Wilmington, North Carolina: The Perfect Autumn Destination

A sophisticated city with nearby pristine beaches makes for an ideal fall getaway

By Larissa C. Milne

My husband and I have a passion for travel and love to get outdoors. That’s why we love visiting Wilmington and its island beaches in the fall. The city’s charming historic downtown with its scenic waterfront and its one-of-a-kind activities satisfy our craving for a sophisticated urban environment amid autumn’s clear days and cool nights. The nearby beaches – Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville – offer plenty of outdoor fun near the shoreline and barrier islands.

Modern History by Day, Mystery by Night

We’ve visited the Wilmington area several times, and a walk along Wilmington’s award-winning Riverwalk, straddling the Cape Fear River, has become a tradition for us. We love the view of the majestic Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, which overlooks the city from its dock across the river. We explore new shops and restaurants and visit a few perennial favorites in historic downtown, like the Copper Penny and Fork N Cork, both terrific spots for “pub grub” and a wide selection of beers. Old Books on Front Street offers Literary History Walking Tours, where we learned about the city’s connection to Oscar Wilde and Arthur Miller (which includes his long-time brunch fave, Dixie Grill).

Enjoy strolling streets filled with 18th and 19th-century buildings and homes in the city’s National Register Historic District, one of the largest in the country. We indulge our love of old homes by taking a Historic Homes tour, which features elegant houses from different eras. The Colonial-era Burgwin-Wright House boasts grand Georgian furniture, the opulent Latimer House is filled with Victoriana (and a resident ghost in the basement kitchen!), and the unfurnished Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design provides excellent insight to Civil War-era architecture – including an early form of “air conditioning” by way of a rooftop cupola – while also offering summer lawn jazz concerts on the second Tuesday of the month, May through October.

Fall is also a great time to take a haunted tour, especially when you’re in one of the nation’s most haunted cities! A Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington took us past eerie graveyards, while the Haunted Cotton Exchange Tour explores shadowy nooks and crannies in the eight interconnected buildings that form a popular shopping area by day. Take the Haunted Pub Crawl to hear tales of mayhem, lunacy and debauchery amidst some of the city’s more colorful taverns.

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River to Sea Outdoor Adventures

Wilmington and its nearby beaches offer plenty of ways to enjoy the great outdoors beyond sand and surf, from fishing and four-wheeling at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area at Kure Beach to biking and hiking at Carolina Beach State Park. Check out Wheel Fun Rentals for surrey bike rentals to explore the island. For a great birding adventure, sign up for a tour with the Cape Fear Audubon Society or Manahaim Adventures.  At Wrightsville Beach, book an eco-adventure with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours for a shell-hunting or birding tour.

Alternatively, we can walk, run or cycle the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail, a 15-mile path that traverses Wilmington’s residential neighborhoods and ultimately winds up at the bridge to Wrightsville Beach. We like that the mixed-use trail is completely off-road and is wide enough for cyclists to pass with plenty of room around us. The trail skirts the UNC-Wilmington campus and passes through Halyburton and Hugh MacRae Parks, with “Fixit” stations along the way.

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Neighborhood Foodie Finds

When it comes to dining, Wilmington provides an array of eateries offering a wide diversity of cuisines. This abundance of choices is partly due to its long history as a trading port, where exotic ingredients have been arriving for centuries – something we learned while taking a Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tour. Some of the highlights of our three-hour tour included tapas at the nuevo Latino Savorez, new Southern cuisine at critically-acclaimed PinPoint and a selection of fine charcuterie at Fortunate Glass Wine Bar.

But there’s more to the Wilmington food scene than just the restaurants in historic downtown. We spent a happy afternoon at the Castle Street Arts and Antiques District, just a few blocks east, where a collection of antique and vintage clothing shops kept me busy hunting for “buried treasures” for hours. Then we capped it off with some upscale shrimp and grits at Rx Restaurant & Bar, housed in (you guessed it!) a former pharmacy, where fresh, locally-sourced seasonal ingredients take center stage, from heirloom tomatoes to shellfish.

The city’s latest up-and-coming neighborhood is the South Front District, located near the river about a mile south of downtown. This former industrial area is now home to renovated apartments with a hip vibe, along with a collection of bars and restaurants, like the dog-friendly Satellite Bar and Lounge, housed in a 1940’s-era grocery store, and Second Glass Wine Bar, creatively built using repurposed cargo containers, that make it a destination all on its own. Anchoring the neighborhood is Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Vivian Howard – the North Carolina native best known for her PBS series A Chef’s Life. We loved her new take on classic Italian, like the Green Tomato pizza with aged goat cheese and sausage, and the rigatoni with pork sugo and herbed ricotta.

If we’re seeking a classic burger, you can’t go wrong with Winnie’s Tavern, just a short drive south of South Front District. This old-time tavern, tucked away near the shipyard, has been serving up what are arguably the city’s best burgers since 1962. Their classic “Trailer Park Burger,” topped with a fried green tomato and pimento cheese, is a real taste of classic North Carolina.

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Heating Up for a Cool Evening

Any of these good eats can fuel us up for an evening outdoor concert or a nightcap at one of the many hopping live music venues. Just across the road from South Front Street is Greenfield Lake Park & Gardens, which hosts popular music acts each weekend through November in the Hugh Morton Amphitheater, a picturesque setting amidst 100-year-old cypress trees with views of the Cape Fear River. Airlie Gardens also holds outdoor concerts through late September. With a sweater over our shoulders, we’re ready for an evening concert under the stars. It’s the perfect way to cap off a fall visit to Wilmington.

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