What to Do When You Visit Wilmington for the First Time

Wilmington, North Carolina was one of the destinations during our road trip adventure across North Carolina.

Located around 20 minutes from downtown to the Atlantic Coast, Wilmington offers so much for families looking for adventure.

I’m sharing more about how to make the most of your first-time visit.

Riverwalk in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina

Discover Downtown Wilmington and the Riverwalk

A great place to start your visit to Wilmington is downtown. You’ll find gorgeous architecture, a beautiful waterfront, and southern charm and hospitality.

Horse-Drawn-Carriage Tour in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina

Take a Unique Tour of Wilmington

One of my favorite ways to learn about an area is by taking a tour. Foodies will want to check out the food tours available with Taste Wilmington. 

If you are feeling brave, you might be interested in a ghost tour with a  Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington.

Wilmington is known as the “Hollywood of the East” with 500+ film and tv credits. You can learn more about those on a 90 minute Hollywood Location Walking Tour.

Horse Drawn Carriage Tour in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina

Admire Architecture on a Horse-Drawn Carriage Tour

We really enjoyed an evening horse-drawn carriage ride. The tour shared more about the history of downtown Wilmington. We also learned more about many of the gorgeous homes as we passed by at around 2mph.

It was so nice to take things in at a slower pace!

Many of the horses used for the tour are rescues that were abused and unwanted. Thankfully the Percheron draft horses were saved from the uncertain fate of the auction block.

The horses are rotated during the day for exercise from a stable in downtown Wilmington. Each horse only spends one week a month downtown. They spend two or three weeks minimum out on pasture on their farm.

The tours help fund the rescues of more horses. Carriage Tours depart continuously on the half-hour from the ½ block of Market Street from 10AM to 10PM.

Water Tour in Wilmington, North Carolina

Explore the Cape Fear River on a Wilmington Water Tour 

Located at the Riverwalk, guests have the option of tours that take you more downtown or farther down the Cape Fear River on the Eagles Island Cruise.

There are rotating cruises on the hour. If you visit on the even hours you will cruise north to see more of the historic downtown and Eagles Island.

That tour also gives guests an opportunity to view the USS North Carolina Battleship and learn more about a local shipwreck.

USS North Carolina Battleship in Wilmington, North Carolina

Our tour took place during the odd hour which took us under the Memorial Bridge to see the State Ports. The State Ports were also a filming location for Ironman 3.

You’ll learn more about a WW2 Wilmington Ship Yard.   There is also a lot of wildlife spotting along the way made easier with binoculars provided on the boat. 

Check their website to learn more about private and special event cruises.

The Sweet Potato Grouper at The Pilot House in Wilmington, North Carolina

 A Waterside Meal at Pilot House Restaurant

Located a short walk from Wilmington Water Tours, Pilot House Restaurant offers guests a casual dining experience with views of the riverfront from inside or from the patio.

The Pilot House in Wilmington, North Carolina

We started our meal with an order of Lobster Mac’n Cheese made with lobster meat, gruyere, sharp white cheddar, Cavatappi pasta.  Another appetizer must is the  Hot Crab Dip made with jumbo lump crab, horseradish, blended cheeses, and buttered baguette.

You can’t go wrong with either of those appetizers!

I ordered the House Specialty, the Sweet Potato Grouper made with fresh local grouper, sweet potato crisps, mushroom ravioli, atop mixed greens with balsamic aioli. The Southern Fried Chicken Sandwich was also a hit with my family.

*There is a free parking lot for the restaurants at the corner of Water & Ann streets.

Wrightsville Beach in Wilmington, North Carolina

Explore Wrightsville Beach 

Wrightsville Beach is known for being one of the best beaches in the US to surf. The beach’s surfing history dates back to 1909 and continued to evolve in style and popularity over the years.

You can enjoy watching the surfers show off their skills. If you are feeling more adventurous,  take a surf lesson or attend a surf camp. This is a great way to learn how to surf for the first time or build on your current skill set.

