, seaside dining spot, check out two Carolina Beach favorites: Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar and Carolina Smokehouse.
Thanks to their coastal locations, Carolina and Wrightsville Beaches also offer plenty of fresh-to-table dining options. Head to Carolina Beach to test out award-winning Chef Kirsten Mitchell’s eclectic Polynesian and Caribbean dishes at Salt Fish Restaurant and Tiki Bar, where you can enjoy smoked seafood, enticing appetizers and fresh salads. Or try the Shrimp and Grits topped with bourbon-coconut sauce at Surf House Oyster Bar, where Chef Craig Love serves up sustainable regional seafood favorites with a side of elegant Southern hospitality. Visit Wrightsville Beach’s 22 North, where the Bacon-Wrapped Scallops and Fried Green Tomatoes are sure to impress, for a twist on Southern comfort food made with local, sustainable and seasonal offerings. At EAST Oceanfront Dining, located in the historic Blockade Runner Beach Resort, you’ll find fresh, local seafood and produce from the hotel’s own garden. Visit on a Friday night for Lobster Night, which includes a delectable made-to-order Maine lobster.
After dinner, head over to Carolina Beach’s Fat Pelican bar, a local favorite offering a walk-in cooler stocked with hundreds of beers, to share a drink with friends and jam to some music in the sand. At Wrightsville Beach, enjoy panoramic Intracoastal Waterway views at Bluewater Waterfront Grill – a two-story restaurant that features live music every Sunday evening during the spring and summer.
After taste testing some of the beaches’ best fare, soak in oceanfront views while you peruse one of the last remaining boardwalks on the east coast – the Carolina Beach Boardwalk – that’s home to a variety of shops, restaurants and nightlife activities that will keep the whole family amused. Enjoy free entertainment at the Fireworks by the Sea and Boardwalk Blasts held every Thursday night during summer months. You can also take in live concerts at WECT Sounds of Summer at Wrightsville Beach Park or Boogie in the Park at Kure Beach's Ocean Front Park.
Sleep by the Sea
Book your beach stay in the luxury of a hotel or the comfort of an inn. With every guest room offering picturesque views of the Banks Channel Sound or Atlantic Ocean, Wrightsville Beach’s Blockade Runner Beach Resort offers a vacation within itself. Enjoy top quality dining at EAST Oceanfront, a variety of watersports and relaxing rooms with beachfront balconies during your stay. The Courtyard Marriott Carolina Beach Oceanfront is not only located oceanfront just steps away from the Carolina Beach Boardwalk but also within easy walking distance of the marina and plenty of other things to see and do. At Kure Beach, the Seven Seas Inn is perfect for families and right across the street from Ocean Front Park. If you’d rather have your own space, Wilmington’s beaches also offer a variety of vacation rentals.