Wilmington and Beaches Trip Ideas

Every visitor will most likely discover the area’s top attractions, restaurants, shopping venues and more while on their many trips to Wilmington and our Island beaches. However, if you are one of those visitors who likes to get off-the-beaten path to find the unexpected things to see and do, these trip ideas are featured just for you.

Cool & Quirky

With its barrier island beaches and historic riverfront town, Wilmington, NC, is a destination of contrasts where you'll find well-known attractions such as the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, Fort Fisher State Historic Site, Airlie Gardens, historic homes, museums and parks. In contrast, other attractions explore our quirky side. For instance, did you know about our ghost walks, haunted pub crawls, surf/SUP camps, pirate cruises, secret mailbox by the sea, and places to see carnivorous plants, endangered sea turtles, sharks, alligators, poisonous reptiles, and prehistoric creatures? And don't forget our 400+ movie/TV credits.

Even the history of the region is intriguing. The Cape Fear River, which winds its way through Wilmington, was named by early explorers when their ships ran aground and sank due to dangerous shifting shoals where the river meets the sea. Today these wrecks afford amazing diving and fishing opportunities.

MUSIC LOVERS UNITE

Music lovers can take advantage of free concert series, like the Downtown Sundown Concert Series in Wilmington, the Boardwalk Blast at Carolina Beach, Boogie in the Park at Kure Beach and Summer Concert Series at Wrightsville Beach Park, every week throughout the summer. Relax under the broad branches of the Airlie Oak as the area’s premier musicians perform at the Airlie Gardens Concert Series. You can also dance on the sand at the Carolina Beach Music Festival. The Pleasure Island Seafood, Blues & Jazz Festival features two days of non-stop musical acts and an array of culinary seafood delights in the fall.

SHOPPERS, NO BRANDS FOUND HERE!

Wilmington’s river district shopping isn't defined just by shopping malls or big box retailers. The highest concentration of unique boutique shops can be found at one place, The Cotton Exchange, featuring buildings in constant occupancy since the pre-Civil War decade. Eight graciously restored buildings connected by brick walkways, open-air courtyards, and gigantic heart pine beams house 30 unique specialty shops and restaurants, each a charming reflection of the style and feel of Wilmington’s 19th century working port days.

Located at the southern end of Wilmington's river district, the century-old building at Chandler’s Wharf contains an eclectic mix of galleries and shops with works of art that are unmatched in Wilmington. Find everything from cutting edge clothing, art to ceramic sculpture to original paintings and prints.

The Black Cat Shoppe in the river district is a store of inspired gifts! The store features cool kid stuff, pirate booty, zany & unusual nostalgic toys, humorous pop culture novelties, souvenirs, pranks, One Tree Hill memorabilia, and much more. 

Edge of Urge is a boutique for men and women specializing in handmade and independent designer clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories. Edge of Urge strongly supports handmade, “Do-it-Yourself,” innovative and creative thinking. They have introduced many up-and-coming designers, as well as more established designers, to bring a matchless collection of favorite things including the locally-made “Freaker,” a-one-size fits all beverage insulator that features stylish, knit designs.

PIRATES - ARGH!

Did ye know that pirates were among Wilmington and our Island beaches' earliest visitors? Aye, it's true! At the Children's Museum of Wilmington, kids can dress like pirates and role-play aboard the Ahoy Wilmington! ‘pirate ship.' Kids will also enjoy Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tour's Pirate Island Treasure Hunt tour to a small barrier island that was once popular with pirates. At the NC Underwater Archeology Center at Fort Fisher, you can see real artifacts from shipwrecks and vessels that sailed along our coast during the era of pirates such as Stede Bonnet.

COASTAL HAUNTINGS

Local actors lead nightly ghost walks with tales of ghosts and hauntings in Wilmington, a city considered to be among the most actively haunted in the world. In fact, "Ghost Hunters," a paranormal reality series on the Syfy network listed Wilmington’s Battleship NORTH CAROLINA in their Top 25 Halloween picks of all time. Staff reports seeing solid walking shadows with silhouettes of people, phantom voices, moving shadows and the overwhelming feeling of being watched or followed.

Are you curious for more? Guides traverse 275-year old alleyways littered with stories of poor lost souls that still linger in the storied Port City. Check out the Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington, a family-safe, 90-minute journey that meets on the Riverwalk at the foot of Market and Water streets. At St. James Church, they'll tell you about Samuel Jocelyn, who came back to tell friends he'd been buried alive. Two centuries later visitors claim they have seen a shadowy figure leaning on a tombstone near Jocelyn's grave. Some believe it is his ghost still haunting the grounds of St. James Cemetery, one of the most haunted cemeteries in the state. If you’re over 21, the Haunted Pub Crawl meets weekend nights to explore legendary pubs. There's also a Haunted Cotton Exchange Tour.