Wrightsville Beach was also the first beach to ban smoking in 2012.  The Beach takes pride in being a clean and environmentally friendly destination for families with metered parking available.

If you want to learn more about protecting and restoring the coast you might want to stop by the NC Coastal Federation located next to the Wrightsville Beach Museum.

Johnnie Mercer's Pier in Wilmington, North Carolina

Walk Johnnie Mercer’s Pier

Johnnie Mercer’s Pier is a great spot for taking pictures at Wrightsville Beach. It’s the only concrete fishing pier in North Carolina. The 1200 ft pier does charge a small fee to walk on the pier and there is a parking lot nearby that charges by the hour.

Sunset at Johnnie Mercer's Pier in Wilmington, North Carolina

Beautiful Sunrises and Sunsets

As a Midwest girl, I feel obligated to soak in as much time as possible by ocean whenever I visit a destination.

That means losing sleep to experience the sunrise with sand and water between my toes. I love feeling a sense of awe and gratitude as the sun sets over the water.

Sunrise at Johnnie Mercer's Pier in Wilmington, North Carolina

Despite a weather forecast that didn’t fully cooperate, I still got to experience several moments of wonder during our visit.

If you enjoy an early morning work out during a visit, you might want to check out The Loop. The 2.45-mile scenic fitness trail circles the island.  

Blockade Runner Beach Resort, Wrightsville Beach in Wilmington, North Carolina

Visit Blockade Runner Beach Resort at Wrightsville Beach

Blockade Runner Beach Resort is a family-friendly resort with beach access. On their Southside access you can try kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, canoeing, sailing, fishing.

They also have an outdoor pool with plenty of seating and outside restaurant and bar. There are plenty of activities for kids, and beautiful grounds where you have a good chance of seeing wild bunnies.

Blockade Runner Beach Resort, Wrightsville Beach in Wilmington, North Carolina

We stopped there for lunch and toured the property. My husband and boys made it their mission to swim in the ocean even though the water and air temperature were both in the ’50s that day.

Some of our lunch highlights at EAST Oceanfront dining were the Fish tacos, Block Burger, and the Bánh mì sandwich.

Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours in Wilmington, North Carolina

Learn About the Ecology with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours

Located across the street from the Blockade Runner Beach Resort at the Southside pier, you can learn more about the ecology of the area during a 1-hour History Harbor Tour.

Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours in Wilmington, North Carolina

During our tour, we learned that there are 7 species of birds that nest on the beach. Our Captain and guide, Joe Abbate, had a birding book and pointed out the various species that we saw along the way.

In the summer months, you can take a boat tour to Masonboro Barrier Island. The undeveloped barrier island is only accessible by boat which makes it even more special.

The tour is very relaxing and our guide did a great job of sharing about the area in a way that was interesting for kids and adults.

( I definitely want to come back to visit Masonboro Barrier Island for the day)

Venus Flytrap at Carolina Beach State Park in Wilmington, North Carolina

See a Real Venus Flytrap at Carolina Beach State Park

This State Park is one of the few places in the world where you can see the Venus Flytrap in its native environment.

During our visit, we toured the park with a park ranger to check out the campsites.  If you don’t like tent camping or have your own camper there quite are a few cabins available for rent. The park also has recreational areas with access to water.

My favorite part was the guided hike on the Flytrap trail where we learned more about the 13 distinct plant communities in the area.

Carolina Beach State Park in Wilmington, North Carolina

There are 761 acres at the State Park.

If you plan on hiking, it is recommended that you wear pants and closed-toed shoes and bring along insect repellant and sunscreen.

Greenfield Lake Park in Wilmington, North Carolina

Relax at Greenfield Lake Park

We stumbled upon this park by accident. Greenfield Lake Park is a beautiful park located minutes from downtown Wilmington.

Greenfield Lake Park in Wilmington, North Carolina

There is a walking trail, playground, fishing and canoe, kayak, and paddleboat rentals.

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area in Wilmington, North Carolina

Visit Fort Fisher State Recreation Area

This state park is located close to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. It has 6 miles of beaches and really cool oak trees that have been twisted and formed by the elements through the years.

