Choosing a vacation location that appeases a full group of family and friends is hard. One trip to Wilmington and its surrounding beaches, though, and you’ll be retiring any other vacation ideas from your future. The sheer array of things to see and do in Historic Downtown Wilmington is enough to plan a vacation around, but once you factor in the nearby beaches? It’s like nesting dolls for vacation destinations – they just. keep. coming!
As a resident, I jump at the chance to host my loved ones and to come up with itineraries based on all the things I think they’ll enjoy! I’ve done the same here for you with this itinerary full of tips for the best things to do in Wilmington, Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville Beaches. Whether you nab yourself a charming stay at a historic bed and breakfast downtown, or make it a beach vacay at a full-service resort, there are plenty of options to temporarily call home while you explore this coastal oasis.
DAY ONE | Downtown Wilmington
Downtown Wilmington is truly magical, and there is just so much to see and do. Start your day with a quick breakfast at Beach Bagels or if you’d like a leisurely (and filling!) brunch, you can’t go wrong at The Basics. You’ll want to fuel up for a full day of exploring all that downtown has to offer. Take a stroll down Front Street and its off-shoots for shopping options for pretty much anything you could be looking for. Get lost in a sea of books at Old Books on Front Street or peruse the latest comic book releases at Memory Lane Comics. Check out the talent of local artists at New Elements Gallery or shop boutiques like Modern Legend and Edge of Urge. My top tip? Just let your feet and curiosity guide you and wander toward any window that catches your eye!
If you’re interested in a scenic boat tour, walk along the Riverwalk and nab a seat on one of the handful of options to check out the sights of the Cape Fear River.
Wilmington has established itself as a foodie haven over the years, so you really can’t go wrong no matter where you choose for lunch. Savorez is a top-pick for a reason (just typing that has me dreaming of their BLT arepa), bring the whole crew for dinner with a view at Elijah’s along the Riverwalk, or try my absolute favorite neighborhood go-to, Castle Street Kitchen. With rotating specials that are consistently unique and delicious (ask for today’s tacos!) and the friendliest staff in town, you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled into a sitcom and this is the spot everyone knows your name.
Post-lunch I recommend a dreamy carriage ride through historic downtown! Springbrook Farms has been saving horses since 1987 and is committed to giving them a well-cared for life. Plus, it’s fascinating to learn about all the history and happenings of the city in such a unique mode of transportation. If the arts are more your speed than history, be sure to see if there’s a show at historic Thalian Hall that piques your interest.
Staying downtown for dinner leaves you with plenty of delicious options. For more upscale choices, book a reservation at Caprice Bistro or manna ave. 123 (both offer fabulous ambiances with the freshest food in town – ask for a window seat when you book your reservation!); for delectable Italian fare created from original family recipes, try Tarantelli’s; or if you want to push your taste buds with something more eclectic, sample the small plates at Rum Cow. If you’re with a big enough group, try doing a progressive dinner and trying a handful of these options! One of my favorite things to do when I have company visiting is going from restaurant to restaurant and split dishes so we can sample as much of what Wilmington has to offer as possible.
If you want a truly unique experience post-dinner, you have to check out a ghost tour. Wilmington is said to be one of the most haunted cities in the country, and this 90-minute tour will delight and spook the believer in you. No matter what, be sure to end the night with a sweet treat with the family – including Fido! – from GelaRto, located right on the Riverwalk. It’s made with fresh Alpine spring water and milk from their very own herd of cows in Turin, Italy. Or, get an adult-friendly night-cap from the neighborhood-favorite Lula’s A Pub. Whether it’s because you’re looking for a stiff drink in an underground setting or you’re still on the lookout for ghosts, a stop at Lula’s is the perfect way to end a night in Wilmington.
DAY TWO | Wrightsville Beach
After such a busy day yesterday, take it easy and make it a beach day at Wrightsville Beach. Pack your beach supplies, grab a coffee from SUNday’s and hunker down by the water for a day of soaking in some rays and splashing in the ocean. There are plenty of options for rentals in the area, so if you want to bike ride around The Loop, try your hand at paddleboarding or take a leisurely kayak ride, there are lots of ways to stay active either self-guided or on guided tours and check out the sights on scenic cruises.
