After being home-bound for so long, a quick road trip to Wilmington's coast to enjoy an abundance of outdoor activities and open space just might be the perfect escape. Surrounded by water, Wilmington and its island beaches feature plenty of places to enjoy ocean sunrises, riverfront sunsets, Intracoastal Waterway and marsh views. There are world-class gardens, state and municipal parks in natural settings, fitness trails, and a 230-block National Register historic district perfect for strolling through.
The area is easily accessible for travelers from in-state or nearby states. Thanks to convenient access via numerous interstates, Wilmington is the perfect destination for road trippers or anyone looking for an active vacation.
Read on for our guide to 48 hours in Wilmington.
Stay the Night (or Two)
Check into a boutique hotel, small inn or charming bed-and-breakfast with an intriguing historic past. Get an up-close view of the river at a full-service waterfront hotel. Gaze upon the surf from an oceanfront hotel or beach cottage. Or stay at your preferred chain property. Many of the area’s lodging options are conveniently located within walking distance or a short drive from inviting outdoor landscapes.
Wilmington’s Hotel Ballast, Tapestry Collection by Hilton features updated guest rooms and suites, an indoor and outdoor restaurant and specular views of the Cape Fear River. The Courtyard Marriott Carolina Beach Oceanfront offers a heated indoor and seasonal outdoor pool, renovated rooms and suites featuring stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean from the comfort of your bed or private balcony. The Holiday Inn Resort Wrightsville Beach features spacious guest rooms and suites with balcony or oceanviews, seasonal poolside restaurant and bar, hot tub, and an outdoor and indoor pool. Palm Air Realty offers vacation rentals in Carolina Beach and Kure Beach. Whether you're looking for pet-friendly vacation rentals, rentals with pools or oceanfront homes, you're sure to find the perfect vacation home fit for you and your family.
Spanning more than 230 blocks, Wilmington’s National Register Historic District features churches, classic architecture, moss-draped live oaks, brick streets and Victorian homes. Download the Wilmington eTours mobile app for five full self-guided tours to explore history at your own pace. Cameron Art Museum features several outdoor spaces, including an art park with sculptures by numerous artists, a historic marker detailing the Battle of Forks Road (c.1865), nature trails and a fruit grove, along with picnic areas.
There’s more history to explore at our island beaches. Explore local Wrightsville Beach and Harbor Way Island history by taking a walking tour of 25 signs posted during select dates along the Wrightsville Beach Loop, a trail that encircles the island. Each sign includes vintage photographs and informative history tidbits and trivia describing the importance of the area. If you are not able to come while the signs are placed, just stop by the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History for a printed self-guided tour map. Fort Fisher State Historic Site, located near Kure Beach, was the last major Confederate stronghold to fall during the Civil War. A trail with interpretive signs surrounds the fort’s mounds and is perfect for hiking while learning at the same time.
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
Al Fresco Lunch with a View
From a Riverwalk and rooftops to boardwalks and piers, outdoor dining is a big deal here – Wilmington was once voted the “#1 Best Al Fresco Dining Neighborhood” in USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice awards. Enjoy the view as much as the meal when you dine al fresco at a waterfront eatery with outdoor patio seating. Or grab a bite to-go and find a quiet spot along Wilmington’s Riverwalk, a 1.75-mile boardwalk that runs along the scenic Cape Fear River. Just minutes away, waterfront restaurants beckon at nearby beaches, many with outdoor dining options.
Water Experiences on the River and the ICW
Book a private charter with BrewBoat Wilmington. You and your small group will paddle along the Cape Fear River in an environmentally-friendly paddleboat during a 90-minute BYOB (Bring Your Own Beverage) excursion. In Wrightsville Beach, customize your own island excursion with Epic Excursions ranging from paddleboarding marsh tours and surf charters to sunset cruises and island dinners. If you really want to become one with nature, camping and glamping trips to the nearby uninhabited Masonboro Island are available. Or you can reserve a sailing adventure through companies like Soundside Adventures at Wrightsville Beach, Shamrock Sailing Adventures and Wrightsville Performance Sailing that offer private charters.
