Wilmington’s colorful history begins with the Cape Fear Native American tribes farming and fishing the sandy peninsula sandwiched between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. Pirates cruised the waters in the 1700s, and, as the river port of Wilmington grew into a Southern trade center, the beach became a key Confederate line of defense. Shipbuilding and railroad interests declined through the 20th century, replaced by beach tourists, a revitalized historic downtown district, and opportunities to hike, run, bike paddle, and camp everywhere.
Wilmington is tucked at the southern tip of North Carolina’s gently curving coastline, making it one of the best surfing destinations in the east and the closest and most accessible beach in the state if you live in Charlotte. You can wake up in the Queen City and put your toes in the sand by noon. Follow our guide to the best of historic and coastal Wilmington for a getaway that’s part outdoor adventure, part city tour, and 100 percent fun.
Cafes & Coffeehouses
For most of us, nothing happens before that wake-up cup of joe. From cozy cafes to boardwalk bistros, Wilmington’s got you covered. 24 South is the oldest coffee shop in the historic district, with cake by the slice and breakfast sandwiches to go with your latte. Locally roasted beans, coffee-inspired frappes and fruity smoothies are Luna Caffe’s specialty. If it’s sugar you crave, an insanely long list of exotic cupcakes like butterbeer, churro, and pink champagne from Pink Baking Company will make your day.
Get your coffee or veggie-infused smoothie from The Workshop before hitting the beach. Donuts and a beach vacation go hand-in-hand at Britt’s, a Carolina institution for 40 years. Wake N Bake is known for crazy donut flavors like ghost pepper-infused chocolate and potato chip crumbs, and Beach Bagels is your one-stop shop for homemade bagels and loaded sandwiches.
Beaches & Barrier Islands
As a college town bordered by miles of southern sunshine and surf, Wilmington is all about getting outdoors. Bike across town from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach on the 15-mile Gary Shell Cross City Trail, or from Riverfront Park in downtown Wilmington to Johnnie Mercer’s Pier on the 11-mile River to Sea Bikeway.
Catch sunrise over the Atlantic with a run on the 2.5-mile Wrightsville Beach Loop or log 3.5 miles with the sun setting over the Cape Fear River on downtown Wilmington’s Riverwalk. If you head over to Fort Fisher you can explore the remains of the Confederate defenses and run seven miles of pristine, undeveloped shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean.
If you like your hiking on the tame side, stroll the manicured trails of Airlie Gardens, Greenfield Lake Park, and the New Hanover County Arboretum. On the wilder side, Carolina Beach State Park has seven miles of mostly flat, sandy trails that weave over dunes and through scrubby maritime forest to coastal marsh and tidal flats along the Intracoastal Waterway and Cape Fear River.
Get your trail maps, rental kayaks, and SUP boards from Wrightsville Kayak Company or Wrightsville SUP to paddle the marsh, river, ocean, and Intracoastal Waterway trails around Wilmington. Popular paddling trips take you to Masonboro Island, an undeveloped barrier island with primitive camping, Shark Tooth Island in the Cape Fear River, and along the downtown riverwalk. There’s also miles of marshy channels to explore surrounding Fort Fisher.
With consistent waves and moderate weather year-round, Wrightsville has earned a spot as one of the top longboard surfing destinations on the East Coast. Get started by taking a lesson with WB Surf Camp or South End Surf Shop. Once you’ve mastered the basics, rent a board and drop in on the north end of Wrightsville or between Kure Beach and Fort Fisher for the best ride.
Drinks & Dinner
After your day in the sun, bring it back downtown for a pint or two at any of Wilmington’s 14+ craft breweries. Taprooms at Edward Teach, Front Street, Flytrap, Ironclad, Tidewater, New Anthem, and Waterline make an easy bar crawl. Waterman’s, Mad Mole, and Wrightsville Beach Brewery are just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Wrightsville. To make the most of your evening, download the Wilmington Ale Trail guide, or hop on one the local brew tours to hit the highlights with a designated driver.
For seafood lovers, small and intimate Catch is your best dining option.The unassuming location makes this a hidden gem on date night. Chinese lanterns and a koi pond make the outdoor patio at Indochine another romantic favorite for fresh Asian fusion classics, Thai curry dishes, and sushi.
Top honors for views and ambiance go to East Oceanfront’s outdoor patio on Wrightsville Beach and Elijah’s deck overlooking the Cape Fear River. Share small plates at East Oceanfront and expect hearty pasta dishes and seafood classics like crab stuffed flounder and lobster risotto at Elijah’s.
Want to wake up to the call of seagulls and ocean breezes rustling through the pines? Book a campsite or cabin at Carolina Beach State Park. Maybe seas breezes on your oceanfront balcony are more your style. Check out Wrightsville Beach’s two resorts, Shell Island and the Blockade Runner.
Wrap-around porches, suites with fireplaces and clawfoot tubs, and lavish homemade breakfasts are a reminder of the port city’s historic past at downtown Wilmington’s bed & breakfasts. Pamper yourself with a stay at the Camellia Cottage B & B, Front Street Inn, the Graystone Inn, or Wilmington’s longest operating B & B, the C.W. Worth House.
Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with OrthoCarolina.