If our weather would have been better during our stop there I would have taken the boardwalk to the beach.

Another noteworthy stop near Kure Beach is the site of the largest land/sea battle of the Civil War at Fort Fisher State Historic Site and Museum.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t open during our visit but it’s free to visit and perfect for war history enthusiasts.

Blackened Fish & Grits at Michael's Seafood in Wilmington, North Carolina

More Great Places to Eat

My Favorite Meal at Michael’s Seafood

5 S Water St, Wilmington, NC

We ate incredible food the whole time we were in Wilmington but Michael’s was my favorite!

I ordered the Blackened Fish & Grits. The dish was made with today’s freshest catch, garlic parmesan sauce, corn, fresh tomato, and scallion served over our house-made grit cake.

It was a gamble that paid off big….because grits can go either way.

Michael's Seafood in Wilmington, North Carolina

Michael’s Seafood was the home of my FAVORITE dish of the trip.

Seriously, it’s the type of dish I dream of because it was so good! Make sure that you also try their award-winning seafood chowder.

Views at Oceanic Restaurant in Wilmington, North Carolina

Dinner with an Ocean View at Oceanic Restaurant 

703 S. Lumina Avenue, Wrightsville Beach, NC

Enjoy dinner with a view. Oceanic Restaurant offers lots of seafood specialties with ocean views that are hard to beat!

What to do when you visit Wilmington for the first time

You can dine inside or outside.  After your meal, you can take a nice walk on the pier and watch the surfers as they catch their next wave.

Oceanic Restaurant in Wilmington, North Carolina

During our visit, we tried the Sunkissed shrimp as an appetizer, stuffed Flounder, and Chipotle Atlantic Salmon & Shrimp. After our meal, we enjoyed spending time on the beach playing and watching the surfers before the sunset.

They make custom donuts on the spot with combinations that are fun and creative.

I tried one with Key-lime glaze and graham-cracker topping. We also had flavors with peanut butter, Oreo, and maple bacon.

Michael Jordan Memorabilia at Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina

Indoor Adventures Around Wilmington That Are Perfect for A Rainy Day

Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina

Explore the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science

814 Market St, Wilmington, NC

Learn more about the history of Wilmington, local culture, and ecology at the Cape Fear Museum. Sports fans will love the exhibit featuring memorabilia from Michael Jordan who grew up in Wilmington.

There is a lot of history to read and several interactive components to help you understand more about the Cape Fear region.

Make sure that you check out the interactive Venus Flytrap exhibit in the Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery.

Kids will enjoy “Space Place.” The exhibit helps them imagine what it is like to be an astronaut in space while they participate in several STEM hands-on exhibits.

Railroad Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina

All Aboard at the Wilmington Railroad Museum

505 Nutt St, Wilmington, NC

Located next to the Wilmington and Beaches Visitor Information Center, Wilmington Railroad Museum is the perfect adventure for train enthusiasts young and old.

Railroad Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina

Showcasing the Guinness World Record-holding longest model train made up of 1563 carriages and 31 locomotives,  history of all of the aspects of train history.

Don’t forget to take pictures next to a 100-year-old steam locomotive, caboose, and boxcar.

The Museum does have several dedicated parking spaces for museum guests and street parking is free on Sundays.

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

Observe Marine Life at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

900 Loggerhead Rd, Kure Beach, NC

Ranked as one of the top 20 US Aquariums on Trip Advisor, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a great place to learn more about marine life in the area.

The aquarium has interactive exhibits, touch tanks, live feedings, and dive shows inside the two-story ocean exhibit with sharks.

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

One of my favorite moments during our visit was discovering the two alligators that appeared to be hugging and the dive show.

Outside kids can burn off some energy on the playground and walk the trail to see the life-size animatronic “DINOSAURS!” exhibit until September 2018.

Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park in North Carolina

Play at Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park

5320 Oleander Drive, Wilmington, NC

Featuring adventures indoors and outside, Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park offers lots of fun activities for families of all ages.