Savor the Flavors
Renowned for fresh seafood and Southern specialties, Wilmington’s coastal dining scene also offers farm-to-table restaurants, vegetarian cafés and international cuisine. Prefer to eat in? In Wrightsville Beach, pick up some of the freshest seafood around from Motts Channel Seafood or a carryout seafood steamer pot from Topsail Steamer and prepare a chef-worthy meal at your vacation rental or condo. In Carolina Beach, the “Best-Pot-To-Go” from Cape Fear Boil Company comes complete with everything you need for a traditional Coastal Low Country Boil.
Seize the Day & Keep Fit
Rise early for a spectacular ocean sunrise, then search for shells along our island beaches. Yogis and Pilates-enthusiasts will find peaceful views at area parks, piers and beaches. Hike Halyburton Park’s 58-acre nature preserve or along Carolina Beach State Park’s nature trails. Walkers, joggers and off-road cyclists can sightsee along Wilmington’s 15-mile, off-road Gary Shell Cross-City Trail, the 2.5-mile Loop at Wrightsville Beach Park or the 1.2-mile Island Greenway in Carolina Beach. For a thrilling cycling experience, there’s an 8-mile, single-track mountain bike trail at Blue Clay Bike Park in nearby Castle Hayne.
Blue Clay Bike Park
Prefer a slower pace where you can walk with places to rest? Then check out the historic Carolina Beach Boardwalk and Kure Beach’s Ocean Front Park where you can gaze upon the ocean from swings and benches, or a take a sunset stroll along Wilmington’s Riverwalk and pause to read interpretive signs.
Nature Adventures Await
Rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboat at Greenfield Lake to enjoy a self-guided audio eco-tour or a guided paddle. Kayak or standup paddleboard rentals for guided eco-tours or SUP instruction are available near the marina at Carolina Beach State Park. The Blockade Runner Beach Resort in Wrightsville Beach has its own adventure program that includes sailing, surfing, SUP and kayak rentals and instruction. A number of local outfitters and surf/SUP schools can provide equipment, private instruction and guides for a day of exploration on the water. Birders will find nine sites from the river to the sea on the North Carolina Birding Trail.
Wilmington takes great pride in its public gardens, with the crown jewel being Airlie Gardens, a world-class showcase with 67 acres of formal coastal gardens, wildlife, historic structures, walking trails, sculptures, renowned banks of azaleas and the ancient Airlie Oak. Nearby, the Arboretum of New Hanover County features seven acres with sections for rose, aquatic, Japanese, herb, vegetable, and children’s gardens, greenhouses, and an ability garden. Oakdale Cemetery offers landscaped gardens and funerary art. In historic Wilmington, three house museums feature elegantly manicured period gardens: Bellamy Mansion Museum (Victorian), Burgwin-Wright House (colonial) and Latimer House (Victorian). In Wrightsville Beach, Harbor Way Gardens provides a quiet place to reflect and enjoy native plants and flowers. There are even places like Carolina Beach State Park and Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden where visitors can see carnivorous plants, including the rare Venus flytrap which only grows natively in the Wilmington area, in their natural habitats.
Fishing & Golf
Anglers will find excellent saltwater fishing with one of the largest fishing fleets on the East Coast at the Carolina Beach Marina, as well as private marinas in Wrightsville Beach. Bait and tackle shops are great resources for finding out what’s biting and connecting with available fishing guides. The three unique bodies of water in the region – the Cape Fear River, Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean – all work together to attract abundant varieties of fish species. In addition to inshore, offshore and Gulf Stream fishing charters, there’s surf fishing, a state park marina, two full-service ocean fishing piers and freshwater fishing excursions available.
For golfers, Wilmington offers three public courses with different settings, including the Wilmington Municipal Golf Course, a Donald Ross championship 18-hole golf course at affordable prices. More than 60 golf courses are located within an hour’s drive.
Cheers to Craft Beer
Embark on a self-guided tasting tour of 17 craft breweries using the online Wilmington Ale Trail, where beer aficionados can find info about area breweries, bottle shops and craft beer hot spots. Most of Wilmington’s craft breweries and many bottle shops feature outdoor beer gardens and patios. Play a friendly game of disc golf at Trinity Disc Golf Course located behind Good Hops Brewery in Carolina Beach.
If you’re in search of some R&R via a coastal road trip or active vacation with family, your significant other, a close group of friends or even solo, you should put Wilmington and Beaches at the top of your list.