If you prefer to stay ocean-side, grab some famous chicken salad from Robert’s Grocery and head back to your beach blanket for a family picnic. You can also nab a lunch spot on the pier at Oceanic or head over to Dockside for some tasty fish tacos and a view of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Of course a full beach day is sometimes exactly what the soul needs, but if you’re up for exploring more, Airlie Gardens is an absolute must-visit and is a quick drive from the beach. With 67 acres of lush foliage, a seasonal butterfly house the kids will love, striking architectural elements and water-side views, you’ll understand very quickly why this is such a popular spot in the area.
Go casual for dinner with a stop at the classic Tower 7 (margaritas optional but very much encouraged) or head over to Flying Machine for a bite and some local brews. I mean, is there anything tastier at the end of a beach day than a craft beer?!
DAY THREE | Carolina + Kure Beaches
If another beach day is in order, you’re in luck – Carolina and Kure Beaches both have plenty of public beach access options for you to enjoy and each offers something different than your Wrightsville Beach day did yesterday! I recommend starting your day in Kure Beach with a stop at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. This is one of those things that shows up on internet lists of what to do and you may wonder, “Should I?” and the answer is absolutely yes. There are so many different fish species to observe and exhibits to experience, that you could spend hours here and still want more. I, personally, could stand and observe the Cape Fear Shoals Habitat for a full day.
If you want to get some more beach time in, head over to the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and enjoy six miles of protected shoreline and picturesque trails. This is oftentimes a less crowded beach option and perfect if want to enjoy some quiet or family time by the ocean.
If you’re starting to get hungry, head to the nearby Carolina Beach Boardwalk, and get a specialty hot dog from Nauti Dog. This whole area feels like it’s right out of a movie from a simpler time. After lunch you can ride the seasonal amusement rides or just explore the different shops. Oh, and be sure to bring cash (that’s all they take!) so you can nab some famous glazed donuts (that’s all they make!) from Britt’s Donut Shop, open seasonally.
Next up is a visit to Carolina Beach State Park, which is truly a best-of-both-worlds situation; you can catch views of the ocean while taking one of the hiking trails. Be sure to have your camera at the ready so you can snap a shot of a Venus flytrap – a carnivorous plant native to the area.
For dinner, I highly recommend grabbing to-go tacos from Nollie’s Taco Joint and walking down to the water. The only thing that can make the already-fantastic experience of eating tacos even better is doing it with a view of the ocean.
End the night with a signature sundae like the Tummy Trembler from Celtic Creamery, which features six scoops of ice cream, eight hot donuts, cookie pieces and marshmallows all topped with a flaming firework. Then, enjoy some live music and some of the best people-watching in North Carolina at SeaWitch Cafe & Tiki Bar.
DAY FOUR | Catch-all Day
Is there a spot you’ve already visited that you just have to experience one more time? I get it! (I loved Wilmington so much on my first visit here in 2016 that I ended up moving here!) Or are there spots that caught your eye the past few days that you haven’t had a chance to fit in yet? Now’s the time! There’s so much I haven’t even touched on yet – stroll around the Cargo District, explore all the Brooklyn Arts District has to offer or go on a brewery crawl! Are you a fan of one of the many movies or shows filmed in the area? Go on a self-guided tour to check out some of the famous filming sights!
I always end up leaving a vacation wanting just one more day to soak up the last of what a destination has to offer, so definitely recommend you add one more to your itinerary for that same reason! Don’t get all the way back home still thinking, “Wait, we never did check out that Ceviche’s restaurant, or shop the antiques on Castle Street, or try a scoop from Boombalatti’s, or get a sunset family portrait on the Riverwalk!” Don’t live with regrets like these: Add a day (or two, or three, or a lifetime), and thank me later.