SNAKES ALIVE!

The Cape Fear Serpentarium features 100 species of snakes (most of them venomous) and other reptiles from around the world. Among them are gaboon vipers, king cobras, Australian taipans, blue krait, a 23-foot python, and green and black mambas. The serpentarium also features a large collection of bushmasters, the rarest venomous snakes. Owner/snake breeder Dean Ripa holds the distinction of surviving multiple bushmaster bites, which kill approximately 80 percent of victims, even with anti-venom treatment! Visit the Cape Fear Serpentarium and see for yourself.

RIDE THE RAILS

The Wilmington Railroad Museum rests directly across from where the original Atlantic Coast Line Railroad used to port. In 1840, this railroad was the longest continuous rail line in the world. This museum is great for engineers both young and old and allows you to tour a real life-size caboose, boxcar, and 100-year-old steam locomotive. Learn about the history of the development of railroads in the Wilmington area and the careers of famous people who were involved with railroads, such as Thomas Edison and George Pullman.

VENUS FLYTRAPS

Did you know that Venus flytrap (Dionaea) grows naturally only within a 75-100 mile radius of Wilmington? This remarkable plant’s bristly leaves form a trap that closes when an insect crawls onto the leaf. Blooming in May, the Venus Flytrap Trail at Carolina Beach State Park showcases this remarkable plant. The trail’s half-mile loop also features other indigenous carnivorous plants such as the Bladderwort and Pitcher Plant.  

HERMIT BUNKER

The renowned Fort Fisher State Recreation Area’s hermit (Robert E. Harrill) lived in an abandoned World War II-era bunker near the Cape Fear River along a salt marsh for 17 years, from 1955 until 1972. He became a hermit in 1955 at the age of 62. People heard of and came to visit the “Hermit” to listen to his philosophies and imparted wisdom throughout his stay there, and today you can still see the bunker he made into a home on the recreation area’s 1.1-mile trail. There have been many documentaries and numerous articles written about 'the Hermit of Fort Fisher' including a live stage production.

NIGHTLIFE

The  Barbary Coast is Wilmington’s oldest bar. Located in the historic river district, this hot spot features a jukebox with over 10,000 songs and the patio overlooks the Cape Fear River. For an evening of billiards and brews, visit Orton's Music and Billiards, America’s oldest pool room since 1888. Enjoy a view of the Cape Fear River at Reel CaféThe Throne Theater features some of the biggest and brightest acts of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

For a nightcap or glass of vino, check out the upstairs lounge of the Caprice Bistro Restaurant & Sofa Bar. The Fortunate Glass Wine Bar focuses on wines from all regions, from some of the best boutique and cult wines to everyday values that work with any budget.

Stop by the Fat Pelican in Carolina Beach, complete with a walk-in beverage cooler and giant surfing cow on the roof. Check out the assortment of decorations, including the dinghy renovated into an outdoor bar. The Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar in Carolina Beach, named as one of the best beach bars in the U.S., serves up fresh seafood and live music with ocean views.

Wrightsville Beach offers a vibrant nightlife scene. No matter what your after-dark style, this coastal community has options ranging from beach bars and waterfront restaurants, local hot spots and everything in between. Take in the panoramic views of the Intracoastal Waterway at Bluewater Waterfront Grill. Watch as boats cruise past your table and relax to the sounds of live music from local and regional bands during their summer music series on the outdoor patio. The Oceanic provides great outdoor seating with an ocean view and also sets the stage for seasonal outdoor music.

SHOP SHABBY CHIC & BEACHY UNIQUE

Bring the shabby chic and beachy unique design style back home with you as a vacation souvenir by shopping at one of our many stores that feature this form of inspiration, vintage accessories and furnishings, and décor ideas for your home!  Whether your thrill lies in airy pastel linens or distressed wooden furniture statement pieces, Wilmington offers many chic shopping boutiques with something new and original every visit.