A few of our favorites during our rainy day visit were the laser tag, mini bowling, 4-person air hockey table, the rock climbing wall, and the Spin Zone Bumper Cars.

Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park in North Carolina

Younger kids ages 3-8 will love the Kids Jungle play structure and there are lots of arcade games that appeal to all ages.

Outside you can play Jungle mini-golf, race go-karts, and drop 40 ft on the Skytower.

During the summer months, you will want to check out their waterpark which is the largest in the area.

WW2 Battleship North Carolina

Tour the Battleship North Carolina

1 Battleship Rd NE, Wilmington, NC

I’ve toured battleships before but I was truly impressed with how much access you are given on a self-guided tour of the WW2 Battleship North Carolina.

With 9 decks available to the public, you will definitely want to allow several hours to explore. They recommend at least 90 minutes.

WW2 Battleship North Carolina

To enhance your experience, download the Battleship North Carolina app for an audio tour to learn more as you go.

There are many ladders and stairs to climb up and down and close-toed shoes are highly recommended. You really get an appreciation for how the crew lived and sacrificed to protect our freedom.

The tour also gives you so much insight into what life was like on the ship for crew members at all levels.

You get to see the spaces where they would have slept, eaten, laundered their clothes, received a haircut, showered, and where they would have gone to purchase a treat or necessity.

Hotels and Airbnbs near Wilmington, NC – Book your stay now

 Homewood Suites Wilmington – Mayfaire Town Center in North Carolina

Where We Stayed in Wilmington, NC

During our visit, we stayed at the Homewood Suites Wilmington – Mayfaire Town Center.  This was our first time staying at a Homewood Suites and I was really impressed!

We only had a 5-minute drive to Wrightsville Beach.

 Homewood Suites Wilmington – Mayfaire Town Center in North Carolina

We also enjoyed complimentary breakfast and our suite had enough space to spread out and even cook if we wanted to. Not that I wanted to.

It was nice to have a refrigerator, stovetop, and dishwasher along with all of the cookware and utensils. This is a great way for families who want to save money on meals.

2019 Kia Sorento in North Carolina

Our Roadtrip Vehicle

Thanks again to Kia for providing our road trip vehicle the 2019 Kia Sorento that performed great through the rain and chasing early morning sunrises and evening sunsets….with plenty of room for all of our beach gear.

Wilmington, North Carolina is great for family vacations

More Information

You can find more ideas for your next adventure in Wilmington from the Visit Wilmington and Beaches website.

Our family had a great time in Wilmington and we can’t wait to come back!

Thanks again to Wilmington and Beaches CVB for hosting our visit. All opinions are my own.

North Carolina Road Trip Destinations

You can read more about our North Carolina Roadtrip in the articles below>>

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What to Do When You Visit Wilmington for the First Time

6 thoughts on “What to Do When You Visit Wilmington for the First Time”

  1. Thanks for the extra recommendations in the area. You’ve given me many reasons to want to come back!

  2. As a 30-year Wilmington resident I would like to add a couple of things to this list. If you visit in the spring you must add Airlie Gardens to your list. Formerly, a privately owned garden it now belongs to the city. There is a modest fee for entry and it is well worth it. It is located near Wrightsville Beach.
    If you like to dine near the water local favorites include The Dockside Restaurant and The Fish House Grill, which have casual, outdoor dining right on the ICWW and are located on the Wilmington side of the Wrightsville Beach draw bridge. Blue Water Grill is located on the other side of the bridge and also on the ICWW with outdoor dining. It is slightly more upscale.
    Also, The Causeway Cafe at Wrightsville Beach has the best breakfast around. Get there early if you go on a summer Saturday because there will be a long wait, otherwise. The cafe sits next to Redix, which is a very atypical beach store with all kinds of interesting merchandise. Enjoy your visit!!!

  3. How could anyone read this and not want to go to Wilmington! It’s so beautiful! I recently moved here and I cannot get enough of it. I am trying to convince my sister to move here. I know she would love it too.

  4. I had been thinking about a road trip to Wilmington and after reading this article, I am definitely going.
    Thanks so much.

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