A bright, oversized purple chair will lure you into Thrill of the Hunt, specializing in antiques and consignments. Stop in The Shop of Seagate for one-of-a-kind pieces and full monogramming and embroidery for a personal touch. Close to Wrightsville Beach, Airlie Moon combines vintage finds with crisp linens, bath accents, clean candles and hand-milled soaps. Need one-stop shopping to find multiple gifts for all occasions? Visit Blue Moon Gift Shops, voted “Best Gift Shop in Wilmington” housing a myriad of gifts from over 100 artists, craftsmen and retailers. Locals shop at The Ivy Cottage for exclusive finds, voted “Wilmington’s Favorite Consignment Shop” and the largest antique and home décor shop in the southeast housed in three cottages. Inspired by the sea, find a treasure at Crabby Chic including coastal home furnishings and decorative accessories, where art and sea stars are a decorating staple. Dragonflies offers children’s clothing and baby gifts with personal and southern charm. Vintage shop ‘til you drop, but before you do, save time for one last stop at Uptown Market, a premier merchant marketplace offering 12,000 square feet of all that is authentic, coastal, and one-of-a-kind from farm tables to artisan jewelry and more!

LOGGERHEAD SEA TURTLES

Did you know that Loggerhead sea turtles visit Kure Beach between mid-May and September? This threatened species is protected by the Endangered Species Act. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is an excellent place to see a live baby sea turtle. Each year, the aquarium nurtures a handful of hatchlings that have been rescued from doomed nests and then releases them the following year. The Aquarium also studies Loggerhead migration patterns. The Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project ensures the preservation and protection of threatened and endangered sea turtles, and is comprised of volunteers dedicated to the protection of all sea turtle species. During nesting season (May 1 - August 31), volunteers monitor from the southern end of Kure Beach to the northern end (including Freeman Park) of Carolina Beach.

BARRIER ISLAND

Accessible only by boat, Masonboro Island off Wrightsville Beach is a North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve System rich with wildlife. The largest undisturbed barrier island along southern North Carolina’s coast, coastal birds flock to their natural habitat here and dolphins can be seen enjoying the area on a calm day.

THE DIMINISHING REPUBLIC

Crossing the iconic drawbridge from the mainland into Wrightsville Beach, visitors can look off towards the northeast and see a sandbar known by locals as “The Diminishing Republic,” complete with a fake palm tree and parking meter. Some claim it is maintained by a “secret society of locals” that show up when the treetop needs replacing. Boaters often anchor there on either side of the low tide to temporarily inhabit the island, which slowly disappears as the water begins rising toward high tide. The treetop is the only visible part of “The Diminishing Republic” at high tide. See if you can spot it!

MAILBOX ON THE BEACH

On Wrightsville Beach, there is a special mailbox where people pour their hearts out to complete strangers in the sand dunes on the north end of the beach. There is no name on it and the Post Office doesn’t pick up or deliver to the box. People can write letters to clear their conscious, place them in a mailbox, but never have them sent. The mysterious mailbox somehow stays stocked with paper, pens, and stories from visitors sharing their fondest beach memories year after year. The current mailbox is the second mailbox located on Wrightsville Beach. The first mailbox was a landmark on the north end of the island for 11 years and the hundreds of notes left in it can now be found on display at the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.

SCUBA DIVING

For the inquisitive diver, Aquatic Safaris operates two USCG certified custom dive boats that run daily dive charters to wrecks and ledges off Wrightsville Beach. In the latter part of the Civil War, three ships were sunk off Wrightsville Beach within days of one another and lay within 300 yards of each other near the south end of the island.

TEE IT UP

A municipal golf course designed by one of the world’s most influential golf course designers is a rare thing. The Wilmington Municipal Golf Course was designed by Donald Ross in 1926 to provide the public with a quality, championship 18 hole golf course at affordable prices. This gem is a must play when in town.

DISC GOLF

The area boasts two 18-hole disc golf courses. The Joe Eakes Park course in Kure Beach features a unique terrain of sand and oak trees. This course is 18 holes with the longest run at 500 feet, great for seasoned players as well as new ones. The Northern Regional Park course is mostly wooded but not too tight and the front "9" makes good use of elevation. There's also a free nine-hole course open to the public behind Good Hops Brewing Company in Carolina Beach.

MIDTOWN

Between the river and the sea, a bounty of great experiences and attractions await in Wilmington’s midtown. From Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park, to historic Airlie Gardens, to shopping villages including Mayfaire Town Center and Lumina Station and more, midtown has something for everyone to enjoy. Read More

48 HOUR ITINERARY

Short trips require less planning and less time off than an extended vacation. There’s plenty here to keep visitors busy for days on end, but this itinerary should get you started if you have just 48 hours. Read More